From several directions in the last week or so it has been brought to my attention that lately some of the congregation have become unsettled by the sermons delivered in this Church.
I assume at least some of it has to do with the sermon delivered here two weeks ago by the Rev. Steve Terrell, our presbytery minister, in which he indicated to be reveling in the falling apart of the institution and expects the Church to rise as a phoenix from the ashes, but completely different from our experience so far. Add some of my sermons wrestling with the changes we face as a Church in the twenty first century and I can understand there is some unsettledness. And rightly so!
Apparently I have at least succeeded in communicating some of my own un-ease about what the future might have in store for us, with Steve putting some of that into much stronger words than I had.
The way things are falling apart, the institution of Church as we knew it is crumbling around us and there is no knowing where we will end up. And where Steve told us to rejoice because he believes something new and different is coming, most of us here in Toorak, including me, will grieve the demise of what has been, and may still be hoping some of what has been important to us, is dear and precious to us may be saved for future generations. Not because we are so anxious to lose it, not because we are conservative and traditionalist, but because the Church as we know it has been good to us, has given us life and informed and inspired our living. And it hurts when anyone suggests that it is only a matter of time for what is so precious to us to disappear and be replaced by something completely different, no matter how inspired or inspiring it may be.
No! We dont want something completely different! We want what is precious to us to be revalued, reassessed, for it to re-emerge, indeed like a phoenix from the ashes, but the same phoenix!
And we have worked hard at it these last few years to make that happen. We have opened our doors as Steve suggested, we pulled down the walls and made ourselves more accessible. Through the Church refurbishment, through the establishment of Kinross, through a new structure of pastoral care, through offering different kinds of worship, Church events etc. And to an extent this has worked. We are a vibrant, lively, busy place where so many things are happening that we get into each others way at times. On top of our weekly number at worship we get two thousand people a week through in various activities, the openings of exhibitions at Kinross have attracted a steady number of about 150 non Church people a month, the cafe is up and running again and is like a beehive. Our ecumenical activities, our outreach programs, our connections with the multi faith community around Melbourne. They are all different ways in which we have opened ourselves up to people outside the immediate core of our congregation, establishing rich missional contacts that have born fruit in many many ways.
We are growing! Not dying!
In discussion with Steve in the weeks after he came to preach I made it very clear to him we do not consider ourselves to be a dying phoenix! On the contrary!
There are some stark realities though. Realities that will impact our life as a Church no matter how well we are doing. And I will name two major ones which will have an enormous impact on the life of our Church as we know it, whether we like it or not:
The so called missing generations: People between 25 and 60 are missing from the UCA. They are not coming to worship and they are not committing themselves to the running of the Church either. They come to events, they are attracted by short running activities, they are interested in spirituality, they want to talk faith, but they dont want to maintain a cumbersome and often, to their mind, too bureaucratic institution. The same generations only pay for what they get. In the same way they dont commit to running the Church, they, in general, tend to not commit to paying for the Church. Especially if they cant see immediate results. Theyll pay $500 or more for a bible study weekend, but they wont be involved in planned giving. They want to be involved in worship, ritual, spirituality events, but they wont come to Church on a regular basis.
This trend is only getting stronger when we look at the under 25s. World youth day only an example of what sociologists of religion have been telling us for a long time: They want to be moved, they want BIG spiritual experiences, they like to be in big groups and they like to see modern media and technique applied to their worship in a big way, Hence the growth of places like Cross ways, hence them shrugging their shoulders when they look at our fumblings with one silly screen and one silly projector.
The second one I want to name is the huge shortage of ordained ministers in the UCA. Right now most Churches will not only not be able to afford a minister, most Churches will not be able to get one even if they are able and prepared to pay double! The Church as we know it is crumbling because the ordained clergy which once held the fabric of the Church together is simply not there. Why? Not only are the same generations we talked about before missing from the ranks of the ordained clergy, renumeration of ministers is such (and this will only get worse) that so called tent making ministry (having a day job in a different area to be able to afford a calling as a minister) is rapidly becoming the only way of being a minister if you dont have a partner with a paid job like me. And such ministry will often only be viable as a second career choice.
So these are some of the things that are going on, and we should rightly be unsettled about. Things that led me, in sermons in the last couple of weeks, to talk much about trust, and faith, and the necessity to overcome our fear, to resist the temptation of turning in, but to open ourselves up to what God may have in store for us.
I dont know about you, but I need faith and courage to face these realities.
What you might wonder does this have to do with the parable of the wheat and the weeds growing up together?
Well, as I see it, there is wheat and weeds in all of us, competing for growth, for light, wanting to win, to be strongest, to prevail.
Some of what is growing in each of us is wholesome and healthy and should be sustained and will bear fruit. Some however will need to die, will need be gotten rid of, be burned in the fire of Gods scrutiny. And that is not an easy process but a painful one. It is a process not only taking place in our personal life but in the same way, on a different level, in our Church community. Wheat and Weed is growing together and there is no way of telling which is which for us who are the field. Only God can tell. And somehow we will have to trust, in our lives and with the Church, that what will go was meant to go to make room for more fruit bearing growth. That what will be taken away, needed to be taken away, even if we despair at the loss of some of what is most precious to us. Even though it may cause us to grieve, as people of God, we will have to trust God who called life from even the darkest death and deepest loss many times before. Amen.