Matthew 5:14-16 and Ephesians 3:7-12
November 16, 2014
We had a good weekend a couple of weeks back with Alan Newton and have lots to think about in the coming weeks, months, and years. As I have been thinking about things, though, it seems important that during these transitions that are ahead of us, we need to be thinking about the many transitions that are taking place in the life of our congregation, the larger church, the community and society at large. It seems that all of these transitions can inform each other.
So I wanted to put some thoughts and reflections into writing for folk to think about. I’m not making any proposals or recommendations, just offering some thoughts about things I’ve noticed, trends that Mary and I and others are talking about, etc. There is no particular order of priority or even rhyme or reason to the order of these thoughts and observations. Nor, I hope, is this an exhaustive list or even the list of things we will want to explore together in the coming months and years.
I want to start with the Tuesday night study group. There is a lot of excitement, energy, learning, and community happening there. Some of the folk in that group are more regular on Tuesday nights than Sunday mornings, and a few aren’t Sunday morning attenders at all. I’ve been a bit surprised about how this group has continued to thrive rather than fizzling out like most groups do. In the past I have done study groups with three people. The Tuesday night group is consistently having 12-18 people over what is now the years. And there are other gatherings for the Tuesday night group that aren’t on Tuesdays nor at the church. That group has also started another gathering where folk will be meeting with and encouraging each other throughout the year to continue working with the book we just finished.. Obviously, not everybody can or wants to get involved in the Tuesday night study group. But there is an important need that is being met for some there. There is something important going on on Tuesday nights that I think we need to pay attention to
Another trend that I have been noticing for the past couple of years, at least, is that there are many weeks where we end up with more people in the Community Room for a variety of gatherings than are in the sanctuary for worship that week. Some weeks it’s way more people. Some of those folk are, of course, repeat offenders being at church several times during the week as well as on Sunday morning. But a lot of them are people who are not likely to end up in worship on Sunday mornings, but this congregation is adding something to their lives.
I kind of half joke about taking the pews out of the sanctuary, but I can’t imagine that worship in the coming years is going to continue to be a person or two up front and everybody else looking at the back of other people’s heads. I think what people at large seem to be saying is that they want more community. We do our best to foster that during worship, but it seems to me that people need to be able to see each other. If I could ever get the consensus and the money to get the pews out of the sanctuary I would love and, I think, people would actually appreciate how much more of a community feeling we could create with chairs we could arrange for different configurations. I don’t think that the things we currently do would necessarily change that much; hymns, readings, sharing, special music, choir, sermons, dance, organ and piano preludes, etc., but things would feel different. And who knows what new possibilities new settings might engender for worship. Imagine what Tuesday night or any other study group would feel like if we did it in the sanctuary. I do think the setting makes a difference about what happens. Obviously, Tuesday night and Sunday morning are different things, but maybe not as different as we think.
I’m also thinking about what Alan said about making worship more family friendly. I think that is more than adding a children’s story time to the service. It might mean something like bringing tables into the sanctuary so children could draw or do a craft and their parents and other adults have a place to put their coffee during worship. Pews do get in the way of that kind of thing. (Remember I am not making any recommendations, just sharing thoughts. Don’t panic).
Mary and I continue to be amazed at the number of PCC Scattered folk who stay in touch with us and many of you. For some of them, this is the only church they have. We need to keep them in mind during the coming days of transition for the congregation whenever Mary and I are no longer the pastors. But even if that transition weren’t happening, I think what PCC Scattered represents is really something that points to the future of the larger church. We are simply ahead of the curve. Mary and I continue to be surprised by the comments we get from PCC Scattered folk about our sermons that are online. They are actually being read and even recommended to others. We have 84 members of the church’s Facebook page. We don’t have 84 people in church on Sunday mornings, and of the folk we do have, many of them aren’t on the Facebook page. People are finding ways to stay connected and forming a different kind of community without being physically present with each other. It shouldn’t surprise they expect to be connected to the church without being present. Nor should it surprise us when they find that satisfying and helpful. There is a lot more we can be doing to make the connections between PCC Scattered and Gathered more concrete for more of us. I’m just not exactly sure what that is, but it has something to do with the internet, social media, etc.
Another trend Mary and I are noticing is that among the things that have fundamentally changed since the Great Recession of ’08 is the financial situation that the college graduates from the church are encountering. It used to be that students graduated, got jobs, and some of them started sending money to the church. Now they are sending requests to the church to help fund them as they try to start or work for some kind of non-profit. And they are doing some pretty important and amazing things. Some of those who aren’t looking for such funding still don’t have money they can send to the church because they are unemployed or severely underemployed. Plus they all have an amazingly heavy debt load from their time at Oberlin. And it’s not only recent graduates. There are others among PCC Scattered who are no longer able to send as much money to the church as they did in the past because the new economy has taken a big toll on them, as well. And then, of course, among PCC Gathered there has been plenty of fallout since 2008.
This is a mobile society. And I don’t simply mean that people in our society are moving to other places. We have lost some dear people because they have moved, but also gained so many wonderful folk because they have moved to Oberlin or the surrounding area. Think Kendal, for example. Or Oberlin College. Or most of those places that most all of us didn’t use to live in. But even more significantly, I think, is that we are mobile in that we are off seeing kids and grandkids, going to conferences, reunions, seminars, and workshops, taking care of parents and other relatives, seeing a wonder or two of the world, visiting friends, getting away, marking things off the bucket list, or just getting out of town. It wasn’t that long ago that many folk, at best, could get out of town for a week or two in any given year. They were in church on Sunday morning because they were in town. But lots of us are gone on any given Sunday. Look how many Sundays Mary and I were out of town this year. That’s not likely to happen again in that extreme, but it’s just an example of the protection that Sunday morning has lost because we can travel more easily. And if we aren’t traveling somewhere else, we might have friends or relatives visiting us on Sunday morning. Or the reunion might be coming to us. Those non-Sunday morning times are going to become the places where more folk connect with the church.
People relate differently to institutions than they used to. Their commitments are more fluid, and the competition for their time and resources more intense. More and more people are looking to the church and other institutions with the desire to know what those institutions can do for them rather than what they can do for the institution. And there is a growing suspicion about the place of institutions and organizations in their lives. This talk of being spiritual but not religious is another way for some of saying that they want to find their way spiritually in the world without having to conform to the expectations of what we call organized religion.
Since last year, we’ve begun to use the phrase “The Community of Creation” at church. Though we have been talking about environmental concerns and issues for a long time, It seems to me that in the coming years, it is going to become more and more important for us, and all of the church, to figure out what it means to live in the Community of Creation. That’s one of the reasons we will be adding the environmental organization Plant with Purpose to the groups we are supporting with our Missions giving. And, of course, Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy meets in our building. One of the visitors in church last week talked for a while to both Mary and me about how important it was to him that we were talking about the Community of Creation in church.
Obviously Campus Ministry is an important mission of this congregation. But there are transitions happening in progressive Protestant ministry as well. ECO is currently having it’s own struggles for viability that the group is starting to address. Folk from other Christian groups on campus have been talking with Pastors in town about some of the struggles their groups are having. Those concerns and coming transitions aren’t a dis-ease that has originated n Oberlin but the symptoms of something much larger going on in church and society. [Have Mary read that section from No Longer Invisible]
The transitions the church is facing as we contemplate the time whenever it might be that Mary and I no longer pastor this church or the larger transitions all churches are facing in the coming years, like all transitions, are times of danger and opportunity. Now is the time for us to risk the danger because the opportunities are so great. One of the Pastors in the support group Mary and I are in commented recently that the changes we used to say were coming are here.
Alan suggested so many good things while he was here. Some of them are very practical nuts and bolts things, others will help fuel some important discussions and actions as we work through this time and process of discernment. One of those suggestions he made was that the congregation explore what our name means nearly 15 years after changing the congregation’s name. What does Peace mean to us? What does Community mean to us? What does Church mean to us?
Not to get too Zen here but one of the things I’ve been trying to practice more consistently is more fully entering into the moment. I don’t know if you find yourself doing what I do too often, like thinking about the next meeting while I am in the current meeting, or thinking about the next person I need to talk to while I have somebody else right in front of me. We do need to make sure we enter the moment more fully, but we also have to remember there is more than the current moment. It’s important to remember that as we face the church’s transitions and our own transitions. We need to enter into these moments of transition with great intentionality, but there is more going on than these particular moments of transition. We don’t want to lose the moment, but we don’t want to get lost in it, either.
So there are some of my thoughts and observations. I am excited to hear reactions to this and all the thoughts and observations that will come from so many of us in the months and years ahead as we make these transitions and help build together the future God has for us.
I do think it’s really interesting we are going to be doing a lot of transition work as the congregation approaches it’s150th anniversary in 2016. We have been left an incredible legacy going all the way back to 1866, and are the current manifestation of a church that has gone through lots of transitions over a century and a half. Throughout that time, through all the changes in church and society, through transitions large and small, the call has been the same. We get to discover with each other what it means to follow Jesus Christ in our own changing times. We get to continue to be the Body of Christ and Light for the world, even in some very dark places. We discern the times, undergo the transitions because we don’t want the light to be covered up. As we said at the beginning, Jesus was always on the move. His was always a call to the future and all the changes that implies, all the new ways of being and living and doing and understanding. He was in transit, moving forward. That’s a metaphor worth noting. This church, and all congregations big and small, people like us are the mystery hidden for the ages in God. Isn’t that an amazing thing to think about and keep in mind as we make these transitions? Grab tight, because here we go.