Summary: A sermon for the 19th Sunday Afer Pentecost, Proper 23 What it means to be faithful to the proclamation of the Gospel.
19th Sunday after Pentecost (Pr. 23) October 15,2006 “Series B”
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, Through the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to love you with all of our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. Help us to love you, not only with our words, but also with our actions. Above all, help us to reflect to those around us your word, which you have revealed to us through your Son, Jesus the Christ. This we ask in his Holy name. Amen.
This past week, I attended our synod convocation, which was held at the Riverside Inn, Cambridge Springs. The presenters for the educational sessions were Robert Bacher and Kenneth Inskeep, co-authors of the book: CHASING DOWN A RUMOR – The Death of Mainline Denominations, [Augsburg Press].
In their presentations, Bacher and Inskeep shared with us their research, which indicated that although mainline Protestant denominations, such as our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, are experiencing serious declines in membership, this does not necessarily signal the end of these churches. In fact, they began their presentation with a quote published in the New York Journal, June 2, 1897, in which Mark Twain wrote, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
What prompted their study was a report published in Newsweek, August 9, 1993, which was entitled, “Dead-end for the Mainline? The mightiest Protestants are running out of money, members, and meaning.” This report suggested that if statistics continue in the current direction, it will be “lights Out in 2046” for most of the mainline Protestant churches.
Now without ignoring the seriousness of the statistical trend of decline in our church, Bacher and Inskeep went on to express that the term “death” is truly an exaggeration. Granted, the membership of our congregations is not what it was in the late fifties and early sixties. And the truth is, we may never see those numbers again.
As Inskeep pointed out, the churches flourished at that time due to several factors which do not exist today, two of which I would like to briefly mention. First, there was an underlying belief in America at that time, a sort of ethic embraced by the majority, that if you belonged to the church, worshiped on a regular basis, the world would become a safer and better place to live. In many ways, this concept defined the mission of the church.
As one who grew up in that era, I can relate to this principle. There were thirty-three persons in my confirmation class. Our morning at school opened with a reading of Scripture and a prayer, followed by the class praying the Lord’s Prayer. And although I engaged in my share of teen antics and devilish behavior, the guilt that I often felt for such behavior was not just how I may have betrayed my parents’ expectations, but also the guilt of betraying God’s expectations of me.
But today, that ethic is no longer widely embraced by the general population. Instead of viewing our membership in the church as a means by which we might grow in faith and enable God’s Spirit to remake us in God’s image, people today are more concerned about how the church can meet their individual needs. Rather than looking at how faithfully the congregation proclaims God’s Word, people seem more interested in the size of their youth program, the fellowship activities, and emotional dynamic of the worship service.
The second factor that I would like to mention that has changed since the peak of membership in the church during the late fifties and early sixties, is that it took place during the baby-boom era. As I have mentioned before, my father was one of twelve children in his family. And although I only have one brother as a sibling, and not one of my father’s siblings had more than a few children, when we gathered as an extended family, we often numbered more than we do here on a Sunday morning.
To make his point, Ken Inskeep said that as he was doing his research, he attended a worship service, conducted by one of our bishops on a visit to a congregation in his synod. He lightheartedly suggested that if the bishop wanted to see the membership of his synod increase, he should do as the Roman Catholics do, and place a ban on birth control. That way, the number of children in each family would increase, and reverse the trend of declining membership. To his quip, Inskeep said, the bishop responded, “Do you really think that will help? Just look at the age of the membership of this congregation. I don’t even think ‘Viagra’ would help”
But then, as I sat and listened to the rest of their presentation, to the unique and important balance of the proclamation of the mainline church to our understanding of the Word of God that confronts us as both law and Gospel, I began to experience hope for the future. And in particular, as the presenters expressed the results of their research, which indicate the true health of a congregation, we here at St. John’s are doing fairly well.