Jeremiah 29:4-7,11-14; Acts 16:6-10
Annual Report Sunday – February 23, 2020
Our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah speaks to the exiles of Jerusalem.
The exiles have found themselves in Babylon, today’s Baghdad, a long way from home.
Babylon, by all accounts, was an impressive city in those days, but it was not Jerusalem.
Babylon was unfamiliar to the Israelites.
The people looked different and spoke different languages.
The food and culture were different; the values and habits were not the same as good old Jerusalem.
The people even began to ask: “Is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob present in this place?”
“Can we sing the Lord’s song in this foreign land?”
Hear the Word of God from Jeremiah 29:4-7
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare….
This last verse caught the attention of our elders some seven or eight years ago.
We began talking at that time about what it might mean for this congregation
truly to “seek the welfare” of our city and of our broader community,
and efforts like Global Village Project and Threshold Ministry have been part of the result.
But as you know, our community has been undergoing significant change,
and we are finding ourselves at a crossroads of sorts as a congregation.
Our congregation has some serious discernment to do about which direction to take on the road ahead.
The sermon title for today is “What’s next?” and this was the theme at our recent elder retreat.
Usually, we ask “What’s next?” when we are at the end, or near the end, of one season,
and ready to begin a new season.
The question “What’s next?” connotes that we are preparing to start something new.
When a Church is entering a new season, this prayer often arises:
God, what are we called to do next? Who are we called to serve?
Our New Testament reading from the 16th chapter of Acts outlines
the work of the Holy Spirit among Paul and his companions in the first century.
The Spirit was directing Paul and his companions on their missionary journeys.
Paul and the other apostles were travelling throughout the Mediterranean world,
to places where the name and the good news of Jesus of Nazareth was not even known.
The house churches they formed lived in an exile of sorts, as foreigners in a different culture,
but they lived in a very different sort of exile than the Israelites in Babylon.
The exiled Israelites in Babylon, for the most part,
sought to survive as an enclave within a foreign culture,
always yearning to go back home, back to the way things were.
But Paul and his companions, and those early house churches, engaged a different mindset.
They were not seeking to go back, but seeking to thrive in a different culture as a missionary enterprise,
always reaching towards a hopeful future yet to be revealed, often reaching out to their community.
Hear the Word of God from Acts 16:6-10.
They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
What was that like for Paul and the others?
Paul, at least for the time being, was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.
The Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go into Bythinia, but urged them on toward Macedonia,
to Philippi, where the first church on European soil was born.
As our elders studied this narrative of Acts 16 last month,
they expressed readiness to embrace curiosity and fresh energy.
So what are we called to do? Whom are we called to serve?
They expressed readiness to move beyond the anxiety and grief that often come with culture change,
and openness to new possibilities. They began to ask: So what is our “Macedonia”?
We have confirmed that we are at a crossroads.
The old, familiar road of being church is no longer viable.
The ground under our feet has changed; the cultural context of Decatur has been transformed.
Back in the 1990’s, if you built a solid church ministry, people would just show up.
Even ten years ago in Decatur, if we opened the doors of this Presbyterian Church on Sunday morning,
many visitors would show up, just because we are a downtown Presbyterian Church.
This still happens to some extent, but less today than before.
We realize that can no longer just open the doors, sit here and wait,
and expect new people to come pouring in.
And we also realize that, for the last generation or more, the children who grew up here
are not necessarily returning once they become married and have children.
Most no longer live in this community, some live far away in different states and countries,
many do not participate in church at all.
We need a major shift of mindset about being church, a new ecclesiology, if you will.
The old mindset, and the reality, was that “new people will continually show up on Sunday morning,
children will be born to them, and we will baptize and nurture them here.”
The new reality is that, even though we are a very strong and vital congregation,
we can no longer depend on people showing up just because we open the doors.
We can no longer count on the children who grew up here to return.
The greater Decatur population is different than it was ten years ago.
The population is more urban, more progressive, more transient.
Many are not interested in traditional church and worship.
Former Decatur Mayor, Bill Floyd, often said ten years ago
that Decatur was a mix of Mayberry and Berkeley.
Today, there is less Mayberry, more Berkeley, a dose of Buckhead,
and a smattering of an unfamiliar urbanism.
This past year, someone remarked that in Decatur,
“there seemed to be more Halloween decorations than Christmas decorations.”
The hopeful part is that we have a really good thing going here at DPC.
We have good news to share!
We enjoy a warm community in which many diverse persons can belong!
We offer many engaging opportunities for significant learning and service!
We have a competent and energized staff at this church, and meaningful worship!
As a congregation, we are doing important and helpful ministries,
and God is calling us to share these ministries with the people around us,
but the reality is we do not always make efforts beyond our current members.
We do not often reach beyond the walls of our facilities, or communicate beyond our current email lists.
The new reality of this church, and of every mainline church in North America,
is that “we need to reach out continually and get to know new people”,
engaging them by sharing the love of Jesus Christ through all that we do as individuals
and as a congregation.
This will mean going to where people are, nurturing relationships with people we already know,
and building relationships with people we do not yet know well, if at all.
Some will choose to come and participate in our worship and other ministries on campus.
Others will simply become friends in our community efforts to live faithfully and well.
We have been saying for several years that we need a greater balance
between an inward focus and an outward focus,
a balance between focusing our energies upon those who are already here
and focusing our energies toward those who are not yet here.
As a church, we have been spoiled by a long season of significant numbers of people showing up,
ready to worship, wanting to join, ready to give time and talent, and to pledge their financial resources.
The ground has changed; we have entered a new era. New ways of being church are now necessary.
Rodger Nishioka recently stated that the church needs to do more than make disciples these days.
In today’s world, we need to nurture apostles, people like Paul and Peter and doubting Thomas,
those who left their places of comfort and crossed many a cultural boundary.
Paul sailed west over the Mediterranean, Philip journeyed south into Egypt,
Mark traveled east over the Fertile Crescent into Iraq and Iran.
Christians still gather for worship in those places, and far beyond,
due to the courage of those early apostles.
Here at the corner of Church and Sycamore, we have similar work to do,
work similar to the efforts of earlier generations.
Did you know that this congregation helped plant 14 new congregations in the Atlanta area?
As our Clerk of Session, Hikie Allen, said:
“We do not want to change the Church to ‘fit’ the current culture,
but we want to adapt the ministries of the Church in order to ‘engage’ the current culture.”
Well said, Hikie. Our calling is not to idolize the past, but to adapt to the needs of the today’s culture,
as did those who have gone before us.
Unlike the Israelites in Babylon, we seek not merely to survive as an enclave in a different culture,
but to thrive once again as a missionary people,
reaching out to a world in need of the grace and peace of Jesus Christ.
Over the years, this Church invested significant dollars in global missions.
We helped initiate new congregations among the Dalit peoples of India.
We sent mission co-workers to China and Africa and the border of Mexico.
Along with supporting the local church there, we have helped reforest Madagascar with fruit trees.
We have provided fair trade employment for coffee workers in Latin America,
so they would not have to leave home in order to feed their families.
We have supported campus ministries for thousands of college students, new Christians, in Taiwan.
But friends, today we don’t have to travel across national borders.
We can go to our neighbor right next door, or just down the street,
or even sit right here on the benches in our Terrace Garden,
and talk to someone who could really benefit from becoming part of a Christian community,
someone whose whole life might find new direction, even salvation,
by participating in what we take for granted.
Times have changed. Most of our neighbors do not have a church home.
Many have no network of support. Deep spiritual and physical needs are evident all around us,
and, I’ll say it once again, people no longer show up just because we open the doors on Sunday morning.
Our primary mission field is right at our doorstep,
right at the doorstep of our church and right at the doorsteps of our homes.
I love my new neighbors across the street.
The Spencer family has been coming to worship recently and sitting in the balcony.
They are checking us out, you might say.
They have been to Wednesday night dinner and, when we hosted the MLK workday event,
they came to cook for our Threshold guests.
All three elementary children were right in the mix of the ministry that day.
Our mission statement says it succinctly: Our purpose is to share Jesus Christ’s love for the world.
Many of our neighbors are more ready than we may imagine to share this love.
Perhaps what we need most is a bit more genuine interest in and curiosity about our neighbors,
about how Jesus’ love is already at work in their lives and how we can find common ways to share it.
One direction we may take at this crossroads for our congregation
is to explore the idea of “parish” ministry.
The churches of Scotland, the old Scottish Kirks, still serve an entire geographical area as their “parish”.
If there are local needs for baptisms or funerals or weddings, these are viewed as the ministry of the Kirk.
If there are needs within the community or crises that occur, these are part of the Kirk’s ministry.
What might it mean for us and other local congregations
to consider the Greater Decatur community “our parish.”
We have long stated that this Church is for those who are already here,
as well as for those friends, neighbors and strangers who are not yet part of our fellowship,
but we have not always given much attention to engaging our broader community.
How might each of us engage the “parish” in which we live through our daily communications,
through intentional invitations, and through sharing our compassionate ministries?
How might each of us share the love, grace and peace that we have found in Jesus Christ
beyond these walls? How might we change the mindset from being church members
who gather in this place for sustenance and service,
to apostles who take what they receive in this place and share it with a world in need?
As William Temple once said,
“The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
What’s next? Truly, God only knows.
But God is at work in this.
Jesus’ love is being shared every day through the members of this congregation.
The Holy Spirit is moving among us, encouraging us and guiding us
in the ways that God would have us go.
The Jeremiah 29 passage, regarding seeking the welfare of the city where you find yourself,
continues with these words found in verses 11-14:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm,
to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.
When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me,
says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places
where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place
from which I sent you into exile.
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church