What must it feel like, I wonder, for my home church to be destroyed overnight? The members of our congregation in Brocton could tell me. Hours before they were to gather for worship last Sunday, fire completely gutted their sanctuary and fellowship hall. Now many of them must be walking around in what their pastor described as a “shock that feels like a fog around your head” as they begin to grieve the loss of a building that for some had been their spiritual home for a lifetime.
We should be so blessed. The sudden loss of their church building hit the people of Brocton like a hard slap in the face. Then, just as suddenly, the hard work of rebuilding must begin. The congregation must get reorganized around the clear, compelling goal of replacing a building.
For us, while our sanctuary still stands, it can be harder to recognize the slower, more subtle disappearance of the church we have known not only in this place but throughout the denomination. And the hard work not of replacing a building but of rebuilding the church can seem like a task for tomorrow or for the next generation. But the task is ours, and it is today, and it’s time to begin.
If you have noticed fewer people attending worship in recent years, you’re not alone. We continue to be an aging and shrinking denomination. Members of The United Methodist Church are dying more than a third faster than the national average, according to one report.1 For that and other reasons, we in the Northeast lost forty percent of our members from 2000-2005 alone.
Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, one of our largest congregations, told the 2012 General Conference: “At the current rate of decline from the last five years, we have less than 50 years of The United Methodist Church in the United States.”2 It was a forecast echoed by Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary. “There is no future for The United Methodist Church in the United States,” he said, “unless we can learn to reach more people, younger people and more diverse people.”
“Who is left among you,” Haggai asked, “that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now” (Hag. 2:3)? He was talking to people who remembered the temple in its heyday before its destruction. He was talking as well to people too young to have those golden memories.
He was talking to people who were trying to rebuild a vital and beloved community for themselves and future generations. But their commitment to reconstructing the temple had weakened. They had lost their priorities and were focused more on their own homes and personal security than on establishing the center of their faith community. And their efforts were weak and disappointing.
Like them, some of us remember a time when the church was strong and vital, when the building was in great shape, the pews full, the congregation a-buzz with activity. When this sanctuary was built in 1842, and when it was redesigned and enlarged several times since then, our forebears mortgaged their homes to make it possible. That’s how much of themselves they invested in creating and maintaining this place. And most of them expected the following generations would do the same.
Of course, the church is not a building. It’s a community of faithful people trying to live in response to God. And to do that, we cannot eat the fruit of a previous generation’s planting. We’ve got to till the soil of our own lives in our own time and reap the harvest of our own struggle with God. We cannot even rely upon the cross of Christ for that. We’ve got to take up our own cross daily if we are to harvest life abundant.
The time is at hand when you’re going to read and hear about the church’s need for your dollars to support our annual spending for ministry. That won’t surprise any of you. But the church doesn’t need your dollars as much as it needs you – the investment of yourselves in the process of building a community that will transform you and the world around you. That’s what we’re about, and we can’t do that with dollars only.
When St. Francis, in the small chapel of San Damiano that was falling into ruin, heard his commission from God, “Go, repair my house,” he began growing into a calling that was far larger than repairing a church building. It was a calling to renew and revitalize the body of Christ, the temple where God dwelt. That’s the call we need to hear today; that’s the call to which we need to respond today.
The great assurance Haggai offered the people of Israel is the assurance he gives us as well. “Take courage,” he says, “work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise I made to you when you came out of Egypt. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former” (Hag. 2:4-5, 9). The assurance echoes throughout the scriptures, and if you listen you can still hear it.
When you make your pledges this month, don’t take the easy way and pledge only your dollars. Consider how you will commit yourselves to the work of rebuilding the church. Next week I’ll say more about how that commitment might take shape.