A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.

November 10, 2013

The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

A funny thing happened while we were on the road with Jesus: it came to an end.

Back when I was making plans to preach this sermon series I thought we would be on the road with Jesus all the way up to the First Sunday of Advent.  Luke’s Travel Narrative is long, after all; it runs from chapter 9, verse 51, to chapter 19, verse 27.  I figured there was no way we could cover that much ground between the end of June and the beginning of December. 

I figured wrong.

Last week’s lectionary reading was from the first part of Luke 19, but this week’s reading is from chapter 20, well after Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  So I started thinking about my options.  I could go back and pick up some of those passages from the Travel Narrative that the lectionary left out so we could stay on the road a few more Sundays.  Or I could simply keep preaching the Gospel passages from Luke and hope you wouldn’t notice.  Or, I could forget the lectionary altogether and spend a couple of Sundays just talking to you.

And that’s what I’ve decided to do.

The hard part has been deciding what to talk about.  There’s so much I’d like to say, but maybe I should start by saying this: Thank you.  Thank you for letting me be your pastor these past five-and-a-half years.  You didn’t have to.  This is a Baptist church, after all.  Baptist churches get rid of their pastors all the time.  But in this church you have a history of keeping your pastors a long time, long enough to get to know them, and for them to get to know you, and often that’s all it takes.  I recently read an article by Martin Copenhaver, a pastor who has been in his church for 18 years.  He said that when he preached his first sermon there he was overwhelmed by the sight of a “largely anonymous sea of faces.”  But now, he says, after so many years, “there is hardly a trace of anonymity to be found.”  He goes on from there to talk about knowing his people, and knowing what many of them have been through, and feeling this enormous affection for them.  I haven’t been here for 18 years, but when I read the article I knew what he was talking about, so thank you for letting me get to know you.  At first I had that same experience of seeing all those anonymous faces, but over time I have been able to attach names to most of those faces, and stories to many of those names, and back stories to some of those stories.  I haven’t been here as long as Martin Copenhaver has been at his church, not yet, but I’m getting to know you, and growing in my love for you, and I’m grateful for your patience as I do it.  This year, on All Saints’ Sunday, as I heard the names of those who had died in the previous year I felt a lump rise in my throat over and over again.  Because they weren’t just names anymore; many of them were the names of friends. 

And thank you for taking the time to get to know me.  We are all, more or less, products of our upbringing, and I am certainly a product of mine.  I was born in Alabama, but I didn’t stay there long.  My father, a Presbyterian minister, was chased out of Lowndes County by the Ku Klux Klan because he refused to join the White Citizen’s Council.  We ended up in Southwest Virginia and then in West Virginia where he spent 25 years trying to end poverty in Boone County.  He did not succeed.  But while he was out doing that my mother was busy raising six sons and trying to fill them up with a love for Jesus.  She succeeded.  Every one of us, at one time or another, has worked as a minister or a missionary.  And she told the best Bible stories I’ve ever heard.  So there is, in my background, this unusual blend of civil rights activism and social justice joined to a passion for the gospel and a deep, deep love for Scripture.  I can’t apologize for that; I am what I am.  But I can ask you to forgive me for those times when what I am has collided with what you are, especially when I have been insensitive to the differences. 

Having said all that, let me get to what I want to talk about today, which really goes back to that Mother’s Day in 2008 when you called me to be your pastor.  This room was packed with people, all of them eager to hear the new guy, to see what he was like.  Some of you were here.  I preached a sermon from the Gospel of John—probably not my best—but you decided to call me anyway.  When I stepped back into the room after the vote that day the church got to its feet and gave me a long, loud, standing ovation.  I hadn’t even done anything yet, but there you were, offering me your trust, saying, “Here, take the helm of this big, beautiful ship called First Baptist Church and steer it into an uncertain future.”  On that day I knew: I didn’t want to let you down.  On this day: I still don’t.  And if you were to ask me what I am most afraid of I think I would say this: that I am afraid of failure, afraid that one day I will be standing here preaching to handful of people in a room that used to be full.

Because I can see what’s happening to the church in America: it’s in decline. Every major denomination, including the Southern Baptist Convention, is reporting losses in membership, baptisms, and giving.[i]  Current data suggests that less than 17 percent of the American population is in church on any given Sunday and that number keeps going down.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  Some of you can probably still remember when going to church was “the Sunday morning thing to do,” and when there were regular traffic jams as everybody tried to get to their respective Sunday schools.  When someone asked one of my predecessors in DC how he was able to grow such a large church he replied, “In those days it was a matter of opening the door and getting out of the way.”  It’s not that way anymore, is it?  I think there are a number of reasons for that, but let’s look at one of them:[ii]

The churchgoing boom in America coincided almost exactly with the Baby Boom (1946-1964).  The war was over; soldiers and sailors came home and married their high school sweethearts; they moved into houses with white picket fences and began to have babies—lots of babies.  Those new parents wanted their babies to grow up in the church just as they had.  They came by the hundreds, by the thousands, and soon churches were scrambling to find enough nursery space, and then enough Sunday school space for all those babies, all those children!  And because their parents were coming to church too they needed bigger sanctuaries.  They built them, or added additional services, and for a little while at least those sanctuaries were full, or nearly.  And then, for a number of reasons, things began to change.  The Fifties gave way to the Sixties (anybody remember them?).  The Sixties gave way to the Seventies.  Those babies who had been brought to church by their parents grew up and went their own way, and for many of them the way did not lead back to church.

Sometimes when I am driving through the rural South I will see three church buildings along the highway.  One is the original sanctuary, built sometime in the 1920’s; next to it is a much larger sanctuary, built sometime in the 1950’s; and next to that is an educational building, built sometime in the 1970’s.  When you look at the three of them in a row like that you can see how the Baby Boom moved through the church like an ostrich egg through a boa constrictor.  I would guess that the Sunday morning crowd these days could easily fit inside that original sanctuary building, but of course that will never happen.  They will stay in the bigger building, watching the pews empty out, telling the current pastor how good things were back in the 1950’s and wondering why he can’t bring them in like they did back then.  Because this is one of the options when the church is in decline: blame the preacher.

I have a friend who was pastor of one of those churches for a while.  He said he would step up to the pulpit on Sunday morning and look out over a cavernous sanctuary, where 300 people were scattered among pews meant to hold 1,500, and where those people would tell him how the church used to be full on Sunday mornings—full!  You’ve seen the pictures from that era: black and white photographs of church sanctuaries packed with men in dark suits and skinny ties, women in hats and white gloves up to their elbows.  I asked him what that was like and he said, “Jim, I felt mocked by those empty pews Sunday after Sunday.  I tried my best to fill them up—did a lot of outreach, tried some new programs, preached like I’ve never preached before—but in the end the church asked me to leave.  They formed a search committee and went out looking for somebody who could do what I couldn’t.”

And that’s a shame, isn’t it?

My hunch is that it isn’t the pastors who are the problem, usually.  My sense is that pastors these days are working harder and smarter than ever before.  But the culture has changed in ways we are only beginning to understand, and the forces that once pushed people into the church are now pulling them out.  “I can’t come this Sunday,” someone will explain; “my son has a soccer game.”  “I can’t come next Sunday,” they say; “we’re going to the beach.”  “I can’t come at all,” someone else complains; “I have to work on Sunday.” So we sigh, and shake our heads, and look back to the good old days, when churchgoing was the Sunday morning thing to do, and wonder what we could do to turn back the clock, and make it 1955 again. 

And every once in a while someone seems to figure it out.

Back in the mid-seventies a couple of youth ministers from Chicago were discouraged by the decline in their churches and decided to start a new one.  They began by doing a survey, by going around and asking people why they weren’t coming to church anymore.  The people said the music was outdated, the sermons weren’t relevant, and they didn’t like to dress up on Sundays.  So, Bill Hybels and Dave Holmbo started a church called Willow Creek that met in a theater, where people could listen to contemporary Christian music, sermons that were edgy and relevant, dramas that brought home the central point and, best of all, they didn’t have to dress up.  The church was a phenomenal success.  In fact, within just a few years, more than 15,000 people were attending every week for services that weren’t exactly Christian worship in the way that we know it, but were certainly “seeker-friendly.” 

Soon everybody was trying to emulate the success of Willow Creek.  Community churches began to pop up everywhere, featuring contemporary worship that included live bands and talented singers; gifted preachers who strolled out onto the platform wearing golf shirts and talked about things like how to deal with the stresses of everyday life and how to raise happy, healthy children.  Some of these churches used drama, others used video, but all of them tried to make a break from the old way of doing church—from the hymnbooks and prayer books, the pipe organs and priests.  And again, people responded.  They seemed to like this new way of doing church.  They came in droves. 

Experts called this phenomenon the “Church Growth Movement,” and it was during this time that one of my friends in North Carolina said he was thinking about starting a contemporary worship service at his church.  Now this guy (bless his heart) was pastor of a tiny Baptist church, way out in the country.  I asked him why he was thinking about starting a contemporary worship service and he said, “You know, to bring in all these young people.”  I didn’t say it out loud but I thought, “What young people?  You serve a little church out in the country.  All the young people have moved to the city.  Do you think they’re going to come back just because you bring in a few drums and guitars and put the words of some praise choruses up on the screen with an overhead projector?  Don’t you think you’ll just drive away most of the older people?”  I don’t know if he ever tried it or not but the fact that he was thinking about it illustrates the point that in those days church leaders were doing whatever they could to keep the pews and offering plates from emptying out. 

What some of us missed in all of this was the shift from a model in which people came to church out of duty, devotion, or habit to a model in which we tried to make coming to church attractive to them.  It’s a subtle shift, but can you guess what happens when you start trying to make coming to church attractive?  You start thinking about what people like, and how you can give it to them.  Do they like coffee and doughnuts?  Well, let’s give it to them.  Do they like contemporary music?  Let’s give it to them!  Do they like preaching that relates to everyday life?  Let’s give it to them.  The problem, of course, is that some churches are better at this than others.  Some have more resources than others.  And while the megachurches begin to spring up across the religious landscape other, smaller, churches dwindle down to nothing and eventually have to close their doors.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t have anything against relevant preaching, I don’t have anything against contemporary worship, and I certainly don’t have anything against coffee and doughnuts, but when you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens up an espresso bar.

I think I learned this lesson right out of college, when I was a youth minister in Kentucky.  I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids.  I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park.  But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie.  And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else…was Jesus.  So, I made up my mind to do that—to give them Jesus—and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds. 

In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

(to be continued)

[i] “Southern Baptist Ranks Decline, Once Again,” Washington Times, June 6, 2013.

[ii] Much of the material that follows is from my essay, “When the Sand Castle Crumbles,” available online at Issuu.com (http://issuu.com/jimsomerville/docs/when_the_sand_castle_crumbles).


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