[I originally preached this sermon on 9/18/2005. In it, I expressed my belief that the church has gone through a number of changes in the past couple of years.]
This morning’s readings consist of a couple of parables. (Thanks to my colleagues who shared these with me.) First, the parable of the over-friendly dog:
Back in the days when doctors still made house calls, the new doctor in town was sent to visit a woman laid up with a fever. Walking up the driveway, the doctor saw a friendly dog on the porch. The dog jumped up and down barking excitedly, greeting him exuberantly. The doctor rang the doorbell and the family ushered him upstairs to visit the sick woman. The dog followed and with great animation, jumped up on the woman’s bed. “This was certainly unusual,” thought the man, who proceeded with the check up nonetheless. The doctor then made his diagnosis, prescribed the remedy, and made went to leave. As the man passed through the door, the family members called after him. “Aren’t you going to take your dog?” they asked. “My dog,” the doctor exclaimed, startled, “I thought it was your dog!”
The second parable: The parable of the water and the wine, the non-biblical version.
There once was a Unitarian Universalist church that annually threw a great party. The tradition of this party was for each couple to arrive with a bottle of wine. As they arrived, they would empty their wine into a great vat to be enjoyed communally. (We might well wonder about the wisdom of this, but let’s just assume this was the case.) Not everyone brought the same wine. Some folks brought expensive wines of impressive vintage. Others brought more commonplace, pedestrian wines. But somehow, the blending managed to achieve a communal average enjoyed by all, despite the differences in the qualities of the individual contributions.
It came to pass, this one year, that one member had a long week at the office, and was too worn out stop by the wine seller. He showed up empty handed, but snuck into the kitchen, filled up a pitcher, and poured it out loudly, so that everyone heard his contribution. Another member was busy with youth sports, and did the same thing. As did the member who was traveling on business, and the one who just sort of forgot. An old-time member who had done so much for the church, said, “I’ve been bringing wine for 50 years. This year I’ll skip.” And the super-volunteer, who takes on every task thrown her way, declared, “One more thing and I’m going to flip my lid.” They both furtively brought water.
One new member was unclear about the whole concept. Another one felt intimidated. They brought water as well. This being a Unitarian Universalist congregation, there were a few contrarians. One brought water, just to be different. And a social activist brought water in solidarity with the United Farm Workers boycott of Gallo Wines. That day, when the ladle was dipped, water was served.
If you have had any interaction with me in the last month, you’ve probably heard me give a plug for the sermon I’m going to deliver this morning. I’ve been talking up this sermon in board meetings and at the Seekers class; I’ve been dropping comments about it in the hallway and on the phone; I’ve been hyping it up in the all-church email. I’ve gone so far as to print up copies, which I don’t usually do. I’ve even started to call it “The Sermon” – every preacher has one they think of this way.
Now, there are a lot of things this sermon won’t do. It won’t offer an answer to the meaning of life. It won’t engage the most crucial social issue of the day. That’ll be another Sunday. Will it save your life, or save your soul? Yes, just not the usual way.
This sermon is for you whether this is your thirty-eighth year here or your thirty-eighth minute. It is for you whether you are a leader or a person who hangs around the margins.
This sermon’s goal is not principally to exhort, though there is a response I hope to generate. This sermon’s goal is not principally to motivate, though I hope it will inspire action. This sermon’s goal is not to condemn, or defend, or accuse. This sermon’s simple goal is to explain: To explain what is going on in the life of this church.
I begin with the simple assertion that this church, our church, has been through a series of significant changes in the past two years. Not catastrophic changes, not earth-shattering changes, not miraculous changes. Just significant changes: You called a new minister, me, 25 months ago, hired new office staff, formally hired a music director, employed an accompanist and a religious education assistant. You rearranged the Sunday morning schedule, added a second service, and a children’s fellowship hour, and a rotation model Sunday school, and a Second Sunday Forum, and a dedicated adult religious education hour. You built a deck on the back of Saeger House, and remodeled the space under the barn chapel. You created new committees, or re-imagined them, or dissolved them. You created new traditions, or re-imagined them, or kept old ones, or let go of them. You have begun to develop a strategic plan. Nothing catastrophic. Nothing earth-shattering. Nothing miraculous.
But there have been other changes having to do with the membership and size of this church. Over the past three years, our membership has increased by a third, surpassing the two-hundred fifty member mark. Pledges have increased by the same, and overall, the budget has increased by twenty-eight percent. Sunday morning attendance is up sixty-five percent compared to three years ago. Summer worship attendance is up 100 percent compared to two years ago, and two-hundred and twelve percent compared to four years ago!
The other day I picked up the membership book and discovered something. With the number of new members who have joined in the past two to three years, the median tenure of a current member of this church is about three years. That means we have about as many members who have been here for less than three years as we have members who have been here for longer than three years. If you have been a member of this church for more than, say, four years, you are in the minority.
This church has changed in its size, and changed in its membership, and changed in a number of non-catastrophic, not earth-shattering, un-miraculous ways. And these are all fairly obvious, overt changes. Except that they aren’t. For lots of folks, about half the congregation, the church has always been the way it is today. I remember getting calls last June when we went back to one service for the Summer. It was new families asking whether children’s religious education would be before or after the single service. “During,” I said. “What?” the families asked, startled, “You can’t possibly offer religious education during the service!”
What happens when we fail to remember that not everybody sees things the same way, is a dynamic sort of like what happened to the doctor and the over-friendly dog. Everybody assumes that things are as they are supposed to be: Somebody else is feeding it, watching it, cleaning up after it. We find ourselves needing to ask, “Pardon, is this your dog?” “Well, whose dog is it?”
The size and the staffing and the scheduling are all overt changes, but along with those changes have come some other, less obvious changes. As we’ve grown over the last two or three years, we’ve crossed a magic number. A magic number of whether the size of the group participating in the active life of the church is more than 150 or less than 150 people. In church-dynamics literature, this one-hundred and fifty barrier separates smaller “pastoral” churches from larger “program churches.” Alice Mann says that as you break through that barrier, the church will change in several key ways. First, it will need to switch from an informal, organic style to a more official organizational model. Second, it will switch from being pastor-centered, where the minister is the one to whom every request is directed, to being program-centered where various program areas operate more autonomously. And finally, this change across the 150-member threshold has asked our lay leaders to lead in a very different way. At a larger size, lay leaders are increasingly asked to develop self-sustaining groups of people and give them permission to serve the church or the world through living out their calling.
What’s so special about that one hundred and fifty number? It actually has something to do with brain function. In the book “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, we learn that “Humans socialize in the largest groups of all primates because we are the only animals with brains large enough to handle the complexities of that social arrangement. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has actually developed an equation in which he plugs in the size of the neo-cortex relative to the size of the brain and the equation spits out the expected maximum group size of the animal. If you plug in the neo-cortex ratio for humans, you get a group estimate of 147.8 – or roughly 150. [Dunbar writes,] ‘The number 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.’”
What this research tells us, is that for those of you who have been members over these years of growth, that your brain is having to deal with a totally different way of understanding what it means to be a part of the community. Our brains are having to work out and work through a different way of comprehending. Larger groups strain and eventually overload our brains, if we continue to operate with the same expectations as when the group was smaller. Our neo-cortex is structurally unable to keep doing what it is doing.
Changes. Earlier I recited our numerical growth statistics. Our membership has grown by X percent. Our attendance has increased by Y. We had to add a second service because we could not fit enough chairs in this room to seat everyone who wants to worship here. Actually, it was more severe than that: We had numerous incidents where people would drive through the parking lot, find no open space, and leave without getting out of their cars. We frequently had people try to walk in through the double doors and find such a throng of people crammed into the corridor that the visitors turned around, went back to their cars, and went home. And if you asked me whether there was pride in filling the sanctuary, whether I liked seeing 65% more faces in the pews… if you asked me whether I enjoy the compliments you pay me on my preaching, I would have to admit, that yes, I like the compliments. I like the numbers in the pews. But it doesn’t satisfy me. It doesn’t fulfill me. Our society often mistakes what feels good for what satisfies, enjoyment for fulfillment.
A wise mentor once told me that the common metaphor of a marriage to describe a congregation’s relationship to a minister is wanting. For that metaphor misses an important aspect of the relationship, the transient aspect of it. I think ministers are sometimes especially attuned to recognizing the transience of things. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We all must die. Loss and leaving and endings are facts of the world. But the awful temptation is only to remind people of their mortality at those times when the loss and leaving and ending are imminent, immediate. The difficult thing is to remember to remind people of the transience, the impermanence, of things even when no leaving is scheduled, no ending is planned. It is precisely at times like these, when you’re planning to stay for a while, that it is important to remind everyone of the fact that all ministries are transient, just as all lives are, just as we all are perfectly mortal.
When I was still in seminary and about to begin the search for a church to serve, I received a piece of tough advice. Try to serve a church that is committed to exist as an institution far into the future; avoid any church that sees itself as existing solely to please and satisfy the people who happen to be there this moment. Church is not a roller coaster you ride until you grow tired of it – and seek out some other carnival amusement. Church is something we perpetually build, to last long after we are gone, and whose final shape we will never see, because we’ll be dead and gone before it is completed. A church should last beyond our years and the only way that it will is if we see that it does.
What I’m talking about is legacy. About helping to build something that lasts. What is worthy of our love, is worthy of our love. What is worthy of our sacrifice is worthy of our sacrifice. And what is worthy of us, deserves us.
What will your legacy be? In the parable of the wine and the water, we learn an important lesson. That what we do here, how we are here, what we bring or refrain from bringing touches others. If one or two bring water, everyone will still enjoy wine. That is a sort of grace. But it is in joining together, freely, passionately, powerfully that we grow.
I want to talk about membership. And not in a signing the book or making a pledge or serving on a committee way. Those are important. But those things aren’t what membership is. Membership is being transformed, a change in heart, a life seen differently. It is being gifted, growth from this change. Then membership involves listening, discernment. How am I called? Then it is being equipped to live that call. What resources can you rely on? Where is your strength? And finally, membership is being sent to share your transformed, gifted, called, equipped life with others. This Fall, leaders in our church are re-imagining membership. They are re-thinking, re-forming, and re-structuring the Membership Committee. Part of this has already happened with a brand new Seekers Class. But that is just the beginning.
Society makes it hard for this to happen. Society gives us a message that to live a complete and full life, all you need to have is work and family. Increasingly, all people have time for is work and family. And many people have difficulty squeezing just those two in. Community, religious community, gets squeezed out. But, work and family are not enough, contrary to what society tells us. To say that they are enough is to cheat ourselves. Religious community needs to have a place because of the fact that if people don’t get together in community, life is going to be precisely what they think it is going to be. That is why we gather in committees, in classes, in fellowship hour, in connection circles. Because if you don’t get together, life is going to be precisely what you think it is going to be. It is through those that transformation happens.
Bless this church. Bless it for reminding us that life can be something other than what we think it will be. Bless it for blessing us and may we respond to this blessing by strengthening it, that it may bless others long after our transient ministries and our mortal days. Help us, if we have been here for years, to understand the meanings of our changes more fully. And, if we are new here, help us to find transformation and meaning here. If we are a leader, empower us to gather around us others called to serve, be an aid to their transformation, gifting, and discernment. And, if we are not yet a leader, embolden us to take risks and take the reins. Realizing that nobody here is capable of knowing everybody here, let us this day each get to really know one other person who we have not yet met. Share your passion with them, and they with you. Encourage each other. So that, when the legacy of this church is told, it may be said of each and every one of us, not only, “because you are here, this church is a better place,” but also, “because you were here, this church will continue to thrive in the future.”