Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Great Commission: Why Churches Die and How We can Survive andThrive

 (Or Why Churches are Dying and How We Can Survive and Thrive)

Fred Vergara. St. James Church, Elmhurst, NY. June 15, 2014
Christianity in America is in crisis. Many churches are dying; many churches are aging; and many churches are without children and youth. According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, “between 4,000 to 7,000 churches close their doors every year. “ Other researches put the estimate higher. Southern Baptist Church researcher, Thom Rainer even said, “Somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 churches will close this year 2014.”

Why are churches dying and how can we ensure that ours will remain standing and growing?

1.      Churches are dying because they refuse to change with the times .
The first reason why the American churches are dying is change. The world has changed but these churches did not.  There was a story of a man who so loved the color yellow. He painted his house yellow, his bathroom yellow, his kitchen yellow and his bedroom yellow. One day he got sick…of hepatitis! He called 911 and when the paramedics came, they could not find him!

Many churches in America are like this ‘hepatitic’ man. They fell in love only with themselves and become obsessed with their own color that they are dying. They failed to read the signs of the times; they failed to listen to their neighbors and they failed to see that their neighborhood has changed. Why did the dinosaur become extinct? Because all things have changed but the dinosaur did not.  If we at St. James wish to survive and grow, we must see the world with a new pair of glasses; we must listen afresh to our new neighbors; and we must smell the city once again---and welcome change.

Once upon a time, this neighborhood of Elmhurst was called Newtown.  It was also the New Amsterdam. In other words, it was a Dutch neighborhood. Today, you are lucky if you see a Dutch; luckier if you hear a Dutch; and luckiest if you bump on a Dutch. But close your eyes and walk outside our church and you would likely bump upon a Chinese or Filipino or South Asian or Mexican or Afro Caribbean. And close your eyes and just listen, and you will hear variety of languages. Within a 2-mile radius, there are some 200 languages spoken in Queens, New York!  If we must grow as a church, we must welcome and invite the new racial, cultural and demographic shift---and learn their languages.

2.      Churches are dying because they lost their sense of mission

 Theologian Emil Brunner aptly wrote that “The church exists for mission as fire exists by burning.” Another theologian Christopher Duraisingh also wrote, “The church does not have mission; rather mission has the church.” In other words, the church must be the embodiment of mission. If a salt lost its taste what good would it be? If sugar is no longer sweet, what use would it be? If a church lost its mission, it has also already outlived its usefulness. It will die!

A few years ago, the Episcopal Church adapted the Five Anglican Marks of Mission, namely:
“First, to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God; second, to teach, baptize and nurture new believers; third, to respond to human need by loving service; fourth, to seek to transform unjust structures of society; and fifth, to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

The catechism in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (Page 855) says, Q: “What is the mission of the church?” A: “The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

I love it when a book asks a question and then provides the answer. It makes it easy. But the truth of the matter is proclaiming the kingdom of God in the midst of a skeptical generation is not easy. Christianity has been planted by the Pioneers  and the “Greatest Generations” (those born before 1946) most of whom are already in heaven; then it was nurtured and nourished by the Pillars who are mostly Baby Boomers (those born from 1946-1964). They were followed by Generation X and Y, who were starting to get skeptical about the church. Today, we are facing another generation, The Millenials (those born from 1983-2001) most of whom call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” meaning they believe in God but not interested to belong to a church.

I was driving in San Francisco last week (for the Why Serve Conference for Young Adults of Color) and caught in heavy traffic, I saw me upon the large billboard by an Insurance company, announcing that “67 times the population of San Francisco will retire in 2020.” San Francisco has a population of around one million and so that would mean 67 million Baby Boomers will retire in 2020. This number is confirmed by the PEW Research, that says “everyday for the next 16 years, 10,000 baby boomers will enter retirement,” or the grave.

 It’s a simple arithmetic that if the church does not have a youth and young adults, it will die in ten years; and if the church does not have children, it will die in 20 years.  If St. James wants to have a future, we shall have to invest on children and youth ministries; enable programs that they may come and then develop infrastructures for this ministry. We often say “the youth are not only the future but the present.” We need to put actions into our words.

3.      Churches die because they do not have a new vision
Last Sunday was Pentecost and we were reminded that “visions and dreams” are the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the church (Acts 2).  The Bible always reminds us that “without vision, people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). But visions need to be tested by reality and the reality is that unless we act, we will never know whether that vision comes from God. You will never know the will of God unless you do it!

My vision for St. James is three-fold:
1.      As a people, we shall be a healing, welcoming and serving church. When people gather to worship God, they will be healed or reconciled to God and to their fellows; they will be welcome and received no matter who they are, where they come from, and what color of skin they have; they will be served and will learn to serve as Christ came to serve.

2.      As a place, my vision is to see a Church, a Campus and a Community Center. That is the reason why we have various church services; why we have a Virtual Classroom; and why we engage the issues of community such as Summit Against Human Trafficking; Immigration Reform;  TPS Philippines; Community Health and Wellness program. And that’s the reason why we must develop our buildings and properties so that they would serve the purpose of service to the community of Elmhurst and beyond.

3.      As a Church, as articulated in the Bishop’s Committee Retreat, early this year;   St. James shall be a “Light of Christ in Elmhurst, celebrating life abundant and embodying God’s dream of reconciliation across races. genders, generations and cultures.” That is the reason why we strive to welcome the Seniors community even when they speak different languages and profess different religions. That is the reason why we must welcome the Millenials and reach out to them via internet and social media. We must strive to communicate the Gospel of reconciliation in this new and different world in whatever ways we can.

The Gospel this morning says of the Great Commission that Jesus gave to his disciples. It contains three things: the authorization, the command, and the promise.

The authorization is this: Jesus said, ”All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  Authority is more powerful than power. A six-wheeler truck over speeding on the highway has tremendous power. But the traffic policeman holding up his palm and ordering the driver to stop has authority and the trust must yield. The authority within us, as Christians, is greater than any power in the world.

The command is this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” It is amazing that here in America, we do not have to cross the oceans and trek the jungles to become missionaries. We simply have to visit our neighbors from Asia, Africa, Latin America and even Europe. They are on our doorsteps. They are in our apartments, our schools, our offices, our factories, our malls, our grocery stores, our pharmacies, our flea markets, our subways, our movie houses, our sidewalks. As a hospitable people, our task is simply to open the doors of our church and the doors of our hearts and the smile and welcome the people from all nations that God has brought into us. Is that really hard to do? I believe not.

The promise is this: “And behold I am with you till the end of the age.” Yes, if we are faithful and available and teachable in doing God’s mission in the world, the promise is to us and to our children and our children’s children. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He is the Head of the church, the Author of our salvation; to know Him is eternal life, to serve Him is perfect freedom and to worship Him is joy unspeakable!

In 2005, shortly after I became Missioner for Asiamerica Ministries I was invited by Fr. Bill Bulson, a priest from St. Paul Minnesota to come and preach on Pentecost Sunday and help welcome the Hmong people who have joined the Holy Apostles Episcopal Church.  The story of this church is typical among many Episcopal churches. Bill was sent to Holy Apostles Parish in order to help it die a graceful death. Once it was a great white church but now with the change in population and the greying of the church members, it was a church in decline. Many pioneers either died or moved to other cities or states for their retirement. It could no longer sustain a full time priest and steadily decreasing in membership and revenues.

But God had a plan for the church. God had a plan to “re-people” the church. So in one encounter, he was introduced to the Hmong community. Once “war refugees” from Southeast Asia, the Hmong had now become a stable population in Minnesota---and they were seeking a spiritual community to belong to. Holy Apostles, with Bill’s leadership, welcomed and received the Hmong with radical welcome and unconditional love.

So instead of closing the church because it only had a dozen white members, they had to expand the church to accommodate some 760 Hmong new members! Six months after we welcomed the Hmong, I returned to preach at the Cathedral in Minneapolis where hundreds of them were confirmed! Today, the Holy Apostles Church continue to grow and were able to realize the first theological trained Hmong priest in the Episcopal Church and the entire Anglican Communion. 

Some years ago, I visited the world’s largest single church in Seoul, Korea, the Full Gospel Central Church and learned stories about how this church grew. One remarkable story was about a diminutive Korean lady with a big smile. She would stand at the elevator of an apartment building and welcome everyone with her smile. At times, she would assist others with heavy groceries; pacify crying children with her ever-ready toys and always on hand to help the elderly. No, she was not being paid to do the job; she was just there. Overtime the news about her spread throughout all the floors and people became curious to know who she was and why she was doing it. She led them to her own apartment and showed them the video of her church. She has brought literally thousands of people to her church for the many years she lived in that apartment! With her smile!

In Korea or Minnesota, God is good in all places and in all times. And He will do it again and again and again. Amen

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Sermon by The Rev. Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara on the 3rd Anniversary Celebration of the Covenant Between Holy Child (Filipino) Church and St. Joseph’s (Anglo) Church in the presence of St. Philip’s Church, held at the United Methodist Church building at 355 Dixon Road, Milpitas, California on June 8, Pentecost 2014) 

They were gathered in an Upper Room in a house in Jerusalem, praying and waiting. Then something tremendously astounding, something remarkably wonderful, something indescribably amazing happened. A journalist and historian named Luke could only say that it sounded “like the rush of a mighty wind” as  “tongues as of fire fell from heaven and rested upon the apostles.”  

Not unlike Anderson Cooper of CNN doing a “blow by blow” account of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or Brian Williams of NBC doing a rap on You-Tube, Luke of ACTS proceeded to narrate, in staccato fashion, the events that happened: the Holy Spirit had come, the Church was born, and the gifts of the Spirit were given to the first believers of Jesus Christ!

What were these gifts that the Holy ­­­­­Spirit gave?

1.   The Gift of Dreams
The Book of Joel in the Hebrew Scripture earlier said, “In these last days, God declares, I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh and they shall prophesy. The young shall see visions; the old shall dream dreams and whoever calls upon the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:28)

Visions and dreams are the gifts of the Spirit. Visionaries and dreamers like Teresa De Avila or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Jose Rizal would say, “I have a dream” but it is not their dream. It is a dream of God planted in their hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit. What distinguished them from other dreamers is that they acted on the dreams of God. Do you have God’s dream? Do you have God’s vision?

When I was a child, I had a dream. It was such a high dream; I wanted to become a bus driver. I wanted to drive on the road and bring passengers from one village to another. Then I had another dream, a higher dream; I wanted to become a ship captain. I wanted to steer the ship and cross the ocean and bring people from one island to another. Then I had another dream, my highest dream; I wanted to become an airline pilot. I wanted to pilot a plane and cross the skies and bring people from one country to another.

Neither of these dreams ever came true. The closest thing for me to driving a bus was driving a 15-seater Holy Child Church Van. The closest to steering a ship was when I ran away from home at age 14 and hid in the kitchen of the ship bound for Manila; and the closest thing to being in the pilot cockpit was when I was upgraded from economy to business class in Cathay Pacific Airlines.

But no, I was mistaken: the dream of God for me was not to be a bus driver, a ship captain or an airline pilot. God’s dream for me was to help bring people from one place to another, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual sense. As a priest, a missionary, a teacher and a pastor, I have driven and steered and piloted people in their spiritual lives, from one degree of spiritual maturity to another. In the final analysis, it is not what you are that matters to God but who you are and whose you are; and it is not your job or profession that matters most but what you do with and for the people whom God has brought into you.

The apostles of Jesus dreamed only of becoming good fishermen. They wanted to catch more fish because sometimes they came home with nothing. They had such lowly dreams that they were amazed when at the advice of Jesus; they dropped their nets and caught so much fish. Is He a magician able to multiply fish from the scarcity of the Galilean Sea? But Jesus had a higher dream for them. “Come, follow me; and I will make you fishers of men.”

On the day of Pentecost, Peter acted on that dream. He cast his net and many fish were caught. He preached one sermon and three thousand men were converted---aside from women and children. What a record! I preached three thousand sermons and was lucky to convert, at least one, my wife! (Yes, she was Methodist and became Episcopalian!)

2.   The Gift of Languages
Luke of ACTS also reported that before he ascended to heaven, Jesus was asked by his disciples, “Lord, will you at this time restore Israel to its former glory? “ Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know the times and seasons which the Father has set by His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses, from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

How can the lowly fishermen of rural Galilee witness to the Word of God among the well-educated, intellectually trained and sophisticated people in the city of Jerusalem? They could only speak Aramaic, the dialect of Galilee. Probably they also spoke little Hebrew; or Greek, the lingua franca of the empire during that time.

But the account of Luke is, again, amazing:  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome  (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” (Acts 2:5-13)
“They had too much wine” reminds me of my father. He finished Grade 7 before  the Second World War and when the American GI’s came to the Philippines, he was one of the few residents in the barrio who can speak English. But he was so shy; they had to let him drink wine (tuba) before he could speak English. And when he was drunk, he could speak English very well, although in heavy Visayan accent.

Communication is a funny thing. In 1999, the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Consultation was held in Hong Kong. One day, during our free time, a group of us from California, decided to find a restaurant outside of the hotel. We found a very small shop, a local eatery that did not even have a display of food or a list of menus. We were all Filipino delegates and none of us spoke Cantonese or any Chinese dialect and we wanted to order chicken. It so happened that the cook, who was also the manager and waiter rolled into one, did not speak English, so we had such a challenging dialogue. I said, “We would like to order fried chicken.” And he could not understand and so, just like what ordinary tourists would do, I spoke very slowly “C-H-I-C-K-E-N.” Now I learned that if the person does not know the language, no matter how slow you speak, still he would not understand it. So I spoke louder, “Chicken!” Well, I also learned that if a person does not know the language, no matter how loud you speak, still he could not understand.

So frustrated of speaking, I decided to change my strategy: I would act out, dramatize a chicken! So I flapped my two arms and said, “wak, wak, wak;tuktulaok: cock-a doodle do.” The cook just laughed but did not understand me. Finally, as my last strategy, I decided to draw a chicken. I took a pen and paper, draw my chicken and showed it to him. We were so happy when he said, “Ahhh!” Finally he got it. We waited. And then he came out with our food. It was not a chicken. It was beef!  (My chicken drawing looked like a cow!)

So there you are: The Rev. Canon Dr. Fred Vergara. One BA degree, two Master’s degrees, two Doctorate degrees---could not even get a chicken from a Chinese cook! When there is no Holy Spirit in you, you can have all the degrees and education in the world but you will fail to communicate.

The simple fishermen of Galilee were filled with the Holy Spirit that when they spoke, the sophisticated peoples gathered in Jerusalem were able to understand them. As a matter of fact, not only that they understood Peter’s sermon; they were “cut to the heart” and cried out, “Brother Peter, what are we supposed to do?” And Peter replied, ”Be baptized, every one of you, and you too, will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!” And they were baptized that very day! I think that must be the beginning of sprinkler baptism. For how can you immerse or dunk into the water over 3,000 people in one day and there was no river in the city. The river Jordan was quite far away.

3.   Gift of Community
After they were baptized, Luke of ACTS tells us, And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)

From the gifts of dreams and the gift of languages, there emerged a faith community. The Church was not born on the Day of the crucifixion; the Church was not born on the Day of the Resurrection; the Church was not born on the Day of Ascension. The Church was born on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came.

Immediately, ministries came about: teaching and fellowship, holy Eucharist and prayers; healings and miracles; sharing of wealth and possessions; meeting in church and in homes; eating together with glad and sincere hearts.
Notice the last parts, “they ate together with glad and sincere hearts and enjoying the favor of all the people.”

Well, it is possible that the food on their table is more sumptuous and more delicious than the Coffee Hour of our Episcopal churches; but it is more likely that there was fun, there was laughter, there was joy, there was communion---there was---community!

Brothers and sisters, if you desire to have more people in the church, not only that your food must be delicious; you yourselves must have glad and sincere hearts. Do you remember the Sunday School song, “If you’re happy and you know it… then your face will surely show it?” Well, the reason why many of our parishes are dying is because the faces of their parishioners do not show their happiness in Christ! Brothers and sisters, it is not our Anglican stiff upper lip that will draw people to our church. It is our glad and sincere hearts radiating on or faces.

This week, we had a gathering of 70 young adults of color in CDSP in Berkeley: Asian, Latino, Black and Indigenous youth discerning their call. What they brought with them was the consciousness that the younger generation today are “spiritual but not religious.” They believe in God and have a practical knowledge of Christ but they are seeking for an authentic spiritual community. They will not be drawn to churches that are fighting over doctrines or money or wrestle about dogmas or prayer books. They will not be drawn by our intellectualism and via media theology, no matter how lofty they are. They will not be drawn even by our hymns and liturgy even when they are so beautiful and orderly. But they will be drawn by our faces that radiate glad and sincere hearts. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” The joy of the Lord will be their strength, the peace of God will be in their smiles and the love of God will shine from their lives.

When I became priest-in-charge of St. James Church in Elmhurst, New York last April 1, 2013, I preached my first sermon the Sunday after Easter. I found that the 25 original members, the remnant of what once was a large church, had no resurrection on their faces. I started a joke and nobody laughed. Most of them were not young. They were hurting, they were angry, they were defeated. Years of conflicts, theological and otherwise, were on their minds. Their hearts were heavy. They were skeptical, suspicious and untrusting. I could hear no noise, for there were no children and no Sunday School. I could see no one using iPhone or iPad for there was no youth group. They were as quiet as the cemetery behind our church. But I spoke of God’s dream. That we will become a community again; that we will bear witness to the mission of Christ; that we will be on a new journey; that we will be revived, and renewed, and be born again
I announced that we will become a healing, welcoming and serving church in Elmhurst; that our mission, as written in the Book of Common Prayer, will be “to reconcile all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

I believe that was not my dream, but God’s dream, planted in my heart and I prayed that the Word of God sown into their hearts will not return empty but will accomplish that which God purposed and prosper in that for which God sent it.

Today, a year after that April Fool’s Day of 2013, St. James’ membership and attendance have grown from 25 to over one hundred. We now have Sunday School for children; a Healing Service, a Chinese service, a Bible Study, youth and young adults; there is now an Episcopal Women’s Fellowship and the Brotherhood of St. Andrews have learned to cook! We are becoming a community again! And we are reaching out to the outside community with our Coalition Against Human Trafficking; our proposed Community Wellness Program and we are reaching to the world with our Virtual Classroom. And now, we are planning to develop our buildings and properties, so that they will earn revenues to fund our emerging and growing ministries.

Now, when I speak to Holy Child Church and St. Joseph’s Church about buildings and properties, I can immediately read your thoughts. You are saying to yourselves, “If only we have a church building; if only we have enough funds and properties.” But I tell you, there are many congregations that have buildings but they languish and die because they developed an “edifice complex.” They become so attached to their buildings that they do not want to go and reach out to the world. Their buildings have become a fortress or a hiding place from the outside world rather than a command post of their mission to the world. And so eventually, they declined and have to sell off their precious possessions.

I can tell you that in many places, church buildings are being sold away because they have become a burden to support than a resource for growth. When you have visions and dreams; when you speak the language of the Holy Spirit; and when you have community----all the rest will be yours as well. Throughout the 36 years of my priesthood, I have learned this one very important truth:” Where God guides, God provides.” God’s work, done in God’s way and in God’s time, will never lack provision. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter, the Counsellor, the Giver of Life, and the Lord of the Harvest. Seek the anointing of the Holy Spirit---and all these things shall be added unto you!

When I was a youth growing in the ‘60’s, there were two popular songs: one was the song “I Who Have Nothing” composed by Ben King and sung by Shirley Bassey and the other was “Crazy” composed by Willie Nelson and sung by Patsy Cline. “I Who Have Nothing” seems to be the song of Holy Child Filipino Church and every new immigrant congregation. You think you have nothing! But let me tell you that when you look deep inside you, you have something. You have each other: you have a community and you have a dream.

The song “Crazy” seems to be the song of St. Joseph’s Anglo/Euro Church. The first line of the song says, “Crazy, I’m crazy for feeling so lonely.” But I tell you, you are not crazy for feeling so lonely because that feeling would make you want a companion on your journey.

Yes, there are times when our scarcity becomes an asset, when our loneliness becomes a motivation to reach out. Out of scarcity, we become creative and inventive. Necessity is the mother of invention. Out of our loneliness, we desire to find companions. Even God was lonely; he needed someone in His own image; so God created Adam. Adam himself was lonely; the animals and the birds and the bees were not good enough; so he asked God to make an Eve.

Many Anglo Episcopal churches today are small and aging. They are becoming lonely and so they need to reach out to others, especially the growing ethnic immigrants. I am glad that St. Philip’s Congregation which has a building are with us today. Three years ago, Holy Child and St. Joseph’s, two congregations without a building, had signed up a covenant. Do you have to wait for another three years to finally join into a three-congregation covenant? Maybe its time to combine your dreams, your assets, your languages and build a stronger community!

At the risk of revealing your age, those of you who know the song will remember that although “I Who Have Nothing” began with the tone of scarcity, it ended up with the last line that is triumphant and saying, “but it is I, who love you.” And the song “Crazy” ended up by saying, “I’m crazy for loving you.” If you love dearly and care deeply, things will change. 

Authentic love is what makes the church attractive. People will know you are Christians by your love.But it is not enough that you simply reach out to each other in love. Because you have found that you can live together in community and you have found strength in that unity, then you can enlarge the circle of your company. God loves the excitement of big families even as God delights in the intimacy of the small ones. 

So reach out and touch the world with your love; reach out and let your faces radiate the light of Christ. Let your laughter and songs sound the joy of the Lord; reach out and touch the world with your compassionate hearts; reach out and touch the word with your burning spirits. Then the communities of Milpitas and San Jose and the whole Santa Clara County will be attracted to you as the presence of Christ in the world. Then the Holy Spirit, the Lord of the Harvest, will add to your number daily those who are being saved. Then the Holy Spirit, the Giver of life, will provide you with a building, and resources and funding. Then there will be miracles of healing and reconciliation and signs and wonders as the glory of the Lord will shine upon you, and the anointing power of the Holy Spirit will cover you, as the waters cover the sea. Amen. Alleluia!