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And the Future of the Church is...?

by Mary Hammond
January 24, 2016

Matthew 11:28-29
Amos 5:16-17,21-24
Hebrews 12:1-3,12-13

The winds are blowing fiercely across this nation, and I am not speaking about the ecology of Climate Change in this regard. I am thinking about the climate in which followers of Jesus find themselves within our country. With her permission, let me quote some personal reflections of Ellen Broadwell, in response to questions I posed to the church googlegroup this week in preparation for worship today.

“There is so much going on with the ‘big C Church’ right now that I see the American Church going in the direction of the European Church (slowly disappearing). The evangelicals are so tangled up with the right wing of politics and have allowed themselves to be manipulated by cynical politicians, that our children, for the most part, no longer see [the church] as the hopeful answer to life’s important questions. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. American evangelicals tell us to hate the LGBTQ community, that an unborn child’s life is more important than the life of its mother, that the poor are responsible for their poverty and don’t deserve any relief, refugees are not welcome in this country of immigrants. For the most part, our children are looking at the Church and finding it hypocritical at best, and at worst, evil. I am so disgusted with the American Church right now. If politicians refuse to pander to right wing evangelicals, the Church can lose its facade, go underground, and regain its soul.”

Pastors these days often huddle together and converse about the future of the American church. Prospective clergy are warned in seminary not to expect positions after graduation that both pay off their student loans and provide adequate support to sustain themselves. They are told that the church of tomorrow will not look like that of today, and, as future  leaders, they are on the cusp of this radical change. In fact, we are also on the cusp of this change.

In one recent conversation Steve and I had with ministerial colleagues, a young pastor commented, “I’m not into all this hand-wringing about the ‘future of the Church.’ What will the American church look like down the road? It will look like ‘the Church.’ The Church will not disappear, but it will just look a lot more like the church of the first three centuries than of the last several hundred years.”

I think this is what Ellen is getting at in her comments. Rapid transitions require much of us, and it is critical to reflect together on some of the characteristics we need as a congregation to face such challenges. The decades before us truly cry out for the Church to embrace a calling to be a Place of Refuge, Resistance, and Resilience. While not exhaustive, these “three ‘R’s’” provide valuable guidance for moving forward.

Let’s begin with “a Place of Refuge.” How many of you here today have found PCC to be such a place, either when you first arrived or through some personal crisis or transition? There is no need for a show of hands, but is there anyone here who would like to share briefly about that experience and what it meant to you? [Two people shared personal testimonies, one about first visiting the church, the other about a time of family crisis].

There are a lot of people that feel a need to flee from the Church, from its institutional largess, exclusive practices and policies, legalistic mores, distorted theologies, and even mean-spirited individuals. But what about fleeing to the church, discovering in its midst a community of love, hope, and trust–a People who laugh together and cry together, who seek to practice compassion and justice in the wider world? We never know who might be looking for refuge, or when. We do not know when we ourselves might need it, until something happens. To foster a Place of Refuge speaks to those beyond the congregation about who we try to be for one another, who Jesus is among us, and who we seek to become in the world.

Secondly, what does it mean to be a Place of Resistance? Such a community seeks to live as both a sign and witness to the Reign of God, a counter-sign among the Kingdoms and Empires of the Earth. Steve often reminds us that the primary purpose of prophecy is not so much to predict the future as to contradict the present. And there is a lot of present to contradict. Our mass media culture spews hatred and division everywhere. Further, it too often paints both Christianity and Evangelicalism with one broad, intolerant brush. This does disservice to many other Christians and self-described Evangelicals who distinguish themselves from fundamentalists.

Any Church serious about becoming a Place of Resistance must insist on being tethered to both the Way and ways of Jesus. To me, these are the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Hearts must focus on a vision of the entire Community of Creation living in harmony and shalom--with God, one another, ourselves, and the earth.

Finally, what are the fruits of Resilience? As we reflect on this 150th Anniversary of the church, I am so struck by the tenacity and perseverance of our forebears. In 1866, a small group of people formed a new congregation. They mustered up the financial means to construct a church meeting house. A half a century later, Oberlin College purchased the land, razed the building, and offered the congregation the location where the current building now stands. I often wonder what those meetings were like, as the congregation–people like you and me--made those momentous decisions to sell the property.

During the 1920's, another period of massive cultural transition, the church faced a huge fundamentalist-modernist split. Those were the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Darwinism, heated theological debates about teaching creationism vs. evolution. Many folks left the church; a remnant stayed. Another fundamentalist-modernist split occurred in the 1940's. During the 1960's, the congregation boldly retained an activist pastor who was fired from a second local church he pastored at the same time. At issue was Rev. Michael Morse’s strident opposition to the Vietnam War.

Fifteen years of retired part-time clergy served the church from 1964-79. The community dwindled to “eleven people plus Jesus,” as Moderator Bob Thomas described it. The church contemplated closing its doors, but before that happened, Bob had a vision. He convinced the other members to make one last effort to remain together. The church secured two years of financial assistance from the Ohio Baptist Convention and hired Steve Hammond fresh out of seminary as a full-time pastor. If the congregation was not completely self-supporting after those two years, then it would in fact close. Nearly 37 years later, here we are today. Thanks be to God!

The fruits of resilience are all over this 150 year history, even amid times of conflict, uncertainty, and rapid social change. Let’s not sugar coat the story. Real people struggled, embraced risks, and took stands. They faced challenges by accepting the need to change. The congregation grew and contracted, grew again and contracted again, yet continued to stay the course.

To offer a haven of Refuge, Resistance, and Resilience is a calling, not just for PCC, but for the wider Church in our country and world.  The United States has never been a Christian nation. Who can honestly describe this country at any time as a Christian nation, when it has been built out of the ravages of colonization and slavery, on the backs of flesh and blood human beings? Such myopia is frightening, deadly amnesia.

Today’s Church must be filled with a community of Truth-tellers. As the Psalmist attests, we “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” from a place of exile.

Challenging, exciting, and perilous days are before us. And you know what? The Church is often at its best in times such as these. Amen.

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