It’s like we threw a party, but nobody got the invitation…
Elizabeth and I moved into a third story walk-up apartment on the Southside of Chicago. We shared the stairwell with five other apartments, but had not met any of the other residents yet. So we decided that we ought to take the lead. A couple of weeks after we moved in, we threw a party, inviting our neighbors to come upstairs. It was scheduled to start at 6pm.
At about 6:30…well, you know that feeling when you’re the only ones at your party? That’s where we were, beginning to realize we were going to eating spinach and artichoke dip three meals a day for about a week.
Fortunately, that’s when a knock came at the door. It was the couple who lived across the hall. Not long after, another knock – the elderly bachelor who lived downstairs. Then the graduate student across the hall from him, and the retired couple from the first floor – all in all, five out of the six apartments were represented. The party was a success!
We lived in that place for seven years. And in that time, we shared lives with those neighbors: relationships came to an end, others started. There were weddings and births and deaths and moves. It was, in short, our little community near the corner of 55th and South Cornell. But that first party was the only time that we were all in the same room together.
Our apartment was nothing special; in fact, it was a cozy little one bedroom. And so, whenever we had a party, we had to pull out extra chairs (or anything resembling chairs, for that matter) so that everyone who wanted to sit could. We had set up our apartment for two people; when more were there, even for just a short period of time – a few hours or a few days – we moved furniture around, borrowed if we had to. In short, we made room.
When I read the Pentecost story, I wonder if God was at work doing something similar with the disciples: making room. After Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, their numbers were down to eleven, and they holed themselves up back in the Upper Room that had become their familiar respite. After the resurrection, when Jesus appeared to them and ate with them and spoke with them and stayed with them for almost a month and a half, they decided that maybe their story wasn’t over. And so, after Jesus left them, they gathered once again in the Upper Room as he had told them to do, and the awaited instructions. While they waited, they decided they needed one more to take Judas’ place, with that honor going to Matthias.
And still they waited…perhaps wondering if anybody else was coming to their party. Then Pentecost happened, and the church was born. Wind burst through the windows; fire lapped on their heads; languages filled the air; and Peter takes the opportunity to give his first sermon to the gathered crowd. Apparently, three thousand people were baptized that day because of what they saw and heard and experienced. This little party of eleven, then twelve, had suddenly outgrown the confines of that Upper Room – the celebration had to be taken to the streets!
I read all of this, and then I look at the state of churches today all over the country. I look around our own Sanctuary here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. Unlike the disciples, we’ve got room – plenty of room – too much room. Sure, on Easter we’re overflowing. On Christmas Eve, we’re at capacity. On Preschool Sunday, we’re packed to the gills. But the rest of the year, for the most part, we could all fit in one of our seating sections – tightly, mind you. But we certainly don’t have a problem with space…or is that our problem?
Our attendance records go back fifteen years. And in that time, the trend is downward, year after year after year. Even way back in those heady days of the late 90’s, we were under half-capacity most of the year.
We’re not alone in this challenge, either, by any stretch. It’s the same problem that faces thousands of churches all over the country: a sanctuary built for 800 now seats 80. A worship space that could hold three hundred sees an average attendance of 15 or 16. Both of these examples are actually in Presbyterian churches here in Atlanta; in thriving parts of Atlanta. This situation, sadly, seems to be much more rule than exception. It’s as though we live in a six-bedroom house permanently set up for a party, when a one-bedroom apartment would be more than enough.
So, Happy Pentecost! Nothing like slogging your way to church on a rainy Sunday morning to get a rousing, energizing, feel-good sermon, huh?
My point, though, is that I don’t think we are all that different from those early disciples. I have heard theory after theory about why the church is on the decline. There are those who want to point theological or political fingers: the church is too conservative, or too liberal. Or they blame worship styles: the music is too stuffy and the language is out of touch, or it’s trying to hard to be “relevant” and ends up abandoning age-old truths…Having been in a church professional for almost twenty years now, I’m convinced that none of those things is much of a factor at all.
And I think Oglethorpe Presbyterian is a perfect example. I really do hope you’ll stick around for lunch afterwards, because the first part of our conversation is to hear the results of the Church Assessment Tool survey we did just a few weeks back. And there is much – much – to celebrate about what God is doing here! And I know I keep returning to this topic, but your support of the Capital Campaign continues to show that this church has a place not just for the present, but on into God’s future as well! That’s not to minimize the challenges that we have, or to deny their existence. They’re there, all right; but we know they’re there. And I know I say this every year, but your session leadership is amazing, gifted, and dedicated to discerning God’s desires as we move forward as a church. It’s almost enough to make me become a Presbyterian!
But this is where my party metaphor starts to come apart. We’ve sent out invitations to the neighbors, but they’re not coming. We want to walk through those pivotal life moments together – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, celebrations, tragedies. And we want the community to know that we are here to walk alongside them in these moments. As any of you who have been there know, it’s what we do best! And yet, the time has come. It’s 6:30, and we sit here, looking at each other, wondering why nobody came.
The truth is that the rules have changed. The word is different. To use a technology analogy, we keep sending invitations through the mail when everyone is checking their inbox for an evite. I think the church’s decline is as simple as this: we are sitting in the Upper Room, waiting for a knock at the door; but really, it’s time to take the celebration to the streets!
For the disciples, it took the storm force of wind, the interruption of fire, and a good dose of linguistic chaos to get them off their be-hinds (as my grandmother would’ve said) and recognize that the Spirit was there so they could pick up where Jesus left off. What’s it gonna take for us to do the same?
I’ve got good news and bad news: the bad news is that we’re probably not gonna get the same kind of signs they did. There will likely be no burning bush, no Red Sea parting, no sky splitting open, no dove descending. But the good news is that the Spirit never left us – God is still here! It never left us! I’m just not sure we’re paying close enough attention, or that we’re able to filter out the stimuli that constantly bombard our senses long enough just to hear the wind blow…
Friends, the truth is: it’s not even our party to begin with! Maybe we have forgotten that, or maybe it happened so long ago that we don’t remember, but the celebration started long before we arrived on the scene. Somebody bothered to include us – our parents, a friend, a beloved pastor – because they knew that it was God’s party all along! Do we know that? Can we stop sending invitations and, instead, become invitations, taking it to the streets? And can we remember what the party was about in the first place – not a building, no; but the host, who meets us where we are!
My prayer today is that God would light a fire – not on our heads, but under our be-hinds, sending us out to be Christ’s deeds of power, living invitations to a world that needs healing, more than it knows. May it be so!