Why are we still sitting here?

1 Kings 17: 7-16 /Matthew 28:16-20:

empty pewWe have been conditioned to look at a photo like this and think, oh, too bad, the pews are empty.  Pews are meant to be full.  Of course they are.  When churches like ours were built over 85 years ago, people were flocking to church buildings all over this city.  Have you ever taken stock of how many churches are on the corners of Baltimore?  There are 345 Baptist churches alone!  70 Roman Catholic churches.  22 Presbyterian churches.  And multiple other denominations.  And who knows how many small non-denominational storefront churches?  In the little neighborhood around Harlem Avenue there are 6 of those within 2-3 blocks.  No one would have built these churches unless they believed the pews had the potential to be full.  And for years, many of them were.  Full to overflowing with young children, teenagers, and adults of all ages.

As I said earlier this month, and as is easily visible, our social environment has changed.  The values placed on church membership and church attendance are very different than they were when this building was built in 1930, or when the 1953 organ was put in, or when the beloved pastor was here– whoever that was for you.  The current volume of competing events and activities on Sunday mornings would have been unheard of.  Today we have church members who consider coming to worship once or twice a month as regular attendance.  Or who make it to church only when their priority activity gets rained out.  It is not just Hunting Ridge.  It is life in 2016 in the United States.

Yet we continue to be stuck in the mindset that empty pews are bad pews.  That our primary goal each year is to get more church members, more bodies in the pews.  In my role as a member of the Committee on Ministry for the Presbytery, I have been assigned to walk alongside a church in transition between pastors.  Their pastor left, now they have an interim pastor, and soon they will begin the search for a new pastor.  They have done an assessment of their current ministry and identified their hopes for the future.  Faced with a declining membership and dwindling funds, they are looking to bring in more church members.  Surprise.  They looked honestly at their lack of connection to the community around them, and want to call a pastor who will help them more significantly connect to their community so that they will attract new members.  Their mindset is not so different than many churches I know.  I have heard the same thing from our church leaders, pretty much on an annual basis– we need more church members.  Perhaps we mean we want more church members so more people will connect with Jesus and find a way to grow in their faith.   Or maybe we really mean we want more church members to help with leading or attending our church programs, or to contribute money so we can pay our pastor.  We are thinking the pews need to be full.

John Vest, the evangelism professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary who spoke at the Bible conference this summer, said:  “We still keep inviting people to us to do our things instead of going out to them and being church in the culture.”  He is right.  We forget that one little word of Jesus’ great commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew:  “Go.”  The Message translation reads:  “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you.  I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”  Jesus said nothing about church membership or even church attendance here.  He said, “Go out and train others in this way of life.”  You have to do that first.  Go out and meet people where they are instead of expecting people to come to you.  For me, watching Katrina Elliott serve hotdogs to hungry people at the National Night Out on the high school parking lot earlier this month was seeing the church outside the building.  It was Christ-in-action.  Jesus seemed to care about the people who were hungry.  The churches of our community were present in a way that spoke volumes to the school and to those who attended the event.  We went out.  But we can’t stop there.  Maybe we should be offering cold water and games for children at the farmer’s market on Saturdays. Where can we intersect with people and share who we are and why we follow Jesus?  It does not have to be a HRPC group effort.  Each one of us can be the church out in the community.

Elijah had to do something different.  He had been living by the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan River. A wadi is a streambed which fills during the rainy season, but remains dry when there is no rain.  There had been no rain, and the wadi dried up, as wadis do.  His environment had changed, so Elijah had to make a change.  God gave him instructions to go, to go to a foreign country even.  To go to an unfamiliar place.  To go and seek support from a foreign woman who just so happens to be a widow.   This is an unusual place to look for help.  The widow is struggling.  She is already burdened with basic survival for herself and her son, and she is going to have the resources to feed Elijah as well?  Wouldn’t he have done better to knock on the door of a rich person who might actually have some food to share?

Elijah first asks for water.  That is easy enough.  The woman has a source for water even in the drought.  But then he asks for bread.  That is harder.  She is busy gathering sticks to build a fire to make one last meal for herself and her son.  They are at the end of their supply of oil and flour.  She has got to be just falling apart.  Elijah knows something she does not know.  He asks her to trust him, and promises that God will keep her jug of oil and her jar of flour from running out until the rains come back and she can find other sources for food.  Elijah already knows God.  Elijah has trusted God enough to follow God’s instructions to come to this unfamiliar land.  Now he asks the widow to trust God enough to bake bread first for him, and then to feed herself and her son.  Not to give him what is leftover, but to give him what he needs, and then her family will have what they need.

What would have happened to that little family if Elijah had not gone out to an unfamiliar place?  They very likely would have shriveled up and died.  What would have happened to Elijah if he had not gone?  Perhaps the same thing.  What will happen to the church if we do not go?  We might become a relic of the past.

Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life.  We support Mark Hare and Jenny Bent and their two daughters as they serve God and God’s people in Batey 7 in rural Dominican Republic.  Some of you had the opportunity to meet Mark when he was here in April sharing some of the ways God’s Spirit is at work through them in that part of the world.  Mark says: “The kind of mission we are trying to do here is not about building schools, clinics or churches, but rather, workshops which meet the needs identified by the community.”  They are listening to the needs of the people, working to improve health on a variety of levels. They are seeking to develop relationships, strengthen a community and mixing in evangelism, discipleship and health promotion.  They make time for Biblical reflection as they work together on planting “tire gardens” or using the village’s clinic for a sewing class.  Or sharing the good news of a God who cares about healthy children to parents through a school health screening.   Mark and Jenny have really gone.  They are not sitting in a pew.  They have found a place where just living and working together is church.

It is amazing the creative ways God has chosen to get the word out.  Life comes via a poor widow on the verge of death.  Fresh, healthy vegetables and herbs grow in abandoned tires.  Taking height and weight measurements becomes a forum for lessons on better nutrition, safer cooking practices and God’s love.   City people from Baltimore spend a week on a little piece of Native American soil, being the church together through science, games, art and fellowship.

I believe God is calling us to be creative as well.  To use the resources given to us by God and not bemoan the lack of human or financial resources.  How is our creative God calling you?   Step 1.  Don’t be afraid to do something different or new or “foreign”.  Anything different will be unfamiliar at first—like singing a new hymn.  Strange at first, but then it becomes one of your favorites.  Craig always says that any hymn had to be new at one time!

Step 2:  Think about the people you already relate with on a regular basis…  most of us have 5-6 different groups, or social networks— your extended family, your neighbors, parents of your children’s friends, a sorority, work colleagues.  Some might be a part of this church, but I am guessing most are not.  A  helpful exercise might be to actually draw some circles on a piece of paper.  Fill in the names of the people you connect with in your different groups.  They may be in person or via electronic means, but they are people whose opinion matters to you, people you enjoy spending time with, people with whom you share common concerns, values or interests.

Step 3:  It won’t be in all of your networks, but surely in at least one of them, are there ways that you can find to engage them in questions of faith?  Or can you find a way to encourage them to work together to move this world more toward the kind of world God is looking for?  It doesn’t have to be bringing them to church.  (Although of course we would welcome them!)  In what ways can you bring the church to them?  Use your reflections on Facebook or instagram.  Include a scripture passage or a prayer on your birthday greeting to a friend– and not just to the friend who already is active in a church.  Get people thinking.  Get people talking.  And if it is not face to face, that’s ok.  Jesus said, Go out and train everyone you meet in this way of life.  He did not say, Go out and make church members.  He did not say, sit inside and wait for someone to knock on your door.  I just wonder if he might say, “An empty pew is a good sign if it means you are at work in the world.  Why are you still sitting here?”  I like the words of Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary from the Church of Scotland to India for many years.  He said:  ” the Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God…” No matter what changes we find in our environment, we continue with the same mission– to be the sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God. Empty pews can mean that we have shifted to use this building as our headquarters to the mission field all around us. Empty pews can mean the church is at work. May it be so.1 Kings 17: 7-16 Matthew 28:16-20 Why are we still sitting here? 8.28.16
We have been conditioned to look at a photo like this and think, oh, too bad, the pews are empty. Pews are meant to be full. Of course they are. When churches like ours were built over 85 years ago, people were flocking to church buildings all over this city. Have you ever taken stock of how many churches are on the corners of Baltimore? There are 345 Baptist churches alone! 70 Roman Catholic churches. 22 Presbyterian churches. And multiple other denominations. And who knows how many small non-denominational storefront churches? In the little neighborhood around Harlem Avenue there are 6 of those within 2-3 blocks. No one would have built these churches unless they believed the pews had the potential to be full. And for years, many of them were. Full to overflowing with young children, teenagers, and adults of all ages.
As I said earlier this month, and as is easily visible, our social environment has changed. The values placed on church membership and church attendance are very different than they were when this building was built in 1930, or when the 1953 organ was put in, or when the beloved pastor was here– whoever that was for you. The current volume of competing events and activities on Sunday mornings would have been unheard of. Today we have church members who consider coming to worship once or twice a month as regular attendance. Or who make it to church only when their priority activity gets rained out. It is not just Hunting Ridge. It is life in 2016 in the United States.
Yet we continue to be stuck in the mindset that empty pews are bad pews. That our primary goal each year is to get more church members, more bodies in the pews. In my role as a member of the Committee on Ministry for the Presbytery, I have been assigned to walk alongside a church in transition between pastors. Their pastor left, now they have an interim pastor, and soon they will begin the search for a new pastor. They have done an assessment of their current ministry and identified their hopes for the future. Faced with a declining membership and dwindling funds, they are looking to bring in more church members. Surprise. They looked honestly at their lack of connection to the community around them, and want to call a pastor who will help them more significantly connect to their community so that they will attract new members. Their mindset is not so different than many churches I know. I have heard the same thing from our church leaders, pretty much on an annual basis– we need more church members. Perhaps we mean we want more church members so more people will connect with Jesus and find a way to grow in their faith. Or maybe we really mean we want more church members to help with leading or attending our church programs, or to contribute money so we can pay our pastor. We are thinking the pews need to be full.
John Vest, the evangelism professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary who spoke at the Bible conference this summer, said: “We still keep inviting people to us to do our things instead of going out to them and being church in the culture.” He is right. We forget that one little word of Jesus’ great commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew: “Go.” The Message translation reads: “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.” Jesus said nothing about church membership or even church attendance here. He said, “Go out and train others in this way of life.” You have to do that first. Go out and meet people where they are instead of expecting people to come to you. For me, watching Katrina Elliott serve hotdogs to hungry people at the National Night Out on the high school parking lot earlier this month was seeing the church outside the building. It was Christ-in-action. Jesus seemed to care about the people who were hungry. The churches of our community were present in a way that spoke volumes to the school and to those who attended the event. We went out. But we can’t stop there. Maybe we should be offering cold water and games for children at the farmer’s market on Saturdays. Where can we intersect with people and share who we are and why we follow Jesus? It does not have to be a HRPC group effort. Each one of us can be the church out in the community.
Elijah had to do something different. He had been living by the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan River. A wadi is a streambed which fills during the rainy season, but remains dry when there is no rain. There had been no rain, and the wadi dried up, as wadis do. His environment had changed, so Elijah had to make a change. God gave him instructions to go, to go to a foreign country even. To go to an unfamiliar place. To go and seek support from a foreign woman who just so happens to be a widow. This is an unusual place to look for help. The widow is struggling. She is already burdened with basic survival for herself and her son, and she is going to have the resources to feed Elijah as well? Wouldn’t he have done better to knock on the door of a rich person who might actually have some food to share?
Elijah first asks for water. That is easy enough. The woman has a source for water even in the drought. But then he asks for bread. That is harder. She is busy gathering sticks to build a fire to make one last meal for herself and her son. They are at the end of their supply of oil and flour. She has got to be just falling apart. Elijah knows something she does not know. He asks her to trust him, and promises that God will keep her jug of oil and her jar of flour from running out until the rains come back and she can find other sources for food. Elijah already knows God. Elijah has trusted God enough to follow God’s instructions to come to this unfamiliar land. Now he asks the widow to trust God enough to bake bread first for him, and then to feed herself and her son. Not to give him what is leftover, but to give him what he needs, and then her family will have what they need.
What would have happened to that little family if Elijah had not gone out to an unfamiliar place? They very likely would have shriveled up and died. What would have happened to Elijah if he had not gone? Perhaps the same thing. What will happen to the church if we do not go? We might become a relic of the past.
Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life. We support Mark Hare and Jenny Bent and their two daughters as they serve God and God’s people in Batey 7 in rural Dominican Republic. Some of you had the opportunity to meet Mark when he was here in April sharing some of the ways God’s Spirit is at work through them in that part of the world. Mark says: “The kind of mission we are trying to do here is not about building schools, clinics or churches, but rather, workshops which meet the needs identified by the community.” They are listening to the needs of the people, working to improve health on a variety of levels. They are seeking to develop relationships, strengthen a community and mixing in evangelism, discipleship and health promotion. They make time for Biblical reflection as they work together on planting “tire gardens” or using the village’s clinic for a sewing class. Or sharing the good news of a God who cares about healthy children to parents through a school health screening. Mark and Jenny have really gone. They are not sitting in a pew. They have found a place where just living and working together is church.
It is amazing the creative ways God has chosen to get the word out. Life comes via a poor widow on the verge of death. Fresh, healthy vegetables and herbs grow in abandoned tires. Taking height and weight measurements becomes a forum for lessons on better nutrition, safer cooking practices and God’s love. City people from Baltimore spend a week on a little piece of Native American soil, being the church together through science, games, art and fellowship.
I believe God is calling us to be creative as well. To use the resources given to us by God and not bemoan the lack of human or financial resources. How is our creative God calling you? Step 1. Don’t be afraid to do something different or new or “foreign”. Anything different will be unfamiliar at first—like singing a new hymn. Strange at first, but then it becomes one of your favorites. Craig always says that any hymn had to be new at one time!
Step 2: Think about the people you already relate with on a regular basis… most of us have 5-6 different groups, or social networks— your extended family, your neighbors, parents of your children’s friends, a sorority, work colleagues. Some might be a part of this church, but I am guessing most are not. A helpful exercise might be to actually draw some circles on a piece of paper. Fill in the names of the people you connect with in your different groups. They may be in person or via electronic means, but they are people whose opinion matters to you, people you enjoy spending time with, people with whom you share common concerns, values or interests.
Step 3: It won’t be in all of your networks, but surely in at least one of them, are there ways that you can find to engage them in questions of faith? Or can you find a way to encourage them to work together to move this world more toward the kind of world God is looking for? It doesn’t have to be bringing them to church. (Although of course we would welcome them!) In what ways can you bring the church to them? Use your reflections on Facebook or instagram. Include a scripture passage or a prayer on your birthday greeting to a friend– and not just to the friend who already is active in a church. Get people thinking. Get people talking. And if it is not face to face, that’s ok. Jesus said, Go out and train everyone you meet in this way of life. He did not say, Go out and make church members. He did not say, sit inside and wait for someone to knock on your door. I just wonder if he might say, “An empty pew is a good sign if it means you are at work in the world. Why are you still sitting here?” I like the words of Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary from the Church of Scotland to India for many years. He said: ” the Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God…” No matter what changes we find in our environment, we continue with the same mission– to be the sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God. Empty pews can mean that we have shifted to use this building as our headquarters to the mission field all around us. Empty pews can mean the church is at work. May it be so.

1 Kings 17: 7-16    Matthew 28:16-20   Why are we still sitting here?    8.28.16

We have been conditioned to look at a photo like this and think, oh, too bad, the pews are empty.  Pews are meant to be full.  Of course they are.  When churches like ours were built over 85 years ago, people were flocking to church buildings all over this city.  Have you ever taken stock of how many churches are on the corners of Baltimore?  There are 345 Baptist churches alone!  70 Roman Catholic churches.  22 Presbyterian churches.  And multiple other denominations.  And who knows how many small non-denominational storefront churches?  In the little neighborhood around Harlem Avenue there are 6 of those within 2-3 blocks.  No one would have built these churches unless they believed the pews had the potential to be full.  And for years, many of them were.  Full to overflowing with young children, teenagers, and adults of all ages.

As I said earlier this month, and as is easily visible, our social environment has changed.  The values placed on church membership and church attendance are very different than they were when this building was built in 1930, or when the 1953 organ was put in, or when the beloved pastor was here– whoever that was for you.  The current volume of competing events and activities on Sunday mornings would have been unheard of.  Today we have church members who consider coming to worship once or twice a month as regular attendance.  Or who make it to church only when their priority activity gets rained out.  It is not just Hunting Ridge.  It is life in 2016 in the United States.

Yet we continue to be stuck in the mindset that empty pews are bad pews.  That our primary goal each year is to get more church members, more bodies in the pews.  In my role as a member of the Committee on Ministry for the Presbytery, I have been assigned to walk alongside a church in transition between pastors.  Their pastor left, now they have an interim pastor, and soon they will begin the search for a new pastor.  They have done an assessment of their current ministry and identified their hopes for the future.  Faced with a declining membership and dwindling funds, they are looking to bring in more church members.  Surprise.  They looked honestly at their lack of connection to the community around them, and want to call a pastor who will help them more significantly connect to their community so that they will attract new members.  Their mindset is not so different than many churches I know.  I have heard the same thing from our church leaders, pretty much on an annual basis– we need more church members.  Perhaps we mean we want more church members so more people will connect with Jesus and find a way to grow in their faith.   Or maybe we really mean we want more church members to help with leading or attending our church programs, or to contribute money so we can pay our pastor.  We are thinking the pews need to be full.

John Vest, the evangelism professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary who spoke at the Bible conference this summer, said:  “We still keep inviting people to us to do our things instead of going out to them and being church in the culture.”  He is right.  We forget that one little word of Jesus’ great commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew:  “Go.”  The Message translation reads:  “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you.  I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”  Jesus said nothing about church membership or even church attendance here.  He said, “Go out and train others in this way of life.”  You have to do that first.  Go out and meet people where they are instead of expecting people to come to you.  For me, watching Katrina Elliott serve hotdogs to hungry people at the National Night Out on the high school parking lot earlier this month was seeing the church outside the building.  It was Christ-in-action.  Jesus seemed to care about the people who were hungry.  The churches of our community were present in a way that spoke volumes to the school and to those who attended the event.  We went out.  But we can’t stop there.  Maybe we should be offering cold water and games for children at the farmer’s market on Saturdays. Where can we intersect with people and share who we are and why we follow Jesus?  It does not have to be a HRPC group effort.  Each one of us can be the church out in the community.

Elijah had to do something different.  He had been living by the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan River. A wadi is a streambed which fills during the rainy season, but remains dry when there is no rain.  There had been no rain, and the wadi dried up, as wadis do.  His environment had changed, so Elijah had to make a change.  God gave him instructions to go, to go to a foreign country even.  To go to an unfamiliar place.  To go and seek support from a foreign woman who just so happens to be a widow.   This is an unusual place to look for help.  The widow is struggling.  She is already burdened with basic survival for herself and her son, and she is going to have the resources to feed Elijah as well?  Wouldn’t he have done better to knock on the door of a rich person who might actually have some food to share?

Elijah first asks for water.  That is easy enough.  The woman has a source for water even in the drought.  But then he asks for bread.  That is harder.  She is busy gathering sticks to build a fire to make one last meal for herself and her son.  They are at the end of their supply of oil and flour.  She has got to be just falling apart.  Elijah knows something she does not know.  He asks her to trust him, and promises that God will keep her jug of oil and her jar of flour from running out until the rains come back and she can find other sources for food.  Elijah already knows God.  Elijah has trusted God enough to follow God’s instructions to come to this unfamiliar land.  Now he asks the widow to trust God enough to bake bread first for him, and then to feed herself and her son.  Not to give him what is leftover, but to give him what he needs, and then her family will have what they need.

What would have happened to that little family if Elijah had not gone out to an unfamiliar place?  They very likely would have shriveled up and died.  What would have happened to Elijah if he had not gone?  Perhaps the same thing.  What will happen to the church if we do not go?  We might become a relic of the past.

Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life.  We support Mark Hare and Jenny Bent and their two daughters as they serve God and God’s people in Batey 7 in rural Dominican Republic.  Some of you had the opportunity to meet Mark when he was here in April sharing some of the ways God’s Spirit is at work through them in that part of the world.  Mark says: “The kind of mission we are trying to do here is not about building schools, clinics or churches, but rather, workshops which meet the needs identified by the community.”  They are listening to the needs of the people, working to improve health on a variety of levels. They are seeking to develop relationships, strengthen a community and mixing in evangelism, discipleship and health promotion.  They make time for Biblical reflection as they work together on planting “tire gardens” or using the village’s clinic for a sewing class.  Or sharing the good news of a God who cares about healthy children to parents through a school health screening.   Mark and Jenny have really gone.  They are not sitting in a pew.  They have found a place where just living and working together is church.

It is amazing the creative ways God has chosen to get the word out.  Life comes via a poor widow on the verge of death.  Fresh, healthy vegetables and herbs grow in abandoned tires.  Taking height and weight measurements becomes a forum for lessons on better nutrition, safer cooking practices and God’s love.   City people from Baltimore spend a week on a little piece of Native American soil, being the church together through science, games, art and fellowship.

I believe God is calling us to be creative as well.  To use the resources given to us by God and not bemoan the lack of human or financial resources.  How is our creative God calling you?   Step 1.  Don’t be afraid to do something different or new or “foreign”.  Anything different will be unfamiliar at first—like singing a new hymn.  Strange at first, but then it becomes one of your favorites.  Craig always says that any hymn had to be new at one time!

Step 2:  Think about the people you already relate with on a regular basis…  most of us have 5-6 different groups, or social networks— your extended family, your neighbors, parents of your children’s friends, a sorority, work colleagues.  Some might be a part of this church, but I am guessing most are not.  A  helpful exercise might be to actually draw some circles on a piece of paper.  Fill in the names of the people you connect with in your different groups.  They may be in person or via electronic means, but they are people whose opinion matters to you, people you enjoy spending time with, people with whom you share common concerns, values or interests.

Step 3:  It won’t be in all of your networks, but surely in at least one of them, are there ways that you can find to engage them in questions of faith?  Or can you find a way to encourage them to work together to move this world more toward the kind of world God is looking for?  It doesn’t have to be bringing them to church.  (Although of course we would welcome them!)  In what ways can you bring the church to them?  Use your reflections on Facebook or instagram.  Include a scripture passage or a prayer on your birthday greeting to a friend– and not just to the friend who already is active in a church.  Get people thinking.  Get people talking.  And if it is not face to face, that’s ok.  Jesus said, Go out and train everyone you meet in this way of life.  He did not say, Go out and make church members.  He did not say, sit inside and wait for someone to knock on your door.  I just wonder if he might say, “An empty pew is a good sign if it means you are at work in the world.  Why are you still sitting here?”  I like the words of Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary from the Church of Scotland to India for many years.  He said:  ” the Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God…” No matter what changes we find in our environment, we continue with the same mission– to be the sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God. Empty pews can mean that we have shifted to use this building as our headquarters to the mission field all around us. Empty pews can mean the church is at work. May it be so.

1 Kings 17: 7-16    Matthew 28:16-20   Why are we still sitting here?    8.28.16

We have been conditioned to look at a photo like this and think, oh, too bad, the pews are empty.  Pews are meant to be full.  Of course they are.  When churches like ours were built over 85 years ago, people were flocking to church buildings all over this city.  Have you ever taken stock of how many churches are on the corners of Baltimore?  There are 345 Baptist churches alone!  70 Roman Catholic churches.  22 Presbyterian churches.  And multiple other denominations.  And who knows how many small non-denominational storefront churches?  In the little neighborhood around Harlem Avenue there are 6 of those within 2-3 blocks.  No one would have built these churches unless they believed the pews had the potential to be full.  And for years, many of them were.  Full to overflowing with young children, teenagers, and adults of all ages.

As I said earlier this month, and as is easily visible, our social environment has changed.  The values placed on church membership and church attendance are very different than they were when this building was built in 1930, or when the 1953 organ was put in, or when the beloved pastor was here– whoever that was for you.  The current volume of competing events and activities on Sunday mornings would have been unheard of.  Today we have church members who consider coming to worship once or twice a month as regular attendance.  Or who make it to church only when their priority activity gets rained out.  It is not just Hunting Ridge.  It is life in 2016 in the United States.

Yet we continue to be stuck in the mindset that empty pews are bad pews.  That our primary goal each year is to get more church members, more bodies in the pews.  In my role as a member of the Committee on Ministry for the Presbytery, I have been assigned to walk alongside a church in transition between pastors.  Their pastor left, now they have an interim pastor, and soon they will begin the search for a new pastor.  They have done an assessment of their current ministry and identified their hopes for the future.  Faced with a declining membership and dwindling funds, they are looking to bring in more church members.  Surprise.  They looked honestly at their lack of connection to the community around them, and want to call a pastor who will help them more significantly connect to their community so that they will attract new members.  Their mindset is not so different than many churches I know.  I have heard the same thing from our church leaders, pretty much on an annual basis– we need more church members.  Perhaps we mean we want more church members so more people will connect with Jesus and find a way to grow in their faith.   Or maybe we really mean we want more church members to help with leading or attending our church programs, or to contribute money so we can pay our pastor.  We are thinking the pews need to be full.

John Vest, the evangelism professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary who spoke at the Bible conference this summer, said:  “We still keep inviting people to us to do our things instead of going out to them and being church in the culture.”  He is right.  We forget that one little word of Jesus’ great commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew:  “Go.”  The Message translation reads:  “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you.  I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”  Jesus said nothing about church membership or even church attendance here.  He said, “Go out and train others in this way of life.”  You have to do that first.  Go out and meet people where they are instead of expecting people to come to you.  For me, watching Katrina Elliott serve hotdogs to hungry people at the National Night Out on the high school parking lot earlier this month was seeing the church outside the building.  It was Christ-in-action.  Jesus seemed to care about the people who were hungry.  The churches of our community were present in a way that spoke volumes to the school and to those who attended the event.  We went out.  But we can’t stop there.  Maybe we should be offering cold water and games for children at the farmer’s market on Saturdays. Where can we intersect with people and share who we are and why we follow Jesus?  It does not have to be a HRPC group effort.  Each one of us can be the church out in the community.

Elijah had to do something different.  He had been living by the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan River. A wadi is a streambed which fills during the rainy season, but remains dry when there is no rain.  There had been no rain, and the wadi dried up, as wadis do.  His environment had changed, so Elijah had to make a change.  God gave him instructions to go, to go to a foreign country even.  To go to an unfamiliar place.  To go and seek support from a foreign woman who just so happens to be a widow.   This is an unusual place to look for help.  The widow is struggling.  She is already burdened with basic survival for herself and her son, and she is going to have the resources to feed Elijah as well?  Wouldn’t he have done better to knock on the door of a rich person who might actually have some food to share?

Elijah first asks for water.  That is easy enough.  The woman has a source for water even in the drought.  But then he asks for bread.  That is harder.  She is busy gathering sticks to build a fire to make one last meal for herself and her son.  They are at the end of their supply of oil and flour.  She has got to be just falling apart.  Elijah knows something she does not know.  He asks her to trust him, and promises that God will keep her jug of oil and her jar of flour from running out until the rains come back and she can find other sources for food.  Elijah already knows God.  Elijah has trusted God enough to follow God’s instructions to come to this unfamiliar land.  Now he asks the widow to trust God enough to bake bread first for him, and then to feed herself and her son.  Not to give him what is leftover, but to give him what he needs, and then her family will have what they need.

What would have happened to that little family if Elijah had not gone out to an unfamiliar place?  They very likely would have shriveled up and died.  What would have happened to Elijah if he had not gone?  Perhaps the same thing.  What will happen to the church if we do not go?  We might become a relic of the past.

Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life.  We support Mark Hare and Jenny Bent and their two daughters as they serve God and God’s people in Batey 7 in rural Dominican Republic.  Some of you had the opportunity to meet Mark when he was here in April sharing some of the ways God’s Spirit is at work through them in that part of the world.  Mark says: “The kind of mission we are trying to do here is not about building schools, clinics or churches, but rather, workshops which meet the needs identified by the community.”  They are listening to the needs of the people, working to improve health on a variety of levels. They are seeking to develop relationships, strengthen a community and mixing in evangelism, discipleship and health promotion.  They make time for Biblical reflection as they work together on planting “tire gardens” or using the village’s clinic for a sewing class.  Or sharing the good news of a God who cares about healthy children to parents through a school health screening.   Mark and Jenny have really gone.  They are not sitting in a pew.  They have found a place where just living and working together is church.

It is amazing the creative ways God has chosen to get the word out.  Life comes via a poor widow on the verge of death.  Fresh, healthy vegetables and herbs grow in abandoned tires.  Taking height and weight measurements becomes a forum for lessons on better nutrition, safer cooking practices and God’s love.   City people from Baltimore spend a week on a little piece of Native American soil, being the church together through science, games, art and fellowship.

I believe God is calling us to be creative as well.  To use the resources given to us by God and not bemoan the lack of human or financial resources.  How is our creative God calling you?   Step 1.  Don’t be afraid to do something different or new or “foreign”.  Anything different will be unfamiliar at first—like singing a new hymn.  Strange at first, but then it becomes one of your favorites.  Craig always says that any hymn had to be new at one time!

Step 2:  Think about the people you already relate with on a regular basis…  most of us have 5-6 different groups, or social networks— your extended family, your neighbors, parents of your children’s friends, a sorority, work colleagues.  Some might be a part of this church, but I am guessing most are not.  A  helpful exercise might be to actually draw some circles on a piece of paper.  Fill in the names of the people you connect with in your different groups.  They may be in person or via electronic means, but they are people whose opinion matters to you, people you enjoy spending time with, people with whom you share common concerns, values or interests.

Step 3:  It won’t be in all of your networks, but surely in at least one of them, are there ways that you can find to engage them in questions of faith?  Or can you find a way to encourage them to work together to move this world more toward the kind of world God is looking for?  It doesn’t have to be bringing them to church.  (Although of course we would welcome them!)  In what ways can you bring the church to them?  Use your reflections on Facebook or instagram.  Include a scripture passage or a prayer on your birthday greeting to a friend– and not just to the friend who already is active in a church.  Get people thinking.  Get people talking.  And if it is not face to face, that’s ok.  Jesus said, Go out and train everyone you meet in this way of life.  He did not say, Go out and make church members.  He did not say, sit inside and wait for someone to knock on your door.  I just wonder if he might say, “An empty pew is a good sign if it means you are at work in the world.  Why are you still sitting here?”  I like the words of Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary from the Church of Scotland to India for many years.  He said:  ” the Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God…” No matter what changes we find in our environment, we continue with the same mission– to be the sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God. Empty pews can mean that we have shifted to use this building as our headquarters to the mission field all around us. Empty pews can mean the church is at work. May it be so.

1 Kings 17: 7-16    Matthew 28:16-20   Why are we still sitting here?    8.28.16

We have been conditioned to look at a photo like this and think, oh, too bad, the pews are empty.  Pews are meant to be full.  Of course they are.  When churches like ours were built over 85 years ago, people were flocking to church buildings all over this city.  Have you ever taken stock of how many churches are on the corners of Baltimore?  There are 345 Baptist churches alone!  70 Roman Catholic churches.  22 Presbyterian churches.  And multiple other denominations.  And who knows how many small non-denominational storefront churches?  In the little neighborhood around Harlem Avenue there are 6 of those within 2-3 blocks.  No one would have built these churches unless they believed the pews had the potential to be full.  And for years, many of them were.  Full to overflowing with young children, teenagers, and adults of all ages.

As I said earlier this month, and as is easily visible, our social environment has changed.  The values placed on church membership and church attendance are very different than they were when this building was built in 1930, or when the 1953 organ was put in, or when the beloved pastor was here– whoever that was for you.  The current volume of competing events and activities on Sunday mornings would have been unheard of.  Today we have church members who consider coming to worship once or twice a month as regular attendance.  Or who make it to church only when their priority activity gets rained out.  It is not just Hunting Ridge.  It is life in 2016 in the United States.

Yet we continue to be stuck in the mindset that empty pews are bad pews.  That our primary goal each year is to get more church members, more bodies in the pews.  In my role as a member of the Committee on Ministry for the Presbytery, I have been assigned to walk alongside a church in transition between pastors.  Their pastor left, now they have an interim pastor, and soon they will begin the search for a new pastor.  They have done an assessment of their current ministry and identified their hopes for the future.  Faced with a declining membership and dwindling funds, they are looking to bring in more church members.  Surprise.  They looked honestly at their lack of connection to the community around them, and want to call a pastor who will help them more significantly connect to their community so that they will attract new members.  Their mindset is not so different than many churches I know.  I have heard the same thing from our church leaders, pretty much on an annual basis– we need more church members.  Perhaps we mean we want more church members so more people will connect with Jesus and find a way to grow in their faith.   Or maybe we really mean we want more church members to help with leading or attending our church programs, or to contribute money so we can pay our pastor.  We are thinking the pews need to be full.

John Vest, the evangelism professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary who spoke at the Bible conference this summer, said:  “We still keep inviting people to us to do our things instead of going out to them and being church in the culture.”  He is right.  We forget that one little word of Jesus’ great commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew:  “Go.”  The Message translation reads:  “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you.  I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.”  Jesus said nothing about church membership or even church attendance here.  He said, “Go out and train others in this way of life.”  You have to do that first.  Go out and meet people where they are instead of expecting people to come to you.  For me, watching Katrina Elliott serve hotdogs to hungry people at the National Night Out on the high school parking lot earlier this month was seeing the church outside the building.  It was Christ-in-action.  Jesus seemed to care about the people who were hungry.  The churches of our community were present in a way that spoke volumes to the school and to those who attended the event.  We went out.  But we can’t stop there.  Maybe we should be offering cold water and games for children at the farmer’s market on Saturdays. Where can we intersect with people and share who we are and why we follow Jesus?  It does not have to be a HRPC group effort.  Each one of us can be the church out in the community.

Elijah had to do something different.  He had been living by the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan River. A wadi is a streambed which fills during the rainy season, but remains dry when there is no rain.  There had been no rain, and the wadi dried up, as wadis do.  His environment had changed, so Elijah had to make a change.  God gave him instructions to go, to go to a foreign country even.  To go to an unfamiliar place.  To go and seek support from a foreign woman who just so happens to be a widow.   This is an unusual place to look for help.  The widow is struggling.  She is already burdened with basic survival for herself and her son, and she is going to have the resources to feed Elijah as well?  Wouldn’t he have done better to knock on the door of a rich person who might actually have some food to share?

Elijah first asks for water.  That is easy enough.  The woman has a source for water even in the drought.  But then he asks for bread.  That is harder.  She is busy gathering sticks to build a fire to make one last meal for herself and her son.  They are at the end of their supply of oil and flour.  She has got to be just falling apart.  Elijah knows something she does not know.  He asks her to trust him, and promises that God will keep her jug of oil and her jar of flour from running out until the rains come back and she can find other sources for food.  Elijah already knows God.  Elijah has trusted God enough to follow God’s instructions to come to this unfamiliar land.  Now he asks the widow to trust God enough to bake bread first for him, and then to feed herself and her son.  Not to give him what is leftover, but to give him what he needs, and then her family will have what they need.

What would have happened to that little family if Elijah had not gone out to an unfamiliar place?  They very likely would have shriveled up and died.  What would have happened to Elijah if he had not gone?  Perhaps the same thing.  What will happen to the church if we do not go?  We might become a relic of the past.

Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life.  We support Mark Hare and Jenny Bent and their two daughters as they serve God and God’s people in Batey 7 in rural Dominican Republic.  Some of you had the opportunity to meet Mark when he was here in April sharing some of the ways God’s Spirit is at work through them in that part of the world.  Mark says: “The kind of mission we are trying to do here is not about building schools, clinics or churches, but rather, workshops which meet the needs identified by the community.”  They are listening to the needs of the people, working to improve health on a variety of levels. They are seeking to develop relationships, strengthen a community and mixing in evangelism, discipleship and health promotion.  They make time for Biblical reflection as they work together on planting “tire gardens” or using the village’s clinic for a sewing class.  Or sharing the good news of a God who cares about healthy children to parents through a school health screening.   Mark and Jenny have really gone.  They are not sitting in a pew.  They have found a place where just living and working together is church.

It is amazing the creative ways God has chosen to get the word out.  Life comes via a poor widow on the verge of death.  Fresh, healthy vegetables and herbs grow in abandoned tires.  Taking height and weight measurements becomes a forum for lessons on better nutrition, safer cooking practices and God’s love.   City people from Baltimore spend a week on a little piece of Native American soil, being the church together through science, games, art and fellowship.

I believe God is calling us to be creative as well.  To use the resources given to us by God and not bemoan the lack of human or financial resources.  How is our creative God calling you?   Step 1.  Don’t be afraid to do something different or new or “foreign”.  Anything different will be unfamiliar at first—like singing a new hymn.  Strange at first, but then it becomes one of your favorites.  Craig always says that any hymn had to be new at one time!

Step 2:  Think about the people you already relate with on a regular basis…  most of us have 5-6 different groups, or social networks— your extended family, your neighbors, parents of your children’s friends, a sorority, work colleagues.  Some might be a part of this church, but I am guessing most are not.  A  helpful exercise might be to actually draw some circles on a piece of paper.  Fill in the names of the people you connect with in your different groups.  They may be in person or via electronic means, but they are people whose opinion matters to you, people you enjoy spending time with, people with whom you share common concerns, values or interests.

Step 3:  It won’t be in all of your networks, but surely in at least one of them, are there ways that you can find to engage them in questions of faith?  Or can you find a way to encourage them to work together to move this world more toward the kind of world God is looking for?  It doesn’t have to be bringing them to church.  (Although of course we would welcome them!)  In what ways can you bring the church to them?  Use your reflections on Facebook or instagram.  Include a scripture passage or a prayer on your birthday greeting to a friend– and not just to the friend who already is active in a church.  Get people thinking.  Get people talking.  And if it is not face to face, that’s ok.  Jesus said, Go out and train everyone you meet in this way of life.  He did not say, Go out and make church members.  He did not say, sit inside and wait for someone to knock on your door.  I just wonder if he might say, “An empty pew is a good sign if it means you are at work in the world.  Why are you still sitting here?”  I like the words of Lesslie Newbigin, a missionary from the Church of Scotland to India for many years.  He said:  ” the Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God…” No matter what changes we find in our environment, we continue with the same mission– to be the sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God. Empty pews can mean that we have shifted to use this building as our headquarters to the mission field all around us. Empty pews can mean the church is at work. May it be so.

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