September 4, 2022
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 1:1-2, 8-12
Maybe you’ve already noticed this in your family / marriage, but some people are future oriented, some past, and maybe some are able to live mostly in the present.
I’m of the future variety. That’s good and not-so-good. The good is: I don’t usually spend a lot of time with regrets or guilt unless it is short-term guilt and regret. Also, I’m apt to have my mind on tomorrow and plans for the future. The bad is: I also worry about the future even when the likelihood of something happening is very remote. “There probably won’t be a parking place / adequate seating at the restaurant!”
So, it is probably no surprise that I tend to think a lot about the future of the church – 1) The Church as a Divine Idea and a spiritual reality, 2) the Church as a global institution and 3) St. Johns as a particular church.
Here are some of my thoughts:
THE CHURCH AS GLOBAL INSTITUTION
I doubt if few of you would disagree with me when I say: The Christian Church as a global institution is in trouble. In particular, mainline churches like UCC. Everywhere I look, numbers are declining, finances are in trouble, pastors are discouraged, resigning, and hard to find when you need one, and church doors are closing.
What has happened in the last few years to St. Johns is all-too-typical – attenders have dwindled. So there are so many buildings designed for numbers many times the present attendance.
I don’t know what it (The Church) is going to look like in 10 to 20 years but I can imagine a big change in the way the church looks. This has happened before throughout history and it is not altogether a bad thing. Every so often we are forced to take a hard look at who we are and what we do, to see if it is what we were called to do. When we find ourselves getting off track, we often find that we are in for a major upheaval so that we can reevaluate where we are and take a new course and direction.
THE CHURCH AS DIVINE IDEA
While I don’t have a lot of faith in the long-range appearance or structure of the church, I do have a great deal of faith in the Church as a Divine idea. The divine idea of church is going to survive whatever happens to the Institution. Because I believe it is a Divine idea! It is not ours, it is God’s. The Church is the place where God’s people find one another for intimate connection with one another – where God’s people are challenged to bring God’s will on earth as it is in heaven – where children and youth are nurtured and fed for their spiritual development – and where people within range of the church and who are lost get found – and where love is experienced as the one most essential ingredient for humans to thrive.
Wherever those things happen, that is church and so there will always be church even though it may look very different from what we know and experience today.
The writer of Hebrews says something very important that I find quite encouraging in this unsettling time as a pastor: In Hebrews 1:8, the writer says about God: “Your throne will last forever!” (Your rule, your kingdom, your reign) but he goes on to say about the foundations of the earth and even the heavens (and, I assume, all of the institutions of this world) “They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed.
Then the writer reaffirms what he just said about God: “But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”
If we really understand this, we can begin to see how this principle of permanence and impermanence (transient, temporary) applies to everything we do while we are briefly walking this earth. What is truly spiritual is here to stay. Everything else is subject to change and indeed MUST CHANGE on a regular basis.
Now this is easy to say – hard to accept – because we as humans tend to cling to what is not permanent and become terribly uneasy and afraid when those things start to shift, dissolve and disappear! Our fears loom bigger than they should because we have started to cling to what is temporary. That is a huge life issue! It is huge because we often cannot and often will not accept what is temporary and what is permanent. What REALLY MATTERS never changes. Everything else does!
Of all people, we in the church ought to be able to hold fast to what is permanent, lasting, spiritual and in that certainty, let go of what is going to change eventually whether we like it or not.
THE 21ST CENTURY CHURCH
I’m not a fortune-teller nor a reincarnation of Elijah, but it doesn’t take one of that caliber to say with confidence: The church as an institution is changing rapidly and we are in the middle of that change.
Even though it is changing, God is not done with the church. There is much for it to do and that work is part of the unchanging role of God’s people in God’s world. The love of God and God’s deep care for the world and its people burns hot with a passion that cannot be extinguished. The hope that holds us steadfastly in the arms of our Creator and Savior is absolutely as strong as it ever has been.
But you and I are not permanent. This building is not permanent and we had best not treat it as if it were. The methods we use here – the ways we do ministry, the patterns we have always followed, the styles of worship we use, the music we sing, the places where we do all those things – these are all good and useful tools for a moment but then they change. To cling to them is to make out of them an idol.
As we face a dramatically shifting world, these issues become our biggest challenge. The challenge is spiritual in nature. The challenge is to regularly let go of what is not permanent and to know that the only thing that sustains us in the letting go is to cling to all that does not change.
I don’t know what is going to change, but I know this: to stay alive in our time and to be effective as a living presence of God in this radically changing world, we WILL change. It will be hard. We do not have the option to choose to remain the same or look the same. But we can know and trust that which does not change – the love of God for us and for our world. Take courage in that! Claim that! Cling to that! And be determined to be one of those who are able to let go when the time comes.