Transformation to Discipleship

Transformation to Discipleship

This year marks my fourth year as your Vicar. It has been a great joy being with you as your priest. Throughout my time, at various points in my preaching and at other opportunities, such as today, I have endeavored to gently hold before you the truth regardless of how painful that may be at times.  

We stand, as we have done for a few years now, at a significant turning point in our parish’s history. We have come from a time where we have enjoyed the luxury of a full church, bursting at the seams with people of all ages and interests. Over the years people have grown up, left home for university, left the church for one or more political reasons, or over time have simply become disengaged from the church community for one reason or another.  

This is hard and sad to realize. But it is also reality. People leave, people die and people move on with their lives in a different way. We, like many other churches across the country are not alone in this reality. We, like them, have a choice to make. We can stay where we are and lament the days of old and remember when things seemed to be so much better. The stories we share about the ‘glory days’ become our operating reality and cloud over details and what really was happening at the time. Our memories hold onto the ‘good’ of those days and tends to forget and down-play the negative. Some fun facts about our history to help illustrate this point. Did you know that in 1958 only 2 people were married? In 1966: 11 people were married and 14 buried. Then in 1968, initially no one stepped forward to coordinate the Fall Fair. We have Roy Pallent to thank for recording these details. A fascinating discovery by Sarah, our Parish administrator, in our archived documents reveals that the parish council was concerned about a decline in membership and difficulty to recruit volunteers and new members. . .

Now fast forward to 2017. We had 5 Baptisms, 4 Weddings and 7 Memorials. In other words, this past year, important bench marks of growth such as Baptisms and Weddings, outnumber the Memorials. Parish Council and the Leadership Team are still concerned about a decline in membership and the challenge of recruiting new volunteers. It is fascinating to see how the conversation really hasn’t changed much. If anything, 4 Weddings in 2017 is really good comparatively to our own history and the general trends we see in other churches across the country.     

So if you are thinking that there must be another way in which we can tell our story and shape our future, there is good news. Because there is indeed another way. This other way involves claiming that we are still called to be the church of today. While we have our limitations, we also have a tremendous wealth of resources at our disposal that many other churches and communities don’t. Living into this other way means we choose to engage and re-imagine ourselves with the resources we do have to be an effective church for the work that God calls us into at this time in this place.   But making this choice can be hard. It is hard at the best of times to re-imagine ourselves in a different way. The problem is realizing that we will need to let go of past patterns and ideologies to make way for new initiatives and a new way of being the church. Wrapped up in this is coming to terms with a culture that is quite prevalent within churches across the country and one that we ourselves are not immune to. The culture is the difference between a church that is membership focused and a church that is discipleship focused. Which one are we?  

People, often through past practice and experience, view the church as a service provider. The church is where you can get married and buried. Other helpful services can be provided such as counseling a venue for our favorite community group or hobby. For those who attend this model of church regularly - however that may be defined, come to church when scheduled for something, whether it is as a reader, greeter or one of the other volunteer roles. When not schedule, there is no real desire or connection to come to church or there are ‘other things’ people may want to do instead of going to church. This, my friends is the model of a membership based church. A church where the perception is that people are served in some way, very similar to how we would be at our favorite restaurant or the drive through at McDonald’s.  

A church modeled on discipleship has people, 99% of their people, constantly asking themselves and pushing the church community to ask themselves, “How can I (individual) participate in this church family and by extension, participate in the Mission of God?” This is a church that is not interested or focused on providing a service. People come to church because the church plays a vital and informative role in their everyday lives. This model of church extends to the workforce, the grocery store, the community center and informs how people make decisions in the settings of their everyday lives. People come to church on Sunday because they now that they will be renewed and refreshed, transformed in body, mind and soul to be sent back into the world where they can continue to be the church in the world. They can see and recognize the importance of coming to church, regardless of whether they are scheduled or not.  

People coming to a discipleship focused church come to church not just when they are scheduled to do something, but rather because the church and the church community forms the center of their lives. Yes they may not like everything that happens, yes, there favorite hymn may not always be sung - those are minor details in larger scheme of things. What matters most to a discipleship church, a church that is geared to the formation and growth of Disciples of Christ in the world . . . is the ‘big picture’. That is what matters most. The ‘big picture’ is the focus and where all the energy is directed. When the big picture becomes the focus, all the other stuff that people can get caught up in falls into place just the way it should.  

A church committed to discipleship is able to take and hold onto the ‘good’ from the past while at the same time constantly looking and adapting to the needs and pain of the world and the communities they find themselves in today.  

So I wonder where you see us at St. Martin’s. Are we a membership church or a discipleship church, committed to the formation and development of people to effectively meet the needs of a world that desperately yearns for what we have to offer? My charge to you and Vestry next week is that we may move intentionally and quickly to look for ways in which we may become a church that is focused on discipleship in all aspects of our parish life. We are at a critical point in our history, the decisions we make individually and as a community now will directly affect our viability and future ministry as a church. The choice is yours and ours to make. Pray we choose wisely.