True Religion, Part 3 (Old Wineskins)

Back in the early 2000’s I was asked to serve on a Conference team that would look at church revitalization and new church starts. As we sat around the table for that first gathering, I was really pleased with the forward-thinking it had taken for our conference staff to put this together. After introductions and a brief introduction of the goals of the team, we got down to work. Ideas began to roll out, resources were discussed, and ways to fund the initiative were put out there; everything we needed. Almost. This is how the conversation kind of went: Me – Where’s the map? Someone else – Ummm – what map? Me – The map of the conference and where all our churches are. Someone else – We don’t have one. I was surprised, so I said, “You can’t take a trip without a map!” So, a map was created by our amazing staff, and it included population demographics and trends from the last 10 years. What we found surprised nobody. Almost all of our churches were in places with population decline, and most of the churches that were growing were in areas of population increases. No duh (I didn’t say that, just thought it).

When I did my D. Min. in the early 1990’s, there was a former United Methodist pastor (by then a Pentecostal) who taught me a lot about church growth. His gigantic church near Toronto had moved a couple of times, and they were considering another. He said that Pentecostal churches build for the next 10 years with the expectation that the Spirit will bring them to increase and they’ll run out of room. The other important lesson was that if a Pentecostal pastor came to him for seed money to build a church across the street, he would give them some. They understand that most people are un-churched; the fields are many, as Jesus might say. So while we Mainliners grasp tightly to our membership, Pentecostal pastors expect fluidity. We compete; they share. At least, in theory.

We rarely start new churches because we believe we live in a world of scarcity instead of abundance. We don’t really believe that our churches can grow, so we hold on to what we have and hunker down, waiting for the end of time (or, at least, our time). When Jesus spoke of not putting new wine in old wineskins, I believe He was speaking about how we like to hold on to what we have rather than have expectations of what might be. Play it safe rather than take risks. Our Pennsylvania Conference of the UCC has an opportunity to create a new wineskin in Pottstown, PA. Two of our pastors (Nichole and Zack Jackson) are endeavoring to try something new. It’s called “Open Table UCC.” Our conference has been taking money given from the sale of closed churches and putting it into a fund to start new churches. That is amazing, but I think a top-down process can only go so far. We – the congregations of the conference – need to have some (wine) skin in the game. Imagine what would happen if each of the 150-ish congregations took an offering and gave $500-$1000 towards this endeavor? Imagine how it would look to have the entire conference get behind this movement of the Spirit? What would that kind of generosity do for all of us?

I think this kind of generosity could inspire those of us in the old wineskin churches to change. I think it would show the world outside that we aren’t inward looking and selfish. I think it would remind our congregations that we are committed to the covenant, not autonomy. I think it would mean that we still know what it means to be the church. The fields are full, Jesus said, but the workers are lacking. We have two workers just itching to get to work. We should support them, not just as congregations, but as individuals. The fields are plentiful; we just have to pay better attention.

Prayer – Help us to help each other, God of plenty, so that Your light, not ours, can shine. Amen.

Today’s art is “Abundance Angel” by Katherine Skaggs.