Why Churches are Struggling

June 2015

In a recent Facebook post on the trending Pew report on the status of religion in the USA, Tripp Hudgins
comments, ʺ…Iʹm still wondering why we have such a hard time discussing these shifts in religious expression as part of a larger shift. Itʹs not that people just donʹt ʹdoʹ church any more. Thereʹs no ʹproblem.ʹ Thereʹs no ʹfix.ʹ Itʹs that people donʹt do anything like they used to. Belonging itself has changed. The way people embody love, affiliation, loyalty, identity, community, political belief, and artistic expression has changed. Religious expression (specifically Christianity) is simply one facet of this change. ʺ

This is a thoughtful refection on the state of the church in general and our congregation in particular. As we look for renewal, how often do we unnecessarily ʺproblematizeʺ our situation, looking for solutions or ʺfixesʺ that donʹt address real needs? If, as seems clear to me, the church as we know it is disappearing, renewal cannot be some rearguard action to save what we have known and loved. Renewal is to look for the new thing that God is doing and join in that creative process.

As I have jokingly tried to explain to people who have asked about our renewal process, we are looking to hire someone to come ʺsave us.ʺ Then, as soon as I say it, I do wonder if we are not, like Jesusʹ first followers, looking for a messiah of our own design, someone to lead us back to the future. If the conversation continues, I try to explain that our real commitment is to finding someone with a vision that will help us see and embrace Godʹs new thing. This, of course, means accepting change, change that might be more radical than any of us has imagined. And we know that change of that order is not likely to come easy.

Is it true that we live in a world in which ʺ…people donʹt do anything like they used toʺ? If Tripp is right that ʺbelongingʺ as well as ʺthe way people embody love, affiliation, loyalty, identity, community, political belief, and artistic expressionʺ have all changed, indeed are still changing, why would this not also include ʺreligious expressionʺ? Iʹm not sure we need to give up everything we have come to value from our traditions, but we do need to hold those traditions lightly and be willing to re‐shape, let go,  move on as God calls us to something new.

In response to Trippʹs post, someone sent a blog post by Tom Ehrich on ʺ5 Ways Churches Are Hurting Themselves.ʺ Tom believes that ʺ Christianity isn’t in trouble at all. Churches are in trouble. ʺ He argues that God is just fine, thank you, still speaking, at work in the world, doing a new thing, if we could just see it. He offers five thoughtful reasons why churches are struggling. What do you think?

  1. ʺWe stopped trying.ʺ That is, there have been times when the church has moved boldly and lived creatively in the world. As we began to experience the decline from the peak participation of the post World War II church ʺboom,ʺ we panicked. We began to focus on a futile attempt to secure those gains at the expense of the bold creative ministry to which God calls us. Conservation took precedence over mission.
  2. ʺWe stopped giving.ʺ Iʹm not sure how true this is for us as our community has continued to be generous in its support of our congregation and its ministry. Our giving has suffered more from attrition in membership than it has in generosity. But there is some validity to the notion that, as we have come to believe and trust less in the importance and efficacy of the church, we have tended to withdraw support. Also, as it has become more and more expensive to live in our community, choices about how to spend income have become more difficult. Ehrich argues that, as part of the rearguard action, churches have tended to invest their resources in maintaining facilities and institutions before Godʹs mission in the world. We have tried to compromise in this area by investing in our facilities for the good of the larger community, which we have seen as mission.
  3. ʺWe turned inward.ʺ We have tended to draw in, becoming more self-absorbed with our own survival than with our witness to and connection with the wider world beyond our walls.
  4. ʺWe fixated on Sunday morning.ʺ It seems to me that this is partly a function of the many different demands on our time and energy. There are so many more options and obligations for commitment and involvement than there were in my youth. We were at church several times in a week and it was central to our lives. Now Sunday is the one time a week the community gathers. Does it still work anymore? Is it enough? Are there alternative ways a community might engage that would serve Godʹs new thing better than what we are now trying to accomplish in a few hours on Sunday morning?
  5. ʺWe trashed our reputation.ʺ Again, this may not be so true for us a congregation.But we live with the consequences of a particular connection of religious fundamentalists and right wing politics that has come to characterize Christianity and the church in many minds. Sadly, Baptist itself has become a ʺdirtyword.ʺ Too often we are seen as judgmental, inhospitable, self‐absorbed,  uninteresting, unkind. I imagine that some of this is attributable to our self-absorption as we have struggled with attrition along with loss of influence and prestige.

I donʹt know how accurate or comprehensive these particular reflections are, but hopefully they will encourage us to shift our focus from ʺbeing saved,ʺ finding solutions to non‐existent or non‐meaningful dilemmas to joining God in doing a new thing or two in terms of our witness to the establishment of Godʹs Beloved Community in the world around us. As people of faith, we know that God is not done with us or with creation. The invitation is to join with God as agents of creative, perhaps even holy change. It is the same kind of call that Jesus issued his first followers. Come follow me. As Brian McLaren has reminded us over and over this year, we make this road by walking. That is, we take a chance, we risk the unknown, we walk Godʹs way, following Christ, empowered by the Spirit until the Beloved Community becomes reality in our lives and in the world round us.

Yours on the journey.
Pastor Rick

This Week at First Baptist (2/5)

Calendar

  • Thursday, February 6, 2014, 7:30 pm: Church Choir Rehearsal in the parlor. new voices are always welcome to join.

  • Saturday, February 8, 2014, 9:00 am – 12:00 noon: Church Council Retreat Day at the church.
  • Sunday, February 9:
    10:00 AM: Worship & Sunday School: “More Love” Pastor Rick preaching
    11:30 AM:
    Adult Spiritual Formation
    “Returning to the Jesus Dojo”- What does it mean to practice the way of Jesus? During January we discussed the historical Jesus: Who he was, what we can know, and whether it matters. In February, we will make plans. Together, we will decide what to let go and gather up as we seek new and relevant practices for walking in the way of Jesus.

  • Tuesday, February 11, 2014, 10:30 am: Bible Study at the terraces of Los Altos at Janet Maxwell’s apartment. the address is 373 pine lane, #2106, los altos. Let Pastor Rick know if you need transportation.
  • Thursday, February 13, 2014, 7:30 pm: Church Choir Rehearsal in the parlor. new voices are always welcome to join.

LOOKING AHEAD:

  • Friday, February 14, 2014, 10:00 am: Senior Chat– Anne Loftis. Covenant Presbyterian Church, 670 East Meadow Drive, Palo Alto.
  • Wednesday, February 19, 2014, 8:30 am: Men’s Breakfast Corner Bakery Restaurant (the old Boston Market), 3375 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. All the men from our church family are welcome.
  • Friday, February 14, 2014, 6:00 pm: Valentine’s Day Potluck for lovers of all ages! This is an intergenerational event for our entire FBCPA community.
  • Thursday, February 27, 2014, 10:00 am: Women’s Brunch at Hobee’s Restaurant, 4224 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. All women of our church community are invited. please join us
  • Monday, February 17, 2014: President’s Day, church office closed.
  • Wednesday, February 19: Spire Deadine, last day to submit items for the March spire.
  • Wednesday, March 5, 2014: Ash Wednesday: Save the date for a special evening service. more details to follow.

This Week at First Baptist (1/8)

  • Calendar Thursday, January 9 at 5:00 PM: Church Council in the Parlor.
  • No Church Choir on January 9.  We will resume on Thursday, January 16 in the Parlor.
  • Friday, January 10, 10:00 am: Senior Chat– Dr. Sonya Kim
    Dr. Kim has set up a program for daily or weekly phone calls to persons who like to have a check in call or a friendly visit by phone. Fireside Room of Covenant Presbyterian Church, 670 East Meadow Drive.
  • Friday, January 10 at 2:00 PM: Congregational Life Task Team will meet in the Parlor,
  • Saturday, January 11 at 10:00 AM: Renewal Task Team meets in the Parlor.
  • Sunday, January 12,
    10:00 AM:
    Worship & Sunday School: “Possibilities Unfolding,” Pastor Tripp preaching.
    11:30 AM:
    Adult Spiritual Formation
    During the month of January,  Doug Davidson will lead a consideration of the topic, “Visions of Jesus.” Beginning with the engaging portrait that Reza Aslan offers in his provocative new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, we will consider how different views of Jesus’ life and teachings point toward different understandings of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
  • Wednesday, January 15, 8:00 AM: Men’s Breakfast at Hobee’s Restaurant, 4224 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. All the men from our Church family are welcome.

LOOKING AHEAD:

  • Friday, January 17, Noon: Annual Report & Spire Deadline 
  • Monday, January 20, Martin Luther King Holiday church office closed
  • Thursday, January 23 at 10 AM: Womenʹs Brunch at Hobee’s Restaurant, 4224 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. All women of our church community are invited. Please join us.

Gratitude, stewardship, support, sustenance & compassion

Rev. Rick MixonThe seasons change. The weather changes. And we cycle around once more to a time to focus on gratitude. November brings trees changing color, cold nights, Thanksgiving and the stewardship campaign. In the time I have been your pastor, we have never made a big deal of promoting stewardship. We have not needed to. For whatever reasons, ours seems to be a congregation that understands the need to undergird our life together with financial resources.

When asked about our church, I tell people we are located in the most expensiveneighborhood in a very affluent city. Our neighbors are the Page and Jobs families. However, I am quick to offer the disclaimer that those kind of wealthy people do not make up our congregation. We are not particularly affluent. We are ordinary folk. But we are generous with what we have. We recognize that our life as a congregation depends on that generosity.

A while back we took a vote of confidence in the future of our congregation and decided to work toward renewal. There are many good and exciting things happening in our space and a significant number of those things are generating income to keep us functioning. It has been particularly exciting to watch the growth of iSing – Silicon Valley Girls Choir under our sponsorship. Other groups continue to enjoy and value our hospitality. They frequently comment on the “good vibe” that comes from sharing our space.

Our long awaited patio project is underway. The sound system upgrade is on the drawing board. We have a dedicated group of leaders and committed, creative staff, including our interns. We have hard‐working task teams, one of which is our Renewal Task Team that is focusing on our future. It is a difficult time anywhere to function as a church in ways with which we are familiar. We are challenged to find ways to be a church that responds positively to God’s call to faithful creativity. Renewal may well cost us something moving forward, at least during the time it takes to live into a new reality. We may be called on to invest in our future.

Gratitude, stewardship, support, sustenance, compassion – these are all characteristics and qualities that call on us to step up our generosity to the degree that we can. We know that some of us are simply not able to give more than we already do. For that level of commitment, we are grateful. That level of commitment enhances deeply the quality of our life together. At the same time, there may be some of us who can give more to sustain our community. As I said  last month, it simply takes all of us to be us. Our present and our future depend on us all pulling together to make this the congregation God – and we – want it to be.

You’ll see other places in the November Spire that our stewardship theme for this year is “Found Faithful – in Little, with Much, with All.” The text is 1 Corinthians 4:1‐2 in which Paul urges the church at Corinth to keep the faith in the face of many complicated challenges: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” The “us” of Paul’s encouragement is all of us – you and me included. We are called to be and we have committed ourselves to living as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. As I mentioned a few Sunday’s ago, we have a story to tell, a witness to bear, compassion to practice, wisdom to share. It is essential that we continue to be faithful to the enterprise, even if we’re not entirely
sure of where we’re headed.

To be faithful in little, if that is what we have to offer. Remember trees grow from small seeds. To be faithful with much. Whatever our limitations, we are still blessed far beyond most folk on this planet. To be faithful with all. Trustworthy stewards make the most of everything with which they have to work. So we thank God for what we have been given, we pledge ourselves to share as generously as we possibly can and we trust that God will take our gifts and multiply them for the work of God’s realm in the ways that only God can. As God’s people we are blessed to be part of the system of support for God’s church. Let us bless as we have been blessed.

Pastor Rick

“edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange”

a new thingThe church and the gospel are not the same thing. I doubt they ever were, though there may have been times when they were more closely aligned than today. With acknowledgement of its ancient roots, the church that most of us have known and loved in this country was the product of the post‐war “boom” of the 1950s and 60s. I am a relatively early boomer (1947) so my experience of church life was thoroughly steeped in that tradition. The church was often the center of the community, a place where traditional, nuclear family life was idealized, where you went to make significant business contacts and your name known in the neighborhood. Denominations strategized church planting throughout suburbia, “silk‐stocking” downtown churches thrived.

The church my father served from 1945 to 1950 was in a small Kansas railroad town of 14,000 people. First Baptist, Newton, had a thousand members when he left to start one of the American Baptist “Churches for New Frontiers.” The denomination had purchased a large, well‐situated plot of land on which to build. He started out preaching to 13 people in the Borel’s living room, using the top of the TV as his pulpit. When he left that congregation in 1953, it had grown significantly and had built a parsonage on the site that was used as the church building for worship and Sunday School. He lived (1964) long enough to see Prairie Baptist Church, in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas, grow to several hundred members and become the largest American Baptist mission giving church in Kansas.

My point is not to brag, though I hold my father and his ministry in high esteem. The point is to give you a taste of the times, not that many of you don’t have your own stories to tell from that glorious period in the life of the church. None of this is new to you. You’ve heard it all before. Now the church of the 50s and 60s is in rapid decline and I would guess will largely disappear in the next 50 years. Some church people are caught up in mourning what is passing, some are dedicated to moving back to the future, some are in despair of what can be done to save the church. One problem is that all of these folk have taken the burden on themselves. Either they are stuck in grief and guilt, they are busily replicating the methods of 50 years ago, or they are writing blogs, columns (like this one!) or books recounting the downward spiral, the reasons for it and myriad untested ideas about what the church should be and do next.

Our congregation has a mixture of all these, but for now we have voted to work toward renewal. Dan Cudworth has raised a question as to whether or not “renewal” is the right word to describe what some of us are looking toward. Renewal implies a resuscitation of that which is dead or dying. Should we let it go? Should we instead look for God’s new thing, for an outcome that we have yet to image, for transformation in service of the Gospel? You see the church as we know it may be disappearing but there is no reason that God’s good news should disappear with it. The Jesus movement has weathered the coming and going of any number of institutional forms that have attempted to encapsulate it. Still the gospel lives. The promised reign of God still looms on the horizon and trickles down into contemporary culture all the time.

I met today with Eric Swanson, pastor of Westhope Presbyterian Church and director of The Contemplative Center of Silicon Valley. Eric is working to turn around a congregation that was pretty much on its last leg. He has challenged
that community to turn from more traditional church life to a congregational life that is centered in the Spirit. They are not growing by leaps and bounds –not in numbers, that is – but they are clearly growing in the Spirit. One thing they do very deliberately is to ground everything they do in prayer and contemplation. They look to discern rather than dictate God’s will and way for them. Is that something we might explore as means of transformation rather than renewal?

There’s been whole lot of discussion in recent times about the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) and how they have either turned their backs on the church or else have never darkened its doors. Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist
Church in Washington, DC, in her latest blog, writes an open letter to the SBNR. She says to them, somewhat tongue‐in‐cheek, “I want to tell you that despite our collective panic attacks here on the Spiritual And Also Religious side of things, I am increasingly finding myself less and less interested in trying to find just the right song and dance to make you wake up one day and want to be part of a faith community.

It’s not you. It’s me. I just think that finding a way to be popular again may not be the most pressing work of the church these days.” I think she’s on to something. I think there was a time when we were popular and some of us long to be popular again. I think that’s more the name of the game than we’re willing to admit. We want to be popular, well‐liked, influential, just like Jesus was(n’t). Oops! Have we been on the wrong road, barking up the wrong tree, looking for love in all the wrong places? Maybe so. Amy continues writing to the SNBR, “I hear you when you say the church is irrelevant.
I get that you don’t care what we’re doing to catch your attention. If we’re smart, we’ll listen to what you’re saying to us and believe that you mean what you say. And then we’ll stop trying to package the institution to make it palatable and just get busy leading the church to faithfully do its work in the world.” If we’re smart we’ll listen, we’ll pay attention – not only to the witness of the SNBR but also to the witness of the Spirit.

What is the Spirit whispering to us? Where is God leading us? What does Jesus have to offer us today? The Gospel is not the church but the Gospel can and must surely shape any meaningful future we have. Amy concludes with an image of the body of Christ that may not be comfortable but is surely challenging. “I suggest to my angst‐ridden colleagues [SAAR] that your [SNBR] blatant rejection of the church, rather than a challenge to us to scramble for new ideas and back peddle when churches screw up, is actually a glimpse of what the church of the future will be: less attractive, more alternative, kind of edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange.”

Less attractive, more alternative, kind of edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange! Can you hear God calling us to such a reality? Can you feel the Spirit moving us in that direction? Does it seem like that’s exactly the way Jesus
walked? Uncomfortable, challenging, and still, good news, the Gospel that draws all creation into holy communion with God, leads us in the Jesus Way and empowers us with the Spirit. May we learn to pray, to discern and then say, “yes.”

Pastor Rick