This blurb appeared in our church newsletter. We’re working on re-visioning/re-imagining/re-inventing ourselves for mission and ministry, so when you read this, you need to know that Hope Presbyterian Church is a work in progress!
Don’t panic. Keep reading. I was hoping this might get your attention more quickly than something generic, like “Pastor Debra reflects” or “Thoughts from the Pastor.” In addition, as we draw near to my 2nd anniversary in ministry with Hope, and because we very shortly will begin to discuss my future with this congregation, I chose this title because in so many ways, it is true. Our church is in crisis. As a matter of fact, ALL churches that say they are trying to live up to the Great Commission are in trouble.
We’re in trouble because the world is in trouble. There are more and more people in this community who don’t know about God’s love for them. There are more and more walking wounded who are looking for healing, guidance and fulfillment from the mall, from their jobs, from their retirement plans, from the success of their children, from Oprah and Dr. Phil and from their DayPlanners. And what they (we?) fail to realize is that none of those things can provide the kind of abundant blessing that God offers to those who walk in THE WAY. But you already know this. And I digress.
Let me get back to the title and why I think Hope Presbyterian Church is in crisis. As a congregation, we have arrived at a crucial turning point. Several things have brought us to this point:
1. For the first time in almost 15 years, we are able to make use of nearly 100% of our physical property
2. We are beginning to have a clear understanding of who we are and we have adopted a vision statement that clarifies who we are striving to become.
3. There is an uneasiness in many of our members who have a feeling that there is something more we are called to do and to be.
In order for this to make any sense at all, we need to be clear about the meaning of crisis. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Wikipedia.com (an online encyclopedia), crisis has several possible definitions and each of these is relevant for our congregation.
A crisis is the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever. It is at this point that the illness may go on to death or turn to recovery and health. One of the signs of a healthy church is found in the number of adult baptisms and first time professions of faith made by adults. These “new members” are not transferring into a congregation from another church, but are new Christians and those making a public affirmation for the first time. Since 1994, our records show that our congregation has only celebrated one adult baptism and only 18 people have made a first-time profession of faith. Even if we allow for some clerical error in these numbers, we can give thanks for those 20 or so who have come to know the Lord in this congregation. At the same time, we must also recognize that nearly 35 friends have gone home to the Lord in that same period of time. Let’s call this the “death-trumps-new-Christians” disease. This disease is not unlike the “we’re-too-old-to-have-babies” disease which accounts for the steady decline of infant and children’s baptisms over the past 12 years. (Since 1994, there have been 18 infant baptisms and since Kendra Parker was baptized in 2003, there have been no baptisms of any kind). As people who are called to “make and baptize disciples,” this constitutes a crisis for us.
A crisis may be an emotionally significant event or radical change of status in a person’s life, such as bankruptcy or divorce or even midlife. From this point, it is not possible to continue in the same way as the past. All activities, plans, hopes must change. This year we celebrate our 40th anniversary and we find ourselves in a kind of mid-life crisis. We are no longer a new church in Springfield’s newest suburban community. Along with the new housing developments to our south and west, new churches (or reinvented ones) have sprung up and are drawing a great deal of attention in our community with dynamic building projects, and cutting edge programming. The interest and participation in the projects that emerged from our past vision, Hope for the 90’s, has waned and the 90’s have morphed into a new millennium with loads of challenges and tons of opportunities. This awareness of our “midlife” isn’t easy and the decisions we make from this point forward will feel radical to us. Yet we must recognize that we cannot continue behaving as if we are a new church development on the growing edge of a new suburban community.
Crisis is typically an unstable or crucial situation of extreme danger or difficulty in which a decisive change in the wings. It is dangerous because there is always the possibility that such a change will have an undesirable outcome. It is difficult because the decisions to be made are likely to be significantly different from what has been the custom. Many of you have shared your concerns for the future of this congregation. From the formation of the PNC in 2003 until the present, there has been a kind of holy uneasiness among us. At times we have felt that at any moment, this whole project called Hope Presbyterian Church could simply shut down. And while it may be true that in the past 5 –6 years, there have been times of trouble and distress, as difficult as those times might have been, they did not constitute the crisis point, but rather were the build-up for the crisis that is still to come. Because while we may feel that we have passed the crisis and are moving into a time of stability and calm, it is precisely that feeling of serenity and comfort that creates the crisis for us. When we feel comfortable, when we feel at ease and relaxed, when there is a lack of urgency around the gospel, we are in extreme danger and our community is, too. As long as we feel that the crisis has passed, we will settle for sharing the good news with each other with occasional forays into the community in the form of a printed door hanger or banner or mission project. But when we recognize that the crisis of the Great Commission is always before us, we will find that we must to make decisions which will force us to change the way we live and move in and around Springfield.
A crisis often occurs when a situation has reached a critical phase, such as the environmental crisis, when it is impossible for a positive outcome as long as things continue in the same manner as before. The ministry of Hope Presbyterian Church has reached a “critical phase.” Things cannot continue in the same way. If they do, in 5 to 7 years we will probably not need an elementary Sunday school program and what’s worse, more of our neighbors will die, never having heard the good news. Many of us feel this in our gut. And it’s time to do something about it. We’re at a critical juncture—turning point—a crisis and now is the time to begin making some powerful, significant decisions.
I hope that you know me well enough by now to realize that while this article may seem depressing and difficult, I wouldn’t bother writing it if I didn’t have a very clear feeling of promise and possibility for Hope Presbyterian Church. Perseverance is a deep value for us and that will
serve us well as we undertake this next phase of our Vision process. But, we need to recognize that in order for deep and lasting transformation to take place here, we will need to make some difficult choices in the weeks and months to come. Some of the decisions we make will require us to reach out for God’s grace to help us set aside or adjust our personal preferences so that more people can hear the good news. Some of the decisions we make will require us to seek the comfort of the Holy Spirit because we are uncertain and uncomfortable. Some of our decisions will require us to ask for God’s help to carry the added burdens which will be placed on each one of us.
This work is not something I, as your pastor, can bring to pass on my own. Nor is it something that the Session and Deacons can do by themselves. For our church to succeed in its disciple-making mission, each one of us will be expected to make a deeper commitment to putting Jesus’ purposes first. Each of us will be required do whatever it takes to make sure we are sharing the good news that we have been blessed to receive.
Our crisis work begins this month with three opportunities for conversation: May 17 @ 7:00 p.m., May 21 @ 5:00 p.m. and May 31 @ 7:00 p.m. While I cannot require your attendance and participation, I strongly encourage you to set aside time to take part in one of these gatherings. You will have the opportunity for candid sharing of your heartfelt concerns and your hopeful ideas with me. Together, we will take our first steps into this crisis moment so that together we can discern where God wants us to be in the future.