Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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Life and Death

Matthew 16:13-19 and Deuteronomy 30:11-20

 We’ve spent the last four weeks talking about the book, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church.”  We’ve talked about four of the most pervasive traits of dying churches:  First, they live in the past.  Second, they focus on their own comfort.  Third, that they focus their attention inward.  And finally, they have no clear sense of purpose.  

 The last few chapters of the book deal with the question of where a particular church is on the continuum from healthy and vibrant to dying and irrelevant.  The author, Thom Rainer, argues that only a small portion of churches are really healthy; making new disciples and bringing transformation to the world around them.  But also, only a few churches are actively dying, on their last legs, just struggling to keep their doors open.  Most are on that continuum of some degree of sickness.  Now he neatly divides them into “a little bit sick” and “very sick.”  But I really think it’s a continuum.  

 Sick churches have these basic characteristics:  First, they are likely to have seen a decline in attendance or no real growth for the past five years or more.  They are turning their focus inward.  They really don’t have a plan for making disciples in their community.  They may be very busy, but there is not really a focus to the busyness.  Maybe it’s just doing the same things they’ve always done.  Or maybe it’s a frantic effort to “do something,” but they don’t know what they should be doing.  

 On the other hand, “very sick” churches have these characteristics:  They have seen a decline in attendance that has lasted for more than ten years.  There is a growing sense of apathy in the church, but it may be punctuated by brief, intense periods of conflict.  There is a high degree of reluctance to change anything.  The church is no longer well known in the community.  People don’t say things like, “Oh, that’s the church that does ________.”  And there is a revolving door of pastors.  They only tend to stay, on average, three years.  

 That’s not good.  If the pastor is only staying three years or so, then things are never getting off the ground.  He writes elsewhere in the book, and I’ve certainly heard the same thing from other sources, that there is a rather predictable pattern to the tenure of a pastor’s time in a church.  

 The first two years or so tend to be rather peaceful.  There may be a slight increase in attendance in that time.  This is called the “honeymoon” period.  No one wants to upset the apple cart.  If the people aren’t happy with the pastor, they usually won’t say anything, and the same is true if the pastor isn’t happy with the church.  

 But the honeymoon is followed by a time of conflict in years three to five, on average.  The reality is that there are unmet expectations on both sides.  The pastor isn’t everything the church was looking for, and the church isn’t everything the pastor was looking for.  And eventually, that comes out.  

 Unfortunately, some churches and pastors never get past this point.  They get through that honeymoon phase, and they run into the conflicts, and one or the other decides to “run for the hills.”  I can tell you that there are some pastors in the Western PA UMC who have basically never stayed longer than three or four years in one place.  And there are some churches that haven’t kept a pastor longer than that for years.  

 The shame of it is that then you never get to the most productive years that follow.  Years 6 to 10 are generally the most productive years of a pastor-church relationship.  You’ve built the trust necessary and learned what to expect of each other.  This has been my experience in ministry. 

 The average length of an appointment in the United Methodist Church is only about 7 years.  That’s not great.  Obviously, some are longer and some are shorter.  But on average, it means United Methodist congregations and pastors are not really seeing the most productive time together.  

 The exception to the rule is the overly compliant pastor, who never rocks the boat.  And I’ve seen that happen a few times as well, where a pastor stays at a church too long, doesn’t lead the church forward, and the church withers.  

 What about us?  Where are we on this continuum of health to death?  I think we’re somewhere in the middle.  We’ve had a long time of decline in attendance.  The high point was 1989, and it’s been a long, steady decline since then.  

 In that time, there has only been one long pastor-church partnership.  And after that one long pastorate, the average has been about four years.  I’m starting year six, and I hope that bodes well.  I hope it means our most productive years together are just getting started.  

 On the other hand, do we have a clear plan for making new disciples in our community?  I don’t think so.  Are we well known and thought about positively in our community?  I’m not sure.

 What can we do?  

 For starters, we need to see our community as our mission field.  Seward and the neighboring areas are the place where God is calling us to make disciples.  Years ago, the church hosted week-long “missions” conferences, talking about the work of the Church around the world.  Maybe those did more harm than good, because the truth is the mission field, for us, is Seward, not the rest of the world. 

 How much of our time, money, and energy is focused on things outside the walls of this building?  I’m afraid the answer is not enough.

 And we have to acknowledge the reality:  We are not healthy.  We are not making new disciples.  We are not changing our community.  We need wisdom and strength from God.  We need to know his will for us as a congregation, and then we need the courage to do God’s will, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

 I want to close this morning with the Scriptures we read.  We need God’s perspective on our situation.

 The first text was from Matthew 16, which was actually the text I used as we began these five weeks.  Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my church.”  The rock is not Peter, not a person.  The rock is the profession of faith he makes:  “You are the Christ, son of the Living God.”  “And the all the powers of hell will not prevail” against that proclamation.  There is great power in the proclamation of truth.  The question is not, “Will the Church endure?”  The question is, “Will we, as a congregation, endure?”

 The other text we heard was from Deuteronomy, part of Moses last words to Israel before his death and their entrance into the Promised Land.    

 We have a choice:  Life or death.  If we want to choose life, we must love God and walk in his ways.  God’s will for the Church is life and growth.  The Church is meant to grow, to make new disciples.  This can only happen if we know God’s will and have the courage to do it.  We are God’s co-laborers.  We must know his purpose for us and live for it.  And God’s purpose is the salvation of the world, not that we cling to our own life.  As Jesus said, “If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it.  But if you give up your life for my sake and for the gospel, you will find true life.”  

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