I want you to take a moment this morning to imagine a neighborhood Presbyterian church, perhaps a bit more typical in today’s world than this one. They have 50 or 75 members, their neighborhood is changing in difficult ways; poverty and unemployment have gone up in recent decades, stores and services have moved out, but people are still there and so is the church. Most churches of such a description do essential things for their neighborhood. Maybe it’s open after school for kids whose parents have no schedule flexibility at work; maybe they host a hot dinner on Wednesday nights for 20-30 folks who depend on it; they gather school supplies in the late summer and distribute groceries at Thanksgiving, they have a pantry that has diapers and socks and toiletries, they have an old parish house where sometimes they offer housing to a person who has just been released from prison.
Now I want you to imagine, for it is true, that there are about 60 Presbyterian churches like this in the Greater Cincinnati area. Also, there are an equal or greater number of churches like it that are Methodist or Baptist or Catholic or non-denominational, as well as Synagogues and Mosques and Hindu Temples that do many of the same things. And I want you to imagine the collective social crisis that would be at hand if one day they all disappeared. It is not just a crisis of mission, for that is not all that religious communities do. In a time when you can read daily about the mental health and substance abuse crises facing our communities, religious institutions provide a whole range of resource that create community and belonging and health: 12-step groups and soccer soccer programs, Scout troops and men’s groups, support for the grieving and rites of passage that help people grow and mature; opportunities for service to help people navigate life with meaning and purpose and rise above despair; and it all happens thanks to the Bible’s mandate to love one another because God loved us first. Larger churches, like this one, have different gifts too. We minister to young people who need grounding in their risky teenage years, we support smaller neighborhood churches with whom we are connected, we keep up the church’s vital role as a patron of sacred music; we’re a place for people to learn about civic and social issues. We often lament the diminished influence of the church in American society today, but make no mistake about it, there is a legacy that is still vital; we keep our communities healthy in all kinds of little ways that collectively, are enormous, and we must take seriously our place in that network.
The problem, of course, is that the culture is changing. There’s no one cause that we can point to, but in most cases its a combination of things: the cultural movement away from institutions, the hypocrisy (real or perceived) of the institutions’ themselves, and the church’s failure to change and be relevant to the world beyond its walls. As a result… In the decade that I’ve been with you, the Presbytery of Cincinnati has closed about three congregations a year; this year one of them was a congregation Knox helped to found. Culture wide, there are millions leaving church per year and the fastest growing religious demographic in the country is those who claim no affiliation at all. And here we are, Knox Presbyterian Church, somewhere in the middle of it all. By plenty of measures we are growing and doing fine. But is it merely true that we are drawing new members a little more successfully than our neighbors, and we are drawing from a well that is quickly drying up? Maybe.
Five hundred years ago, the Protestant Reformation reshaped the church in a very comparable set of circumstances. People had lost trust in their local congregations, the lack of transparency, the abuses of money and power… People started to leave, including some of the priests and civic leaders and regular families who had been core to the institution of the past. It took generations, about 200 years, for the Protestantism to figure out what the heck it was doing, and for the Roman Catholic church to respond and reform itself. Something new was born, but not without a long period of great upheaval. Much like today, in the Reformation, no one knew what the church would look like next.
There were some really good things about the Reformation. It recentered Christian leadership in the guidance of the Bible. It separated the church from the harmful influence of politics and power (at least initially). It put faith back in the hands of the people.
Of course, many of those hopeful signs would not last forever. In the culture of the last 100 years, the church’s growing alignment with power and influence has often threatened its integrity to a simple mission of following Jesus, and so we are in a time of upheaval yet again.
But there is another contribution of the Reformed church that is still worth listening to and that has the potential to outlast the changes that are threatening the church… The Reformers’ motto was that they wanted to be, in the Latin: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, or “Reformed and Always Being Reformed according to the Word of God.” They were smart and humble enough to realize that they probably didn’t have it all figured out, and that someday, the church would need to change again.
It’s a biblical idea, one that might be supported by any number of passages of Scripture, but that this week I’m speaking about with reference to these great words from Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” What could be more inspiring than to think that throughout our lives, we get to be renewed. In each new chapter, on every day in fact, that we have a chance to be start over: to grow in our perspectives, to understand more than we did the day before, to increase in wisdom and in depth, and most of all, in love. Of course, love has been the foundation of Christ’s ministry all along. So in Romans 12, Paul immediately follows his invitation to be renewed and transformed with a list of 29 different ways one can increase in love. We can never run out of ways to love, never lack for occasions to love, never come up short of people to love. Love is the way we learn to mature, change and grow. Love is the thing that helps us avoid that life where we stagnate, regress and lose our way. Love is the way for our lives to be renewed and transformed, and there are so many ways for us to do it. Love is what Jesus did; and when the church is at its best, the love is what the church does.
We shared with you last week that Knox Presbyterian Church is at work on implementing a new Strategic Plan, and at first mention that sounds really boring—doesn’t it? Five hundred years ago, in the midst of a church in crisis, Martin Luther, at the risk of his very life, nailed 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg and started the Protestant Reformation. And here at Knox, we hired a management consultant and hoped to capture your imagination by showing you a powerpoint presentation.
There is great risk that that powerpoint presentation, like the three-ring binders of the last generation, will find its way onto a shelf in the pastor’s office and we’ll continue to watch the church die. But here’s the thing: I still feel called to this work of ministry, so I cannot and will not believe that. I can’t believe it because I sat in the rooms with the passionate members of our planning team. They are talented busy people who gave countless hours of their time, and we talked about their stories and what we heard from all of you, and I know that in this church, every week, people are met in their own lives by the depth of Jesus’ love. They have found that love at work here at Knox, and they want to share it with the next generation. And there is awareness that we are living in a time when the church is quickly changing and we are going to need to respond.
One of the “four pillars” of our new Strategic Plan is called “Proactive Invitation and Connection;” just in case you’re not swept up by that language, I want to be clear that you saw it in action this morning. The Woolf Family, Britt and Eric and their girls Elyse and Lincoln, have found a welcome and a home here. They’ve made friends, and want their family to be shaped by the Way of Jesus Christ that they find lived here; they are deeply committed to all three of those churchy words we speak to you every Stewardship season—they have committed their time, talent, and treasure. We have about 50 newer families who have found their way to this community in the last several years, and we have to be committed to making sure that all of them know how glad we are that they have come, and that we look forward to learning how they will share their gifts. And it is not all about the new people. They must be joined by every one of you who have been here for 10 or 20 or 60 years, who need to ask yourself if your relationship to the church has become as dusty as an old strategic plan. Does your relationship with God needs to be transformed by the renewing of your mind? If a new family comes and sits next to you in church on Sunday; if someone you meet at Target or a work event or a neighborhood party happens to know that you go to church at Knox, will they be inspired by the story you tell, the life you lead, or the ways you are seeking to renew it? If not, it’s time to ask why, and pray about it, and be renewed.
“You are not finished yet. You are in the making. You can learn, mature, think, change and grow. You also have the freedom to stagnate, regress, and lose your way. Which road will you take?” That’s author Brian McLaren in his book We Make the Road by Walking. It’s a book about the future of faith communities in this time of great change. He begins the book by describing these two roads, which are possible for all of us as individuals, then says they are also possible for spiritual communities, like this one that we share. And my answer to his question: Which road will we take? We will RISE. Of course that’s the answer. We will rise to the occasion, we will grow and mature, change and thrive, for who reads an invitation like that and wants to take the alternative path to stagnation and defeat? No one. And we cannot. The costs are too great, and so is the opportunity to Rise and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The church has changed before and will change again, because what remains the same, as Paul stated it, is that there are countless ways to love. So do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Let us rise together to the call God has placed before us. Amen.