BE THE CHURCH
18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 20The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, 21the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
(Isaiah 43:18-21, NRSV)
A couple of years ago our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, developed a publicity campaign called, BE THE CHURCH. Banners were made, some monochrome and others with all the colors of the rainbow. Even if you hadn’t already seen our banners, you would have guessed that we would go for the color. It’s who we are as a church. Ours is not drab monochrome congregation composed of ho-hum wallflowers. Sure, we are a smaller version of ourselves, but we are alive and kicking and not going to go gentle into that good night. Besides, a lot can change in a year, things around here certainly have.
In June of 2016, the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ asked four churches, including ours, to participate in a ministry vitality program. Our Deacons appointed a Ministry Vitality Committee to help us assess our strengths and envision new outreach opportunities. While I was glad to participate in the program, my expectations were very low. My hope spiked in November when church consultant, Rev. Paul Nixon, met with our committee and attended worship. I admit that I was prepared to hear that our only hope was to junk the altar and the choir loft, the cross and the pulpit. I assumed we’d be advised to install huge movie screens to project song lyrics, hymnals are so old fashioned! By the time the dreaded conversation ended, I figured our sanctuary would have more in common with Madison Square Garden than a traditional church. Many Evangelical churches have gone this direction and it actually works for them. Of course I knew in my heart of hearts that it would never work here, nor would I want it to. Quite the contrary!
As I look back on it, the weekend with Paul Nixon was pivotal in helping us dream up new ways to “be the church.” Paul loved our service and was highly complementary of our choir and the overall energy level of worship. He told us some things we did not know—our sound system was on its last leg and needed to be replaced, our congregation was already so welcoming to the LGBT community that becoming officially Open and Affirming in the UCC would be easy, and that survey data in our area indicated that people were looking for alternative spiritual practices.
Fortunately, we were able to get a new sound system as you have seen and more importantly heard. We applied for and received official Open and Affirming status in the UCC. As positive as these things were, we still lacked any big idea to move our church into the future.
In the early spring I read an article on the decline of the American church, specifically attendance at Sunday morning services. The article was depressing, but out of it I realized that we have other options. If people are interested in spirituality but not Sunday morning church attendance, we had a choice to make. We could keep doing what we’ve always done and keep getting the results we’ve always gotten, or we could try something new.
With that the big idea was born. We could create a Center for Wellbeing here at our church that might meet the needs of people who never planned to set foot in a church, as well as our own members. In terms of alternative spiritual practices, we were already richly blessed. Beth Miller was friends with yoga instructor and health coach, Stacey Kelly, who, Beth said, might be willing to teach a yoga class in our church. Stacey agreed and is currently leading three yoga classes here. A few weeks after our weekend with Paul Nixon, a new couple showed up in 10 AM worship. I looked at the man and thought to myself, he’s either a retired minister or a seminary professor. After the service I met Keith and Charlotte Fiveson and come to find out, Keith is an interfaith minister with a seminary degree and an accomplished mindfulness teacher. We hit it off and later in the week Keith and I met to see if we might be able to work together on additional alternative spiritual practices here in our church. In the spring, Keith led our Prayer Chain retreat on the topic of mindfulness and hit a home run with great attendance. Next we planned a 9-week mindfulness class to meet here in our church. The class was so popular that we had a waiting list. This fall Keith is leading a similar 8-week class.
In the future we hope to address a host of topics to elevate our minds, bodies, and spirits. We are planning wellbeing programs including healthy cooking and healthy eating, speakers to teach us how to age well, specialists to address holistic issues connecting our minds, bodies, and spirits. We also want to stay current with societal issues as they arise. For instance, in response to the outpouring of #MeToo posts online, our church is hosting two Sacred Conversations on sexual harassment and assault on Sunday, November 5, at 11:30 AM. A time for women to share, listen, and discuss will be led by Rev. Lori Burgess and Rev. Amy Karriker. I will lead a separate conversation for men to discuss the pain caused by our male-dominated society and ways we can help turn the tide.
We also hoped to reach out to our LGBT sisters and brothers. Why this special focus? Because even today, when LGBT people see a church they cannot assume that they would be welcome. On the contrary, the vast majority of churches in our world, especially Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches, are not open and affirming. On the contrary, many are closed and condemning—which is why those churches that are truly welcoming need to get the word out that LGBT people will be graciously welcomed in our churches, just like everyone else.
To help publicize our wide welcome, last Sunday we had an amazing morning with singer Chely Wright who spoke during the service, sang a song, and participated in a question and answer discussion in the chapel that lasted an hour. We had many visitors including someone from New Haven, CT, and four of New York’s five boroughs. (Next time we’ll recruit someone from Staten Island!) Throughout the morning, three separate church members said to me, “I have never been more proud of our church than I am today.” One member who is in his 80’s planned to skip the service, but decided to come at the last minute. He was so moved by Chely’s message during worship that he stayed for the Q and A time and afterwards said he “was enlightened and grateful that he showed up.” Another member sent me an email which said in part, “I think the event was soulful, interesting and successful, and truly showed that we are interested in making our church responsive to real issues facing real people in the community, in a God-centered way.”
We’ve also hosted new programs to broaden our minds including Current Events in Perspective with Dr. David Dorman, and some things just for fun like our Congo Campfire and Chili Cookoff, which was delicious and well attended including two families who do not have a church home.
We also decided that we want our building to reflect the spirit of our congregation. We are a warm and inviting church so we re-appropriated the former Women’s Club Room to create the Congo Café, a space for anyone, church members or parents waiting to meet their children after nursery school. Anyone can enjoy a cup of coffee or tea, charge their cellphones, or perhaps have a conversation that gets beyond small talk. We hope to modernize other spaces in the church to inject some personality and a more contemporary setting. Even the altar now better reflects who we are as a church. In the summer some members brought flowers from their gardens for the altar. This fall we’ve worked with our florist to design arrangements with a flair. We’ve also used the altar to showcase works of art created by our members and there’s more to come.
We also make good use of our roadside signs, sometimes with words of encouragement and other times with humor. I had no other goals than these but quickly learned that some people truly take the signs to heart. Over the last year we’ve had people stop by the office and say, “I was feeling down, read your sign, felt better, and just wanted to say thanks.” This past week a woman who likes our signs asked if she could go in the sanctuary to pray, and she’s not the first one to ask because of our signs. We also use the signs to advertise church programs and events. People have attended both yoga and mindfulness classes because they read about them on the signs.
We also want to expand hands-on service projects. Over the last few months our chair of Missions and Outreach, George Cox, has arranged two projects with Island Harvest, which feeds the hungry. Every summer Lori takes large groups of teenagers on service trips to help those in need. She’s already set up a future project to help those suffering from the recent hurricanes.
Last but by no means least, our music program is phenomenal. We are spoiled with their talent at yearly Broadway pops concerts, Christmas concerts, and classical concerts. Week in and week out they inspire us in worship from the first note of Craig’s organ prelude to the last note of the benediction response.
The most basic way we can “be the church” is by being there for each other as a Family of Faith. We are here for weddings, funerals, and baptisms. We are here to share a hug and perhaps a shoulder to cry on. We are here to sustain each other through life’s difficult times and celebrate together in life’s joyous times.
And now the pitch you’ve all been waiting for since this stewardship sermon began. We can only do all of this and more if we have your faithful support. Staff needs to be paid and the upkeep of our building and grounds never ends. You have always been there for us in the past and I have every confidence you will continue to support us with your attendance, with your volunteer hours, and yes with your money as we are led by the Spirit into the new and exciting future that awaits us.
In today’s scripture lesson, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah saying, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” One year ago I did not perceive it, but now I’m not only perceiving it, I’m seeing it firsthand, a wellspring of new ideas, a feeling of renewed energy, and a surge of God’s creative Spirit inspiring us to “be the church” like never before. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
October 22, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, source of all blessings, we praise you for all your gifts to us, and give thanks for your generosity. Everything we have and creation itself comes from your gracious hand. Help us to be grateful and responsible with these your gifts. You have called us to follow Jesus without counting the cost. May your Holy Spirit give us courage and wisdom to be faithful disciples and good stewards of your bounty. Help us to be grateful and generous, willing to give back as best we can.
Through Jesus Christ our Friend and Brother we pray. AMEN.
Adapted from http://www.rcav.org/uploadedFiles/Diocesan_Offices/