The State of the Church

February 2, 2014, Psalm 122, 2 Corinthians 4:5-15

Because we’re holding the congregation’s annual meeting following worship this morning, I thought it would be a good Sunday to share my thoughts on the state of the church and my vision for how I believe we should move forward.  I believe we are at a crossroads as a congregation, perhaps every church is always at a crossroads.  I’ve been trying to take a longview and see this congregation honestly—and that’s difficult for me, because yesterday I had my fifteenth anniversary as your pastor.  I have seen, and caused, a lot of change here in fifteen years.  And change is one of the true constants in all of life.  The congregation changes, our members change and the culture in which we live, which surrounds us, is also always changing. 

 My thoughts are being shaped this morning, especially by the training I took earlier this month with three other leaders from the congregation called “Creating Congregational Cultures of Generosity.”  The day I spent in Appleton two weeks ago and the perspective offered us has really helped me see things with new eyes.  CCCG is not just about raising money for the church’s continued life, it helps us to tell the church’s story and increase our vitality and relevance in today’s world.

One of the things that I struggle with as I talk about “the church” is that it’s very, very hard for me—and I think this is hard for all of us—to not think of our building when we say the word “church.”  That’s why I picked Psalm 122 for our Old Testament lesson: “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”  This building is home to many of us.  That’s a reality that one cannot deny, but this building is not the church.  The church is people, members of each other, parts of the Body of Christ, yet our building shapes us, and makes it possible for us to do amazing ministry.  I should say our building enables God to do amazing ministry with us.  We are richly blessed with this building, and our community is also richly blessed by it.  We really take the building for granted.  Do you know how blessed we are that we have two rooms that are large enough for us to gather in for worship?  Yeah, it’s different and memorable to be in Magnolia Hall for worship, we had to set up tables and chairs and people are not in the habitual places for worship, but we’re in the same building at the same time praising God and lifting prayers in Christ’s name, just as we always do starting at 9:30 Sunday morning.

Tonight and tomorrow night recovering drug addicts will meet in this room for mutual support and encouragement.  We open the building to people who need place to gather.  Did you ever think that providing clean restrooms for the NA groups is form of ministry?  It is—and your financial support of the church makes that possible.  Tuesday night preschoolers and their fathers will gather in this room for a special time and to work on a project together.  Just paying the electric bill means our church is helping build stronger families and a stronger community.  The night after that a dozen or so people will gather for a simple meal, for fellowship for commaraderie and company.

Perhaps worshipping in Magnolia Hall will help us to recognize what a great building we have—and all the ways it helps ministry happen.  I hope so.

At CCCG training a number of different factors that shape churches were identified.  Mostly these are things that are external to the church that influence and sometimes force change on churches from the outside.  At the training I identified three factors that have shaped our life as a congregation in the last fifteen years, I’ll spend the rest of my time this morning talking about each of them.

The first is something called “Institutional Incongruities,” which is a fancy way to say sometimes words and actions don’t coincide.  Churches talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.  We had one of those shortly after I arrived here. 

Part of the process of calling a new pastor in the Presbyterian Church is writing a mission statement for the congregation.  The search committee that interviewed me wrote such a statement and put in the church’s profile.  Now I’ve worked on mission statements and I know that usually they are written because they are required, then filed away and forgotten.  Personally, I believe that when people have worked hard on something it should be used.  So shortly after I arrived at this church I used the mission statement once a month as an affirmation of faith.  Here’s what it said:

 As missionaries of Jesus Christ, we seek to create an environment of spiritual growth and Christian education for our members and community.  We do this by:

            -celebrating God’s word and love by blending traditional and contemporary syles of worship and music. 

            -providing an accepting and loving place for people to discover and celebrate the meaning of being Christians.

            -involving and meeting the need of all members of our congregation, with renewed emphasis on children, young people and families.

            -reaching out to one another, the community and the world by offering our time, finances and prayers.

            -developing a friendly, open environment where everyone feels they belong.

            -offering the opportunity for spiritual growth and guidance through Christian education for all ages.

            -encouraging all members to participate actively in the life of First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh.

After about two years you got familiar with the mission statement.  This is good.  And you got familiar enough with it to say two things: “This doesn’t reflect who we are anymore,” and “this statement really doesn’t belong in a worship service.”  Let me just say, I was thrilled with this reaction!  Time to write a new mission statement.  We brought in a consultant, had a retreat and came up with “Ministry from the Heart of Oshkosh, serving with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.”  It’s short; it’s memorable; it hangs on the wall in the sanctuary, beautifully rendered into fabric by our quilters.  It locates us—we proclaim that we’re a downtown church—and that matters in the way we approach following Jesus.  And it is inspiring in that it points back to one of the promises that officers make when they serve the congregation.  Our mission statement inspires us, but does it describe us?  Through the years I’ve heard several people wonder what it means that we’re in the Heart of Oshkosh…

That brings me to the second factor that is shaping our life together, at training this was called “Unexpected Occurrences,” and examples were things like fires, floods and deaths, though unexpected occurrences could be good.  In our case the unexpected occurrence was the purchase of the Green Space.  This was a complete bolt from the blue.  It had been nearly 100 years since the land where the funeral home used to stand had been for sale.  The Session spent a lot of time discussing, debating and dreaming about what purchasing a little more than acre of land, in the Heart of Oshkosh would mean for this congregation.  I was pleased with the decision to purchase the land, but as a lifelong Presbyterian I was thrilled with the process we went through.  I’ll just lift up two parts of that process.  First, one of the people who originally said we should not make the purchase changed his mind and was on the team that negotiated the sale—that’s the Holy Spirit at work.  Second, the land was purchased with an eye for the future.  Because we have a future and because God is revealing our future we could step out in faith and embrace this unexpected occurrence.  I love seeing the preschoolers, Sunday schoolers and youth group running and playing in the Green Space.  I’m thrilled when we have the tents up for PresFest as we open ourselves to the community.  We’re still figuring out what God can do through us with this land, but isn’t exciting, even life-giving to dream about that? 

And what a luxury or blessing, that many followers of Christ who have gone before us who  believed in the mission of this congregation.  We have an endowment that has enabled us to discuss whether it made sense to invest more than half a million dollars to purchase the funeral home and demolish it without having to raise any of the money.  I tell colleagues about this “unexpected occurrence” and their jaws drop.   Lots of churches have endowments, and money that they “save for a rainy day.”  This church recognized a unique opportunity and seized it.  We’d never spent what is in effect “principal” from the Investment Fund before, but we did because we saw possibilities—I hope we continue to see possibilities, not just for the Green Space, but for ways we can be Christ in the Heart of Oshkosh.

The third factor shaping this congregation is one that congregations like ours are facing and have been facing for years—our members are getting older and we’re simply not replacing them.  I’ll be 50 next month and every year I have been alive the number of Presbyterians has declined.  1964 was the last year of the Baby Boom. It used to be that churches like ours grew by having babies.  That is no longer the case.  It used to be that people who grew up in Presbyterian churches drifted away during college, but returned when they married and had children.  That is no longer the case.  It used to be that active members attended worship 3-4 times a month.  That is no longer the case.  Now people consider themselves active if they attend once a month.  Not only are our most loyal members our oldest members; they are also our most generous members.  This is a reality that we cannot deny.  And it is a problem that does not have an easy, obvious solution.

 I’ve given this situation a lot of thought and the Session has wrestled with it recently.  Here are some approaches we should take as we look to the future that God holds for this church. 

First, we should start with our gifts.  We should start doing what we’re good at, what we enjoy.  I can think of two people, both on Session, who started with their gifts.  Last year, after we stopped having our Wednesday afterschool program, Ginny Evans missed cooking.  Ginny loves to cook and she also loves the challenge of preparing nutritious meals inexpensively.  She missed the challenge and the fun of cooking food for church, so she decided to do it anyway.  We’re still meeting every Wednesday.  Last week we had chili with noodles and cheese and corn bread and beer bread and we even has s’mores.  About a dozen people came.  It’s nice to get out, to share a meal together and just talk about the weather.  There’s no program, just food and conversation, and we’re a stronger congregation because Ginny decided to use one her gifts doing something she loves.

Jeff Lammers loves to turn wood.  He makes beautiful things, like this podium—which he made with Otacilio Berbert--and this communion cup.  Jeff started with something he loves to do, and prayed about how this gift could be used.  His prayers were answered and he started making peace pens from the wood of olive trees that grow in the Holy Land.  The profit from the sale of the pens supports the preschool.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians about a treasure in clay jars—that is people—whom God works through.  He points out that God chose to do amazing things with clay to make it clear to everyone how powerful and loving God is. God uses people, ordinary people, people just like us…us…to do amazing things.  God uses us to spread grace to more and more people so that gratitude will grow. 

Presbyterians, we need to claim this reality.  That God has blessed us richly, that God has given us gifts to use for the common good, that our mission—our purpose—is to represent Christ in the Heart of Oshkosh.

Here’s one way we’re going to start doing this:  What are we good at?  Food.  Last year the confirmation class initiated two pancake breakfasts!  Where are we?  Downtown.  Who are we in a covenant relationship with?  The Day by Day Warming Shelter.  Later this spring, we’re going to hold a community breakfast on a Saturday morning.  Of course you’re all invited, but we’re also going to invite the guests at the Warming Shelter, the residents at the Christine Ann Center, and our neighbors in the Middle Village Neighborhood.  We need to reach out from the Heart of Oshkosh and we need to go with our strength.  I have no idea how this will turn out, but I am convinced that this is a faithful way for us to live, be and do our mission statement.  And we’ll do it with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.  Amen.