A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 25, 2015
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11 GNT
Some of you, no doubt, watched the President’s State of the Union Address this past Tuesday, what has become in our country an every January ritual. Well, to paraphrase what practically every U.S. President says, regardless of political affiliation, “Members and friends of this United Church, I am happy to report to you today that the state of the United Church is strong.” To elaborate upon the report I gave at the annual Congregational Meeting in December, there are many indicators that the United Church of Oak Ridge is thriving. I would like to highlight a few of those indicators this morning, and then also include a suggestion or two for maintaining the strength that we enjoy today.
- One indicator of the strength of this United Church is the growth in young families with children. Six years ago, it was common to have no more than four to six children come up for the children’s sermon, and no more than six to eight children in Sunday School. Those who regularly attend the 10 o’clock service know it is not unusual these days to have twelve to fourteen, or as many as 18, come up for the children’s sermon. Add to those our teenagers who also go to Sunday School, as well as those in the Nursery, and we may have as many as two dozen children on any given Sunday, which often constitutes 20-25% of the 10 o’clock attendance. Almost three dozen children participated in this year’s Christmas pageant, with a total attendance at that service of 170, the largest pageant attendance in the past seven years. Great thanks is due to Suzanne, our Director of Education, for the wonderful work she is doing; Janet Robertson, our Sunday School Superintendent; and our wonderful core of Sunday School teachers (Lauren Blair, Patricia Gebhart & Laura Hammons) and substitutes and Nursery attendants who are doing a superb job.
- A second indicator of the strength of this United Church is the quality of fellowship. There currently is a spirit of fellowship in this church that is unsurpassed in any other congregation I have served. It is a wonderful feeling to go to Coffee Hour and see people visiting, hanging around, and enjoying being together. Some Sundays people don’t seem to want to leave, which is a good thing. And the same is true for our Wednesday on the Hill dinners and programs. There is a wonderful spirit of fellowship and concern for one another.
I have seen churches in other places where when the benediction was given, all the members scrambled to their cars and were gone, without any hanging around to visit or socialize. Such is not a good sign. But it is a wonderful sign of a church’s health when you see a full fellowship hall of members visiting, showing interest in each other’s lives, and enjoying being together.
- Following closely as a third indicator of the United Church’s strength is the harmonious spirit that is evident. Everyone is eager to work together for the common good. We have had an excellent and active Church Board. Some of our Board Members put in enough hours for this church that they should be on the payroll. Our meetings are always harmonious, even if all members sometimes have a different opinion, and everybody is most interested in the common good. As far as I know, there are no cliques or factions in this congregation. Rather, there is the feeling that we are all on one big happy boat together (maybe the Love Boat? J )
- A fourth indicator of the United Church’s strength is our sound financial footing. Our offerings fell way down during the summer months, which put us several thousand dollars behind our projection. And it caused a wee bit of concern for our Church Board. We feared we might end the year with a sizeable deficit. But things picked up in November, and then we had a wonderful December financially, to the extent that we ended 2014 in good shape. But even if we had ended the year in the red, we have a contingency fund from previous years where any annual surplus goes that we could have fallen back on. We don’t want to draw on our contingency or special gift funds any more than we have to. It is always a good thing and morale booster when we end the year with more income than we paid out in expenses. But financially, we are in good shape.
- A fifth, but certainly not least, indicator of the strength of this United Church is its mission-mindedness. Something I often say, when I am trying to describe the United Church to those in the community who don’t know us, is the members of the United Church don’t just talk about, and certainly don’t argue about faith; rather, our members actually put faith into action in their daily lives by the way they live with integrity, volunteer, and serve in so many different ways: NHC Sunday morning worship services, the Ecumenical Storehouse, Methodist Medical Center volunteers, many avenues of outreach through Church Women United, working with ADFAC, sending a number of our members on the annual Nicaragua Mission Trip, supporting the Grace Lutheran Church Food Pantry, a number of our members who volunteer to help people file their Income Taxes, donating to several local and world mission and humanitarian projects—such are just a few of the ways we collectively and as individual members live out our faith and mission to the community and wider world. Like the apostle said of the Thessalonian Church, whenever I have the opportunity, I give thank for you and boast about you and the way you put your faith into action.
At this point I probably should clarify a point that was made at our annual congregational meeting. We noted that in the twelve months prior to our congregational meeting, we had given more than $24,000 to mission and humanitarian causes. I noted that $5,600 was funneled through my discretionary fund to support various mission endeavors. Since we did not adequately explain how that was, there was some concern that the $4,800 that comes from our Community & World Service Committee for my Discretionary Fund was included in the $5,600, which made it appear that it was being counted twice. But that was not the case. The additional $5,600 was money that came from outside the Community & World Service funds, a big chunk of it from our children and teenagers who raised funds for Heifer International and Second Harvest Food Bank of Knoxville. Other sources were special gifts for our Nicaragua missioners, donations for the December food baskets, and other special gifts people give to help folks with utilities and such. So all in all, our church does give something over $24,000 each year to many different causes that can rightly be seen as outside missions.
So, those are some of the positive indicators that the state of this United Church is strong. As I said at the congregational meeting, we are not just alive; in many ways we are thriving! As one of our Board members stated this past Wednesday, “Now is an exciting time to be a member of this church!”
But as I noted in the beginning, we also need to take steps to remain strong. A recent “Ministry Matters” article titled “The Secret Reason Why Good Churches Die” caught my eye. Now, as I have made evident, the United Church of Oak Ridge is thriving and far from dying. But we want to keep it that way, don’t we? So naturally I read the article to discover the secret reason that churches die. The author states that even churches who seem to be doing all the right things—caring about each other, holding inspiring services, doing their best to reach out to the world, having committed leadership and supportive lay members—can still die. Then the author mentions some of the theories that are often given for the demise of churches. But then she shares the “one hidden reason” she believes churches die: “The secret reason good churches die is they lack a vision.” But not just any vision, like reaching out in love to the community and world. No, she is talking about a new vision of yet unrealized results. Another one of our Board members touched on this during this past week’s Board meeting. It needs to be a vision that stretches the church beyond its current status quo and comfort zone. It needs to be a vision that involves some risk. She concludes the article by saying, “Envision a future that expands assumptions about what is possible . . . take risks. . .”1
A contemporary example of visioning might illustrate the point. Just days ago, we watched as Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell envisioned and achieved the impossible—something that had never before been done and most thought couldn’t be done. They scaled the 3,000-foot granite wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan using only their bare hands and their feet and safety ropes to catch them when they fell. It took them 19 days, sleeping and eating on the face of the granite wall, but they did it.
As a congregation, what might our vision—what might our wall of the future—be? How do we need to enlarge our vision so as to go where we have not gone before, in order to nurture and continue the strong health our congregation experiences today?
Yes, the state of our United Church is strong. May all of us together continue to work, and dream, and envision together, so that we remain strong and grow even stronger for the future. Amen.
1Rebekah Simon-Peter, “The Secret Reason Why Good Churches Die,” Ministry Matters, January 12, 2015.