The following contains excerpts of a sermon preached at First Church of Christ, Congregational, 1652, Farmington, CT, By the Rev. Dr. Ned W. Edwards, Jr.
May 17, 2009
I am coming out of the pulpit and taking off my robe, and that is a change. We need to talk honestly about change today. We are experiencing the kind of change in our church and in our world that was described by one theologian as the “shaking of the foundations.” And in the midst of these major changes I have had eye-opening, transformative, “Aha!” experiences that I can only verbalize as resurrection. And I need to share those with you and be completely honest with you.
One of these revelations comes from the book, The Emerging Church: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle. This book gave me a larger perspective, a perspective that all Christians need right now. It opened my eyes to where we are, not only as a local church, but as a universal church as well.
We all have felt that something has changed over the past years. The Church, this church and others, are not as they used to be. But this is not particular to us. Something is different about Christianity itself. Think about some of the changes that have occurred just in the past 15 years that I have been your pastor.
1. Consider the latest polls:
a. Half of all US adults have changed religions.
b. New England is now the least religious part of the country.
c. More people now say they are not affiliated with any church than at any other time in history.
2. People have moved from being “Religious” to being “Spiritual.”
3. And consider these cultural shifts:
a. 15 years ago only one sport practiced on Sunday mornings, now 11 do.
b. There is now a need for Evolution Sunday because the perception of Christianity has changed to be anti-intellectual.
c. And aggressive atheism has taken on a new public life.
How many of you have felt one or more of those changes? And we all know how hard change is; especially in the “Land of Steady Habits;” especially for Congregationalists. Do you know how many Congregationalists it takes to change a light bulb? WHAT? CHANGE?!!
D.H. Lawrence pointed out that what people fear most are new experiences, mainly because they displace old experiences. And in our day and time we are displacing like crazy.
Did you know that every 500 years the Church has a giant rummage sale, selling off its unwanted and outdated ideas, and going through a major change? Think about it. 500 years ago the Reformation took place and Protestantism as we know it was invented. 500 years earlier was the Great Schism where there were 3 Popes and the Oriental, Orthodox and Roman churches split from one another, changing Christianity in the process. 500 years before that the Fall of Rome took place, changing Christianity into a monastic religion. And 500 years before that Jesus lived and the fall of the Temple took place, ushering in Christianity itself. If we go back 500 years before that we arrive at the Babylonian Captivity, and 500 more takes us to the establishment of the Davidic dynasty and the building of the first temple.
Every 500 years a major change takes place. And guess what? WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF ONE OF THOSE 500-YEAR CHANGES! We are in the midst of something much larger than a recession. And it is disconcerting. It is shaking the foundations of our very being, the earth is changing, the sea is roaring and foaming. And we are called to be still and know that God is God.
But instead of being still, we have been doing everything in our power to resist this change. We think that if only did the things we did in the 1950’s when the church was thriving, we would be OK. If only we went back to basics, back to the way things USED to be. But there is no going back. We live in the most technologically advanced, computer-literate, connected age in the history of the world. We live in an age of Globalization, Information, and Technology.
But the church has not kept up with these movements. One person said it this way: “We are trying to reach the iPod generation with an 8-track tape mentality.” How many of you know what an 8-track tape is? See how out of touch we are? And how many of you know the 7 last words of the church: WE’VE NEVER DONE IT THAT WAY BEFORE!
Raise your hand if you are under 20. Under 30. Under 40. Do you know what that means? We are one to two generations away from extinction. Young people are not joining our churches. They are not interested. And in order to survive the future, we must adapt. Christianity must change, and it is changing. Change is inevitable, but progress is optional.
Can you imagine what the Christianity of the future might look like? Based on what is being sold off in the current rummage sale, Phyllis Tickle offers a possible glimpse.
- It will cast a wide net. It will be an inclusive church. It will offer Jesus’ radical welcome to those who have not felt welcome in the church before, including youth, young adults, gays and lesbians, those who are “Spiritual but not religious,” and those who aren’t sure what they believe, if anything.
A national survey of youth said that they find the Church judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay. Young people see the world differently than we do, just ask Kim. The church of the future will be genuine, honest and inclusive, casting a wide net.
- It will cast that wide net because it will be based not on a physical space, but on a network of people. We will be meeting, sharing, talking and experiencing our faith in a variety of ways, much like many are doing over the internet.
I have a very disconcerting prediction. I predict that in another 15-25 years these pews will not be here. And it will be for one of 2 reasons. The hopeful reason is that we will have realized that in order to incarnate our network of people, to have more participatory worship, our straight, hard, non-movable pews will not work. We will need new possibilities, just as we did in 1836, 1901 and 1957 when we remodeled.
The sad reason that there will not be pews is that the church will have become so irrelevant, so far behind, that it will become a museum, probably run by Yale University as an Amistad Museum. Lots of people will come to this building; not for a hopeful future, but to learn about the past.
- It will be highly participatory. In other words, it will not be the way we do church today where I talk and you listen. It will be interactive, active, responsive, and behavior based. It will be about transforming the world, making a difference.
Did you know that any one of the four elementary schools in Farmington gives more to missions than we do as a church, and engages a larger percentage of its children and families in community service? We are getting out-churched by the community. We aren’t keeping up, we’re being left in the dust. Other institutions and groups are doing what churches used to do – including malls.
The young people of today have the ability and the desire to change the world. And what do we do as a church? We do a little of that, but spend most of our time, and certainly all of our Annual Meetings, arguing about a budget and process and bylaws and power and who’s in and who’s out and who is important. And we wonder why young people don’t want to attend our meetings or get involved. They want to transform the world.
- It will look more like early Christianity, before Constantine, before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Back when it was not dominant. It will be more about mystery, paradox and story rather than belief. It will be much more holistic, more Jewish. There will be no litmus test of doctrine.
Christianity is changing. The question is: Will we change with it, knowing God, the Lord of hosts, is with us? Knowing that love is the way? Change is inevitable, but progress is optional.