XCovid-19:Important Updates for Worship, Church Operations and Staying ConnectedRead more

Sermon Archives

The New Normal

Rev. Wendy Vander Hart
Sun, Mar 04

The Second Sunday in Lent
Lessons: Acts 2: 37 – 47

Grace and peace to you from Jesus Christ, the head of the church. I bring you greetings, blessings and all manner of good wishes from the 72 churches of the MBA as well as the 380 churches of the MA Conference.  It is good to be together to worship God and lift up our covenant connections as the body of Christ.

I want to thank Dan and church leaders for the invitation to be here and preach in my home church.  Though I am not able to be present in worship very often you are constantly in my prayers especially this year past.  I thank God for your ministry and your gospel witness and pray your service bears the fruit God has in mind for you.

Whenever I am in one of our churches I name our mission as the MA Conference of the UCC as the reason for being there. You may or may not be familiar with the mission of the MA Conference but it goes something like this, “nurturing local church vitality and the covenant among our churches to make God’s love and justice real.”  It used to be that our mission was “to nurture local church vitality and covenant” but many of us asked, to what end?  Over a year ago the phrase “to make God’s love and justice real” was added.  For myself I state it “provoking local church vitality and covenant following Jesus who made God’s love and justice real.”  Stating our mission and purpose clearly makes a difference.  I thank you for your contributions to that mission through your giving to Our Church’s Wider Mission and fellowship dues and the ways in which you offer time and talent to the cause.

Now with your founding as a church in 1636, 375 years is a long time to be a witness to God’s amazing love in one community especially since I learned recently that the average life expectancy of a church is 80 years.  You would not be here were it not for that line of founders and those who re-imagined mission here to overcome that average church life expectancy.  

But I would venture to reason that the present is just as important.  You are only here as a church now because God tugged on each one of your hearts in the present moment and said, “there is spirit-driven community at First Church in Cambridge, UCC that is worth the investment of your time and generosity!”  And thank God, here you are!  It is good to thank God and... it is good to thank each other so I invite you to thank someone nearby you for being part of this ministry.  Reach out to someone and say “thanks for being part of this ministry!”

The topic for this sermon is “The New Normal.”  I think we can all agree that the world of 2012 is significantly different from the world of 1636 – Would you agree that what folks who resided in Newtown (now Cambridge) in 1636 would describe as “normal” would be very different from what we would describe as “normal” today?  Can I hear an Amen to that?  Would you give me an Amen if I said that what was “normal” in 1871, when the church building was built, and then expanded in the 1920’s is different from what is “normal” now?

 I have been captured of late by the phrase, “the new normal.”  I most recently heard this phrase spoken by Conference Minister Jim Antal. To know Jim is to know he is passionate about our response to climate change.  He was remarking on the floods in Vermont as the result of hurricane Irene and noted that events like these can no longer be labeled 100 year events.  Like the devastating floods of the spring of 2010, this past spring and the hurricane, the freak snowstorm in  October- storms like these he asserts are the “new normal.”

If you Googled the phrase “the new normal” you would see about 151,000,000 results from that search.  It refers to everything from the economy, technology, the use of social media, and the list goes on.  I believe the phrase is apropos for the changing landscape of ministry and the challenges our churches face in the shifting sands of culture.

Let me paint a picture of “the new normal” for our churches.  In any given community across the United States only 17% are worshiping in a faith community on a Sunday morning.  Some statistics say the percentage in New England is closer to only 9%.  The average age of members of United Church of Christ congregations is 65.  We have enough seminarians to fill one seminary, but not the seven that are associated with the United Church of Christ.  And given the smaller size and older age of our congregations it is estimated that between 30-40% of our churches will close in the next 15-20 years.  Add the characteristics of the culture at large to these challenges – like an increasingly multi-option society, the impact of social media on people’s way of relating to one another and the decline of institutions in general – and you can see that local church vitality faces an uphill battle.  Tell your neighbor, “there’s a new normal out there.”

Now that was the challenging news.  Here is some good news.  I can tell you some stories of UCC churches in the area that are meeting that uphill battle of church vitality and are thriving.  And they all have the same thing in common – they can clearly state who they are, why they are and for whom they are.  In a Twitter world where you need to state something in 140 characters or less, these churches can sum up their mission in a Tweet!

UCC Medfield – the discipleship church.  Each member lives in covenant together around six marks of discipleship – daily prayer, daily bible reading, weekly worship, generous giving, mission through and beyond the local church, relating with others to foster spiritual growth.  $700,000 of their $750,000 budget is met by people’s giving.

Old South Church in Boston – the blessing church.  Located at the finish line of the Boston Marathon they bless the feet of the marathoners. They bless backpacks at the start of school, hammers for mission trips, animals – you name it, they will bless it.

First Somerville – the testimony church.  Everything they do is understood to be testimony to the faith they live.  This even carries over to the front yard of the church that is fully taken over by a vegetable garden.  It is a living testimony to who they understand themselves to be just outside of Davis Square.  They also practice testimony in worship.  Every week in worship the liturgist leads the time of confession and the offering by sharing testimony of their faith lives.  There is a one year waiting list to be liturgist!

Let me also share the story of a non-UCC church, Highrock Church in Arlington – the transformation church.  I live in Arlington and had been meaning to visit them for awhile.  I finally got there on Labor Day Sunday, the 9:15 a.m. service.  There was a line to get in the door!  The sanctuary was packed (and air conditioned!) with a multi-ethnic, mostly young adult congregation.  Throughout the service in any number of ways they were clear that they are about transformation – through connecting to God personally, connecting to God’s people, connecting to God’s purposes.  There was a long invitation to join a small group – either a short term connection group or a longer term covenant group.  They will help you start a small group around Monday Night Football Group!  You could not leave worship there without a sense of who they are, why they are and for whom they are.

Each one of these churches has at least two things in common: 1. They have clarity of the mission God has called them to and 2. That mission is rooted in the reclaiming of ancient practices.

Ironically, the renewal of the church is dependent upon recapturing the past for the present day.  The acts of discipleship, blessing, testifying and changing lives of these thriving churches are all rooted in ancient Christian practices.  UCC Medfield, Old South and First Somerville have found in the roots of our heritage a source of life and a sense of purpose.

If we look back to the first days of the Christian Church, those days right after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost we can see the roots of our renewal staring us in the face.

You remember the story that precedes the portion of Acts we heard today, the story we label Pentecost – a huddled group of grievers waited in a room in Jerusalem because Jesus promised an Advocate, a spark that would carry them forward without him.  On the rush of a wind they were filled with the Spirit to the point where they were ablaze with passion for sharing good news.

But they did more than share good news, they lived good news.  They prayed together, ate together, remembered together and gave so generously from what they had so that no one was in need.  And those who witnessed their transformation were beating down the door to be baptized and grab some of this good news for themselves.  That day of Pentecost saw 3000 baptized.  Can you imagine 3000 people knocking on your church’s front door because they saw in you something they knew would quench that unidentified hunger and thirst for God in their lives.

Imagine being so inspired to follow Jesus as these folks described in Acts that they prayed together, ate together and shared their lives together.  Imagine being so inspired to follow Jesus in a Newtowne that you were part of forming a church in 1636.    Imagine being so inspired to follow Jesus in 2012 that you reinvent First Church just when your fifth life cycle as a church is coming into play.

The key is to listen to the Holy Spirit and be authentic to who God is calling you to be in this present moment and in this neighborhood.

You don’t have to be the blessing church or the testimony church or the discipleship church or the transformation church unless that is who you are. 

The wonderful gift of being clear about your mission/purpose is that you will help shape people who live that mission in their daily lives.   If you are the blessing church – the people that come and go from here will be a blessing in their places of work, home and play.  If you are the testimony church – the people that come and go from here won’t be shy to bear witness to their faith in their daily lives.  If you are the church of changing lives – the people that come and go from here will be agents of transformation!

When you are clear that you are the _____ church, you will see that same energy that had 3000 people knocking on the door of the early church wanting to be baptized.  It would be like someone sending a tweet – “going to First Church in Cambridge UCC because they are living Jesus over there,” and all following that Twitter account showed up! 

Donald English, a British Methodist leader said, “the world doesn’t need more salespersons for the gospel, just more free samples.”

That is who you are called to be in this new normal, in this day and age.  A community who has hundreds of people following your every move because they see and experience in you something of Jesus still alive, still present, still calling people out into the world.

So I wonder with you today First Church in Cambridge, Congregational UCC– in the midst of a new normal, in the throes of a Twitter world - what do you want to be known for in this neighborhood?  If I can encourage you to be clear about your mission/purpose, now is the time to be able to say First Church UCC is the ____ church.  Now is the time to be making Christians.  Not for your own survival and vitality, but so that the transforming power of Jesus Christ is known through the people who gather in this meeting place on Garden and Mason Streets and in the community that it seeks to serve.  May it be so.

Looking for ways to support our community during this unprecedented time of need? The Missions and Social Justice Committee has compiled and vetted a short list of organizations looking for assistance to aid in their work in the COVID-19 response...

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, the Shelter has expanded into Sage Hall to allow for greater social distancing, and is now open to guests around the clock, thanks to additional funding from the Commonwealth. They would very much welcome...