Re-purposing the Church

7 Easter B 2015

May 17, 2015

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

I bet if I asked everyone in this church the following question, each of us would have an interesting answer.  Here’s the question:  When have you seen a re-purposed church, and what was its new use?

I think of the beautiful bookstore in Maastricht, the Netherlands, that used to be a Gothic-style church.  Or the little white clapboard church I saw in a vineyard once, transported for miles, plunked down on the vineyard property, and now used for wine-tasting.  Or the church in Pittsburgh that’s used for a micro-brewery and restaurant.  It’s called the Church Brew Works.  The brewing tanks are in the former chancel.  Or I think of Christ Church in Avon, Connecticut, sold to the local Muslim society of the Farmington Valley and repurposed as a mosque and meeting rooms.

These are all interesting uses for old church buildings, but their stories are also a bit disturbing, aren’t they?  They point to the fact that churches are less and less needed as numbers of Christians decrease in our Western culture.

This past week there was a story about the latest survey done by the Pew Research Center.  They found that in 2014 there were fewer people than ever who claimed to be Christians.  “’The decline is taking place in every region of the country, including the Bible Belt,’ said Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at the Pew Research Center and the lead editor of the report.”  [New York Times, May 12, 2015, internet report, edited by David Leonhardt]

The group of people who say they have NO religion—what we call the “nones,” are now more numerous in our country than the most populous Christian denomination, which is the Roman Catholic Church.

This past week at our Clergy Conference I had a chance to sit down one-on-one with our diocesan bishop, Ian Douglas.

I said to him, “Gee, Ian, don’t you wish we were still in 1958, when the pews were bulging with people and kids were everywhere underfoot?”  And he replied that no, he’s really happy we’re not in 1958 anymore, that the “gospel of success” is not the true gospel, and that Christians are being grown now under conditions that help to form them and shape them into real disciples, instead of people who attend a social club every Sunday morning for the purpose of making more friends in town.  I thought that was a really interesting way to look at things.  After all, by the world’s standards, Jesus was a failure.  He never preached success.

And I also realized that the bishop’s answer is why HE is the bishop, and I am not!

Here’s how a priest called Alissa Newton from the Diocese of Olympia (in Washington State) looks at the findings of this week’s Pew Report.  She says they show that—quote—“The people sitting in my church every Sunday morning really want to be there.”

And, you know, she’s right.  It is wonderful fact that you all are here today because you WANT to worship.  We need to celebrate that!

*  *  *

So--let’s change gears and talk about little Peter here for a minute.  Today he becomes a Christian, a member of the Body of Christ, here in Redding and throughout the world.  His mom Meghan is also the daughter of Keith Gallagher, and more than that, she and Alex, her husband, are new members of our parish.  How wonderful.

When Peter is grown up, the Christian church in general and the Episcopal Church in particular will probably be very different institutions than they are today.  Some of our parishes will have folded and merged with other churches.  Our liturgies may have evolved and taken on new language—perhaps.  More people will be worshiping with electronic devices in hand.  It will be different, and the church will change whether we like it or not.  But it will also be a church in continuity with today and with the infant church that Jesus left behind almost 2000 years ago after his Ascension back to the Father.

I would love to end by directing our attention to something very poignant and relevant for us in today’s gospel.  Jesus asked his Father to protect his followers and to guard their faith.  He asked this a few times, actually.

And what that means for us is that even as the church moves forward into uncharted waters, we are still being protected and held in the palm of God’s hand.  That’s what we are challenged to remember.  That God loves us with an everlasting love.  That God protects us and guides us through frightening and unwelcome changes.

Each of us is invited to go deeper and deeper in our relationship with Jesus, to recommit our lives to him, to God. Each of us has been put on this earth to bring encouragement and faith to other people.  Each of us, including Peter, was born to take the good news of God’s love out to relatives and friends and strangers.

So--may we embrace our call as Christians who are even now standing in the middle of changes we cannot control.  May we remember that God protects and loves us.  May we trust in his love and guidance, and incarnate that love all over the place.  And may this parish church remain this parish church.