Back to the Future
with Rev. Alex Lang
October 2, 2022
The United Kingdom and Europe have always been about a decade ahead of the United States in terms of religion. Their present is our future. This Sunday, I will tell you about what I learned about church from my time abroad.
I am the Lord, your Holy One,
Israel’s Creator, your King.”
16 This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21 the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
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Our fall sermon series is called Come to Jesus Moments. In the common vernacular, we use the phrase “come to Jesus moment” to indicate when we need to have a hard conversation about something really important. There are a lot of things happening in our world and within the Christian faith where we need to have hard conversations. The idea will be to have these hard conversations that are often avoided because we don’t want to offend anyone or cause anyone to be upset. I’m doing this series because we need to have these hard conversations and we need to think about what these topics means for us as Christians and as a church.
The issue we are discussing today is the future of the church and to begin discussing this, I want to take you back to my time on Sabbatical. While I was over in London, every day, my boys and I would take off around 11am. We’d get on the Underground, which is their subway, and we would go somewhere. Sometimes I would plan where we were going. Sometimes we would just walk around exploring, eating lunch in various different pubs and shops.
Sometimes, my boys would indulge me and would allow me the opportunity to check out an old church. We visited a number of different churches. Many of them were beautiful buildings that, at one point, housed hundreds or thousands of faithful Christians. Today, most of them stand unused and are nothing more than tourist attractions. I had a vision of how, one day, many centuries from now, people will enter into these churches and a docent will explain how these are relics of a bygone era when humans used to believe in gods that dictated their lives. This vision came from various conversations I had with various passersby.
I have a habit of talking to strangers, which was of great embarrassment to my sons while we were walking around London (but hey, what’s a father for if not to embarrass his sons!). I enjoyed hearing about people’s stories, how they grew up, where they were from. However, if the moment felt right, I would ask them if they had any religious background. Sometimes, I would slip in that I was a pastor. Pretty much across the board, they either didn’t go to church or used to go when they were younger and had long since abandoned the faith.
Ultimately, I would ask them: Why doesn’t the church matter to you? The most common answer was, “They’re selling us a bunch of rubbish. Nobody believes those things anymore. The church doesn’t talk about anything relevant to our lives.” They talked about the church as though it was a relic of the past. Something that used to be meaningful to lots of people, but now it should be tossed aside because we know better.
I had never thought of the church like that before. It’s kind of like they saw the church in England the way that we think of slavery in America—we know better now. In other words, for them, the church represents a negative drain on society. Something that an educated, progressive culture would understandably leave behind. Their sentiment felt very much like the book Brave New World where a society transformed by science and technology no longer has need of religion.
This got me thinking: I’ve known since I was in graduate school at Princeton that Europe and the UK are always about two decades ahead of the United States when it comes to religion. What this means is that we are headed in the same direction. Their present is our future. What people are saying over there right now is what people here will be saying in 20 years.
Therefore, if we stay as we are and change nothing, our fate will be the same. So our come to Jesus moment for today is what do you all want for our church? Do you want a church that can make the transition and thrive in the 2030s or do you want what you’ve always had? Because here’s the hard reality: you can’t have both. You can’t keep doing what you’re doing and expect different results.
Every year the membership in this church drops. We bring in new members all the time, but it’s not enough to offset the deaths among the older population and the people who move out of Illinois for retirement (which is a lot of people). We certainly bring in some young families with children, but young people in their 20s and early 30s people are the exception, not the rule. Most young people today simply don’t want what we’re offering. If they did, they would be here.
There are 75,000 people who live in Arlington Heights. There are 68,000 people who live in Palatine. There are 54,000 people who live in Mt. Prospect. Almost 200,000 people live directly around this church and do you know how many people attend our services in total? If you combine online with in-person, it’s around 500 people, which compared to a lot of churches, is actually really good. But, to put that in perspective, we represent a quarter of 1% of the population.
Now for those of you who are here, this place obviously matters to you. It’s important to you and I’m glad for that. But we have to recognize that this church, that has been here since 1855, doesn’t matter to the majority of people who live around us. This place is nothing more than a building to them. And those numbers, which are already shockingly low, are only going to get smaller.
So I pose the question to you: Are you willing to change? Are you willing to try something different? To be a different kind of church? A church that takes chances? A church that really thinks outside of the box? Now here’s the thing: Everybody says they’re open to change, until we actually begin to change things, then people start to complain.
When I got here, everybody said, “Yes, Alex. We are ready for change. We are ready for something new and innovative. A different kind of preaching.” I said, “Okay, here I come.” For the first year, everyone said, “This is different. But I’m okay with it.” Then after the second year, people began to say, “I don’t know, different maybe isn’t my thing.” After the third year, I heard some people say, “I realize now that I really liked the way that it used to be.”
Therefore, I pose this question to you, are you really open to change? If you want what you’ve always had, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I like things the way that they are. I don’t want it to change.” Just realize, that if things don’t change, it will eventually lead to the death of this church. If you don’t believe me, just go visit any other Presbyterian church in our area and it will give you a sense of where this whole thing is headed.
I have told you all in the past, we are in the midst of a reformation like what happened 500 years ago. The church is reforming into something completely different. And our churches, the churches that came out of the Reformation 500 years ago are dying and they’re going to be replaced with something new. If we can transition into what that new thing is, then we can make it. But we have to be fluid; we have to be flexible; we have to try new things that this church has never done before and, in truth, we have to be like the early church when it was first getting going.
We read this morning from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In the passage we read, Paul is talking about a strange topic that we don’t really talk about in our modern world that much—circumcision. Why is he talking about circumcision? Because, this was a big debate in the early church. The debate went something like this: if you are not Jewish, meaning you’re a Gentile, in order to be a follower of Jesus, do you first have to become a Jew? Jesus’ brother, James, who was the head of the early church said yes. Paul said no.
This was, of course, a practical thing for Paul because if we put the stipulation on you that you first have to become Jewish, then every single man who converts to Christianity will have to get circumcised. Paul knew that was a non-starter for most adult men. Therefore, Paul said, “Look, you want to follow Jesus, just have faith. You don’t have to get circumcised. You don’t have to follow the Kosher laws. Just believe and you’re good to go.”
And as I’ve told you all in the past, Paul is the reason why Christianity survived. Paul was the ultimate chameleon. Whatever situation he found himself in, he adjusted to their needs so that they would listen to the gospel message. That is what we have to do. We have to adjust to the needs of the people around us. For 500 years, our church has operated with a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality. That no longer works in our current cultural climate. People are not coming to us anymore, which means we have to be like Paul and go to them.
I hate to say this to you, because I know that this is not what you want to hear, but what we’re doing here in this building, as wonderful as it might be, is not the future of the church. The future of the church is smaller communities of 20-50 people that are resourced by a larger hub (draw graphic). This is how the early church functioned. Paul setup these little house churches and was resourced by the mother church back in Jerusalem.
In essence, that’s what we have to do. We have to become the hub that resources a lot of smaller communities. Now I know some of you can wrap your minds around this, but I also know some of you are thinking, “Well, that’s a great idea Alex! Setup small churches and then, eventually, they’ll want to come here and we can absorb them.” Nope. That’s not the way it works. You set them up knowing that those people will interface with us every once in a while, but realizing that those groups we’re resourcing will never see us as their church home. Never.
I told you earlier: if what we’re offering is what people wanted, they would be here. Since they’re not, we have to accept the fact that what we’re offering (which is quite good, in my opinion) is not the future. Now, I’m not saying we have to get rid of this church as it stands right now. What I’m saying is, you have to go to where the people are—maybe it’s their homes, maybe it’s a bar, maybe it’s a gym. If we use Paul as our model and invest in developing smaller communities, then I believe First Pres will have a future.
The scripture we read from Isaiah says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Here’s what I believe to be true. God’s going to do this new thing with or without us. We have to make a decision about whether we want to get on board with the program or if we simply want to remain as we are.
Now, this may not be in the cards for us because, to make this happen, you all have to be willing to change and try new and different things, which can be hard. And I’m not here to force you to do something you don’t want to do. My job as your pastor is simply to point the way. It’s up to you if want to go in that direction.
And I know what some of you are thinking, “Alex wants to destroy the church and get rid of everything that we hold sacred. He’s going to get rid of my service. He’s going to force me to go somewhere I don’t want to go. We should have never given him that Sabbatical!” Not at all. Sunday service isn’t going anywhere. As far as I can tell, I’ve got a whole year of sermons planned for Sunday morning. This isn’t going to change. But if we’re eyeing the future of the church, we need to go where the people are. It’s just that simple, because, even though we’re welcoming new members, the majority of people are not going to come to us any longer.
So here’s how I want to end today. I want you to let me know how you feel about this. Email me, call me send me a pigeon. Whether you’re for change or against change, I just want to hear where you’re personally coming from because I and the Session want to lead you all where you want to go. If there’s one thing I have learned over the last 10 years, there’s no point in trying to force people to do something they don’t want to do. I am here to serve you and to give you what you need. The question is are you willing to serve God’s people to give them what they need? I look forward to hearing from you. Amen.