(Readers asked me to post my sermon from last Sunday, when I visited St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Charlotte, NC, where I once served, to celebrate their centennial. A sermon is too long for a blogpost, but here it is.)
St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Charlotte
By Tom Ehrich
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3.16)
What a treat to be back in this pulpit. Thank you for inviting me to share in your centennial celebration.
I could tell you how wonderful you are. For this is a great church. It has been a great church for many years. The DNA of St. Martin’s was formed when wealthy downtown folks established a new parish to teach morals to their workers but to do so without having to worship with them. St. Martin’s has always had the common touch.
Welcome women into church leadership? Yes, of course. Integrate the pews? Yes, of course. Welcome gays and lesbians? Yes, of course. Provide dental care to the homeless? Yes, of course. Carry food to shut-ins? Yes, of course. Provide tutoring to kids in Earle Village? Yes, of course. Send leaders to the diocese and strong support to Kanuga? Yes, of course. Go to Sioux reservations in South Dakota and come home transformed? Yes, of course.
This has been a “yes, of course” congregation for many years.
Not without conflict, not without cost, for every movement toward the light is challenging, every change is difficult, every new life being touched causes discomfort. But the strength of St. Martin’s is not that it is perfect, but that it is willing. It is willing to try, to embrace new ideas, to embrace strangers, even to welcome Yankee preachers like myself.
I could also tell you about my journey in the nineteen years since I left St. Martin’s to follow the arc of my ambition to a still-larger church. I could tell you how I worked my way into business consulting and technology, and then into web publishing, church consulting, and my own company, with an office in Midtown Manhattan, where I go to work excited every morning and am doing work I never imagined being able to do.
I could walk memory lane with you. I have so many fond memories of this congregation, good people, working hard, taking risks, sharing good food, good conversation.
But what I really want to do is take a look ahead. For I have little interest in nostalgia. Our beloved Episcopal Church is struggling, and it is time to turn it around. Some parishes remain healthy, and I am always happy to tell clients about St. Martin’s being one of the healthy. But on the whole, mainline churches are shadows of what they once were.
We should be a denomination of 5 million, instead we have slipped below 2 million. It takes about 300 members to be a viable church. The typical Episcopal congregation has fewer than 100. We are closing more churches than we are opening. Our average age is 65, and the average age of the world around us is 25. We have missed two entire generations of young adults.
What happened? The world changed, and we didn’t change with it. The world needed new things of us, but we clung jealously to old ways and old battles. The world needed ethical guidance, and we offered fights over who was in charge. People needed help and hope and healing, and we perfected Sunday morning and then waited for them to walk in our doors.
And so I am traveling around the country teaching church leaders about turnaround strategies. They are eager to learn. Desperation can be a good motivator. They want to know how to grow their membership, how to communicate with a world that doesn’t just walk in the doors on Sunday morning, how to overcome the invisibility that plagues most mainline churches, how to find fresh purpose — not just to survive, but to grow, thrive, make a difference.
I spend a lot of time on the road. A brief story about that travel. After months of thinking about it, I reached a personal technology milestone this weekend. For the first time since I began carrying a computer on business trips in the late 1990s, I am not hauling around seven pounds of laptop computer, power supply and mouse. Just this 1.3-pound iPad2.
Major advance in civilization? No, probably not. Drinkable water throughout Africa would be a major advance, or allowing women to be free in all societies, or providing food, shelter and health care to all who need it.
Shedding six pounds of gear hardly compares. But it does show the way.
It’s tough out there. Wealthy people still refuse to share with the have-nots. Men still prevent women from controlling their own lives and bodies. Power-seekers still oppress others in search of thrones. Bigotry and intolerance still dominate our politics.
But life does get better for more and more people, and it is technology that tends to level the playing field. Thanks to technology, India can put millions more to work, China can feed its vast population, freedom-seekers in repressive societies can make common cause against dictators, and millions of isolated people have voice and connection.
The balance has shifted. Enterprises that vowed to stop technology from invading their turf are lining up to learn fresh ways. Book and music publishers, magazines and newspapers, higher education, sales and marketing, entertainment networks, and medicine have stopped fuming about tech invaders and started developing iPad apps.
Even religion, perhaps the most change-resistant sector in society, has embraced technology. In order to reach more people, especially young adults, and to keep costs in line, churches send digital newsletters, market programs through social media, and make learning and fellowship accessible far beyond the church parlor.
As web meetings proliferate, along with web-based sharing of photos, needs and dreams, people discover that being in community can take previously unimagined forms. I can foresee the day when the great monkey on religion’s back — under-utilized and no longer affordable facilities — will give way to new forms of corporate worship and fellowship. In fact, once churches stop depending on buildings to do their work, I think a golden era of incarnational faith will emerge.
When people discover their need of God and of each other, and are freed from the conflict-laden and expensive distraction of maintaining inherited infrastructure, I think faith will blossom. Not watered down by technology, but liberated by it.
Jesus said that God would always love us. And that we should seek that love. Not that we should create institutions, or build facilities, or fight over who is in charge. But that we should let God love us and then love one another.
Some of that love will take place in handsome sanctuaries like this one. More and more will take place out there, in the marketplace, in our homes, in small circles, around dinner tables, where we take the time to connect.
Out there, and in here, our response to God must always be the response that is deeply ingrained in this congregation: Yes, of course.
Love each other? Yes, of course. Love people we don’t know yet? Yes, of course. Speak truth to power? Yes, of course. Stand for justice? Yes, of course. Stand with the weak? Yes, of course. Stand with victims? Yes, of course. Stand with the 99%? Yes, of course. Stand for mercy and against bigotry? Yes, of course. Stand for courage in a time of fear? Yes, of course. Stand for sharing in a time of greed? Yes, of course.
Stand up for Jesus? Yes, of course! Yes, of course!