Saturday, October 7, 2017

“What Do Sharks and the Church Have In Common?”

             This Sunday, October 8th, we begin an exciting and timely new sermon series, entitled:  “A Vision for the Church.”  In this series, we will focus on the future of the Christian Church in general and the future of Christ United Methodist Church in particular. 

            What is the future of the Church?

            In the American Mainline Protestant churches—which include United Methodists—the prospects do not look good.  Over the past 50 years, the major statistical measures of membership, financial giving, and average weekly attendance have all been in decline.  For instance, over the past 30 years, membership in The United Methodist Church has declined by approximately 2 million people, from 9 million to 7 million.  During this same period of time, there were similar declines at Christ United Methodist Church, the congregation that I serve as Senior Pastor.  For instance, membership at Christ UMC declined from 1407 in 1985 to 879 in 2016.  Similarly, average weekly attendance declined from 433 in 1985 to 280 in 2016.

            Even more seriously, this statistical decline has recently been accelerating.  For instance, the number of adult members in all Mainline Protestant Churches, including the United Methodist Church, declined by five million, from 41 to 36 million, during the seven-year period, from 2007 to 2014.[1]  Simultaneously with the rapid decline in Mainline Protestant Christianity, there has been rapid growth in the religious “nones,” those individuals who claim no religious affiliation.  During this same 7-year time period, religious “nones” increased by 19 million![2] The religious “nones” can be subdivided into three broad groups:  (1) atheists, (2) agnostics, and (3) people for whom religion is simply unimportant in their lives.[3]

            In surveys exploring why religious “nones” were no longer affiliated with a church, the Pew Research Center discovered several explanations, including the following:[4]

·         “Too many Christians doing un-Christian things.”
·         “Learning about evolution when I went away to college.”
·         “Religion is the opiate of the people.”
·         “Rational thought makes religion go out the window.”
·         “Lack of any sort of scientific or specific evidence of a creator.”
·         “I think that more harm has been done in the name of religion than any other area.”
·         “Because I think religion is not a religion anymore.  It’s a business…it’s all about money.”
·         “I feel that there is something out there, but I can’t nail down a religion.”

Clearly, if the Church is to have a future, then we must adapt and change to be better in ministry to the world.  The habits, viewpoints, methods, and attitudes that worked effectively for so long are now obsolete and ineffective.  Churches must begin moving and changing, if they are to reverse this decline and begin to thrive again.

 I’ve included a riddle in my Proclamation this week:  “What Do Sharks and the Church Have In Common?”  The answer is that both sharks and the Church must continually be on the move—or, they die.  Marine biologists tell us that some species of shark—including the great white shark, the mako shark, and the hammerhead shark—must continually swim without rest, throughout their lives.  These sharks are called obligate ram ventilators.  They no longer have the ability to pump water through their gills, while at rest.  Instead, they must continually swim in order for the water to pass through their gills, enabling them to “breathe” and take in oxygen.  Presumably if these sharks ever stopped swimming, they would asphyxiate and die.  Thus, these sharks must continually move in order to live.

            Churches are like these obligate ram ventilator species of sharks.  If churches become satisfied and complacent with the status quo; if churches stop adapting and innovating, then they will die, as well.  Churches stop moving when they become complacent, self-satisfied, and inward looking; that is, when they cease to be faithful to God.  Churches that are faithful to God are constantly on the move, looking for new ways to adapt and change in order to ministry for completely and effectively.  These churches are constantly asking, “What is God calling us to do now?”  What new ministry or program should we be starting?  These churches are continually looking for and moving towards new opportunities.  They are willing to take risks, try out new possibilities, and be uncomfortable in response to God’s call—these churches are constantly on the move.

            While changing and adapting may force us to move beyond our comfort zones, the Church at other times in history has faced a similar path.  In our scripture reading this week, the early church faced a similar challenge, requiring change and adaptation.  The story is contained in Acts 15:  1-2, 6-12.  In this chapter, the early Church faces a critical question:  Must a Gentile first become a Jew, in order to become part of the early Christian Church?  It seems that some Pharisaic Christian extremists in Antioch believed that Gentile converts must become circumcised in order to be included as full Christian brothers.  These purists became embroiled in a heated argument with Paul and Barnabas.  So, it was agreed that Paul and Barnabas would travel to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and Church elders.

            Although this question had been discussed and decided earlier (see Acts 11), it clearly was still open in the minds of some of the early questions.  So, at a Church Council in Jerusalem, the matter was discussed again.  In this Council, the Apostle Peter gave the group clarity, when he argued that, “…we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [Gentiles] will” (Acts 15:11).

            Rather than clinging to the established attitudes and customs from before, the early Church made a commitment to adapt and change in order to take advantage of a new possibility opened up by God:  the conversion and response of many Gentiles to the Good News of God’s love. 

            Although the statistical decline of the American Church seems daunting, I believe that this decline simultaneously offers new possibilities for the Church to conduct a rigorous self-assessment and make some much needed changes and adaptations.  As a result, I have a vision for a rejuvenated Church that emerges with revitalized faith, energized to share the Good News of God’s love and empowered to help establish God’s Reign on earth.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, October 8th, as we begin this very important series of reflections on “”A Vision for the Church.”  Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come and join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Michael Lipka, “Mainline Protestants make up shrinking number of U.S. adults,” Pew Research Center, 18 May 2015, at accessed online 4 October 2017.

[2] Michael Lipka, “A Closer look at America’s rapidly growing religious ‘nones,’ Pew Research Center, 15 May 2015, at accessed online 4 October 2017.

[3] Michael Lipka, “Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind,” Pew Research Center, 24 August 2016, at accessed online 4 October 2017.

[4] Ibid.

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