A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 23, 2012
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NRSV
Reading from Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion
Well, with the arrival of autumn, change is in the air! We are already experiencing cooler nights and cooler days. The sounds of nature—the insects and birds, for example—are changing as well. By just looking out across the fields we can see signs of change as some of the vegetation is beginning to take on a different appearance as it moves toward dormancy. Pretty soon the foliage will be transformed into glorious colors—orange, red, yellow, and brown. It would be difficult to not notice the changes that autumn ushers in with its arrival.
The Preacher, in that classic and familiar text from Ecclesiastes, reminds us that nothing stays the same. Change is the way of the universe. There is a time to celebrate a birth, but sooner or later there comes a time to memorialize that same life when death comes calling. There is a time to plant seeds in the earth, but then there comes a time to pull up those plants and toss them in the fire or compost pile. There is a time to build a beautiful, stately edifice, then there comes the day when it is time to tear down that edifice that is decaying and run-down. And on the Preacher goes reminding us that that nothing ever stays the same. Everything in life is in a constant state of flux, continual change.
Even here in the city of Oak Ridge, we see this change principle at work. It was revealed just a couple of weeks ago that dozens of houses and a couple of motels will be demolished to make way for a new Kroger Marketplace. At one time, those dozens of homes were fresh and new and were the dream homes of dozens of families. And once upon a time, those two motels were fresh and new and inviting beacons of light for weary travelers. But things change, and they must go. Constant change is the way of the world.
Each of us is changing as well, whether we realize it or want to admit it or not. Some of us may feel the forces of change more than others. But let’s not talk about the physical changes that some of us are noticing—bodies that get tired easier, backs that stay sore longer, hair that is changing colors and leaving faster than it is coming in. Let’s not talk about that kind of change. But just as our physical bodies are constantly changing, so is our thinking. What I really want to note at this point is how my own thinking and theology have changed drastically over the years, and continue to change as each month passes. The more I read, the more my theology changes. That is the way it is. Philosophy, theology, religious belief and practice, and even the church are in a constant state of change.
Speaking of which, I just finished a book by Diana Butler Bass titled Christianity After Religion. Bass is a church historian and analyzer of contemporary religion and one of today’s leading experts on the state of the American church and the changes that the American church is currently undergoing. Bass notes, “Christianity, especially Christianity in the United States, is changing” (7). “In the last decade, Christianity in the United States has undergone tectonic shifts that have altered the nation’s religious landscape” (12). “We live in a time of momentous historical change that is both exhilarating and frightening. Christianity itself is becoming something different from what it was” (31). Christianity is “shifting away from being a belief-centered religion toward an experiential faith” (109). “Where Christianity is now vital,” Bass reveals, “it is not really seen as a ‘religion’ anymore. It is more of a spiritual thing” (7).
In studying a number of churches across our nation, Bass has been able to identify the characteristics of growing, thriving congregations. And she has come up with a definition of Religion, which described most churches of the past, and a definition of Spirituality, which describes most thriving churches of the present. Under the heading of Religion are such descriptive words as institution, organization, rules, order, dogma, authority, beliefs, buildings, structure, defined, principles, hierarchy, orthodoxy, boundaries, and certainty. But then under Spirituality are such descriptive words as experience, connection, transcendence, searching, intuition, prayer, meditation, nature, energy, open, wisdom, inner life, 12-steps, inclusive, and even doubt. These lists might make for a good small-group study.
But many of us may say, “But I don’t see anything different about the church. It looks the same as it always did to me.” Those of us who attend here at the Chapel on the Hill are sort of insulated from the rapid changes that are taking place in the American church. The percentage of Americans attending church regularly is declining. Consequently, the attendance at many American congregations is declining, and many churches close their doors every month. Even some of the once successful mega churches, like Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, are struggling. They went into bankruptcy and sold their building to the Catholic Diocese. Other churches are changing the ways they do worship and other programs. New technology and rapid changes in society and culture result in changes in religious life as well.
But the truth is, many of us are uncomfortable with any changes in our lives. The arrival of autumn can serve as an apt metaphor for this. I have heard some say, “I am ready for fall! I am tired of the long, hot summer.” Or, “I am so glad that fall is here. It is my favorite time of the year!” And then I have heard others say just the opposite: “I hate to see fall come. It is the saddest time of the year. The leaves will be falling off the trees, leaving them stark and bare, and then winter will be here before we know it.” It might be interesting if we asked for a show of hands poll today and asked how many of you are glad fall is here, and then how many of you are sad that fall is here. Some of us welcome change, and some of us do not.
But then, and as Bass points out, some people who accept and welcome changes in other areas of life are uncomfortable with changes in their faith and want their religion to stay the same. Change anything in the world that you want to change, but just don’t mess with my religion and faith! Such is the attitude of many. But as Bass observes, “Faith can neither insulate from nor prevent change. Instead, faith is swept up in the waves of global change, as every aspect of human experience is undergoing profound rearrangement” (6).
The reality is, if we want to continue to be relevant and reach out to younger generations of families, we have to keep up with societal changes, at least to some extent. And before anyone gets too nervous, let me say that I am not proposing any high tech changes to our worship service. But we do need to stride forward some in other areas, like re-doing and updating our church website which is grossly out of date, adding new links and video clips of sermons, children’s sermons, and other areas of church life. I am happy to say we have a couple who have agreed to take over and revamp our church website, and the process has already begun. We need to start making use of such things as YouTube. And we need to become more proactive in reaching out to and serving youth and families with young children. A proposal currently is in the works to do that, and if or when you have opportunity to support it, I hope you will.
As I indicated, I am not proposing any changes in the way we do worship at this point. The aim is to make better and expand some of the things we are already doing so as to better relate to and better serve the younger generations who not only are our church’s future, but our church’s present as well.
There is an insightful story about Lyman Beecher, the great Congregational preacher and father of Preacher Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Lyman was minister of the Congregational Church in Litchfield, Connecticut, in the first part of the 19th century. A debate arose in the congregation about whether they would install a wood stove in the meeting house. Up until this time they had never had any heat at all in the meeting house. If it were cold, they just came to worship thickly bundled.
Well, some in the congregation thought that a wood stove would be a vast improvement, while others were dead set against this new technological intrusion into their sacred space. Eventually, however, the pro-stove group prevailed. The first Sunday after the new stove was installed some of those who had opposed it complained that the meeting house was too hot for them. The men started taking off their jackets and loosening their shirt collars. Some of the women were furiously fanning themselves, trying to stay cool. Lyman Beecher entered the pulpit and said, “You will notice that this is the first Sunday we have our new wood stove.” And then a short pause. And then Beecher said, “And next week we will put some wood in it and start a fire.”
As Diana Butler Bass reminds us, the question is not If change is in the air for the American church. That question has already been settled. The question is whether we can allow ourselves to see and be open to the change that is in the air in the American church and move with some of the changes or dig our heels in and be left behind. So the challenge for me as Pastor and those of who are church leaders is to wisely discern how to navigate with the changes the world thrusts upon us, holding onto that which is good but being open to change that would also be good for a people known as the United Church. We never want to change things just for the sake of change. We are only interested in change when it is good for all concerned. Amen.
Cited: Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion. New York: HarperOne, 2012.