Over the years one continuing theme of congregational life here at First Church has been the question of our future. Each of you is familiar with the specifics.
With over 7,000 churches in the U.S. closing their doors each year, and with the numbers in our churches, in terms of people and financial resources, decreasing steadily with each passing year (over the last 45 years), concerns about the future are only natural.
Which is why, as you know, the Cabinet approved the formation of our Study Group, which has been meeting weekly for over a half year. You probably also know that our group has been studying Tony Robinson’s highly perceptive book, Transforming Congregational Life.
Robinson’s argument, in short, is that the mainline churches, in particular, and for some 100 years or so, have moved away from their roots, from their traditional focus on matters religious and spiritual, emphasizing instead the “social gospel,” a well-intended strategy intended to fix the world’s problems through political and social means.
For many years, this seemed sufficient, especially given the willingness of the culture to support many of the aims of the church. Yet when the culture began to move away from the church in the mid to late 60’s, the weaknesses of this strategy were exposed.
Since then, the church has struggled to find relevance within a society that has assumed many of the tasks once traditionally, if not exclusively, presided over by the church. Today, non-church based organizations and governmental agencies dominate charitable efforts, for example, efforts once the church’s sole province.
In addition, the social gospel’s fervently held belief that the Christianization of the instrumentalities of secular governance would render justice and peace a surefire reality tended to deemphasize the church’s traditional focus on theological and spiritual matters (which were largely, though falsely, assumed).
As a result, Robinson persuasively argues, every aspect of church life, from the way we conduct meetings to how we raise money, has been secularized, reflecting the move away from the things of the Spirit.
His prescription? To reclaim the things of the Spirit. After all, this is precisely what our culture is desperately seeking, whether it knows it or not!
At some point in the near future, the Study Group will be seeking input and direction from you, the wider congregation. It is our hope that this discussion will involve both education and learning, prayer and faith-building, as we seek to re-tool for the challenges of the 21st century.
Grace and peace,
Thomas C. Leinbach, Pastor