A little over two years ago our congregation began a process called “New Beginnings” to determine where God might be leading us in the years to come. There was an initial assessment from a denominational representative that was very affirming and hopeful. We were told that we have an excellent location and that we are financially stable. Our facilities, however, were noted as aging and not meeting the expressed needs of the congregation’s ministry, because we have a lot of unused space. In general, we were described as a congregation that was in decline due to our average age and our emphasis on maintenance and administration over and above development and community engagement.
So not a bad grade overall, but we definitely felt like steps needed to be taken to move us from decline and into growth. The next thing we did was to meet in small groups in various members’ homes for six weeks of prayer and study. We had over 60% of the congregation engaged, and I would wager that some were concerned that we might be talking about shutting down. What we were presented with, however, is five choices that each represented a fundamental change to our identity as a congregation.
In the end we chose “Mission Redefinition”, even though many of us didn’t really understand what that means. What it means is that we believe God is calling us to adopt a new priority or focus that (1) impacts everything thing we do, (2) deepens relationships as a faith community, and (3) deepens our connection with our surrounding community.
So, what actually happened? The congregation voted for us to redefine our mission, with the understanding that a plan needed to be developed for us to do it. Unfortunately, the trained New Beginnings leaders had a combination of fatigue and personal issues, and the responsibility fell to the Session. Since then we have had several gains and losses in our membership. In some ways this is not even the same congregation that went through the “New Beginnings” study. New things have happened, but our overall priorities have not changed.
In many ways, the questions of the Israelites remain our questions. Are we going to die out here in the wilderness? Where is God in all of this? Who are we? You may recall that they sent Moses to talk to God up on the mountain covered in fire and smoke. “You go up there, so that we don’t die!” they said. And when he did not come back as quickly as expected, they said, “Let’s make a God that we can talk to.”
Meanwhile God gave them the 10 Commandments. Why? Why couldn’t they just make sacrifices to Yahweh like any other God? Why did God give them commandments when everyone knew how to beg favor from whatever deity seemed be most available. Well, God gave them the law to demonstrate that this God was active and present unlike any other God. God gave them the law to invite them into deeper relationships with God and with each other. God gave them the law to establish them as a people of the Holy God of Israel. God gave them the law to demonstrate that this God even made the people holy. But most importantly, God gave them the law to redefine their mission from survival to proclamation.
And so it is with you and me. As God’s people we are constantly redefining our mission from survival to proclamation! I want you to know that our Session has been prayerfully considering what this means for us for several months now. Last October at our Presbytery meeting, Richard Hebert and I encountered something new that has informed our conversations. At the meeting we met a representative from the PC(USA)’s “1001 New Worshiping Communities” initiative. You may remember that this was celebrated at the last General Assembly meeting with a drop of 1001 red beach balls.
The name is very intentional. We are not trying to form new congregations. We are looking to form places of spiritual community. Some may grow into congregations, but the goal is about community formation. So, the Session began to talk about making space for deeper spiritual community within our congregation. In our annual retreat this January, we realized how much this matches up with our history and our personality. We are a start up church!
Whether you consider the preschool from years gone by, or our work to establish local non-profits, or our historical connection with Wesley United Campus Ministries, or even the part we played in the formation of the Grace and Trinity congregations, we have always been about birthing ministries and blessing them to become what they will. Some may be for a season. Some may endure, but we have always been in the business of starting things up! Being 1st Presbyterian is not about being the best. It is not a status to attain. It means recognizing that we are a starting point! It means that it is in our nature to put development as a priority over maintenance.
Now I know that had to set off some warning bells for some of you. How can you develop new things if you can’t take care of what you’ve got? That’s crazy, idealistic, and short sighted. Show me the money, and then we’ll talk. That’s almost as crazy as expecting people to trust a convicted felon on death row. Maybe if we had some assurance of return on our investment we might consider it – just to be nice. Interestingly, these are the same fears as the Corinthians had. Jesus was crucified as a convicted felon. Rome was still in power – even if there was a resurrection. Yet Paul assured them that things were not as they seemed. What God was doing through Jesus was greater than a thousand garrisons and offered a deeper wisdom than logic could provide. The proof they wanted was not in the argument, but in the Holiness of being God’s people.
And that is what “1001 New Worshiping Communities” is focusing on – the Holiness of being God’s people. I’ll give you one example. Dianne Anderson is a social worker and a ruling Elder at United Presbyterian Church in Paterson, NJ. When she heard about the 1001 Worshiping Communities initiative, she couldn’t sleep. She immediately began to invite people to church from a section of town where crime is high. No one came. She started canvassing the neighborhood and connected with a woman who seemed to know everyone – even the prostitutes and addicts and their drugs of choice. Dianne set up a stand one night, offering a “wing and a prayer” – literally it was chicken wings and a person to love on you and pray for you. Presently they have a group of over 100 that meets on that street corner on Thursdays to find spiritual communion in the midst of suffering. There are hundreds of other examples, and most involve getting out of our own building and entering into relationships with people that we have previously kept out.
So, what are we going to do? For starters, the Session will meet on April 18 for prayer and study. They’ll hear from coaches and trained facilitators. They’ll look at resources available to train leaders, and they’ll begin to make a plan that will eventually be presented to the congregation. The biggest resource that we’ll need is the Holy Spirit and you! Your prayers, questions, and ideas are essential. We put the elders’ names on the bulletin for a reason. If you have comments or concerns, let them know! Eventually your time, talents, and financial support will also be required, but we’ll bring our ideas to the congregation before we get to that point. That is, unless one of you become moved by the Spirit like Dianne was!
In all of this talk about spiritual community, you may be wondering, “What’s this got to do with my life today, and why are we talking about it now?” Well, as I understand the scriptures today, this is all essentially about salvation. It is our nature to seek proof, validation, and assurance that there is a God and that God is on our side. When we search together we are (re)formed into a deeper and more spiritual community.
That does not mean that our experience of God is dependent on each other. It means that we are formed by God into a community so that we can be a life giving force! That’s what the church is for – to demonstrate salvation here and now! Why else would Jesus have gotten so angry? The house of God was being used to take advantage of the poor. It was life consuming. Have you ever feel that way about the church? I know that I have.
That’s why Jesus told them about the new temple that he would become. That’s why Jesus invites us to be built into that same temple. And this is the beginning of our salvation – that we become a people who demonstrate God’s life giving force of love and grace and mercy!
That is not a logical proposition. Salvation is not logical. It’s not supposed to be, because it is not under our control. Salvation does not come with signs and wonders, but it is demonstrated when we are rebuilt into worshiping communities that are life giving. Fred Craddock, a beloved pastor and teacher who joined the church triumphant this week is quoted as saying, “The question is not whether the church is dying, but whether it is giving its life for the world.”
That’s an excellent question! I look forward to answering it with you as we move toward the cross and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. May God be glorified in our spiritual communion as continue this journey together and as we invite others to join us. Amen.