Of all of the critiques one could make of the contemporary American Church, the one that rises to the top of my list is that congregations spend way too much time thinking about themselves. In this age where marketing is king and identity politics rule the day, congregations have jumped on the bandwagon and give an inordinate amount of their energy to designing and promoting their particular brand.
Of course, the whole enterprise of marketing the church has its roots in our fear. In the face of a significant decline in church attendance and a marked rise in the number of people who declare themselves to have no religious affiliation (aka: the Nones), congregations are scrambling to woo people into their houses of worship. The church as institution is trying to sustain itself, and who can blame us.
But there is a problem with this. Put simply: people aren’t in the market for a church. That’s not what they’re shopping for. In most cases the people who walk in our doors are looking for God, or for community, or for purpose, or for a way to help the world. In short, they aren’t looking for a church per se, they simply need a church to help them to find what they are looking for. They hope that the church will be a place where they can meet this felt need for participation in a reality that is bigger than themselves.
Given this perspective, you can see why I am reticent to talk too much about the church. As I have said before, few, if any, of us need more church in our lives. What we need is a growing sense that God is at work in our lives and in our world. What we need is to be reminded that we are loved by God and invited by God to embark on a journey of transformation as we follow Jesus. What we need is to be encouraged to rest in our identity in Christ and so become reflectors of God’s love in our world. Meetings and sermons about mission statements, mobilization and money are not really the stuff that sustains this journey.
And yet… , because we are an organization with a building and budgets we have to occasionally step back from the act of being the church to reconsider and remind ourselves who we are and why we do what we do. We have to think about the resources we need to sustain our life together and we have to prioritize the various tasks we need to accomplish in order to meet this goal of sustainability. We need to do the work of reflection that will enable us to continue to take action. We have to pause to remember the journey behind us and listen for God’s invitations concerning what might be ahead of us. It’s our version of taking time out from our regular programming for a “pledge break.”
I must confess I find pledge breaks irritating. I find leading them even more onerous. But they help us to step back and humbly remember that the house of the Lord occasionally needs paint and we are charged with the task of repainting it. That’s what stewardship is. It is the simple act of gratefully taking care of something that does not belong to us but which we know is a great benefit to us: A benefit worth preserving and sharing with others.
So we’re going to take a pledge break for six weeks in October and November and give ourselves to the work of reflecting on where we have been and where we might be going. In a series of sermons entitled “Now What?” I hope to invite us into a process of celebrating God’s faithfulness to us and challenging one another to look for the open door he has set before us (Revelation 3:7).
Emmanuel Presbyterian Church is God’s gift to us. It is a place that brings together people who are looking for food for the journey of faith. It provides us with the opportunity to meet together to encourage one another and stir up one another to love and good works. These gifts are part of what empowers us to notice and walk through the open door that God has set before us. As pastor I am looking forward to discovering with you what God has for us as we together walk across that threshold.