31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
March 27, 2022
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Lawn chairs lined up down the sidewalk and into the parking lot for Century Nursery School registration; folding chairs set up in the Sanctuary aisles for Christmas Eve worship; and chairs upon chairs upon chairs set up in the Auditorium and its balcony for Variety Shows and Jazz musicals.
As we celebrate 275 years of ministry, it is hard to not be nostalgic for those times in our past when we had so many people we needed all of those extra chairs.
Lots of churches and pastors want to measure “success” by numbers – number of members, number attending worship, number participating in Children’s, youth, or adult ministries, number of dollars given. Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, like many other denominations, collects these church numbers every year, which feels like reinforcement that this is how you measure success.
Paul Nixon, in his article “Measuring Ministry Progress in the Post-Pandemic Church”, writes:
Many of the denominational statistical forms have not changed substantially in our lifetime. And yet church has changed remarkably in just the last decade, especially during the pandemic.
Church has changed dramatically in the last decade and especially the last two years, and yet, we are still measuring “church success” by the same attendance and financial numbers, which some would call outdated metrics. I, actually, think these numbers are irrelevant when it comes to measuring church success.
Let me back up a moment. When it comes to measuring success, you need to be clear about your goal, your purpose, what you are trying to achieve.
Two hundred and seventy five years ago, this Christian community came together for the purpose of loving God and loving our neighbor by providing for the physical and spiritual needs of our community, caring for others, body, mind, and soul. With Christ as our cornerstone, as members of the household of God, we were called to build together a dwelling place for God, a community of care for God’s people.
So, if our purpose is to create a space for people to connect with God and a community that provides for their physical and spiritual needs, what does success look like?
It might look like numbers of members and numbers attending worship because those metrics could be seen as signs of people loving and connecting with God. Our church’s success could also be measured by money given because that might be a sign of grateful hearts responding to God’s generosity with generosity.
Our church’s success could also be measured in ways we never considered before. While parents no longer line up to register for Century Nursery School, success is that for almost 70 years, this congregation has been committed to nurturing the mental, physical, and spiritual lives of preschoolers. We have faithfully committed our resources when the larger society thought it was a good idea and yet was not willing to finance preschool education. And we will continue doing so until the fall of 2023 when we will entrust this important ministry to the care of the new Bristol Public Schools Preschool Academy. As with the other schools we founded, we have been faithfully committed to Century because caring for the needs of our community has been our way of loving God and loving our neighbor since our founding, and that care makes a difference in our world.
Just last week, a mother walked into our church building and fondly told her daughters that this is where she went to preschool. They were here for a memorial service. It will be my second in 10 days. Both for families who said almost the exact same thing to me – ‘the church was so welcoming to us before, when we celebrated another loved one’s life’. Our church cares for our neighbors’ physical and spiritual needs in times of joy and in times of great sorrow, and families remember that. They trust we will be here to care for them, and we are.
And that is success because success for us is building this sanctuary of care for all of God’s people. When I interviewed with my search committee in the fall of 2008, they told me they had been to quite a few worship services during their search process and they were not fans of inviting prayers from the congregation during worship – which is what the church I served at the time did.
When I was called, I think I honored that wish for at least a little while. Now, when we don’t have prayers of the people, you protest because our prayer ministry is an important way we connect with God and each other. Our success, as a church, can be measured by the number of prayers offered in worship and throughout the week. Success is how instantly our community reaches out to one another for prayer and our willingness to pray for others because we know that this is how we both connect with God and care for our neighbors.
A sign of success is also the number of ministry partnerships FCC Bristol has. When I arrived, our connection with Silver Lake was the stuff of memories. Now, we have a Silver Lake campership fund, and youth and adults from this congregation have their Christian faith journeys and their connection with God nurtured in and by this holy place. When I first arrived, we were thinking about connecting with other churches to feed the food insecure. Now, I can barely keep up with how many partners we have. This month, cereal has gone to Salvation Army, St. Vincent De Paul, Family Promise, Zion Lutheran Meals for Neighbors, Agape House, Gloria Dei and even to Prudence Crandall, who ministers to survivors of domestic violence.
And as we partner with all of these other organizations to help our neighbors in need, what a blessing it is to have Scout Troop 6 and Tower of Hope Ministries partner with us. Just last spring, FCC, Troop 6, and Tower of Hope all gathered to do community clean here on Federal Hill, caring for the earth as we also cared for our neighbors.
With Christ as our cornerstone, with other members of the household of God, we have joined together with all of these other churches and non-profits to build together a dwelling place for God, a community of care for our neighbors.
Some churches may still be measuring their success by the metrics of butts in seats and dollars in the plate. We, at the First Congregational Church, though, know that our success is measured in terms of relationships, compassion, and lives transformed. Our success is measured by how many lives have been touched by our welcome and hospitality, how many lives have been nurtured by Easter baskets, meals, and school supplies, by how many lives have heard the good news that God loves them, God unconditionally loves them, now and forevermore.
Two hundred and seventy five years ago, the First Congregational Church came together for the purpose of loving God and loving our neighbors by providing for the physical and spiritual needs of our community. And we continue to fulfill our purpose as Christ’s church. We continue to be a community that cares for our neighbors: our neighbors in Bristol and around the world, our food and housing insecure neighbors, our grieving neighbors, and our neighbors who are seeking a connection with Jesus Christ, who are searching for the good news that they are loved and welcomed just as they are.
Built on the cornerstone that is Jesus Christ, we continue to grow in faith and love, and that is what success looks like.