One of the most frequently asked questions in the church today, and when I say church I mean the church at large, seems to be, “Why are churches emptying?” The question sometimes takes different forms: “Why don’t people come to church anymore?” “Where are all the young people?” “What programs can we start to get people to come to church?” “What’s the matter with people these days?” or, alternately, “What did we do wrong in the past that people don’t come anymore?” There are all kinds of books and articles offering suggestions on how to fix the problem, seminars and workshops, seminary classes and leadership training events. It’s clear that the church at large is going through a crisis––shrinking congregations and dwindling memberships. Fewer and fewer people are participating in the life of what we call the institutional church.
It’s anxiety-provoking. We try to ignore the unease that comes every Sunday when we walk into a church and joke, “I better sit down before my seat is taken,” but it’s there. We tell ourselves that we’re comforted by the familiar faces and the old hymns and liturgy, and we most certainly are, but sometimes we turn to that comfort to dull the pain we experience when we see Sunday morning attendance shrinking. I suspect that in our hearts, we worry that the kingdom of God is very far right now––far from the church and far from the world––and we wonder if somehow empty churches are a sign of our failure to bring that kingdom closer.
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning has a verse for the particular situation we find ourselves in. “You reap whatever you sow.” It’s a very troublesome verse––full of foreboding. And there are some who see the empty churches today as proof of that verse. They argue that churches focused on the wrong seeds––on moral living instead of restoring God’s kingdom of justice. Or on programs instead of spirituality. Or on the quantity of Christians rather than the quality of Christians. There are some who see the empty churches as fields that produced a thin harvest because bad seed was planted. And in some ways I think they are right. In the past, congregations have emphasized moral living over fighting for justice. We’ve focused on programs instead of prayer. We’ve celebrated the numbers of baptisms and confirmations and new members every month, but never celebrated the *depth* of faith of the remaining few. We have, too often, sown very thin and very superficial seed.
But what if the churches are empty for a completely different reason? What if the reason the churches are becoming empty now is because we are right now reaping the harvest of a lifetime of sowing the seed of true discipleship? Discipleship means following Christ in all that he does––walking the road that Christ did, and doing what he tells us to do. And in our reading from the Gospel of Luke this morning, we hear Jesus telling his disciples to go out. He sends them out to greet everyone they encounter with peace, to heal them of their ills, and to proclaim to all that the kingdom of God has come near to them. Those who follow Christ––Christians, in other words––are told to live out their Christian lives by going out to tell the world that God is in our midst and by taking steps, through peace and healing, to make it so.
So how do we reconcile empty churches with the belief that, as Jesus proclaims, the harvest is plentiful?
Well, have you ever been at the starting line of a race, like a marathon? If you haven’t, maybe you can imagine it with me. Just before the race starts, the start line is full of people––there is lots of nervous energy, people are excited to be gathering and to run the race together, and as the numbers at the start line grow and grow the atmosphere becomes charged with an electric positivity. And then the starting pistol fires and those who are there to watch start cheering and clapping and yelling for their racers as they all surge forward.
But then what? As the racers make their way down the road, those who are there cheering find that the mass of people is gone. There’s only a handful left at the start line. It’s kind of empty and sad, actually. One minute the start line is full of energy, and the next its lonely. It would be weird, of course, if the start line was still full of people once the race started. But it would be a very weird race if the starting pistol went and all the racers continued to hang around the start line. That would defeat the whole point of gathering at the start line to begin with.
I want to suggest that this is how we think about the churches. Churches are a place for nurturing disciples. It’s where we plant and grow the seeds of the Christian life. But the Christian life is a life of going out––of being sent out by Jesus to be in the world, to proclaim God’s love as we travel through various communities. What I’m suggesting here is that the Christian life is like a marathon––we gather together at the start line, where we receive our energy packs and our water for the race, and then we begin our marathon. We leave the start line and make our way through neighbourhoods and communities, until we finally reach the finish line.
The churches––the congregations––are the start line. The place where we receive the body and blood of Christ and the waters of baptism that give us the energy to start our marathon. And as we continue along our Christian journey, we leave behind the start line and travel through various towns and communities, sharing God’s message, until we reach the finish line.
And if this is the case, that congregations are the start line, and not the location of the actual marathon, then of course the churches are emptying. Just as it would very weird to have all the runners still at the start line long after the race had started, it would actually be very weird to have the church still full of Christians after Jesus has already told us go out. In other words, the fact that the churches are empty is proof that we have done a very good job of equipping Christians to run out into the world and share the message of Christ’s love.
What if empty churches are actually proof that we reap whatever we sow? Decades ago, the church taught its young people that the heart of being a Christian is to live out the belief that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, that we are to serve the world in love, that God has come to gather everyone as God’s children. That is the seed that was planted. And now, at harvest time, we have Christians who are well on their way, who are out in the communities and neighbourhoods, who are way ahead of us now, serving the world in love, treating one another as God’s beloved children. The churches are empty because we are supposed to be empty. Just as the start line is empty once the runners have begun their race, the churches are empty once Christians have begun their Christian mission. Long ago, in the history of this congregation, the young people of St. John were taught that Jesus sent them out into the world, to live out God’s love. And that’s where they are. Out there, busy living God’s love in the world. Not here, at the start line with those of us who are here to cheer them on.
I believe this because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen this church “on the road,” as it were. The church “out there” is alive and well. It’s alive in Alberta, in our Synod, where young people go to Lutheran camps instead of churches on Sunday morning. It’s alive in our Synod’s campus ministries, where university students go to evening suppers and hear that God loves them, and then sleep in on Sunday mornings. The church is alive in the seminaries, where students training to be psychotherapists and social workers and counsellors––not pastors––are learning how the Holy Spirit is healing the world through their work.
I’ve seen it in other places, too. There’s a particular image this week that struck me, that convinces me that Christians are bringing the kingdom of God near, out on the road. Last week was the funeral in Orlando for Drew Leinonen, who was engaged to be married to his boyfriend, both of whom were shot and killed at the nightclub shooting the week before. And members of Westboro Baptist Church showed up, screaming and shouting at those attending the funeral, holding signs that God hates gays (only the word they used wasn’t quite so acceptable) and that Drew would burn in hell. Can you imagine going to the funeral of someone you care about and having people scream at you as you enter the church that the one you are grieving is going to burn in eternal flames? The hate and violence they exuded was demonic.
But others showed up as well, wearing giant white wings that extended out from their arms, and they lined the walkway for those going into the Catholic church for the funeral so that the Westboro Baptists were blocked from view behind their giant fabric wings. And then, so that the funeral attendees wouldn’t hear the screams of hate, these angels sang Amazing Grace. And their voices were so strong and so many that all the church-goers heard was Amazing Grace. All they saw were God’s angels, and all they heard was God’s love. These angels were Christians out there, Christians on the road. Sent to bring words of peace, and to offer healing in times of suffering. These angels were signs of God’s kingdom come near.
What if the churches are empty because Christians are out there––in the world? At camps, on university campuses, working in food banks, working as therapists and social workers, standing with the oppressed and marginalized, walking as allies alongside those who have been assaulted. What if the churches are empty because the world out there is filling up with Christians who have been sent out by Christ to proclaim, “Peace to this house!”, to heal those who are suffering, and to proclaim, in these acts, that the kingdom of God has come near?
This isn’t to say, of course, that those of us who are still in the churches are somehow not being good disciples. Christ did not send every single one of his followers out. Only seventy. Not everyone is sent out to run the race. Not all of us are equipped to run. Some of us are called to remain at the start line, to cheer on the runners. To encourage them when they’re getting weak by reminding them how far they’ve gone. Some of us are already at the finish line, welcoming the runners as they collapse at the end of their race. And some of us are still lacing up our shoes, stretching our muscles, getting ready to walk, rather than the run.
But whether Christ calls you to remain at the start line, cheering on those who are out there where Christ has sent them, or whether you’re still getting ready to run at your own pace, take heart. Why are the churches emptying? Because they were never supposed to stay full. A church that was once full but is now empty can be a sign of success––a sign that those who were once in it have been sent out to live in the world, not to remain at the start line. A sign that Christ has appointed those within it to go out, and that even now, they are doing so, proclaiming peace, healing suffering, and, with God, transforming the world so that the kingdom of God will no longer be just near, but here. Thanks be to God. Amen.