The Mainline Protestant denominations are in decline. If you were to look at membership numbers for the last few decades, you would see that there have been significant drops in the size of the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, the Methodists, the Lutherans, and yes even the Baptists. Our world is changing, and this has many church leaders worried. They’ve begun asking questions like, What is happening to us? Is there anything we can do about it? Will there be a future for the church?
It used to be that the church was the center of the community. Every neighborhood would have its own little neighborhood church, and this was the place where everyone would gather every Sunday. People would have picnics there, bake sales, cub scout and brownie meetings. Maybe you would go there Wednesday nights for Bible study. More and more, we see churches standing empty during the week. And on Sunday mornings, we sometimes struggle to fill the pews.
There has been a shift in the way people see the church. It used to be expected that people would go to church every Sunday. Nowadays, instead of going to church, men and women will put in extra hours at the office. Parents take their children to soccer games that have been thoughtlessly scheduled during that time when most people used to be in worship, and chores that have been accumulating throughout the week are being taken care of on what was once considered a holy day. For many people in today’s society, this is a completely normal thing to do.
We like to talk about the good old days, and how many people used to take part in church life. I remember one time when I was in youth group, some friends and I were looking through the books in the church library and we came across some photo albums. So, of course, we opened them and started looking at the pictures. We passed them around, and made fun of the clothes that people used to wear. We tried to find people that we might know. There was a funny tension in the church library that day, a kind of heaviness almost. It was hard to look at those pictures, those little windows to the past and see how vibrant and full of life the church used to be.
The pictures were from different events that the church had had over the years, going back to the 70s, maybe even before that. In one of the pictures, the church courtyard was filled with tables and every chair was full. There were streamers and balloons and lots and lots of food. There were young families, and elderly couples. There were even a few babies. There were probably over 400 people at that potluck or barbeque or whatever it was. Everyone looked so happy. They were part of something. They were part of something big.
This problem that we face, of a church in decline, is not new. I can’t even tell you how many meetings that I’ve been in where the discussion eventually came around to this idea that church is dying. But, nobody knows what to do. We talk about it and talk about it, but we don’t know what to do about it. There aren’t any answers out there. You can read studies and reports, and examine the issue until you’re blue in the face, but these studies just don’t show us how to fix it.
It’s hard, this feeling of helplessness. This isn’t what we expect the church to be like. We come to church to worship God, and if church is really what God wants us to do, if that is really where we’re all supposed to be on Sunday mornings, why is church membership declining? Why isn’t God doing something about it?
It’s kind of like the question that Jesus’ followers ask him right before he ascends to heaven. “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They didn’t get it. They still didn’t understand what Jesus was doing. See, when they thought of a Messiah, they imagined a warrior king that was gonna take back the kingdom of Israel for the Israelites. They wanted their independence. They were tired of living under somebody else’s laws. They wanted a Messiah that was gonna lead their armies and rain destruction down upon their enemies. They couldn’t imagine the radically different idea of Jesus saving us from our sin through love.
It wasn’t only that the idea was too foreign or too different for them to understand. It was the fact that this idea was something radically new, something that they had never heard of before, something they’d never thought of or imagined. Jesus had to explain it to them over and over again throughout his life, and still, even at the end, right when he is about to leave, they ask him, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
So Jesus answers them, saying, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God was going to restore the kingdom. But, God was not going to restore the kingdom by the sword, the way that the disciples expected. God was going to restore the kingdom, the world, in the way that God intended. God was going to restore the world with love, and God was going to use them to spread that message of love to the ends of the earth.
That message has been going around for a few thousand years now, and that message has already changed the world. It’s still out there, going from person, to person, to person. God is still doing the good work, and God is still using faithful people to bear witness to the message.
So, how do we at Christ Lutheran witness to the people of the world? I am new here, but already I have heard so many beautiful stories about the work that you have done here. I have heard about the money that you collected to help provide disaster relief. I have heard about the food distribution that you did to help feed the less fortunate people in the neighborhood. I have heard about the warming shelter program that you participated in to provide food and shelter for homeless women. I have heard the message of love that is being broadcast from this church. These are mighty works and I know that God is here and that God is using this congregation to restore the kingdom.
This group may be small, but it is mighty. Don’t forget that the Israelites were a small tribe. Just look at what God did through them. They interacted with God in way that God had never interacted with a group of people before, and as time went by, those stories of how God worked through that tiny desert tribe were passed down from generation to generation, as they tried to figure out who God was and what God meant to them. Eventually, those stories were written down, and today, thousands of years later, we have books of the Old Testament.
And then, when it came time for the big reveal of God’s plan, once again, God went to the Israelites, who were still a small desert tribe, and through them, came into the world as flesh and bone. Jesus was born as a human being, whose life, and death and resurrection led to even more stories, and more writings that irreversibly changed the hearts and minds of a few Jewish people giving rise to the faith tradition that we call Christianity today. The Jewish people have always been a small tribe, but it didn’t matter, because they were a people of faith, and God decided to work through them.
People are always longing to be part of something. We get all wrapped up in the excitement of participating in something we know that a lot of people are gonna be part of. We want to be part of something that people are going to remember, we want to be part of something that people are gonna talk about at the water cooler, we want to be part of something that could change the world. Well, I have news for you. We are part of something. We are part of something big. We are part of something huge! It’s the biggest thing that has ever happened in the history of the planet.
So, while the talk continues over how the Mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking, I want you to take a look at what you’ve done. God is active in this church. God is living in this community and radiating outwards into the streets of Fairfax. God’s love is pouring out from these pews and meeting those people in the streets that need God’s love the most. You are all the messengers of God’s love. You are small, and you are mighty, and you belong to God.