A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 23, 2014
Matthew 16:13-19 ESV
While reading the latest issue of the Congregationalist Magazine, I was looking over the list of all the workshops that will be offered at the summer annual meeting of the National Association of the Congregational Christian Churches, which will be held in Omaha, Nebraska. One workshop in particular caught my eye. It is titled, “When Is it Time to Close Down My Church?” The short description of the workshop included, “Sadly, some of our churches are currently on life support.” What a sad thought to ponder, I said to myself. As depressing as the thought is, there are hundreds of American congregations on life support. In other words, they are just barely hanging on, and many, no doubt, are being kept on life support longer than they should be. Despite the pronouncement in Matthew that Jesus would build his church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, the truth is individual churches do die all the time.
Now, let me make one thing clear from the beginning: The United Church of Oak Ridge is NOT on life support. We are a vital, stable, and in many ways growing congregation. So there is no suggestion that we are a dying church. But the point I will strive to make in the course of this sermon is we want to keep us that way. In other words, we want to take steps to maintain our congregational vitality.
But when I read that workshop title, it reminded me of a country music song by George Jones. Some of you, no doubt, have heard it. And the rest of you have probably figured out by now the title of that song—“I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair.” Some of the words go like this:
“I don’t need your rockin’ chair/ Your Geritol or your Medicare
Well, I still got neon in my veins/ This gray hair don’t mean a thing.”
Then, when I thought about George’s hit song, I thought the same thing about this United Church: we don’t need your rockin’ chair . . . This gray hair don’t mean a thing. Our congregation is not ready for retirement. To say it again, in spite of our age, the United Church is a vital, stable, and in many ways, growing congregation.
However, I kept thinking about that workshop title about churches on life support. And it caused me to ask the question: What are the factors that contribute to dying churches? What are the dynamics, the church illnesses, that result in churches losing members, ending up on life support, and eventually dying? I went to the Internet, and one of the articles that popped up was “Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 11 Things I Learned.” The author, Thom Rainer, is a church consultant. He tells the story of a congregation that called him to be their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time he was called in as a consultant to tell them what was wrong in 2003, their average attendance had fallen to 83. Rainer spent three weeks with them, getting to know them and diagnosing their problems. His prognosis was they would close their doors in five years. As it turned out, they held on for ten years, the last five years on life support, at which time the congregation ceased to exist. So Thom and the church member who had funded his study pieced together an “autopsy,” as he calls it. Now, Thom’s report is written in the negative, the things the church did wrong. I want to turn it around and frame the points in the positive. In other words, as my sermon title suggests, I hope to briefly share some things that a church can do to enable it to remain vital or alive.
- The church should look like the community around it. In other words, the people who attend should be characteristic of the people who live in the neighborhood. The problem with the church that Thom Rainer studied was the community around them changed, but the higher middle class church members had no desire to reach out to the new residents.
- The church must have community-focused ministries. In other words, it is important to be engaged in mission and outreach that impacts the local community and neighborhood in which the church is located. The deceased church made no attempts to reach the community where they were.
- As a congregation, it is important to live in the present rather than the past. The church that died put all of its money and energies into memorials to the extent that it became an obsession with them. They had memorial plaques on everything—tables, chairs, rooms, anywhere a bronze or brass plaque could be attached. Now, Rainer points out that he has no criticism with memorials in a church. They are important, and they have their place. But memorializing everything to the exclusion of vital ministries in the present proves to be detrimental to a church’s health and well-being.
- The percentage of the annual budget for members’ needs should be kept as low as possible. The percentage of the annual budget for outreach and mission should be as high as possible. At the time of the studied church’s death, the percentage of their budget for self needs was 98 percent.
- There has to be “evangelistic outreach” to new members. Now, before you panic, I don’t mean knocking on doors in attempts to save people. I simple mean there has to be a willingness on the part of church members to share the good news of what their church is doing with friends, neighbors, co-workers, community acquaintances, and so on. That is really the way a church grows.
- It is important to focus on what is best for the church and the community as a whole, and not on what members want. In the deceased church, the members started having more and more arguments about what they personally wanted.
- Long pastorates are better than shorter ones. The deceased church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational.
- It is important for a church to pray together. The church studied rarely prayed together in its dying years. In its last three years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service.
- Churches must have a clarity as to why they exist. In the deceased church, there was no vision, no mission, no sense of purpose.
- Churches must live for today, and not in the past. The members of the church studied idolized a day gone by, the time in the 1970’s when they were at their peak. They longed to return to the past.
- Churches must avoid deteriorating, run-down facilities. The church members of the dying church were unable to see the gradual deterioration of their building. They were unable to see their facility with “outsider [or newcomer] eyes.”
Okay, so how does all this information apply to the United Church of Oak Ridge? On the positive side, for the most part, our congregation looks like the neighborhood around us. We are involved in several community-focused ministries and forms of outreach, such as Ecumenical Storehouse, NHC services, several of our members serving as hospital volunteers, support of a local food pantry, and so on. The percentage of our annual budget for outreach and mission is pretty good for a church our size, around $30,000 last year, or close to 15%. All of our board members, and all members of our church at large, I think, want and work for what is best for our church and don’t have personal agendas. This congregation is known for long pastorates, which is a good thing. And we have a pretty good understanding of our mission and purpose.
When it comes to areas of possible improvement, while we do take pride in the historical significance of this Chapel on the Hill, we also realize we can’t put all our eggs in our historical significance basket as we seek to attract new, young families who come looking, not for historical significance necessarily, but an active community of faith that offers something for children and to help families live in today’s world. We realize we cannot live in the past when this church had hundreds of active members, but we must live in the present and address present day realities and needs. One area where we might stand the most improvement is our “evangelistic outreach” to new people. We have a few members who have already been wonderful evangelists, responsible for new families joining us by inviting them to services and other activities such as vacation Bible school and the Women’s Circle meetings. That is the most important thing that all of us can do to help ensure the future vitality of our congregation. And finally, it is important that we who have been here so long train ourselves to look at our buildings as outsiders or newcomers do, and we not let our buildings look run-down and outdated.
To reiterate what I said in the beginning, the United Church is a vital, stable, and in some ways growing congregation. But all of us, I am sure, want to keep it that way. We want to be able to proclaim to the community the sentiment in that George Jones song: We here at the United Church don’t need your rockin’ chair. As a congregation, we have no intention of retiring. We want to let the community know that we are alive and well! Amen. Cited: Thom Rainer, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church.” 24 April 2013.