In the year 587, before the common era, Judah, the southern kingdom of the nation of Israel, was laid to waste by King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. The capital city of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed and a large portion of the population taken off to Babylon to serve as slaves. This was the beginning of what the Bible calls the Great Exile, or the Babylonian Captivity. It’s a hugely important event for understanding the Old Testament. The Hebrew people lived in exile for about three generations, at the end of which the Babylonian empire was in turn destroyed by the Persian Empire. Cyrus, who was the king of Persia, turned out to be more favorably disposed towards the Hebrews. He allowed them, those who wanted to, to return home to Israel.
The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of their return. They describe some of the struggles the people had while trying to put their nation back together. As one commentator puts it, “The future of the people is in serious doubt. Enemies attack from outside, but even more disruptively, internal disagreements threaten to undermine the community’s future. The people form factions arguing about who is in and who is out, who should govern, how the temple can be rebuilt, how Jerusalem can be reestablished in safety.” (Kathleen O’Connor in Feasting On the Word, year C, Vol 1, page 267) It was a time of great social and political turmoil, not unlike our own.
Eventually, they were able to come together around three major accomplishments; they rebuilt the temple, they rebuilt the city walls around Jerusalem and they began to repair their relationship with God. The verses from Nehemiah that I just read to you might be thought of as a snapshot from the family album of the returned exiles. In this particular story all the people were gathered in the square before the Water Gate for what we might call a re-covenanting ceremony. They listened all morning long as Ezra the priest read from the book of the law; probably what we now call Deuteronomy.
This was a ritual act, a purification, a way of reminding them all of their identity as the people of Yahweh. It was a way of saying, this is who we were before the exile, and this is who we shall be again. And all the people cried “Amen.” But also, literally, they cried. It must have been a very emotional experience for people so recently returned from exile. The story says they stood there weeping as they heard the words of the law. It isn’t hard to imagine why after all they had been through. They cried for the loss of the great nation they had once been; for the suffering they had endured, and for the promise that, in spite of everything, God had not finally abandoned them.
The Priests and Levites were apparently disturbed by all this grieving on what was supposed to be a day of joy and celebration. “Be quiet,” they said, “This day is holy. Don’t be grieved.” Go get something to eat. Go have dessert. That strikes me as funny. People have a long history of stuffing down our emotions with food. Some things never change.
So, we have this snapshot from the family album of the returned exiles. It is a picture of the reestablishment of the institution of Yahweh after nearly everyone had given it up for lost. The people came back from exile, rebuilt their temple, put back in place all its sacred rituals, sacrifices, priests and high holy days. Through great effort and struggle, they breathed new life into the faith of their fathers, and like a phoenix rose from the ashes. Israel once again became the chosen people; at least that’s the way the bible tells the story. And, we would say, it’s a good thing they did all this, because this story is part of the long thread of our own religious history. If all those years ago the returning exiles had allowed that thread to break, we would not be here, at least not as Christians.
Now, fast forward a bit more than 2500 years. How would you say the institution of Yahweh is faring? It isn’t really a fair question. Compared to that small group of returned exiles, the church as we know it is successful beyond anything they could possibly have imagined. If we add together the modern day versions of both Judaism and the religion of all its Christian daughters, we total well over a third of the world’s population. The faith of Yahweh has reached virtually every nook and cranny of the world and its many peoples.
I imagine those early exiles would be, on the one hand overawed at the mighty oak that has come out of their tiny acorn, but on the other hand, appalled at how their beliefs have been changed, watered down and distorted over time. What we call the faith would have been largely unrecognizable to them. But that’s what happens over time. We can never count on our children being willing to carry on our own beloved traditions in the ways we might think they should; and there have been something like a hundred generations of children since those ancient days in Jerusalem.
So really, the question, “How is the institution of Yahweh faring?” isn’t really about how it compares to ancient Israel. It’s more about how it compares to what it has been in our own lifetimes, and by that standard, we have some concerns.
About twenty years ago, just before Christmas, an issue of the New York Times Magazine came out with a dark red cover that said, “God Decentralized.” It was a hot topic of conversation at the time, for a couple of weeks at least. But I thought it was a good expression not only of where we were, but also where it we seemed to be headed. The article leads off by saying: “A new breed of worshiper is looking beyond the religious institution for a do-it-yourself solution.” And then it went on to say this…
America has long provided fertile soil for spiritual pioneers, from Joseph Smith, the single-minded founder of Mormonism, to the New Age entrepreneurs who have roamed the metaphysical frontier. Such religious invention is still going strong in America. So is immigration, importing an ever-changing palette of religious practice. Other restless worshipers, meanwhile, are intent on reshaping the religions they grew up with. The result is a time of spiritual ferment, with room for ardent young Catholics who disagree with many Church teachings, for religious pilgrims just as interested in spectacle as divine connection, for modernizing Muslims, for meditating Jews, for take-charge Baptists trying to turn worship into a social crusade. And, paradoxically, it is also a time for faithful doubt. (God Decentralized, N.Y. Times Magazine, 12/7/1997)
I find that last line especially interesting. “It is … a time for faithful doubt.” In our tradition, we would say faithful doubt has always been appropriate and isn’t really a new thing. We tend to see doubt, not as the opposite of faith, but as a healthy sign of a living faith; a sign that a person is growing and learning. But the doubt we’re wrestling with these days isn’t the more traditional doubt of St. Thomas, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief.” The doubt we’re wrestling isn’t so much theological as it is institutional. It has more to do with whether or not the ways we have been doing church for the last four or five hundred years are necessarily the ways we will keep on doing church in the future.
This is not been an easy question for us to answer; what our future might look like. As we all know, this question is mostly driven by the rapid decline of membership of churches and denominations over the last several decades. People have been turning away from the institutional church in droves, and the more they turn away, the more we have become focused on Church Growth as a way of trying to bring them back.
In one way of another, I’ve been talking about and working on church growth for my entire professional life. I started out in Heath and Rowe in Massachusetts while I was still in seminary. I attended a Robert Schuller Church Growth seminar and brought some of the insights from his workshops back to my churches. When I served my congregations in Illinois, Connecticut and Maine we were always working on attracting new members, trying out new programs, sprucing up the buildings to make them more appealing and user friendly. In the literature on Church Growth, you often find stories that tell of a time when nearly everybody just went to church, most every Sunday. Congregations like ours were bursting at the seams. But that had already stopped being the case by the time I was ordained in 1987. Since then, we’ve all been worried about losing members.
I’ve been here as your minister long enough to know that this is not a new story for you either. My good friend, John Potter, one of your beloved former pastors, was actively working on Church Growth when he was here back in the eighties. More recently, you learned about church growth from Paul Nickerson, you’ve had David Reynolds here as a consultant, some of you have read Molly Phinney Baskette’s book “Real Good Church,” and last year, Tod Bolsinger’s book, “Canoeing the Mountains.” So, between you and me, we’ve had a wealth of exposure to this very important subject. But, I think you would agree, simply learning about all this has not solved the problem.
This year, we a small group of us committed ourselves to a two year class called, Creating and Leading the 21stCentury Church. It’s been a fascinating process. We started off with a class on understanding the church as a family system; understanding the different contributions individual church members make to the whole church; how to respect and honor and utilize those contributions, so that we don’t end up tripping over each other’s feet. Then there was a class on Adaptive Leadership, which talked about the need to recognize the differences between technical problems, which are usually easy to solve, and adaptive challenges that require more creative problem solving. Technical problems are like, how do we fix a hole in the roof. We know what needs to happen, we just need to get it done. Adaptive challenges are much more difficult. How do we adapt to our changing circumstances? How do we bring back the vitality that we used to have? The problem is, we’ve largely been treating declining membership like it was a technical problem, when it is much more of an adaptive challenge.
Recently, we had our third class, on the importance of communication and how to avoid falling into the traps of the assumptions we make. The three remaining classes this year will be about managing conflict, discovering our deep vision, and how to go about being creative and innovative.
The interesting thing, to me, about all of these classes, is that they are not about simply giving us a list of strategies for how to make visitors feel more comfortable when they happen to drop in. All of these classes are aimed at the quality of the relationships we share with one another, and the clarity of the vision that drives our church. These are things we are going to be talking about with you in the months ahead. After Easter, we will be joining together to do a major assessment of our church, on how we are doing, what is working and what isn’t, how much progress we’ve made since that last assessment was done a few years ago, and what all this might mean for how we go forward together. We’ve been talking about this class for most of a year now, and after Easter, all our efforts behind the scenes will begin to bear fruit.
In the meantime, I’d encourage you to think about and pray for our church. What is it that makes us essentially who we are? What is the deep vision that drives our ministry and brings vitality and energy to our fellowship? What I’m looking for here, are more than simple strategies to increase our membership. What we are looking for is the kind of re-covenanting and re-visioning that was captured in the family album of the returned exiles all those many years ago. It was their clarity of vision, their love for God and for one another, that allowed their institution of Yahweh to be reborn. It will be, similarly, our own love for one another and the clarity of our own vision that will allow us to survive.