The church is changing and growing and always becoming something new. And I believe it is a wonderful time to be the church.
I grew up in the church, in a family that held the church at its center. In my congregation, as well as most congregations in my hometown, the pews were filled on Sundays. Most of my friends attended church and grew up as acolytes and choir members. We went to Vacation Bible School together and then on to church camp. My Friday nights were often spent at my friend's church who held the best dances in town and attracted literally hundreds of high school kids from around the town, and I brought them to our youth group activities on Sunday nights. There was never a question of where our family would be on a Sunday morning. My dad sang in the choir. My mom served on the Altar Guild every week. And when I finally passed that rite of passage when I could become an acolyte, and then a crucifer, along with my friends, we celebrated. In my small town, "everyone" went to church - it was just the way it was. Ah, the good old days!
Of course the church doesn't look that way anymore. Most congregations cannot boast of filled pews. Budgets are tight. Church dances attracting hundreds of high school kids are a thing of the past in most places. If asked, many members of congregations would say the best days are behind us, not before us. People are in fear of losing their image of what the church was, and try valiantly to hold onto a church that still tries to do ministry the way it has for the past 50 years. But that is no longer the church we have. Nor should it be.
I do believe it is a wonderful time to be the church. Because the world is different than it was in my childhood. Today pastors are not just needed to preach and teach and pray and visit the homebound, but to be missionaries, visionaries, and approach ministry with creativity, vitality, and newness. People are hungering for meaning, for ways to make a difference in the world. There is a hunger for spirituality, for a sense of connection with others. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter can be wonderful ways to connect with hundreds of people, but they are no substitute for community, meaningfulness, and a sense of God's grace. Connecting with friends on a computer screen late into the night cannot replace conversation, mutual sharing, worship, singing and serving together.
The church has an amazing opportunity to be that voice in the world for which so many are searching. We have an opportunity to provide places where we can join together to explore our joys and our doubts, and to engage ancient voices that come alive through Scripture. We can provide opportunities for service in our community and in the world, hands-on experiences that are life-giving and transformational for those we serve as well as for those who are doing the serving. There are few places in society where people can come together from various backgrounds, ages, experiences, and join together for a common goal. And as the church we have something that no other organization has - we have the gift of God's grace that surrounds us, fills us, empowers us, and then sends us out, reflecting God's light in all that we do.
It would be easy to throw our hands up and lull ourselves into thinking that vacant pews and leaner budgets are a sign of decline and failure. It would be easy to try to find things to blame for the decline of the mainline church. It would be easy to make excuses. But we have an opportunity to explore and find new ways of living out the love and grace God brings to God's people.
Yes, it is an exciting time to be the church. To be missionaries. To get out into our communities and learn the needs and gifts that exist outside of the walls of our congregations. To join with other congregations because we can accomplish so much more together. To create an environment of acceptance, love, welcome, and hospitality for all, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, economic realities, or race. To pray together, sing together and share in the sacraments together. But always looking for how God is leading us, opening Godself to us, changing us, and calling us to be God's beloved ones.