This is my second opportunity to deliver a “State of the Church Address” here at Community UCC. I am especially grateful for the year that was 2015. At some point during that year, I think I went from being the “new pastor” to just being “the pastor” and we settled into real life and ministry with one another, which is great.
I believe one of my jobs here is to listen and watch carefully and identify overarching themes that are important for our long-term well-being. That’s what I’d like to focus on today. In doing so, I’m drawing from today’s Epistle reading from the Lectionary that describes the church as a body. The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in Corinth as his own sort of “State of the Church” address, and his assessment was of that church was quite mixed. We sometime like to talk about first century Christianity as though it was a panacea and a model for how to do it right. The truth is that the early Christian communities were still trying to figure out what it mean to be the church and had the same human issues and challenges that we have always faced. Toward the end of his letter, Paul came upon a brilliant metaphor: the body. He described the church as the body of Christ and then went on to suggest that we are parts of that body, each with our own necessary place and function.
A body is either healthy or it is in some stage of illness. Primary indicators of health are what we refer to as “vital signs.” I was with Robb Lapp in the ICU the other day and kept my eye on the machinery monitoring his heart rate and blood pressure and oxygen levels and all of the other vital signs that were thankfully showing that he was doing very well after major surgery.
If the church body was hooked up to a machine with lights and numbers, what signs would it be monitoring?
I wish there was a way to quantitate such important indicators of vitality as spirit; and optimism; and love. If so, I think our church would demonstrate a remarkable degree of health. As it is, most of our hard evidence of health can only be seen in the numbers that flash on our monitor. In this past year, our membership increased by about 6 %, and our weekly participation in worship has been strong with the addition of numerous individuals and families. Those who study church trends view worship attendance as the most important indication of strength for a congregation. On a typical Sunday, the number of people who walk through our doors is equal to about 50-60 percent of our official membership, which is an unusually high rate within the United Church of Christ. More typical is 25-40 percent.
Financial strength is another indication of institutional health. 2015 was a very good year for us financially. We anticipated drawing from leftover funds from the year prior to underwrite the budget, and our giving was so strong that we did not need to do so. Looking ahead, we expect to fully fund our proposed 2016 budget thanks to additional pledges that have come in response to the fall stewardship campaign. This is my favorite part of the financial report from last year: We budgeted $6,900 for special giving in response to appeals related to crises in our nation and world. Instead, we received over $17,000 in special offerings to provide relief in places like Nepal and in response to the Syrian refugee crisis and in support of a Navajo family whose home burned in Arizona. A nation-wide study of all UCC congregations in 2014 showed that the average church allotted 6% of its expenditures to causes beyond the local church. Last year, 12 ¼ percent of our collective giving went to ministry and mission beyond our congregation – more than twice the national average. As pastor, I am grateful for your generosity, and also grateful to Kamilla and Andy who monitor our finances and make sure that our commitments are met.
That same study in 2014, based on the annual reports of all churches within our denomination, revealed some other facts that provide some perspective on our church. We commonly refer to ourselves as a small congregation. I guess when we compare ourselves with other, larger churches that we know of, that may seem true. In reality, though, Community United Church of Christ is in the top thirty percent of UCC congregations in terms of membership. Worship attendance is a better indicator of actual size and strength, however. Based on the number of persons who are here each Sunday for our two worship services, including the children of our Sunday School, we are in the top 15% of churches in our denomination. I mention that not to brag on us, or to imply that our goal is to rack up numbers. As Albert Schweitzer said, "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." Nevertheless, I share this information because it’s important for us to know that statistically speaking we are among the largest and strongest and I believe healthiest churches within the United Church of Christ. That’s something to think about when we are tempted to say, “We are just a small church.” I think perhaps the compact size of our building makes us think we are smaller than we are.
Our church was formed in 1964, fifty-two years ago this year. Only twelve percent of existing UCC congregations were begun since then. In other words, 88 percent have been around longer than we have. Some churches in our denomination are over three hundred years old! We are a relatively new church, we are made up of members with roots in many faith traditions, we are from all over the United States as well as other countries, very few of us have been here for more than half of our church’s history. All of that makes us unusual, and all of it contributes in a positive way, I believe, to our general health. Churches have life-cycles, much like people and all other organizations. Most follow a bell-curve, beginning with a great deal of passion and a focused vision. As the church grows into the prime of its life, it experiences increasing strength and is continually improving on itself. Unfortunately, the large majority of churches get to a point of stability where they become more concerned about internal matters than they are about the world surrounding them. They decline into stages of maintenance and bureaucracy and many eventually die.
Thankfully, we are in the prime of life, and it is an amazing experience to be part of this congregation. One of my goals as your pastor is to not let us become complacent or to stop reflecting on and assessing our ministry. Complacency, the belief that we have arrived and can just enjoy what we have, is the greatest enemy of future health.
There are many things on our horizon that I believe speak of our determination to always improve on who we are and what we do. We are moving toward the goal of net-zero reliance on renewable energy as plans develop for a new heating system. We will hear later today at the Annual Meeting about a way to partner with Habitat for Humanity to build a new home this year.
We are continually looking at what it means to be a healthy, growing church with a facility that is intentionally small and has a limited impact on the earth. That requires creativity, since closing doors to newcomers would not simply limit our ministry but would in effect be a plan for future decline.
One of the things I have heard most clearly stated within our leadership and our congregation as a whole is the need to match the gifts and interests of our members with ministry opportunities within our church and wider community. I think that almost all churches struggle with how to do that, but in a church that values lay leadership and involvement as much as ours, it is critical that we address this in the near future.
The Apostle talked about hands and feet and ears and eyes in 1 Corinthians 12, saying “if the whole body was an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” Who knew that the Apostle Paul could be funny? He did so while making a necessary point. If Paul was a football fan and it was in important game day like today, he might have said “If the whole team was a quarterback or a wide receiver, where would the defense be?” Every part of the human body is necessary, and every part of the team which is the body of Jesus, the church, is indispensable. Paul talked about spiritual gifts, implying that we have particular abilities that are intended for a spiritual purpose that completes the function of the church. Finding and affirming those gifts and further equipping and then deploying them in acts of service is critical for our function as a body. It doesn’t happen easily, but we need to make progress with a concrete plan this year. We will do so while at the same time recognizing that we are a church that does not press people beyond what they are wishing to do. We allow room for and bless those who simply need to rest and find a quiet place of renewal. For those who are ready and willing to be further involved, though, we will find more ways for them to use their gifts.
Using the football analogy, again, I believe my role on the team is to be a coach. To find ways to encourage and equip the work of the whole. Our scripture text concludes by essentially saying that some will be pastors, and some will have the ability to assess the present and future, and some will be amazing teachers, and some will bless and heal others, and some will be leaders, and some will be great team members. Every person is essential, and I believe that new people with amazing gifts will continue to arrive and find their place among us. Managing that is an awesome responsibility, and we are fortunate that our greatest challenges have to do with growth rather than the decline that most churches are experiencing in 2016. We are blessed, and I am blessed to be one part of this ministry.
The state of the church… is… “robust!” Thanks be to God for the strong, healthy community that has formed and is continually developing in this place. Amen!