Wednesday, July 2, 2014

State Of The Church: A One Year Reflection

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Joshua 24:1-15:

It is just one day over a year ago that I stood before you on my first Sunday here at Mesa View.  I know some of you were upset to see Pastor Tom go, others were excited to have a new young clergy here, although some of you probably said I think I have shoes older than him.  It’s been quite a year, and so I thought I’d take today and do a sort of a state of the church address.  This congregation was officially founded on February 8, 1987, although they began meeting the year before in Rev. Chuck Bader’s, the founding pastor’s home.  In those 28 years, we have had only five pastors, including me, and even more amazingly, according to the records I have, we have sent out 12 people into the ministry.

Just like this past year, this congregation has seen some tremendous highs and lows.  We have seen a large drop in attendance over the past 8 years, but we are not alone.  In conversations I have had with the pastors at the two churches closest to us, we figure that between the three of us we have lost a combined 800 in worship attendance over the past 8 years.  That’s not good, but it also gives us tremendous opportunities, and I have some good news and some bad news.  The good news is that things are not as bad as they might have been perceived, and the bad news is that things are not as bad as they might have been perceived.  That’s the bad news because it’s a lot easier to just find a buyer for the property and close the doors then it is to say that this is God’s church and that we are going to make our stand here to make new disciples of Christ for the transformation of Taylor Ranch and the world, because that takes work.  But here is the good news; we’re in a lot better place than we were a year ago.

When I started I was given a sheet of paper that showed us owing $64,000 in bills.  We were several months behind on some of the bills, and Roger Sargent and Mark Stilwell were doing their best to try and keep everything together, and to keep the lights on.  Kim Short who is the director of our preschool came in and needed to buy some stamps, and JJ had to call Roger to make sure we had enough money in the bank to cover that.  The good news is that we are not there anymore, but the bad news is that we are not out of the woods yet.  We knew that the summer would be a lean time, and it has been.  But except for two checks to the conference that are sitting in the office, we are caught up on all of our bills, although we need a good offering today in order to make our next mortgage payment on Tuesday, but we will make that payment.  We have cut somewhere between $20-25,000 in expenses out of the budget, and we are working hard at increasing the income side of the budget

The really good news is that you all came through amazingly to support our raise the roof campaign, and the last of that work was completed last week.  We now have a roof that doesn’t leak, or at least we think we do, we won’t really know until it rains, and we have a new dishwasher and a new lawnmower, and we’re willing to challenge any surrounding church to a race, because it does up to 8 miles an hour.  As part of that campaign, I said that I did not like to do special requests during the year because I wanted you to give generously through your tithes and pledges and not hold back knowing that we were going to keep coming back.  There have been several other things that have come up during the year that people have asked to make special offerings for to which I have said no, not because we haven’t needed the money, but because I want to be honest to that idea.  Now if you happen to have some extra money burning a hole in your pocket, and would like to help with some technology things, or signage, or branding, or some other outreach ideas, I would be glad to have that conversation with you.  We have done some much needed maintenance this year that has been put off for many years and I think the campus as a whole is looking great, and I would like to thank John Foley and the trustees and all those who have come out to help.  We still have a ways to go, like addressing the pond, but we are making progress, and just as I said on my first Sunday it’s ultimately not about the money.  It’s not, it’s about God, and if we are willing to follow and do what God is calling us to do.

In his book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, Rev Paul Nixon, who is a United Methodist Pastor, says that churches have to make significant choices: We must choose life over death; community over isolation; fun over drudgery; bold over mild; frontier over fortress; and now rather than later. In a later interview he said that if he were to redo this book he would add one more choice, and that is to choose dreaming over just living in the present.  The good news, at least I think it is, is that you have already chosen to do the first.  More than a year ago there was a committee put together to explore the option of selling this property and moving to another location, which would have meant in effect closing this church.  Surprisingly, I was never given a copy of that report, nor did I seek it out because if it was important to everyone I would have been given a copy by several people.  But I wasn’t, which said to me that you were going to choose life, that you were going to plant your flag here on this corner and make your stand.  I have also been encouraged because when I have asked what the best year this congregation has seen is, I have not heard that it’s something like 1994, but instead that it is next year.  But that decision doesn’t come without a cost, first is to pick up our cross and to follow, but it also means that we have to be open to change.

No one likes change really.  While there are some changes we might be happy about there are others that upset us, but change is hard.  But if we are to survive we have to change, and if I was to ask if you were willing to change in order to grow this church and make sure it is still here in a generation proclaiming the gospel message, all of you would probably say, absolutely yes.  But it’s when it comes down to the nitty gritty that things get more difficult.  Because if I were to say that we were changing worship times, and we’re not changing worship times, some people would probably flip out, but if we are going to grow we will have to do some new and different things, but that’s not always something to be afraid of.  We want to Disneyland this year on vacation.  Now is Disneyland exactly the same as it was in 1955?  Absolutely not.  There have been some significant changes over the years, and yet it also still feels in some ways likes it the same because it holds to the original vision of what it was supposed to be, (happiest place on earth), and sometimes as they say, the more things change the more they stay the same.  But here is the biggest thing we need to remember when it comes to change.

This is a special cow.  Does anyone know what kind of cow this is?  It’s a sacred cow.  Now this is a world religions test, what religion has sacred cows?  Hindus.  Do we as Christians have sacred cows?  No we don’t.  There are lots of things that we might like to make sacred cows, that we want to bow down to and worship.  That’s what Joshua is also saying to the people.  Joshua tells the people their story and relationship with God, of where they were of where they are now and what has happened in between,  and he reminds them that they did not accomplish everything they did, that God did it, and then Joshua  says “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  You can either choose to serve the gods the world, you can choose to serve the little Caesars, and we’re not talking about the pizza place, you can choose to serve the sacred cows, you can choose to bow down and worship them, or you can choose to serve God.  “As for me and my house,” Joshua says, “we will serve the Lord.”  Who are we going to choose to serve on this day?  Who are we going to serve on this day?  I can’t hear you, and more importantly the world can’t hear you, who are we going to serve on this day?  And so what we going to do with this sacred cow?  Smash it!

What I have seen in looking through the history of this church,  is that in the early days  there was a clear vision and mission for this church, and it was well communicated.  It appears in most of the things the church did, it was talked about all the time, there were letters going out, and people gathering to discuss it, and there was lots of energy and excitement, which you would expect in a new congregation.  This drawing is an image of what the campus might look like that was part of a 20 year plan that came out in 1994.  We are in that 20th year, and obviously this building doesn’t look like this, and we have not reached the various goals they had laid out for where we would be in 20 years.  Now some might argue that that shows why you shouldn’t do that type of planning, but I would disagree.  The problem that I see 20 years later is not that the plan didn’t happen, but that the plan got put away, that vision got shelved, those dreams got laid aside, they were no longer front and center and being communicated about this is who we are and this is where God is calling for us to go and who God is calling us to be.  We have to do that dreaming again. As we read in Proverbs, “where there is no vision, the people perish.”  And we have to start communicating much better than what we are doing now.  We are doing okay, but we still have a ways to go, because one of the problems with lack of communication is that when people don’t know information, we tend to fill the gap with whatever we think is going on.

We have to trust God and listen to what God’s vision is for this church, and that begins with prayer.  We have two prayer teams and they do an amazing job, but we need to expand their numbers and what they do.  If we are going to turn anything around it begins and ends with prayer.  We are going to start having people praying during each worship service, I think we should start doing pray walks where we walk around our neighborhoods and pray for things, and heaven forbid, maybe even ask people what we can pray for.  We need to start thinking about different ways to bring people into the campus, not to be here to worship, although that is certainly a goal, bur for other reasons as well.  We need to do something with this corner, but we need to think about it strategically and long-term, whether there is a pond there or not, there is so much we could be doing with this property.  What if we had a prayer garden there, or a labyrinth, perhaps a columbarium, that is a place where ashes are interred.  As far as I can tell, there is only one playground in Albuquerque that is handicapped accessible, or at least accessible for wheelchairs, and it’s on the other side of tramway near 1-40.  What if we were to build a handicap and wheelchair accessible playground on the property to serve our neighbors.  What would people think of us then?  What if we held concerts in the park?  There are so so many opportunities here, but we also have to be authentic to ourselves.  Our goal is not to become like Sagebrush, or like St. John’s or St. Stephen’s, two of the larger Methodist churches in Albuquerque, we need to simply be the best Mesa View we can be and to do what God is calling us to do and to be, and when we do that, God will provide.

We also need to build on our strengths.  On any given Sunday, 36% of the people who attend worship also attend a Christian Formation class., and we do that without even having any group overseeing those activities.  We need to increase that, we need to focus on your youth and children, we need to have many more offerings available at different times, and we need to form a Christian Formation team to handle all of that.  Last week the Leadership Council talked about their visions and dreams for this congregation, and one of the common themes was that in order to make new disciples that we have to become disciples ourselves, which means that we need to be engaging in activities that will deepen and strengthen our faith, and that we should become a place where people know that wherever they are in their faith journey, whether they are brand new or they have been picking up their cross for 120 years, that they can come here and find a place where they are welcome and loved and find something that will help them engage in their journey of faith, and so we need a team to help us do that.

Al Gray, who I am incredibly grateful for for all things he does, is working on getting all of our outreach and mission projects coordinated and going, and we have a great worship team, and they are working hard and you will be seeing and hearing more from them in the future, but we need more helpers there as well. We do worship well, but we don’t do it as well as we could, and how do I know that?  Because I do much of the work by myself, I don’t want that to happen, I want to work together to plan our worship time, to come up with new and creative ways to present the Gospel message, to choose fun over drudgery.  In my ideal world, most of worship is not done by me, including the prayers, it’s done by all of us together.  I want to empower you and equip you and embolden you to do the work of God, and then I want to get out of your way.  There is one of me and there are about 140 of you who are active, which do you think can get more done?

Many of you have told me how happy you are that I am here and all the great things we are doing and how you hope I stay for a long time, and I say thank you., but what has happened here in the past year is not me, it’s the power of prayer, it’s your gifts and presence, and it’s God calling us to new and greater things and rewarding our faithfulness.  But here is the truth: If you want me to be here for a long time, we have to grow.  The Bishop is not going to move someone who is growing a church.  I think we have about five years to turn everything totally around, and I think that’s a right amount of time.  There are some churches that just boom, start growing, but they are the exception to the rule, most take a while.  In 5 years, I will be closer to 50 than to 40, some of us will have gone on to our eternal reward, and Samantha will be preparing to enter high school, which will be a major decision point for us where we are going to be for a while, but if we are not much larger than we are today, if we have not made significant changes in our finances, and in particular on our mortgage then we might be having the conversations that you were having two years ago.  God has big plans and big dreams for this church, and God is not done with us yet.  But we must be willing to do the hard work, including changing, and we have to be open to getting some outside help.  I know that you have engaged with the conference office in the past, and that has not always gone well, but I don’t have all the answers, and we need assistance in this process, so we either have to work with the conference or hire another consultant to help us, but the most important thing is that we must be willing to say, “As for me and this church, we will serve the Lord!”   May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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