Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon: Where are the Steeple People?

         Today’s question, the 3rd in our sermon series “8 Questions from the Pews,” is one the demographers have had their eye on pretty intensely for at least as long as I’ve been alive—though in these last few years the question has become more pressing.
         The question is: “Why are there fewer people in Church? All over the place, not just here.”
         In the last quarter century the ELCA has shed a million and a half members.
         So too the Episcopal Church… The UCC has plummeted from 2 million members at it’s inception to under a million now… the Methodist church sheds 1,000 members a week and church attendance in the Roman Catholic Church has fallen from 77% in 1950 to 45% today.
         In the last seven years 8% of Americans have stopped identifying as Christian and 7% more identify as non-religious.
         So, it’s not the questioner’s imagination, in general we’re shrinking…. And yes, “all over the place, not just here.”
         There are many reasons for it, but I’ll talk a bit about three of them, the 3D’s—
and Demographics.

         I like Samuel—not the man so much, but the idea, that he represents—where he sits vis a vis the history of God and God’s people.
         On one side of him is the period of God’s history known for Bands of Prophets and Tribal Judges—for a loose league of tribes, a decentralized way of worshipping and leading.
         On the other side of Samuel, is a period of time centered on a single monarch and a lone temple—a centralized structure of both religion and politics.
         Yes, it is as God said, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” Such change surely made the ears of many burn.
         The Israel that existed before Samuel is unrecognizable to the Israel that exited after him. It was a mixed bag and a rough transition
—a time of civil war,
a time when the Levitical Priests outside of Jerusalem starved to death,
a time of prosperity and of unsettling change.

         So too we are experiencing a sea change in our religious life.
We are experiencing the Disestablishment of the Church, the Decentralization of all things, and a shift of both ethnic and economic demographics.

1.      We are experiencing the Disestablishment of the Church… there was a time when being a Good American Citizen and being a Good Christian were seen as the same. No more.
         Now it’s assumed Soccer Practice, or Pop Warner, or Reading the New York Times on Sunday Morning will make a good citizen just as well as Sunday School, Confirmation, or Church Attendance.
         Fostering faith is no longer seen as a societal good. Social pressure will no longer regularly be put behind the Christian faith.

         We are also experiencing extensive decentralization—that a small group of people without anyone in charge can now influence the world.
Think, as an example, of the two things that have shaped American life in the first decade of the 21st century—Terrorist and the Internet.
         On 9/11 19 men dispersed among 4 groups, loosely connected, were able to kill nearly 3,000 people and radically change American domestic and foreign policy to this very day.
         Or for that matter, think of the internet. A group of people, each working on their own for no pay, were able to create Wikipedia, a continually expanding online encyclopedia that dwarfs anything in print, and is available for free to anyone with an internet connection.

         Compared to these things the Church can be a hulking unwieldy thing…
         Decentralization fosters radical individuality and undercuts all centralizing authorities. All of a sudden every viewpoint is expressed, no matter how far out, and all of a sudden no viewpoint needs to be listened to. Everything becomes polarized and individualized.
         Anything claiming to have, or be, a center, will not hold
—no authority has authority
—this includes:
the Church writ large,
and denominations.
         Finally, we are confronted by changing ethnic and economic demographics in America.
         One of the reasons people came to Church, especially Lutheran and Catholic Churches
—was to be with people who spoke the same language and came to America from the same country.
(we’re sort of a victim of our own success) This is no longer something the average Lutheran seeks in a Church. For that matter, there are no new Lutherans coming from “The Old Country” to refill our pews.

         Additionally, the ELCA tends to draw members from the “middle class”—but in the last two—maybe the last four—decades what it means to be middle class—the demographic realities of that, have changed.
         There are few good manufacturing jobs, people are accruing massive student debt in order to get into the middle class, and there is a necessity of two incomes just to stay in the middle class.
It’s squeezed the middle class and it’s squeezed the Church.
The average person is now both time and money poor—so too the church.

2.            Now, like the Israelite Exiles in Babylon, we too feel lost. It can feel like this Demographically different, Decentralized nation that we have been Disestablished from, is a strange land. We may weep when we remember the good old days
—all change, even positive change, involves a loss
—it involves mourning.

         But that’s not the whole story
—there ought to be shouts of joy mixed with our earnest weeping. Like those returning from the Exile we can rightly weep when looking at the shrunken shroud of what once was a vibrant house of God.
         At the same time, like them, we ought to shout for joy because the foundation of the House of the Lord is laid!

         Yes, because of Disestablishment “The Game” might start before church finishes,
you can now buy things on Sunday,
Christianity won’t regularly get a pat on the head from civic leaders, unless, you know, we actually do something special,
and at some point we’ll probably have to start paying property tax on the Church and the Parsonage.
         But that’s not all bad.
         Maybe being taxed will shock us into thinking about the difference between community and building, people and steeple.
         Maybe the church will be freed from the shackles of respectability… because we no longer expect that pat on our head from society for upholding social niceties.
         For example a clergyman more conservative than I, recently found out that Pub Theology meets in a bar, and he said to me, “Next thing you know you’ll be talking to Prostitutes about Jesus won’t you? What do your neighbor’s think?” And I responded, “Isn’t that what Jesus was accused of doing?” Shedding societal respectability to bring the Gospel to Sinners. “If I’m following Jesus why should I worry what the neighbors think?”

         Yes, Decentralization undercuts our authority, denominational loyalty, and fosters radical individualism.
         But maybe,
maybe this decentralized, semi-anonymous, depersonalized internet age
filled with crabby and hurtful people (no really look at any comments section of any page on the internet),
maybe this age could use the highly person community of the church as balm for its tired and hurting soul.
maybe Lutherans, the tradition that harnessed the Guttenberg press to spread the Word of God, can harness new technology for the same!
maybe the church is in fact a small group of people, who can influence the world,
 and therefore an era of decentralization is an exciting time to be Christian!

         Yes, Demographic shifts have us on the ropes, being a tradition tied to an ethnic identity no longer does us any favors, and being a middle class church just doesn’t mean what it used to.
         But maybe,
maybe we should consider that of the five countries with the most Lutherans in the world, two of them are African and one is Asian—and we need to get ready for the immigration of our sisters and brothers from Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Indonesia.
maybe this breaking of ethnic identity and religious identity will focus us on what makes us Lutheran
—because I swear to God, Lutheranism offers so much more than Lutfisk and blond braids or Bratwurst and Lederhosen
—ours is Grace,
ours is the Word of God,
ours is Cross.

         For that matter, maybe the new economic reality we face will allow us to hear the cries of the poor more fully. Maybe this little bite of poverty we experience will point us to the mauling our brothers and sisters in poverty are experiencing.

3       In closing, ours is to be faithful, following after our Lord, Baptizing and making Disciples.
Doing so in whatever world we find ourselves.
Doing so whatever our relationship to wider society.
Doing so in large groups together or in small groups dispersed.
Doing so whatever our ethnic and economic composition.
         Yes—doing so, this very day.

         Baptizing little Ryan into Christ right here today
—affirming that God is with him no matter what
—with him in this day of his Baptism,
with him in his old age,
in the morning of his life and noontime and evening.
With him,
with all of us,
as our life unfolds.