THE GREAT COMMISSION: BACK TO BASICS IN CHURCH GROWTH
(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!