Where Two or Three are Gathered

I Peter 2:1-5
April 28, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Like most occupations, the ministry has collegial associations which meet on a periodic basis supposedly to give clergy an opportunity to share ideas and provide support to one another. My first encounter with such a group came when I was a nervous new minister of the tender age of 26 and I was invited to attend the monthly meeting of the Allegany-Cattaraugus American Baptist clergy, or as they called themselves, the Alley-Cats. The presiding minister of the group, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Olean, sent me a postcard with the time and date, and added, “At the meeting, each of us will be sharing reflections from any reading we have been doing.” At that time, I was working my way through Thomas Merton’s book Faith and Violence and wanting to ensure that I didn’t babble in front of the other seasoned ministers, I jotted down some notes and quotes from the book that I thought were particularly interesting.

Since all of the ministers that attended that gathering have since moved to new churches, passed on, or in one case, been defrocked, I think it will be all right for me to be honest about my reaction to the discussion that day. There were about a dozen of us – all men except for me and a Christian Ed director — and we met at the Olean First Baptist Church. The host Pastor called the meeting to order and then admitted that he hadn’t had time to do any reading that month so he would pass and let the next person share his reflections. The next minister said, “Oh, I forgot we had an assignment so I pass too.” The next in the circle confessed that his only reading that month had been an article about church sound equipment so he passed as well. On it went around the circle with no one having anything to share or for the most part not having done any reading at all in the past month. I quietly secreted my lengthy notes in my pocket, embarrassed to have thought we might actually engage in theological discussion, and politely passed as well. When the host pastor saw that no one had any books to discuss, he breezily moved on to the real agenda for the meeting.

“Hey, we had a pretty good Sunday last week,” he trumpeted. “170 people in worship!“ The others, who had had nothing to say on the subject of theology, suddenly became effusive as the group erupted in excited comparisons of church attendance, offering collected, building budgets, and Sunday school enrollment. Like rams slamming heads, the ministers pummeled each other with numbers, each trying to best the others while I suspect, at the same time secretly worrying that their bluster was transparent. With the exception of the Olean church, most of the other Baptist churches in the region represented that day were small country churches and like small country churches everywhere, they were… well… small and it doesn’t take a psychology degree to recognize that these pastors’ obsession with numbers covered obvious insecurities. Deep down they believed that the better you are as a pastor, the bigger your church will be, and so they scrutinized those numbers and rationalized those numbers and judged the quality of their ministry and the success of their churches by the numbers.

“How many people do you have in worship? How big is your budget? How many programs do you have going on during the week? How big is your choir? How many people on your staff? How many souls did you save this week?”

Today is the last Sunday day of our official program year. What do the numbers say about the success of our church? Well, we average about 60-70 people in worship on Sunday which is down a little from last year. That count by the way, includes the children and musicians and the lay leader and any dogs that might wander into the sanctuary on a given Sunday because like every small church, we include everybody we can to make the numbers look acceptable. We look around in worship and worry that the graying heads indicate an aging congregation but the reality is that the demands on families’ time these days are so exhausting that many of our younger families are home on Sundays trying to recuperate from school activities, Scouts, ballet, music lessons, and sports obligations during the week. Some Sundays our numbers are so low they make me think of the story of three women who were chatting about the churches as they quilted together. One woman said, “Our church is so small we can serve communion with one slice of bread.”

The second said, “Our church is so small, we don’t always have four ushers to pass the offering plate.”

The last woman said, “Our church is so small that when the minister says, ‘Dearly beloved,’ I blush.”

About 80% of protestant churches in America have fewer than 100 members and most of those average 30-40 people in worship. Though we are on the upper level of the category, we are according to all of the numbers, a small church and we have been a small church since 1922 when a handful of people decided to gather a group of Sunday worshipers and call it the Union University Church. People tell me stories about days in the 50s and 60s when we had two worship services to accommodate all of the people but if you look at the records from back then, you will see that most of those worshippers were students and the core constituency in those glorified days was only about 90 members, higher than today but hardly mammoth and still well within the “small church” category. We are a small church in a small town and have always been a small church in a small town, and if we evaluate ourselves on the basis of numbers, we will always fail the test. In fact, to put things into perspective, the description of the church that I just gave you a few minutes ago — of the graying heads in our pews and the erratic attendance of our families due to all of their obligations — is a direct quote from a sermon that I wrote in 2002, 17 years ago! I happened across that sermon when I was filing things this past week and was bemused to realize how little things have changed. I could lift the sentence directly from that sermon when my now 32 year old son was in ninth grade and no one would know that it was an ancient tale because it feels just as true today. We worried then and we worry now because our memories are short. We forget that our struggle is a chronic one because small churches always live on the edge of survival. The surplus we are enjoying in our budget right now might very well disappear next year and the loss of one family from our rolls can mean the loss of 5% of our congregation. If we evaluate ourselves on the basis of numbers, we will always fail the test.

Moreover, our struggle is not unique; what is unique is the fact that we are more or less holding steady in a changing environment. A new Gallop poll found that while most people continue to claim a belief in God, their involvement in organized religion is declining at an accelerating rate. In an article for Ministry Matters, Bob Smietana of Religious News Service cites several social scientists who attribute the decline to a wide spread deinstitutionalization of younger people.

“Americans are less likely to belong to anything … [and this is the case as well with religion.] The vast majority of [Americans] think we should believe in something….They’re not afraid of the label of religion, they’re just reluctant to engage in the activity… That ties into the larger problem in America where people aren’t joining stuff as much as they used to.” 1 Over the last fifty years, Americans have been engaging less and less in communal social activities whether they be bowling leagues, Rotary clubs, the Lions, Boy Scouts, gardening clubs, or book groups. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone says the decline in church membership shares “almost exactly the same pattern of ups and downs” as engagement in secular civil society, and it’s likely much less about religion and spirituality than it is about a general disengagement with organized social activities. 2

In addition, many younger Americans have replaced civic engagement with participation in online “communities.” In 2002, for example, when I wrote those words about our erratic attendance, we had just started our church website and for the first time made my sermons available online. Today, I not only post printed copies of my sermons every week but also post a recording of my sermon which can be accessed on your computer or downloaded right to your phone through iTunes. According to the statistics page on my podcast server, in the past four months there have been 3000 downloads of my sermons, which works out to about 188 downloads per week! Now, I don’t honestly believe that there are 188 people out there listening to my sermon every week. I don’t know who’s downloading all of those sermons. Maybe the bulk of those weekly downloads are by other ministers stealing — I mean, looking for ideas — but I do know that some of the downloads are by real people because they have told me. Our attendance numbers cannot reflect the real reach of this church and all of the people it touches through our website, our email newsletters, and our podcasts.

Because of this, some religious leaders have suggested that the best path forward for the church is to become completely disembodied and go all virtual and it is tempting to think about belonging to a virtual church that wouldn’t require the yearly headache of trying to find people to serve on boards, or the worry over organ repair and sagging soffits, or the constant plea for Sunday School teachers and people to provide coffee hour and to staff the community kitchen. For all of their appeal, however, virtual communities cannot replace real communities; the body of Christ requires an actual body — or bodies — to demonstrate the depth of Christ’s love to others. I participate in an online art forum and it is an active and supportive group, providing access to a global art community that was not possible before the advent of the internet. I have talked with people on the forum who are from Alaska, Italy, Ottawa, and the Philippines, marveling in our ability to connect across the globe. The forum was founded by three art teachers who are so well respected that people on the forum jokingly call them the Holy Trinity, and so it was that last week when the wife of one of those teachers died unexpectedly at the age of 51, people on the forum were heart struck and poured out their condolences to him online. One comment, however, stayed with me: an artist in Italy said to the grieving widower,  “I’m so very, very sorry…. For what it helps, [we are thinking of you] though I know close real life friends are much more important at this time.”

As much as people on that forum feel close to one another, this woman summarized the issue with online community clearly — virtual friends cannot match real life friends. Online communities can’t bring a meal to you when you go into the hospital. Online communities can’t hear the sadness in your voice, or see the distracted look in your eyes, and say to you, “Do you want to get a cup of coffee and talk?” Online communities can’t provide role models for your children or work side by side with you on a service project. You may listen to this church’s podcast every week but if you stop listening, the only one who will know is an automated server somewhere that will mark one less download that week. To all of you podcast listeners out there, how often I have wanted to say to you, “I’m glad we can be here with you but how I wish you could be here with us.”

And maybe all of you podcast listeners feel the same way. One social scientist said that the deinstitutionalization of America is not a good trend because “People who attend church have more connections, more friends, more support in tough times, and more of a sense of purpose. Families that attend church are stronger.” And the good news is that trends often reverse course and at least one social scientist believes that it’s possible that “the millennials will lead a renewal of civil society. There’s a decent chance,” he says, “that we’re on the verge of a major change in American society.”

In the meantime, however, we who continue to manifest the church to one another and to society with our physical presence are called to stay the course, and to remind ourselves over and over again that numbers do not and never have defined the church of Christ. Jesus said to his disciples, “When two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” The church as articulated by Jesus is a gathering of people who are determined to serve Christ with whatever resources they have at hand at that moment. If they have 2000 members and half a million dollar budget then they use that membership and those dollars to do ministry in the best way they know how; but likewise, if the church consists of five people pooling their 20 bucks, then those five people use their time and money to serve Christ in the best way they know how. We are fortunate in this church to be able to afford a full-time minister, two musicians, a secretary, and well maintained facilities but it is not those things that make us the Union University Church. In fact, this congregation has not always had those things but that has not stopped this church from doing ministry. What makes us the Union University Church is the weekly gathering of two or more who come together in the name of Christ, who support one another in prayer, and who work together to alleviate the needs of a suffering world. That that gathering takes place in this sanctuary is incidental. That that gathering takes place under my leadership is incidental. That that gathering takes place to the accompaniment of an organ, a piano, or as it did today, music from my iPhone, is incidental. That this gathering is a gathering of 100 or 10 is incidental. The purpose of the church is to serve Christ with whatever we have at hand at any given moment and it is only on the basis of that service that we will evaluate our success as a church.

And so as we come to the end of this church program year, we look not at numbers but at the fact that in this past year, our members give their time to the area Food Pantry, and assembled Christmas boxes for families in need, and served meals at the Wellsville Community kitchen; that we cleaned the creek together, and made lap robes for Hospice care, and brought music to the residents at Wellsville Manor; that we welcomed Christ’s birth with carols and fellowship and cupcakes, and stood in the mud on Sherman Road to great Christ’s resurrection; that we cared for one another when we were sick and prayed for one another when we were in need, and put up with one another when no one else would put up with us; that we gathered week after week to give thanks to God and sing our praises. So at the end of the program year, how would I rate our ministry together?

Pretty good. Let’s go do some more.

Footnotes:

1. https://www.ministrymatters.com/teach/entry/9615/gallup-number-of-americans-who-belong-to-a-church-or-house-of-worship-plummets

2. Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”