Sitting on the District Committee on Ministry for over 10 years, I’ve learned a great deal about what it means to be “commissioned to serve”. I’ve met individuals who are ready to do so and sadly, also met many who exhibit no such readiness now nor are they likely to do so in any foreseeable future. There are so many steps to assuming the responsibility of pastoring a church; the process that leads to Ordination can be daunting.
But, then again, how do you argue with someone’s sense of call, their desire to follow God’s push and pull on their lives? All those who come to us know that our task, as a reviewing and evaluating Committee is to test the call, their call, a call they believe they have received from God. They know we will be exploring the depth of their faith. They know we will question how sincere their belief in God truly is and how willing they are to rest on that belief and serve God and others with grace and endurance. Just as Jesus points out to the seventy he sent forth to carry the gospel, the task ahead is never easy. Such was the case then and it is certainly no less simple now to represent God in the world and to world.
Perhaps in some ways it might be even more difficult now than it was then. We live in a society flavored with cynicism and spiked with secularism. We have far too much in the way of material goods and exhibit far too little a need for a Divine source of life and hope. We have become spiritual shoppers replacing a need for God and community with a mismatched collection of the latest in spiritual enlightenment. In her book “When ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ is not Enough” Lillian Daniel, a Congregational minister and our expected preacher at next year’s annual conference has this to say about spirituality verses a formal relationship with a church.
“…In the church, as everywhere, we are stuck with one another, and being stuck with one another, we don’t get the space to come up with our own human-invented God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In church, in community, humanity is just way too close to look good.”
It’s probably not surprising our new bishop; Bishop Devadhar has recommended Daniel’s book to all Annual Conference clergy and church members. Our track record on sustaining “church” is dismal. Though I look forward to Joy Mueller’s report – she is our Conference Statistician and speaks every year at the Annual Conference session – I also dread it. I look forward to it because Joy does an amazing job at making “numbers” interesting. Her report is always enlightening. But my dread and, I’m sure I’m not the only one who reacts as I do, comes from what the numbers tell us about ourselves as a Conference, as the Church of Jesus Christ in the New England region. We are not doing well in evangelizing new disciples for Christ. That’s clearly an understatement. Some of Joy’s stats are alarming. For example, comparing church stats in the year 1995 with today’s 2012 statistics Joy reports a significant drop in full time pastorates. In her own words, this is what she has discovered, “A more dramatic shift has been the decreased number of full-time appointments that are available. In 1995, 356 full time appointments, including both single point charges and full-time appointments made up of two or more churches, were recorded. In 2012, the number of full-time appointments was 195.” A little less than half are gone. Those attending Conference see this in the number of retirees vs. the number of men and women who are annually ordained at Annual Conference. This year there were 29 retirees and only 10 ordained. Less and less are ordained each year because there are less and less churches able to sustain a full-time pastorate.
But let’s look a bit closer to home. What did Joy have to say about average worship attendance in our New England Churches? Simply put when she compared the worship attendance stats in our churches in the 17 years between 1995 and 2012, there is a substantial 30% decrease. Fewer people attending worship “have had an impact on the number of churches, the size of churches, and the pastoral appointments.” That is alarming enough but when we take the obvious next step and ask the question, “Where are the youth and young children who will sustain our churches in the future?” the trend is not just alarming; it is frightening. Joy compared the number of children enrolled in church school in 1995 against a similar more inclusive category – those enrolled in Christian formation groups and other small group ministries – same age range –in 2012 and discovered that in 1995, 16,202 were enrolled. In 2012, there was a dramatic decline to 6,048 – a 63% decline. More than 10,000 less children enrolled in some form of Christian Education/Formation.
Here at our church, we’ve seen a drop too with a high of 35 children just 6 years ago, to less than 20 who attend with any regularity now. The incentive to fund a part time Director of Christian Education and to continue to support our Christian Ministries with an annual appeal for financial support is high. But the greater incentive is the one Christ gave to his disciples then and now…to go and make Disciples of all, to carry the Word of God with enthusiasm to others and our lives, to share our faith and our lives with those God places before us, to get outside our comfort zone and take the risks and chances that may make a difference in the lives of those we encounter beyond our walls. And always, to stay open to new ways, new possibilities, and new challenges that God may have for us to be about the work of bringing the Kingdom of God ever closer to reality. Amen.