[Since we are worshiping in the Parish House for January and February, it is difficult to record.]
In our Gospel passage for today, the first in a series that will focus on Matthew, we find ourselves in the midst of a short passage that packs a lot of stuff into it. I want to begin in the middle, where Jesus begins the process of gathering disciples, friends for the journey, helpers who will share the work with him, companions who will often not understand, but will stick with Jesus until close to the end of the story.
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Sounds a little like Mark, doesn’t it? Jesus sees them, chooses them, asks them to follow, and they do and they do so “immediately.”
If only . . .
If only something like that could be true for us, as we gather in this church, a community set aside to worship and to follow, to serve and to remember, to do as Christ would have us do.
If only something like that could be true for us. We gather in the midst of a small group, and a group that’s getting smaller.
And in many ways, that’s totally fine. There’s nothing scriptural that groups of followers must be large. In fact, Jesus seems to assert that small is not only okay, but perfectly fine: where even two or three are gathered in my name, Jesus said, there I will be as well.
But, what’s not so totally fine is that we choose to continue to meet and call not only this place our spiritual home, but the building across the road as well. For our small and aging congregation, this is an increasingly difficult challenge. If you’ve been to an Oversight Committee meeting in the last few months, you know how consuming it’s been, as almost all of the business of that committee has been focused on how to deal with the mold problem that lurks in the basement of the church building. Though we have a good plan to present today at annual meeting, I know there’s some nervousness around the fact that this is likely not the last problem that we will face that costs a lot of money to solve.
It’s not only that finding the money is a challenge, but the fact that, as a church, it feels strange and weird, and unsettling, to spend so much time and energy dealing with physical plant issues, and much less time and energy, and money, dealing with sharing the God’s love and Christ’s good news.
If only we could do as Jesus seems to have done. Walk around, ask people to join us and have them do so, immediately, without question.
It doesn’t work that way.
In our congregational conversation last November, one of the questions I posed to the groups asked what we should do as a congregation to deal with the challenges we face as a church and to rank the options that were offered. The options included increasing membership, using the endowment to pay for maintenance, consider selling one or both buildings and moving into smaller space, explore a merger with another church, and finally to close our doors before things get really difficult.
One group responded with the answer, “None of the above except for increasing membership.” Other groups put that particular option at or near the top of the list.
I have two things to say about that today:
The first is that we need to stop thinking this way. It’s over. We’ve been thinking about increasing membership the whole time I’ve served this church, which is now over a decade, and even before that. Nothing has worked.
And, even though there are things that we know we could do better or differently, we also know, and I’ve certainly preached and written about a lot over the years, we exist in what is essentially a hostile environment. Maine is among the most secular states in the entire country. Only 27% of the population even identifies as Christian.
Even if we were to become aggressive evangelists—and we would need to become at least aggressive evangelists—there’s still a strong likelihood that we wouldn’t get much bigger than we are. We do bring in new members—three just today—but we lost just as many, and sometimes more through the past several years, through people moving away or passing away.
To hold the notion of increasing membership at the forefront, especially at the rate that we would require to keep things going as they are, is simply foolish. It won’t work. We can’t do it.
I know there are those among you who will point to other aspects of our community life as obstacles—especially the fact that there are so many things that people can do now on Sunday mornings. Sports practices, shopping, etc.
If only we could get that changed, go back to how things used to be, then things wouldn’t be so bad or challenging for us.
But, think about that for a moment. If the only way that we can increase membership is by having no competition, what does that really say about us?
So, on the one hand, I want to tell you this morning that it’s time to look at things differently. Let’s continue to be the best church we can be, but take seriously the fact that increasing membership won’t happen, can’t happen, and start dealing honestly with the consequences.
That is a message I want to drive home today. But, there is an “on the other hand” idea I want to offer. And that has a lot to do with what I witnessed yesterday, in the midst of the large crowd of people that gathered in Augusta.
It’s clear enough that there are a lot of people who are concerned about what’s going on in our country, and what is likely to be going on in the future. It’s clear enough as well, that there are a lot of people who are searching, people who are looking, looking for something meaningful. And, as I walked with a large group from the Maine Conference United Church of Christ, with our large rainbow “Be the Church” banner, I got a lot of comments. Thanks for being here. Thanks for what you do. You’re a church? What kind?
There are people out there looking, searching. We just might be able to be a home for them. But, they are not just going to show up. Because they don’t really know anything about us—who we are or what we do. We’ll need to get out there and let them know.
I’ll be honest, though, and tell you that I don’t think that many will come. I think too much has changed all around us and that it’s too late for us.
But, I will say this. No matter which “hand” you want to take on—the one hand that says that we don’t have long to live as a church, at least not without freeing ourselves from these costly buildings, and the other hand that says that maybe the climate has changed enough, that maybe there are folks out there who just might want to join us on the journey, to gather with us as church, to experience and to share God’s love—the most important thing, the thing that must serve as our foundation is the notion that we are church and that we must Be the Church.
Our mission cannot be to just make sure this entity, this group of people that gathers on Sunday mornings in this church building or the one across the street, that this gathering continues well into the future, just because, just because it’s been like this for a very long time. That cannot be our mission, for if it is, we might as well just close up now. There’s really no point.
Our mission must be to be the church, to follow, to serve, to know that we are loved by God and to share that love with reckless abandon.
If only. If only.