October 27, 2019

Canoeing The Mountains

Isaiah 43:18-21; Joel 2:28-29

 

2 pastors are sitting at a pub an older experienced female in her 60’s and a middle-aged male in his third call. They had been chosen by their national leadership to come up with a plan to reorganize their denomination in order to help the church better minister in a changing world, but find themselves uncertain what to do. The more experienced pastor swirls her drink, let’s say it was a Presbyterian (Yes there is actually a drink called a Presbyterian) and she sighs, as that idea of a changing world weighed heavily upon her. She remembered how not that long ago, life was different. Ministry was different. Churches were different. She swirled her drink and said to the other minister, “You know, when I started ministry decades ago, all you needed were good Christian education programs, solid preaching and inspired music on a Sunday morning to get people to come to church. And in the south, where I‘m originally from, if someone didn’t come to church on a Sunday, their neighbors asked them about it on Monday. But it isn’t like that anymore.” The younger colleague in ministry pipped up. “It’s like I just don’t know what is next, and all of those familiar parts of church life are changing right in front of our eyes.” There is no punchline by the way, just in case you were waiting for one.

 

I know how they feel though. I was trained to preach a good sermon, teach Bible study and church history, provide spiritual leadership and pastoral counsel, and have strong administrative skills. Now in my third ordained call, I still do them to the best of my ability, but more is needed, and frankly, no one has written the book yet on what that MORE or NEW or DIFFERENT is. For the first time in my own ministry, I’m not sure what is next.

 

It is a bit like the choir concert I am doing this weekend with Southern Oregon Rep Singers, also known as SORS. I am a bass/baritone and have sung in that register since I was old enough to sing in a church choir, some 44 years. The other typically male range is tenor, which is higher than my voice and one I am just not comfortable singing. For some reason, I was asked by our wonderful SORS director to sing tenor on 3 pieces (in part because our tenor section is smaller than it should be). So, if you happen to attend the concert this afternoon, you will notice me standing uncomfortably with the tenors in 3 songs and trying my best to sing in a section I am not familiar with, sounding more like Mickey Mouse than anything else. I’m more than comfortable and familiar with singing, as I have done it for most of my life, but not in the tenor section. Ministry feels a bit like that now for me - I am more than comfortable in ministry, as I’ve done it for most of my life, but not in the current world in which we live. Things have changed so much.

 

Tod Bolsinger, the author of the book Canoeing the Mountains, which inspired today’s sermon writes, ”When cities are now considering using eminent domain laws to replace churches with tax-revenue big-box stores, when Sundays are more about soccer and Starbucks than about Sabbath, when Christian student groups are getting derecognized on university campuses, when the fastest-growing religious affiliation among young adults is, ‘none’ , when there is no moral consensus built on Christian tradition (even among Christians), when even a funeral in a conservative beach town is more likely to be a Hawaiian style ‘paddle out’ than a gathering in a sanctuary, then Christendom as a marker of society has clearly passed…Churches and church leaders are becoming increasingly irrelevant, even marginalized. Shared corporate faith is viewed with cynicism at best, downright hostility at worst. The cultural advantage we experienced during the seventeen centuries of Christendom has almost completely dissipated.”

 

The era of Christendom, a 1700-year period, with Christianity at the privileged center of cultural life is gone. As a result, we have to learn how to be a church all over again. I have to learn how to do ministry all over again in a transitioning, changing world. That is why I attended the Transitional Ministry Leadership Retreat in Portland last year, and why I’ll be going for the year two training next March. The church of today is in the midst of a huge transition, or what historians will one day call the period we are living in - a reformation.

 

What lays before us is nothing like what is behind us. There used to be experts, books, institutes on churches, speakers giving us 7 surefire ways to grow your church, best practices and sure guides who could lead a church to success. It used to work, but not anymore. What lays before us is nothing like what is behind us.

 

Bolsinger likens the church to a certain point in the now-famous American expedition of Captain Merriweather Lewis and Lt. William Clark from 1804-1806. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Lewis and Clark set out May 14, 1804, from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to find a practical route across the Western portion of the United States. There was a broad assumption among land experts from 4 sovereign nations for some 300 years that there was a water route that would connect the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River. This assumption in part inspired the expedition.

 

After 15 months of travel, Merriweather Lewis dipped his hands into the Missouri River for a drink. In front of him lay a set of steep hills, not unlike the low mountains around our Rogue Valley. Lewis believed that once they crossed over this range, they would be able to verify and actually see this water passage, which led to the Pacific Ocean. All it would take once they crossed over that first set of hills would be a half-day walk, canoes on their backs, and then they would see the Columbia River. They crested the set of hills and were stunned at what they saw. They quickly discovered that the experts who were certain of this passage to the Pacific were wrong. In front of the expedition was not a gentle slope down to the Columbia River. Instead were a set of mountains no American had ever seen before, and more formidable than any set of mountains on the East coast - the Rockies. One from the expedition said they were, “the most terrifying mountains I ever beheld.” All they could see was one set of peaks after another. No northwest passage. No navigable river. No water route. They were headed into uncharted territory.

 

What lay before them was nothing like what was behind them. There were no experts, no maps, no best practices or sure guides who could lead them safely and successfully to their destination. They could not canoe over the mountains. They had to change their plans, give up their expectations and reframe their entire mission. They had to adapt, or literally and likely die somewhere in those formidable, terrifying mountains.

 

Bolsinger writes, “We too…have entered uncharted territory. Just as Lewis and Clark functioned under a set of geographical assumptions, leaders of the church in the West function under a set of theological and administrative assumptions about church.”

 

We are in an adapt or die moment for the big C church as well as for our own congregation. It is estimated by several church sites on the web that 5,000+ churches in America are closing every year, with an average of 1,500 ministers leaving the ministry each year as well. In some Christian circles, particularly those in the evangelical section, there is a belief that culture wars against Christendom are advancing. Therefore, churches need to do the same things we have always done and do them louder and harder and better and…that, my friends is trying to canoe the mountains, and will lead to nowhere. I believe we are in the midst of yet another reformation. I do not believe it is a war against culture or rampant increase of secularism leading to the decline in the church in America. I believe the institution of the church, 500 years after the last reformation, is in need of being reformed, and that God is doing a new thing.

 

Where do we go from here? Have believers been here before other than just 500 years ago? Oh yes.

 

In today’s passage from Isaiah, the exiled Hebrew people faced something very new. After having Jerusalem sacked by the Babylonian army and being taken away as prisoners to Babylon, more than 70 years living in exile, they were given the choice to return to Jerusalem and build something new. They could return and build a new temple, worship God in a new way under a new covenant, trust that God was about to do a new thing, or they could remain in captivity in Babylon.

 

We are in a similar position as the exiled Hebrews when they returned to Jerusalem. We have a temple of God in need of repair and renewal. We too may need to find new ways to worship God, new ways to be the church of Jesus Christ with a new covenant. Perhaps it would be easier (yet certainly more painful) for us if our aging structures had been destroyed by invading Babylonians? At least we could start from scratch…

 

In the midst of this new reformation, there is much for us to consider, as we gather in just a couple of months to vote on our way into God’s new thing, God’s new future for the church.

 

Should we focus upon a 3-year Building campaign or take out some loans to fix aging structures so that we can attract people? Will that even work - “If you build it”, or in this case “if you fix it up, they will come”?

 

Or perhaps we are looking at the building campaign or loans so that we can fix up the property to sell a portion so that we can rework some of the existing buildings into something new? This will not be an easy task for sure. Or possibly we try to sell the whole property and downsize to a smaller location? Would we even get enough in the sale of the property to be able to afford another location in Ashland?

 

Or we can fix our existing structures and just keep plugging along, doing the same old thing? No need to adapt, just keep pushing those oars down into the ground and get those canoes up over those mountains!... Choosing to do nothing may seem like the easiest thing to do, but it is a choice to die as a congregation. I believe that is why so many churches close each year. They choose death over adaptation. Bolsinger says, “Even if we all agree that we are in an ‘adapt or die’ moment, the urgency of the situation is not enough. When given that particular choice, 90 percent choose dying. In a study of those who were faced with exactly that choice-stop drinking or you will die, stop smoking or you will die, change your diet now or you will die, the vast majority choose to risk death.”

 

It is my sincere hope that, rather than risking death, we as a congregation choose a way forward, a way of new LIFE - trusting that, as it says in Isaiah, God is doing a new thing. And as it says in the Joel passage, it is time to listen to those younger voices - young ministers and leaders in their 20s and 30s who are reimagining church structures and finding new and creative ways to be. This is why I have attended the NEXT Church conventions over the last couple of years - to hear those young women and men dream dreams and share visions about the church of the future.

 

Some things to help ground us as we try to figure out what to do and who to be in this time of reformation.

 

Membership is up to 123 - four new members just joined, and there is some momentum in our congregation. We have a new vision and mission statement that we have mailed out and talked about at a congregational meeting, to help lead us in the way forward.

 

Our church mission to the world is in the midst of being defined. Your session voted earlier this year to become a “Matthew 25” congregation, focusing on Jesus’ mandate to help others. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” To help define our mission further, we will focus upon two parts of the Matthew 25 movement-building congregational vitality and eradicating systemic poverty.

 

Under Building Congregational Vitality, we have new ways of doing worship on Sundays, including the afternoon Vespers services, which have been quite successful. Over the next year, we will be seeking new ways to reach out to the neighbors around us and serve them. We are working to become a place where people can gather to hear keynote speakers on issues of mental illness, and other topics relevant to society as well.

 

Under Eradicating Systemic Poverty, we have begun our Safe Parking program, trying to help people who are living in their vehicles a safe place to park at night, and a chance to accumulate some funds, hopefully in time finding work and a place to call home. In addition, we will be hosting Monday nights at the Ashland Winter Shelter on 2082 E Main street, providing food and hosts for our unhoused guests. Your session has also agreed to make Sunday evenings available to have the Emergency Warming Center here when needed. In addition, we are considering other possible ministries to serve those in need.

 

Our annual giving is statistically high. According to our office manager, Susan, our average annual pledge is $2,916, with 66 giving units. According to the Web Site, US Congregational Life Survey, a church our size (100-300 members) gives an average of $1,627 per giving unit. So thank you for your generous giving to this congregation! Stable finances will help us as we move forward.

 

We still have plenty of energy in our members and friends of the church - willing to serve as elders and deacons, willing to volunteer to help with the 7-night winter shelter, wiling to staff the safe parking program, etc. As Methodist church reformer John Wesley wrote, Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” We are doing exactly that, and it shows. This congregation is a living, breathing body of Jesus Christ!

 

Moreover, you have a somewhat new pastor who is not planning on going anywhere for a while and wants to help this church change and adapt into what God has in store. I want to help you let go of the paddles and figure out how to get across these mountains. I may not know the way forward or have a map to tell us where to go and how to get there, but I do have faith, and hope in a God who is with us in the midst of this time of reformation, trying to help us perceive the new things God is doing.

 

A couple of years before they set out, William Clark, after being asked by his friend, Merriweather Lewis to work with him on the expedition wrote a letter. It said in part, “This is an undertaking fraught with difficulties, but my friend I do assure you that no man lives with whom I would prefer to undertake such a trip as yourself…My friend, I join you in hand and in heart…” (Letter to Merriweather Lewis, July 24, 1803) And so I join you in hand and in heart in an undertaking fraught with difficulties, facing the unknown future together. Let’s put the oars down and see where God will lead us! Alleluia. Amen.

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