January 8, 2012

Getting Our Head in Order

Passage: Acts 9:31

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.  Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

A swimming teacher had a young boy named Billy in his class, who stubbornly refused to follow instructions.  His teacher was attempting to teach him how to dive, so he told the boy that the most important thing about diving was to keep his head in the proper position.  “If your head enters the water properly”, he explained, “the rest of your body will follow properly.”  But Billy would dive into the pool, do a belly flop, and then come up grinning.  “Mr. Brown”, he’d ask, “were my feet together?”  “Billy, right now I don’t care whether your feet are together or not,” the instructor would shout back.  “Just make sure your head is straight, then everything else will work out.”  But the very next time Billy would stand on the edge of the pool; appear to really concentrate; - then once again make a mess of his dive.  “Mr Brown,” he’d call out, “were my hands together?”  His instructor would groan in frustration, and say:- “For the hundredth time, Billy, if your head is right the rest of you will be right.   But if your head is wrong, everything else will be wrong.”

Friends, I think this is why most United Church congregations today are in trouble; their leaders simply haven’t got their heads straight.

The dawning of a New Year is a great time for congregations to take stock of:
• What they’ve down in the past,
• where they are now; and then
• to look ahead to where they’d like to be in the next 10 or 20 years.

So this morning, I’d like to spend some time looking at – not just our congregation, but the whole of the United Church, - to see if we can learn something that will be useful in planning the future of our congregation.

Having spent my entire life-time, (seven decades) within the United Church, I think I can claim some right to speak about what’s been happening in the United Church over those years.

I’ve been active in church life since the tender age of 5, and believe it or not, - I answered God’s call to be a pastor when I was just 9; - much to the surprise of my whole family.

That decision was made as a result of hearing a missionary speak at Centenary United Church in Hamilton.  I can’t tell you today the name of that missionary, nor what his topic was that day, - but I know one thing, - whatever he said, his message made such an impression upon me, that as I left the service and was shaking his hand at the door, I felt compelled to tell him - I was going to be a minister.

Young children will often tell you - what they want to be when they grow up, but most change their minds numerous times before they finally begin their careers.  Surprisingly, I held on to my dream, in spite of the fact that - I was extremely shy, - not good in learning languages,  - had great difficulty remembering names, and - was terrified whenever I had to speak in front of an audience.

I became: - a candidate for the ministry at the age of 19, went to my first summer mission field at 21, and was ordained at 26, in 1963.

It was at a time when the United Church was enjoying a period of exponential growth.  It was also a time when it was quite common for candidates for the ministry to enter theology immediately after receiving their first degree.

I was riding a high as I travelled to Saskatchewan to assume my first full-time appointment; very proud to be associated with the United Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the country.  But it wasn’t very long after I started work, that a new theology began sweeping through the United Church and other liberal denominations, - called the ‘God is Dead’ theology.  Some of you may remember it.  It was around the time that Pierre Berton wrote ‘The Comfortable Pew’; which criticized the church and presented a negative view of what was happening in congregations.

As a young pastor, anxious to communicate the Gospel to my people, - the popularity of such a radical theology that suggested that the concept of God which I held dear, - was out-of-date, and irrelevant; devastated me.  I wondered what was happening to our Church and its faith.
Granted the ‘God is Dead’ theology was meant to shake up Christians and make them think about what they believed - rather than just taking their faith for granted.  But this theology also had the unfortunate effect of making many people extremely critical of the Bible and our statements of faith.

Since those days, I’ve watched many of the leaders of our denomination become preoccupied with social issues; -  to the exclusion of the Bible and faith building.

There is no question that many of the causes which our Church has supported are important and necessary;  (although some of them have been highly controversial, - resulting in the loss of many committed Christians from the United Church.)

But the problem, as I see it, - is that in becoming totally focused upon social issues, the leadership of our denomination has abandoned the vital task of teaching the fundamentals of the faith.   And when congregations fail to uphold the Bible as the source of ultimate truth, and offer opportunities to study it, - and as well engage in evangelism – the consequences are devastating.

Perhaps some of you saw a recent poll conducted by the United Church Observer, which found that 73% of its readers believe in God; - which (I guess) - isn’t a bad statistic, - accept that one might expect every reader of a church magazine to be a believer.   But what was far more troubling is that only 76% of the clergy said they believed in God!

Now I ask you, - what hope is there for a Christian denomination whose leadership is not solidly commitment to Christ?

While church membership statistics never tell the full story, - long term trends do.  So consider this statistics:-   since 1965, (just two years after I was ordained),  the total membership of the United Church has declined every single year.  There’s not been a year where we have not lost members.   In other words, during a period when Canada’s population has doubled, - United Church membership has declined from its high in 1965 of just over one million, - to a mere half million today!

Following my ordination, I spent 12 years serving pastorates in both Saskatchewan and Ontario, before responding to a second call, - this one into a teaching career.  My children had become enrolled in a Christian private school, and through my involvement with their school, I discovered that I had an aptitude for working with children and adolescents.  So, after a great deal of soul-searching and discussion with my wife, - I submitted my resignation, - entered teacher’s college, - and a year later became a special education teacher.

My timing for such a move couldn’t have been worst.  A year after entering the teaching field - declining enrolment hit schools across the GTA.  As a result, my teaching career was limited to one year working as a Primary behavioural teacher, and two years teaching grade 9 students who were on the verge of dropping out of school.  In 3 years, I lost my job twice.

It felt as though my world was caving in; - but God has a way of turning such obstacles into new opportunities for growth and service.  Upon hearing that I’d lost my job for the second time, the pastor of the congregation I was attending submitted my name to the organization he had just left, - and suddenly I found myself involved in drug education; - something I knew almost nothing about!    I became the Executive Director of Alcohol & Drug Concerns, (later known as Concerns Canada).   And fortunately, because the United Church considered this organization an external outreach mission, my ordination was preserved and I was even inducted into this new role.

One of the benefits of this move - was that it insulated me from many of the struggles and heartbreaks my clergy colleagues were experiencing during that period when contentious issues such as inclusiveness, sexual orientation and social gospel were causing tumult throughout the church.  While still active in my local congregation, - I didn’t have to deal with those issues, and so I avoided the burn out many clergy experienced.

For the next 18 years with Alcohol & Drug Concerns, I learned a great deal about the devastating effects of alcohol and illegal drugs upon young people, and hopefully through the work of our youth organization, Toc Alpha, - our drug education curriculum, and the lobbying we did with political leaders and others, - I helped prevented many young Canadians from ruining their lives with substance abuse.

A few years after taking an early retirement, Ralph Garbe invited me to come on staff here at Central.  The plan was for me to fill in for one year, after Glen Wells moved to an new pastorate and Ralph was preparing to retire.

I responded with enthusiasm.

Because of the leadership of Ralph and his predecessor, - our congregation hadn’t followed the way of other United Churches, and instead had become, (what I like to call) – ‘a teaching congregation’; - one that puts a great deal of emphasis upon Bible study and faith development.   So Central continued to be a healthy, dynamic congregation attracting all age groups; something rarely seen in most United Church today.

Looking at our denomination, from this background, I see a Church slowly, but surely dying.  The signs are all there:
-  declining numbers;
-  aging membership; and
-  a leadership struggling to find purpose and direction.

This can be very discouraging for congregations; and many United Churches are suffering - depression and discouragement.  But my friends, - the situation is not hopeless.   To find hope we need only look at how the Holy Spirit has worked in times past.

Many times in the past, the church has suffered - failure, moral corruption and a loss of direction.  In the Middle Ages for example, the Roman Catholic church was rotten at the core and the future of Christianity was threatened.

But in those dark times, the Holy Spirit worked with those who did remain faithful.  Monks, who had withdrawn from society laboured quietly in monasteries, and saved the day.

In another era it was protesters like Martin Luther and John Calvin who challenged the established church, - initiated the Protestant revolution, and eventually even forced the Roman Church to renew itself.

Whenever the Church has experienced tough times, the Spirit of God has found ways to work with the faithful remnant; - equipping them with the authentic self-esteem that enables them to know they are being used by God to build His Kingdom.

So it was in the beginning.  Shortly after Christ’s resurrection, the Holy Spirit became a powerful force, entering the lives of that pathetic little band of frightened and confused disciples; who didn’t know what to do.  On the day of Pentecost tongues of fire touched each one, as the Holy Spirit permeated the room, filling them with power and motivation.

But even then, it wasn’t all clear sailing.  The book of Acts, tells  how the Jews, - many of them led by a devote man named Saul, - persecuted those early Christians, scattering them across the country; - killing many including a valiant young man named,  Steven,  who was stoned to death, in the presence and with the support of Saul; - the one who later became the Apostle Paul.

Even an enemy of the Church like Saul, - was no match for the Holy Spirit.  - While on his way to Damascus to hunt down more Christians, he was struck to the ground by a brilliant light, and a voice spoke to him, saying:  “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

It left Saul blinded and afraid; - during which time he underwent a transformation, - (a conversion), that transformed him into a strong, vocal disciple who would carry the Good News of the Gospel through the Roman Empire.

But even after Saul’s, (now called Paul) conversion, it still wasn’t easy for Christians.  They were hunted down by militant Jews and Roman soldiers who saw them as a threat to Judaism and the empire.  Yet in those difficult days, something wonderful happened within the Christian community.

Our text describes it in these words:
“Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.  Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.”

There have been times when, because of loss of faith or direction, - Christians cry out:  “Lord, nothing is working;  what are we to do?”    But there have also been times when they have proclaimed:  “The Lord is on the move in our midst.”

In New Testament times, the church grew, in spite of persecution; why?  Because it concentrated upon teaching and nurturing its new converts so that they would know Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour.  When the church focuses upon building the faith of its people, the Bible tells us two things happen.  Christians experience:- fear and comfort.  They experienced ‘fear’ - in the sense of ‘awe’ and wonder as they open their lives to the presence and power of God.  ‘Comfort’ comes from the secure knowledge they are labourers in God’s Kingdom.

This is what the Church is meant to be; - a fellowship; - a place where we experience the awesome presence of God; - and where we are nurtured in the faith; so that when we have to face the pressures, hostility and temptations of the world, we are equipped with a strong faith, and inspired to share the Good News of the Gospel.

But when a congregation ceases to be such a place; and abandons its primary role of teaching and nurturing, - then it loses its direction, and its membership fall away.

Friends, let us make this new year a time of self-examination, goal setting, and discovery.  And as we do, let us engage in prayer and contemplation, so that the Holy Spirit can work among us, and enable us to fulfill our mission here in Unionville.

And so may we live in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, as our work continues.