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June 3, 2018

“The Evolution of Churches”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Matthew 3.1-10

John 15.1-17

June 3, 2018

This past weekend I enjoyed some time outside in the back yard. As we tried to stay cool in the shade of a tree we were approached by a relative of one of our neighbors. He had been out trimming the weeds from their yard and mowing and just working hard. He asked if we would mind if he trimmed the bushes that lined our property, which also reached over to the neighbor’s. We gave him permission, and he set to work. Rob and I discussed how we thought he would trim about half and then give up because they had not been trimmed in over seven years – they were seriously overgrown. This guy was determined, though, and spent hours working on these bushes. When we went inside he had trimmed about half of them and was still working. When I went outside a couple hours later, he was nearly done. Then, Tuesday morning, I looked outside, and the bushes were practically gone. I was stunned and froze in my tracks. The yard looked dramatically different. Rob reminded me that most of them didn’t bloom this year, perhaps because they were tangled together. He promised me they would grow back, but I was worried because they always gave such a beautiful bloom in the spring. Now they looked like they would never grow again.

Pruning can be a painful process, especially when a beautiful bush or plant or tree is trimmed down to nothing but stumps. We forget that it takes trimming and pruning for a bush to be healthy. If the trees weren’t trimmed, they would have become even more overgrown.

Just as I sat uncomfortably and watched this stranger cut away at these beautiful bushes, I also sat rather worryingly in the Sunday morning class last week. The conversation was fruitful and important, but it didn’t mean it was easy. The Sunday school group had valuable comments to make, but I’m unsure how much can be used in a sermon. They were answering my questions, and perhaps answering questions that have been floating around the church for a while, but haven’t officially been asked. I am always fascinated with this class because I imagine the conversation going one way, and they always surprise me and go in a completely different direction.

We have focused on evolution these past few weeks – the evolution of our understanding of God, evolution and creation, and the evolution of faith. Today we finish with the evolution of church. This specific church has evolved since the first brick was laid in 1820. Some changes, not in order of importance, include indoor bathrooms, the pastor has an office bigger than a closet. You have become a More Light church and shown a focus on inclusivity. The church started a preschool over fifty years ago. We have changed theologically, physically through the additions of the building, and so much more. We do not stay the same as a faith community, and we aren’t meant to stay the same. We will continue to change.

Churches have life cycles. Over time churches have looked altered in different times. When we look at the past fifty years of church history we might think churches change slowly, if at all. Yet, when we think back to the beginning of church at Pentecost, we know churches have evolved over time. Originally churches were people gathering in homes for meals and discussion and prayer. Eventually church buildings were built. Now, people are meeting in coffee shops and homes and sanctuaries.

The ethos of church seems to be changing, as well. I’ve heard many times that fifty years ago the pattern for churchgoers was to believe, belong, and behave. This means that someone believes in a doctrine, belongs to a church, and then behaves accordingly. The newer generations are flipping that so that it becomes behave, believe, belong. One’s behavior is most important, and by behaving one finds community through common beliefs in the place one behaves. Belonging to a church is no longer as important to some as it once was to people. In fifty years, this might look different.

So, I asked the class questions about where the church will be in five, ten, or even fifty years from now. They shared some honest concerns, and I’m sure others of you have had similar apprehensions – so as much as it was difficult perhaps for them to share, it is important to talk about. Of course, there was a concern for numbers. The class rightly acknowledged that numbers do not signify health in a congregation, but is indicative of the stress level of the congregation with our workload being quite large. If a few people do all the work, there is a concern for burn-out. The issue with numbers is not that we want to be a mega-church, but that perhaps we are doing more than sixty people can manage.

A recent Presbyterian Outlook article examined healthy churches and unhealthy churches, and struggles of both. The comment was that where there is over-functioning, there is also under-functioning.[1] Sometimes we need to decide what is most important to us and spend our energy on that one ministry. We might have to announce that we will only do that one ministry, and see what happens. Either someone will step up and continue the other ministries you were doing, or they won’t. If they do – great! If they don’t, then perhaps it is a ministry that needs to be pruned, and that’s ok, too.

This congregation is passionate about a variety of issues and causes. We support many people and many things. Yet, I believe we are stretched too thin at times. Our strength – diversity of causes – can also be our weakness, because it stretches our energy in too many directions. What would happen if we narrowed our ministries even more? Where are we over-functioning, and where are we under-functioning?

I want to stress that in the class is one of our co-treasurers who reassured us that financially we are doing well and need not worry. We have had financial conversations about the future because we have been using our reserves, but we also have been replacing our reserves with good investing. We are not hurting financially.

There were other concerns voiced, though, such as a lack of youth in the church. Some wanted college students and the community members to be more involved. All are good comments, and I’m not sure I have the answers to all the questions raised. They raised good questions about where we go from here.

As I thought about these questions and read some commentaries about these scripture passages I came across someone who said that the farewell discourse in the Gospel of John – which encompasses the last few chapters – answers the question: “What does the risen and departing Christ have to say to his church?”[2] “What does the risen and departing Christ have to say to his church?” We still ask that question. What does God, what does Jesus Christ have to say to us? In some ways that message doesn’t change – but perhaps the context of the message changes.

The author of the Gospel of John writes that we must abide with Christ. Jesus wants us to remember that we are to dwell with Christ, even though we cannot physically see Christ. Christ is the vine, God is the vine grower, and we are the branches. We must stay close to that vine so that we are grounded in Christ. The author makes it very clear that when something is not working, when the vines start becoming unruly, they are cut off and we must try again. Sometimes we must prune our ministries and see that the branches will grow back even better than before. Sometimes we need to cut out those habits, those concerns that are not fruitful and try again.

There is mention of pruning in the Matthew passage, as well. John the Baptist is teaching about repentance and telling the people that they must cut back that which does not bear fruit. This is a passage that we normally read during Advent. John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus. Yet, I believe we are always in preparation mode – preparing for Jesus, preparing for what comes next. John was a community organizer. He is making things happen and sets the tone. He tells the people they must repent of the ways that separate them from God. This is a type of pruning, as well. We are encouraged to prune – of those things that separate us from God and one another, and which take up too much time and energy that is not producing fruit. It doesn’t make it a sin, it just means that we need to make space for new growth.

As we look at the church, we recognize that in 2020 we will celebrate 200 years as a congregation. We have to plan for the next two hundered years, or at least the next twelve years, or next few years. We need to be realistic about where God is leading us as a congregation. Jesus is telling us once more that we need to abide in him and love one another.

So, after hearing the concerns of the Sunday school class and from others in the congregation over the last few months, I’ve decided to create a retreat that will give us time and space to ask difficult questions and begin to discern our future. Dates, times, and places are set yet, but stay tuned. Until then, be in prayer, because God has great plans for this congregation, and we need to be listening. Amen.

 

[1] David Lee Jones, “Over or Under-Function?” in Presbyterian Outlook, Vol. 200, No. 07, May 7, 2018, p. 25.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993), 259.