31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
April 3, 2022
Isaiah 43:1-4a, 18-19
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Once upon a time, there were three churches – all who had been rooted in their communities for more than a century, all with historic, landmark buildings, all seeing less people attending as the community and world around them changed in significant ways.
All three churches were aware that the way they had been “church” for the past decades was no longer as successful as it once was, and that made all three churches feel pretty anxious.
The first church dealt with their anxiety by sticking to what they knew. Perhaps paralyzed by fear, they resisted any and all new ideas; they pushed aside any best practices they might have learned from others, and although exhausted and not getting the results they hoped for, they kept doing the tasks that those before them had always done, even though their hearts weren’t in it.
The second church went in the opposite direction. They looked at the non-denominational mega-church across town, and despite never being a congregation that was much into music, they took the resources they had been using for their thrift shop and used that money to create a praise band for a new contemporary worship service. When attendance at that service was not what they had hoped for, they looked again to the mega-church for ideas.
The third church was in the same situation as the first two churches. Their congregation was getting older. They had fewer and fewer children and youth in worship. The demographics of their community were changing in significant ways, and despite reading books together and attending conferences and trying a little new here and a little new there, there seemed no magic formula for church growth and revitalization.
So aware of their anxiety and yet not controlled by their anxiety, the church looked back so it could move forward in faith. The church told stories from their past and reminded themselves why they had become a church in the first place. And grounded in their founding purpose, connected to God and Jesus Christ, they found new ways to be “church”.
And that church is us.
Our present circumstances, as individuals and as a church, are incredibly anxious. Life is tough right now. I don’t need to tell you how tough your life is, and I don’t need to tell you how tough church life is. We have a lot of worries.
And we also have God. We have God who has carried this congregation through 275 years of ministry. And they haven’t been easy years. Think about how it must have been to be Christ’s church during the Revolutionary War, fought here on this land or during the Civil War when Bristol’s economy was tied to the South. Those must have been tough, divisive times. Yet God carried us through – as God did through the pandemic of 1918 and multiple economic recessions, including the Great Depression.
Every day, God says to us: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1). In your everyday life, you may not be passing through rivers or walking through fire. Still, we all have our times when we are journeying through overwhelming circumstances, and God is there. God is with us.
We trust in that good news as a community of faith. We trust that God is with us, that God has called us by name, that we belong to God, and that God will guide and protect us. And it is this belief that enables us to move forward in faith, to vision a future with hope – for ourselves, for our children, for our church community and world.
And as we move into this future of hope, we need to be true to who we are as a Christian community. In his book, And the Church Actually Changed, Graham Standish writes:
[All churches] have a history that needs to be honored. That history is the soil out of which they can grow new fruit. We can’t just assume any seed will work. We have to be careful about what we plant and how we nourish. You don’t plant a beautiful cactus on good soil with plenty of water, and you don’t plant a flowering apple tree in desert sand. (Standish, And the Church Actually Changed, pg 51)
As we move into our future, there are some ministries that just are not going to work for us. They are not in our church’s DNA. Others will though. Other ministries that are grounded in our guiding purpose of loving God and loving our neighbors by providing for their physical and spiritual needs, by building a community of care for God’s people.
I imagine that 275 years ago this meant gathering the community for fellowship and meals. As we hopefully move past this pandemic, could it look like that again? Could our future include community dinners – to feed people’s bodies as we also offer community and connection?
For 275 years, we have provided the wider community with a place to gather. In the beginning, it was for voting and town-wide meetings as well as worship. In more recent years, we have provided space for groups like Debtors’ Anonymous and Al-Anon as well as for families gathering for birthdays, baptisms, anniversaries, and memorial services. As banquet halls went out of business during the pandemic and companies gave up their office spaces, could God be calling us to expand our ministry of welcome and hospitality by creating a dedicated ministry to provide conference and reception space?
As we move into our future, the most important thing to remember is that we are more than a historic building; we are more than a social club; we are even more than a service organization. We are the Church of Jesus Christ, a community called to praise God and to transform lives with the Holy Spirit, helping all people, including ourselves, hear God’s still speaking voice and experience God’s presence and grace.
And grounded in our founding purpose, planting in the soil that is ‘us’, we will find new ways to do this. We might expand the styles of music we use in worship. We might create a new style of worship service or we might build on the Connecting with God movement worship service I created in the summer of 2020 and posted on Youtube.
We might create more prayer spaces around FCC’s building, inside and perhaps by building a labyrinth/prayer walk outside. We might become a community that in addition to beginning each meeting with prayer, also sits in silence, with the expectation that God is moving in our midst.
Once upon a time, there was a church with a historic, landmark building, rooted in their community for 275 years, and grounded in their deep faith in God. As their community and the world around them changed in significant ways, they were at times anxious, and they took that anxiety to God in prayer. They knew God had called them by name. They trusted God to walk with them through any and all circumstances. And they lived with expectation. They lived with the expectation that God was going to continue to be present with them, showing up in the most amazing ways, and through them, making the world a better place.
Once upon a time, there was a church that looked back, but they didn’t go back. They moved forward in hope; they moved forward in trust; they moved forward in faith.
What a blessing it is to be that church.