Paula Northwood January 7, 2018
Scriptures Isaiah 60:1–6; Ephesians 3:7–12
In my twenties, a friend and I signed up for a wilderness training week. We wanted to learn the skills that would equip us to be wilderness guides, especially for trips designed for women. The training was to take place in the Adirondack Mountains in upper New York State. A week before the training, it was cancelled due to lack of registrations. We decided we would do the trip anyway and scheduled a time with the instructor for a one-day crash course. Equipped with a tent, backpacks, sturdy hiking boots, food, water, a map and compass, we hit the trail. A brochure about the Adirondacks touted six million acres of adventure!
It was a glorious day when we started, and we were feeling a bit self-satisfied that this would be a piece of cake. Toward the end of the first day we came to a babbling brook, a gurgling stream that sparkled in the sunlight but where the bridge had been washed out. That should have been a clue, but the river was low and we happily found a place where people had placed stepping stones close enough together to get to the other side.
We hiked for a few days thoroughly enjoying the beauty of the Adirondacks. But then one morning we awoke to rain. No problem! Donning high-quality rain gear, we hiked onward . . . for days . . . in the rain. It was getting a little bit challenging to build a fire and keep some socks dry but we managed. As we made our way back, we sang songs to keep our up our spirits. Suddenly my companion stopped both singing and hiking. I bumped into her. “What the . . . ?” I can’t repeat what I said. We stood on the banks of this babbling brook, this gurgling stream—now a dark and murky raging river. Gone were the stepping stones under feet of water. How many feet? We couldn’t tell. Initially, we panicked a bit. What are we going to do? My friend, a college professor, needed to get back for the start of classes. I was a seminary student and a mother and needed to get back home. We looked at the map: This river went on forever. We could not see any bridge except the one that was washed out and led nowhere.
We had planned for this trip. We had the right equipment for a hiking trip. But we were unprepared for a rising river. We had to change our thinking. We could not wait for the river to subside—that could take days. We had to come up with a new plan.
I was reminded of this story while I was reading a book by Tod Bolsinger titled Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. Bolsinger uses the situation that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark found themselves in as a metaphor for the current state of American Christian churches. In 1804, Lewis and Clark set off with the Corps of Discovery to find where the Missouri River met the Pacific Ocean. After months of paddling a variety of boats and canoes up the river, they finally came to the headwaters of the Missouri. As they looked over a nearby bluff, they expected to see a few rolling hills like the Appalachian Mountains gently leading to the Pacific Ocean. Instead they gazed at the majesty of the Rocky Mountains.
The Corps, their group, knew how to canoe, but those skills would not be of much use moving forward. To continue in their quest, they would need different skills for the terrain ahead. Bolsinger makes the case that American churches are in a similar situation. It’s not a matter of being up a creek without a paddle; it’s having a paddle where there is no longer a creek.
Lewis and Clark’s expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase was built on a completely false expectation. They believed that the unexplored West was exactly the same geography as the familiar East. In the church at large, what we call Christendom, we are finding that we are at a point in history unlike any other. What has worked for many centuries does not seem to work anymore, at least not for the younger generation.
I am sure you are well aware that attendance in Christian churches has declined steadily over the last few decades. Plymouth has been lucky. Our decline has been very gradual at the Sanctuary service, and we are slowly growing at the Chapel service, so we seem to be maintaining at the moment. But all around us, 80 percent of congregations have memberships under 100. From the sources I checked, some say 4,000 churches close each year. Others say it’s more than that. Are we to be concerned about this? If we care about the future of this church, we must be!
To be the church in a post-Christian culture means we are in uncharted territory. Most of us grew up regularly attending church. The church was the social center of our lives. This is no longer the case: We live in a culture that now considers church optional, out of touch and irrelevant. Church ministry in the future will not be like church ministry in the past. Christianity is no longer the dominant worldview in the Western world. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, but what does mean for us? What are we to do?
Often when we are in a situation where we don’t know what to do, we default to what we know. We do again what we have always done. Bolsinger contends that we cannot simply preach more, sing louder or try harder. The landscape has changed. We can either mourn the changing times or we can choose to learn a new way of being the church.
For Lewis and Clark, the water route did not exist, and as they looked at miles and miles of snow-covered peaks, they knew they would have to change their approach. They adapted. They kept on course with the same goal (this is important), but they changed absolutely everything required to make it through uncharted territory. They ditched the canoes, asked for help (namely from Sacagawea), found horses and crossed the mountains. It took longer but the end result was successful.
This is what the Apostle Paul was speaking about to the Ephesians: There was to be a new plan. Jesus’ audience and followers were mainly Jews, but more and more non-Jews were attracted to the message. Paul adapted, even though it was a point of contention with the disciples of Jesus. This message of grace was not just for one religious or ethnic group, it was for everyone. This adaptation changed the course of religion tradition for thousands of years to come. It made Christianity possible!
If we look at our own history, here at Plymouth, our spiritual ancestors adapted when necessary. Members rebuilt after the church was burned down by an arsonist. Howard Conn formed a number of fellowship groups as a way to grow the church. Some of those groups are still in existence. Some of you walked the picket lines to attend church when we bought and refurbished the Lydia Apartments. This church has adapted to change, sometimes even resistance, and kept going, no matter what.
At this time in history, we may we feeling a bit like Lewis and Clark. We are canoers who have run out of water. There is no route in front of us, no map, no quick fix or easy answer. But there is good news! This is a sacred moment. This is an opportunity to express more clearly who we are and what it means to serve God in our neighborhood, in our community and in the world. Bolsinger writes, “The church at its best has always been a Corps of Discovery. It has always been a small band of people willingly heading into uncharted territory with a mission worthy of our utmost dedication.”
Now is the perfect time for us to examine what kind of church we want to be. This week the Leadership Council, Deacons and the Transition Planning Task Force will be meeting with a consultant to go over the results of the survey many of you completed. Thank you for making your voice heard. Information from the survey will be one way we begin to chart a new path.
We will also ask for outside help, likely in the form of an interim or consultant. We will be having discussions in the coming weeks about what interim ministry can mean for Plymouth. We do not know everything about the future, but we will learn as we go. This is an incredible opportunity for adventure, exploration and transformation. I hope we will move away from “but we’ve always done it that way” to openness to the unknown—in search of new models of leadership, outreach and ministry. In times like this, it’s time to try something new.
Back on the riverbank, my friend and I emptied our backpacks and looked at what we had and how we could adapt to this new situation. We had a rope that we used to hang our food from a tree branch out of the reach of bears. We tied one end of the rope to a tree, and my friend, a strong swimmer, swam the other end of the rope to the other side of the river. Luckily, the rope was long enough to secure to another tree. She came back across the river holding on to the rope. With our backpacks balanced on our heads, we held on to the rope to traverse the river in spite of the strong current. I will confess I was terrified. I am not a good swimmer. I’m deeply afraid of water. But I put my life in the hands of God and my faith in the rope and slowly made it to the other side.
In moments of uncertainty and disorientation, it is important to resist anxiety that leads to quitting or quick fixes. Instead, we can look more deeply into the opportunity, commit to the adventure, adapt to the circumstances and have faith—not a blind faith, but a deep abiding trust in the eternal Creator, the one who set into motion this grand adventure of which we are a part. In this time, and in this place, at the beginning of this new year, let us open ourselves to a deeper faith and a daring adventure. May it be so. Amen.