Sermon: Proper 28 RCL B – “The Steeple”

Photo by Ernest Brillo on Unsplash

You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if the finance committee refuses to provide funds for the purchase of a chandelier because none of the members knows how to cook it.

You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if when people learn that Jesus fed the 5000, they want to know whether the two fish bass or catfish.

You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if when the pastor says, “I’d like to ask Boudreaux to help take up the offering,” four guys and one gal stand up.

You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if on the opening day of gator season the church is closed.

You Know You’re in a Cajun Church if the choir robes were donated by and embroidered with the logo for, Thibideaux’s Fine Dining and Bait Shop.

Finally, you Know You’re in a Cajun Church if instead of sanctus bells, you hear a duck call.

There’s more, but I’ll stop there.

It doesn’t matter if it is within the same denomination, every church has its own distinctive characteristics. Like the Episcopal Church, there’ll be the same basic liturgy—even protestant churches have liturgies, whether they admit it or not—but they’ll all have certain nuances one to the next. And all denominations essentially believe the same basic tenants of the faith, although they’ll argue about the details. But when it comes to the mainline denominations—Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutherans, and the likes—we also have one other thing in common, which is a bit disconcerting: decline in members and attendance. A study that came out recently surveyed 15,000 churches across all denominations. In the year 2000, the average attendance in those churches on a Sunday was 137. In the year 2020, that number had dropped by more than 50% to 65. Why would it drop so dramatically?

It is still mostly true in towns like ours, but no longer in the cities: the steeple of the church used to be the tallest structure in any community. It was a sign to the faithful and a beacon to the lost. But as things progressed and the buildings got taller, the church—literally—became less visible, until eventually it was completely dwarfed and even hidden in the mass of ever growing commerce and skyscrapers. The only trouble, not only did this happen with the church building, but it happened with the people as well. As more and more opportunities were presented, more and more people were drawn away. Some blame the people for this. “They need to get their priorities straight!” “Jesus is the reason for the season!”, and so on, but the truth is, the circumstances are far more complex than platitudes and the pandemic only accelerated and exacerbated the situation.

As for us at St. Matthew’s, prior to the pandemic, we were bucking the trends and growing, but the pandemic did a bit more than knock the wind out of that. When we were once again able to open our doors, I thought that everyone would be back. That has not been the case. This has been very upsetting to me. At first I was even a bit angry, but then I just became more and more anxious. What had happened to our church? When I got past the initial panic, I started looking for an answer. In my opinion, knowledge is power and over the last couple of months, I have been talking to our bishop and my colleagues and reading and I’ve come to understand that we are not alone in this at St. Matthew’s. As a matter of fact, it is basically across the board in almost every church and every denomination. What I’ve also realized is that if I was feeling anxious about it, then so are you.

Most of you have been here a lot longer than I have and this is your church. So today, I thought I would share with you some of the things that I’ve learned and hope to show a vision of a path forward that I’ve been working on with the Bishop, the diocese, Dora (our Sr. Warden) and the vestry. And I’ll start by saying, I am very excited about the future of St. Matthew’s. So, what did I learn?

One of the hardest hitting and honest articles I came across and shared with colleagues summarized what we know about the low attendance that we’re all experiencing. It was simply titled: They’re Not Coming Back. My initial reaction was like being punched in the gut, but after a bit, it cleared the fog of my anxiousness and allowed me to understand what is taking place.

Three main takeaways from the article and confirmed in many conversations and observations here: 1) people who were eager to volunteer in the past and showed up for everything are being more selective and only choosing a few things to participate in, 2) individuals and families who were once regular attenders are becoming semi-regular, and 3) individuals and families that were on the periphery are fading away all together. If we ask ourselves, “Do I fall into one of those categories?” I think we would probably say, yes. The “why” behind it is a bit more difficult to understand, but the way forward is to understand and acknowledge that the last two years have presented every human being on the planet with a shared trauma. We did not simply ease into the pandemic. There was a day when we were all hearing about a new variety of flu and the very next day we collectively slammed into a brick wall. Everything stopped and closed. If you’ve ever been in a bad accident or known someone that has, you don’t just walk away from it without feeling some effects. Whether you were injured or not—and with the pandemic we all were in one way or another—whether you were injured or not, the world and each individual has been traumatized to one degree or another and at the moment, we’re all just trying to figure out if it’s safe to get back in a car.

That’s the first bit. Understanding and acknowledging the trauma we’ve been through, so that we can see through the fog of our anxiousness, which then allows us to recognize the one thing we truly need: the healing that comes from God that will restore us to health.

The second piece is this (and to continue using the analogy of a car hitting a brick wall): when you’ve walked away from that accident, my guess is your number one priority will be safety. In other words, you’re going to probably make some changes in what you drive and how you drive. Following the crash of the pandemic, the Church is going to have to make some changes as well. Don’t worry, I won’t be adding big screens and rock bands in the sanctuary or wearing skinny jeans (Lord, help us all!) It does however mean that we need to truly define who we are and then, with that in mind, actively engage in the mission of the church. What is the mission of the Church? From the Book of Common Prayer: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” How do we pursue this mission? “The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” And who in the Church carries out this mission? “The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.” That is our mission, how we accomplish it, and who takes part in it. It is truly the fulfillment of the Great Commission as given to us by Christ Jesus. This is the goal of the second part, of going forward and so, everything we do—from the music we select to sing on a Sunday morning, to the annual budget, to the programs we offer, to who we are in the community as disciples of Jesus, and everything else—should reflect the mission.

At times like this, it can seem the right thing to do would be to circle the wagons, hold what we’ve, got and wait for things to settle out, but that is not who we are as a Christian people. The Lord said to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” That’s who we are.

We—the world—has been knocked around pretty good the last couple of years, but through our faith and courage, in the process of asking for and realizing our own healing, we as a congregation are going to seek to bring that same healing to others. I said I was excited about the future of St. Matthew’s and that is why, because as I’ve told you, I firmly believe that the Lord is about to do some amazing work through you and I’m delighted to be a part of it and to be able to watch and participate as it unfolds.

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, look upon our community of faith which is the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to witness to his love by loving all our fellow creatures without exception. Under the leadership of our Bishop keep us faithful to Christ’s mission of calling all men and women to your service so that there may be “one fold and one shepherd.” We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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