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KICKING IT OLD SCHOOL

A sermon preached by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, March 18, 2018

This morning we will consider the church, a bit of its history, its mission and purpose, and, perhaps most importantly, its future.

Much has been made in recent years of the decline of the church in America. Perhaps you’ve read articles or editorials about the rise of the Nones in America; that is, people who express having no official church or religious affiliation at all, but may nevertheless be spiritual; or, as the saying goes, “spiritual but not religious.”

Sociologists and editorial writers attribute the shrinking of the church in America to the rise of secularism, which is often linked to advancements in science and medicine. They like to point to countries throughout Europe and England as examples of what is likely to come for the church in America: continued membership decline, empty church buildings, and ancient assets difficult to manage once a church stops being, well, church.

I don’t believe everything the experts say. I think some of their explanation relies far too much on fear, as well as an assumption that the end of the church as we know it is already a foregone conclusion. But the numbers don’t lie.

Decline is happening, that I cannot deny. In response to this decline, however, there are a lot of talented, brilliant, and motivated people who are very interested in reimagining the church for the 21st Century.

If you’ve been to a General Assembly in the past few years you would notice a rise in a thing called entrepreneurial ministry. These are so called experts with lots of letters behind their names, and they’re more than happy to sell you their secret to membership and pledging. All of these programs have clever names and the tables offer free swag like cozy cups and thumb drives, which I’ll admit are hard to resist, but mostly useless. But all of them claim their solution is the best, they’re guaranteed, and proven.

So, I’ll ask your forgiveness in advance, but anytime I see someone selling a solution to membership decline in churches, I can’t help but think of a snake oil salesman.

A couple months back I attended a minister’s conference in Palm Harbor, Florida. It was a gathering of mostly UU ministers from all over the country, as well as a few ministers from our international churches in Canada, England, India, and Romania.

There were courses on social justice and activism, social media, and crisis ministry. But, of course, as luck would have it, I was assigned to the group who would be researching, of all things, entrepreneurial ministry.

Making matters worse, our research team was chaired by the kinds of people that make you feel like throwing in the towel at the outset. You know those kinds of people; they’re good looking, educated at the best schools, had the coolest jobs, shop at Banana Republic, and name drop people like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Meanwhile, I was dropped off at the resort in a taxi converted out of a 2002 Dodge Caravan.

One of my groups’ leaders was a gentleman who led a research team years ago for Frito Lay. For years Fritos watched as consumers grabbed Doritos and Pringles over their crunchy corn chips. So, they brought in an “expert.” After years of research, millions of dollars, focus groups, and experimentation he discovered this life-altering benefit to humankind: if you put the dip right next to the chips people are far more likely to buy it.

Here’s what he discovered: the average American consumer mostly wants what? Convenience.

His focus groups revealed, over and again, that people preferred the taste, texture, and look of their chips with dip on them. But the thing is, back in the day the dip was way back in the condiment aisle. So, what people were saying was this: Yeah, sure, I freaking love the dip. But, by the time I get all the way over to the chip aisle and impulse buy my bag of salty goodness it’s just way too much trouble to trek all the way back to the middle of the grocery store to buy a jar of salsa or tin of cheese and bean dip. So, instead, I settle for a bag or boring old dry chips because, when it all boils down to it, I’m lazy.

What was Frito’s solution you might ask? They said, “No problem, we’ll bring the dip to you.” Boom, revolution! Almost overnight Frito’s sales for their chips and dips grew more than 4000%. And you know what that means? They increased their revenue by millions. And to this day Fritos is so serious about their chips and dip they send out their own employees to every single gas station, grocery store, and bodega to stock their products because they’re fully aware of just how successful their model is.

But this guy didn’t stop there. Fritos ended up calling his team back, years later, when an engineer accidently adjusted one of their ovens to run at an unusually cool temperature resulting in chips that came out a bit too wide and curvy. By the time the defect was noticed by quality control there was thousands of dollar’s worth of product that risked having to be destroyed.

So, this guy’s team sat down munching on these defective chips until it dawned on him: It’s a scoop!, a chip with extra room for dip. He recommended that the company advertise the chip as a party snack on the network that was holding the Super Bowl that year and wouldn’t you know it that year the Fritos scoops! went on to be one of the best-selling chips. So, every time you get your dip in the same aisle as your chips just know a UU thought of that. Take that Thomas Jefferson!

So that’s one of the people the UUA has looking at membership decline. The other person is a professor at Harvard University. But she only works there on the side. Because she’s also the strategist for Krista Tippett’s On Being, which, you know, is only a NPR program that is listened to and downloaded by millions of people around the world every week. Oh, and by the way, she founded FAITHIFY, the first denominationally-founded crowdfunding site that’s delivered thousands and thousands of dollars to social justice and missionary campaigns throughout the world, teaching literacy skills at orphanages, providing legal funds for prisoners of war, and bringing churches back from the brink. She also co-authored the How We Gather study, which was funded by the Fetzer Institute and Harvard Divinity School, which brought the brightest minds of academia, Silicon Valley, and small business together to investigate where young people in America gather for community and spiritual practice.

How We Gather is this marvelous cultural artifact that tells the story of the millennial generation in America now. It proves they’re, or perhaps I should say we, are far from lazy. We’re health conscious, earth sensitive, travelers, and keen on self-improvement; I’ll have more on that later.

The report showed that unlike their parents, whom they felt only lived to work; Millennials have chosen, instead, to work to live. They change jobs and cities every 2-3 years; they try new things; they’re accepting and are hungry for change; remember, now, that this is the generation of people who take things like gender neutral restrooms and free healthcare and paid maternity leave very seriously. This is the generation that wanted Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as president.

But the report also discovered that this generation hardly belongs to churches of synagogues or any other specific religion at all. Rather, they prefer self-interested spirituality like monastic retreats, meditation, and yoga.

And, rather than having judges or clergy officiate their weddings, if they’re getting married at all, they’re turning instead to their personal trainers and CrossFit Box owners to officiate. And with the advent of the Internet these trainers, coaches, yoga teachers, chefs, and bartenders can pay a few bucks and get ordained as a minister online.

The study showed that young people prefer the great cathedral of the natural world to sanctuaries. It showed they’re willing to make these communities themselves. They don’t look to the church or service organizations for connection like their parents did. They’re content making their communities themselves.

And finally, the third person leading the entrepreneurial research team was their intern and she kept everyone caffeinated. I identified with her the most.

So, here I was with these two extraordinary researchers who’ve worked for prestigious institutions, led companies and organizations through incredible change and helped make millions, if not billions of dollars. We’ve got Harvard and CrossFit and Krista Tippett and podcasts and crowd sourcing.

And they’re talking about all this cool stuff and their ideas are so fresh and they’re so smooth.

I’m taking notes like a madman; I’m getting all excited; I’m leaning over the table just waiting for the solution to church membership decline.

I’m thinking about upgrading my ticket to Wausau to first class, because when I get back I’m going to drop some chip and dip action on this church.

And finally, the end of day two rolls around, we’re heard these great stories and testimonials, we’ve met some cool people, learned all these awesome facts and strategies when they turn to us ministers and say, “But we still have no idea why people are leaving the church. In fact, we have no idea how to save the church. That’s why we’ve called you all here.”

So, the question about the purpose of church wasn’t even close to being solved. Snake oil all over again. And I still had two days to go. And it didn’t get better; it got worse.

They made sure to tell us about all the horror stories of churches in Massachusetts and Vermont and Nebraska that were forced to sell or donate all their assets. They talked about nuns and women religious in the Catholic Church who are pre-planning the end of their religious orders, orders that have been around for centuries. In some Catholic orders they’re down to 15-20 women, none of whom are younger than 80-years-old. They showed us that the Catholic Church has fewer priests than ever before. They listed all the seminaries that are closing up shop, shipping their rare books and artifacts to other libraries. They gave us the statistic that every year 2.7 million people in America stop going to church and more than 4000 churches permanently close their doors. And then they told us it was time for a break and that tea, lemonade, and goldfish crackers were ours for the taking. I felt the world closing in around me.

And I realize you’d be right to question the hope I, or anyone else has for the church at this point. But the hope I have for this institution is undeterred; I believe in the church. And here’s why:

What emerged from the study is that people are hungry for spirituality and human connection; they want to be a part of a fun, dynamic community; they want to serve the cities and towns they live in; they want a place to celebrate life’s milestones, they want a place to belong.

People want to pursue life’s enduring questions with others. They want to die knowing what they believe in, what they stood for, what they bared witness to, will endure and live on in testament and human embodiment.

So, for the next day and a half, along with another hotshot entrepreneurial minister who, by the way, flew down to Florida in her own plane, we started brainstorming what the church will look like in the future.

People had these fascinating ideas, some of which are already in practice in many churches already.

One minister shared that her church has an expectation that whenever there’s a memorial it’s a church-wide event that everyone attends, kids too. But I couldn’t help but think that’s how it used to be. After all, when I was a boy, and someone died at my parents’ church we had to go to the funeral whether we like it or not. My mom used to pull out the same grey suit, snake skin cowboy boots, and my bolo with a scorpion set in stone and we’d go, casserole and all.

Another minister had taken all the pews out of her church’s sanctuary, replacing them with couches, love seats, and chairs. The room was now lit with floor lamps and they had a coffee shop in the back with area rugs and toys for kids. It sounded nice, but an awful lot like a house church but with the electric bill of a church to me.

And finally, at the end of the conference, still hoping against hope that they’d send me home with a golden ticket, they turned to all of us and said the slides should be in our email by the end of the week. Thanks and good luck.

On my flight home I didn’t feel like chips and dip at all. I felt like everything I’ve given my life to was living on borrowed time, that I’d been born a generation too late. But I was told by the experts that I should consider myself lucky to get to watch it all up and close, watch it evolve and maybe even thrive; but they also told us that we should be prepared to hold its hand as it dies, and that our duty then is to give the church a dignified death.

All things come to an end after all. I think I’ve preached that before. And part of the church’s task is to help all of us learn how to say goodbye when the end draws near.

In the weeks since the conference the philosopher in me can’t help but wish I had asked, “What is the Church?” at the outset. Maybe then I’d have a better idea of what it is I’m supposed to save; what it is I’m supposed to convince others of saving.

I have a hunch that the answer to “What is the Church?” might draw a diverse collection of answers, especially from a bunch of UUs like you all.

Nevertheless, in the midst of all the talk about coffee shops and couches and CrossFit I wished I’d of asked those three experts and the rest of my colleagues what’s wrong with the church just being the church?
Maybe if the church, especially those in the Mainline, like we are, stopped trying to be everything all at once and instead focused on what we were called to do centuries ago then maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this pickle in the first place.

The history books show us that the church followed right along with societies’ trends; and rather than holding fast to our principles and duty to serve others we turned our outward gazes inward, too often focusing on bettering ourselves and telling people they it’s time they become all they can be. We should have spent our time sharing some of that self-interest with our neighbors, serving the poor, the underserved, and listening to the concerns of workaday folks who, just like everyone else, struggle to find purpose in this rapidly changing world.

The church bought into the idea of rugged individualism and self-actualization. But all we did was hide the fact that most of us desperately hunger for companionship and community.

And then I started thinking about all the things my minister colleagues and their churches back home were up to. They told me they stopped trying to be a corporation, they stopped trying to do everything mega churches did, and instead focused on holding community suppers, making space for people who’d recently lost someone, people who’d recently been divorced, or lost a job.

They started focusing on their community, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, volunteering at the polls, and showing up when calls for solidarity rang out. Over and again I heard about people who were creating the churches people actually needed, churches that matter. They were recreating, well, the good old church.

Found in the writings of our Puritan ancestors, in St. Paul, the Gospel of Matthew, Calvin, Augustine, Jane Addams, and so many others from ages ago we find the call for the church to be a source of life itself; to be a source of relationship, solidarity, and companionship beyond class and race.

Furthermore, we are to be an institution of salvation, which means we take seriously our duty to serve others, our towns and neighbors; that we do all we can to make the lives of our neighbors as free and joyful as we hope and pray ours will be. But we must be willing to hear that same call for justice, change, and reform in our own lives as well.

Daniel Migliore, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, writes: “By word, sacrament, prayer, and life together, the church participates, in a provisional and incomplete way, in the sic love of God; by its manifold ministries of witness and compassion and its service of justice, reconciliation, and peace in the world, the church participates, always imperfectly, in the mission of [a loving] God.” In other words, by joining our hearts and minds together in prayer, by giving our hands together in service amongst others in service of justice and peace, and realizing that each of us are oh so perfectly imperfect, we embody love itself.

I read somewhere once that hope is what love looks like in the future tense. Churches, if they are to remain a vital aspect of human culture must take the shape of hope.

We must be brave enough to open ourselves to criticism, to name with honesty our weaknesses; but we must also be brave enough to pass on this very human institution we call the church in all its lovely brokenness. For it is in brokenness that healing is imagined.

Here and within the walls of churches in city centers and on street corners throughout the world, millions of people have been raised and suffered and rejoiced and died in service to the true purpose of the church: to be a community of healing and justice and peace for ourselves and for the world.

The future of the church won’t be found in a boardroom or in a think tank at an Ivy League school; that I can guarantee. It will be found in the hearts of people like you. People who make love and justice a purpose and pursue it until the end.

So, dear friends, let’s do something old school. Let’s be the church. Let’s be honest with ourselves, let’s admit we’ve fallen short of our best intentions; and let’s continue to be the church we were called to be centuries ago; servants to others and beacons of hope to our world; and let’s start today.

In the atrium you will find a box that I invite you to add an idea to. A need in our community you think our church might meet, a thought no matter how complete or incomplete. It is my promise to help build connections that are meaningful to the people of this church. Because, in the end, the church is where love is sown, and hope is cast. Its future is yours.

Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 261-262.