I announced last week that I would be giving a “State of the Church Address” this morning in conjunction with our Annual Meeting. After our president’s address on Tuesday, I thought that perhaps two of our church leaders should sit behind me: one jovial and animated, and one bronzed and glum. I also thought that maybe we could ask Democrats and Republicans to sit on either side of the aisle, but I had the feeling that wouldn’t work out very evenly. Some glad-handing down the aisle at the start of the service would have been fun, but the truth is I’m not the president or even CEO of this auspicious organization known as Community United Church of Christ. In my pastoral role, though, I think is helpful to reflect from time to time on how we’re doing and what the future seems to hold for us.
I’d like to root my address today in the Gospel story from Mark. Jesus is walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he spots Simon and Andrew. He says them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That must have sounded like a good plan to Simon and Andrew since they immediately dropped their nets and followed after Jesus. Fishing for people became their life’s vocation and continued even when Jesus was no longer guiding them.
When you’re new to any kind of community, you notice things that others take for granted. I’ve tried to approach my work here like a missionary who realizes that every culture and people group is unique and requires a potential servant/leader to listen and ask questions. People in this church have been eager to share their lives and their perspectives on our community life and our ministry. It would be an understatement to say that I have enjoyed the last six months in Boulder with this congregation. This is a remarkable church. My ministry colleagues remind me how fortunate I am and tell me that my position is “highly coveted.” I remind them that coveting is a sin. J
I look at Community Church and I see a congregation of people who are independent and sometimes strong-minded but who also value interpersonal relationships and who caring deeply for one another. This church exhibits health in its programming and willingness to try new things without fear of failure, as well as in its financial stability. We are strong because we are led by our laity and are not pastor-dependent as many churches are. We care about the earth and maintain a small footprint for a church as sizeable and active as we are. We use words like “justice” and “peace” with eagerness and frequently find new ways to do justice and be peacemakers. We are curious about and open to the wisdom of many faith traditions, even as we identify as a Christian church and follow in the way of Jesus.
What I have just described is not normal if you judge normalcy by the norms of many congregations. We enjoy a rare and wonderful quality of life here, and I enormously grateful to be in this coveted position.
I’ve been thinking a bit about how to describe the kind or “type” of church we are. You might have heard of the term “big box church,” also known as the mega-church. I actually saw a big-box drugstore building in Fort Collins the other day that had been converted into a church. The pharmacy drive-through was still there, and it made me wonder what they used it for! Take-out Communion, maybe? Actually, it would make receiving offerings very convenient during the week. We know that the largest church in Colorado is just down the street and that it was actually carved out of multiple big-box retailers. Thousands attend each of four services each weekend. I’ve been to one myself. We are obviously not a big box church, and while a church that size would not be my own choice for worship, many obviously find something of great value there.
So if we’re not a big box, what are we? I like to think of ourselves as a “boutique” church. Boutiques are specialized shops or hotels or law firms or whatever that have a particular focus and provide a quality of service that might not be possible in a different or larger setting. I think that term might fit who we are, as long as the analogy isn’t taken too far.
The great thing about a boutique church is that it will always have a strong appeal for a certain sub-set of people. Our progressive theology would be highly disturbing for many persons looking for a church. But not all. There is a place for congregations offering a nuanced and open theological message, and there will always be some who seek that. Also, as a small-to-mid-sized congregation, we are able to provide a measure of personal care that is not always feasible in a large church.
There is also a down side, of course. (Isn’t there always a down side with everything good?!) Boutique churches are often so specific and unique in their approach that they are at risk of finding that trends in the larger community pass them by and they no longer capture the interest of potential members. We see highly specialized boutique stores close all the time in communities that can no longer support them. Just look at all the cupcake shops that have disappeared. Churches in general are at risk today, and the common wisdom out there is that large churches will get larger and small churches will get smaller in the years to come. It takes courage and creativity to be a church like ours and to thrive for the long term.
Another challenge of being a boutique is found in the word “exclusive.” Specialty stores, for example, love to be perceived as exclusive; as a destination for discerning shoppers with exquisite taste. The higher prices that go with that exclusivity are expected, and of course those without adequate means are out of luck.
All of our church’s values shout against the concept of being exclusive. We have been officially Open and Affirming for twenty years, proclaiming that all persons in all varieties are welcome and wanted here. We seem to do pretty well, in my estimation, at welcoming persons who come into our church. I can’t imagine a visitor saying that our church is cold or unfriendly or that no one spoke with them. I think we get the importance of welcoming others in the way that we ourselves have been welcomed.
I think our church is just about perfect. If we could just capture and more or less keep it the way it is, that would be great. Do you think that’s possible? I really don’t. It’s like anything else. As soon as you try to hold on to something you value, you start to lose it. I often wished that I could freeze time when my children were growing. How perfect it would have been to keep them at ages 6 and 8. But whatever doesn’t change or grow dies. A church is a living organism, not an object like a piece of beautiful that you can frame and enjoy. We don’t know what the future may look like, but trying to hold on to what is too tightly can keep us from experiencing the blessing of what’s next.
Last Sunday a new family came here for the first time and expressed how the uniqueness of this church was exactly what they had looked for as they visited church after church. I’m not sure how they missed us before then, but boutique churches tend to be like well-kept secrets. Friends who are active in our church invited the family to join them for worship and Sunday School.
Jesus said to Simon and Andrew, “I am going to make you fish for people.”
Every store of any size – big box or boutique needs to reach out to welcome new people. To go fishing. If you like to fish, and I know many of you do, you can’t expect the fish to come and find you. You have to put on your waders and have a personal fish encounter in the river. There are undoubtedly many people near us whose lives would be enriched by our fellowship if they only knew that we were here. Families with children, seniors living alone, empty nesters, LGBT singles and families, people of color, persons with great means and those with very little. We have much to offer then, and their gifts are needed by us if we are to be what we can become in the future. They are waiting for a personal invitation, and the relationship they already have with you is the means by which they will come.
I do not envision this ever becoming what might be considered a large church. I don’t think I’d really want that. We are an alternative to the other UCC in our own town, and part of what is attractive here is the more intimate scale and scope of what we do. That is excellent, but I do believe that being faithful to the message of Jesus means not just welcoming those who come, but actively inviting those around us. Being fishers of people.
At the point where we are stressed by space, if that ever happens, we will figure out what that requires us to do. There has been much discussion in this church about limitations of space. We know that when a church is filled to more than eighty percent of capacity on a regular basis, growth stops. People can’t tolerate the crowdedness, and those who are newest and less rooted tend to drift away. Sort of like an unintentional “catch and release” program. To use another metaphor, it’s a bit like an overinflated football. Too much air, and it will be necessary to relieve the stress until it is underinflated. Then there’s more room, and the cycle begins again. If we are overcrowded in the future, we will find creative ways to deal with that, but imagining that we can just freeze time and stay as we are is not faithful and it is not realistic.
The “state of the church” is strong. Leaders are leading, finances are encouraging, pledges are up significantly for 2015, programs are effective and new opportunities are being planned, staff are working cooperatively and effectively. There is a forward momentum that indicates that our fifty year old congregation is at its prime and is still finding its stride.
Many churches struggle with how to fill rows of empty pews, how to support bare bone budgets, how to fix aging and outdated buildings. Our challenge is different; it is how to remain a healthy community and never become too satisfied with who we are.
How are your fishing skills? As we step into our fifty-first year we will find ways to not only be a community that welcomes, but increasingly become a community that invites. Jesus said, follow me and I will make you fish for people. May we follow with joy and may we share the invitation we have received with others.