The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
A conversation that is happening among clergy these days is how will COVID19 affect our churches in the short and long term. Will a good number of members prefer to worship via livestreaming in their living rooms and with a nice cup of coffee? How will our pledging and financial giving be affected and, in turn, our budgets and staffing? How will the church attract Millennials, Gen-Xers and the Z generation, demographics already underrepresented in our congregations?
All of this struck me as I looked at this brief Gospel passage we have today. I could not help but wonder where the crowds are today seeking Jesus, his message of Good News, and the power of his healing entrusted to his church. Yes, times have changed since then and with it cultural shifts that have impacted our congregations, particularly for mainstream denominations.
Episcopalians are not alone in this dilemma of what to do as our numbers continue to decline. Some critics believe that “liberal” decisions are destroying the church and alienating young adults they must reach in order to survive. Never mind that a study by the Barna Group isolated seven main reasons why young adults tend to leave Christian churches as they grow up:
a sense that young adults were receiving an unsatisfying or “shallow” version of Christianity
feeling that the church was over protective
the perception of judgmental attitudes around sex and sexuality
churches’ unfriendliness to members grappling with doubt
the sense that Christianity was too exclusive,
abandoning traditional worship
and finally, the tense relationship between Christianity and science.
Actually, mainline denominations began to decline in the ‘60’s, not because of liberal theology, but because the world around them changed and they refused to change with it. Critical observers might be surprised to witness our conservatism in the way we celebrate the Eucharist. Yes, conservatism, from the Latin for “to preserve or keep” for we have cherished ancient ways of worship handed down to us, some from the earliest Christian communities, and executed worship with a commitment to dignity, yet not idolized it or crafted it in such a way that to the guest it looks so very “precious.”
Am I concerned and saddened by the reality that churches are declining? Of course. Even more disappointing is the role some clergy have played in scattering the flock and driven them away. Jeremiah has harsh words for them. I know that times have changed radically since first Century Palestine but human nature has not changed as drastically. I believe that people still have a deep, innate, thirst for experiencing more than the rough and tumble of life, for a glimpse of the other side—whatever they may call it—I call it the Kingdom of God.
We need a place where we can feel safe and accepted, where God’s dream for us is preached with conviction and clarity, where we are encouraged to dream with God and join God in God’s work in the world. We need a place where we can laugh and mourn together, try to make sense of the horror of events like the pandemic that has claimed more than 600,000 lives.
We need to lift one another up when one or the other is down and believe enough for all of us when some of us just can’t. People want to know that there is a way to make a difference with their lives and to have a place where they can be supported in doing that. We call that the church and I know that it is not the dying entity or fossil described by the naysayers.
So what will convince young adults to check it out? I suspect what has brought us here. What they want in a church is a community that encourages social justice, a place of creativity and critical thinking, and a space free from judgment. Perhaps most important, young adults believe that churches should “focus their engagement on actions that serve the common good or speak up for the oppressed as Jesus did.
The Reverend Winnie Vargese, of Trinity Wall Street, puts it this way. “We Episcopalians believe that we are received into the household of God in baptism and partake of the body of Christ in the Eucharist, and through this sacrament are given a glimpse of God's vision for a just world, and the courage to make it real, and we want you to join us. That's some crazy stuff, but that's where we are in The Episcopal Church today.”
Neither the Episcopal Church at large nor this one local expression of it is a perfect church. We live and minister in a very imperfect world. We are a mix of all kinds of folk and we are as diverse as all of God’s splendid creation. Paul tells us that we are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. How awesome is that!
For me, the Episcopal church is like discovering and entering into a long term relationship—there are things that bug me about it and I don’t always understand this partner I have invited into my life, but I love it and can’t quite imagine life without it. And I believe with all my heart that, by the grace of God, it will survive because God is not finished with us yet.