“God of the Waters”
The Rev. Cathlin Baker
January 21, 2018
Church growth has been on my mind a lot these days. It’s had to be, because we’ve just entered into a new territory of our revitalization – territory that I have never traveled through before and one that this church has probably not traversed in a while. A variation on a little nursery rhyme kept singing through my head – Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? How does your church grow, Cathlin? How? Feeling stumped, it was time to call in the professionals. And so, yesterday, 30 of us from the church gathered in the parish hall with Don Remick, our regional conference minister to navigate the waters of church growth. The last time we gathered like this was almost three years ago.
Back then, church growth was really rocking the boat around here. The church was experiencing an infusion of energy, but at the same time we were reforming our governance structures. Boards and committees had been meeting by rote, and most had lost track of their sense of purpose. We empowered them to only meet when they felt they had to. Shocking, right? Inevitably, this meant that reliable channels of communication fell apart and that balls were dropped. It felt pretty chaotic at times and tensions rose. But there was a sense that the process of un-doing and re-doing was going to bring about new life. Standing on the other side, we can see how it was a necessary process. But it certainly wasn’t clear at the time.
We called in the professionals then, too. Don Remick came and helped us to identify our shared values. While we were white water rafting over the waters of church growth, we could now turn to our shared values for direction. Our core values held us together, as we were being rocked about, sometimes even thrown out of the boat. As we met yesterday, it was clear that the core values we identified back then still offer us direction and unity today – extravagant welcome, heartfelt service and spiritual nourishment.
But now we have hit a new patch of white water. And we are being asked to hold on for another bumpy ride. Speaking for myself, I feel like a much more experienced boat captain this time. And as Don said, we should feel good, because what we are dealing with is a crisis of growth. We should rejoice at the challenge before us, because so many of our sister churches are dealing with crises of church decline. While some are dying, we are thriving.
Let me tell you a little bit about our latest challenge. Don has diagnosed it as an alignment issue. And if we take ourselves out of the boat and put ourselves in the car for a moment, it is after hitting some bumps that a car needs to be aligned. But it’s also after simple wear and tear, and use, that a car needs to go in for an alignment. Today, our church is full of vitality, all of our programs are robust – from church school to missions, from small groups programs to confirmation. Our worship services and music are transporting and meaningful. We are right on task with church administration – making great strides with endowment policies, a planned giving program, and building renovation plans. But as it turns out, our resources and our capacity are not as robust as our energy and programs. And our resources are actually becoming taxed as they try to support our vitality.
Don Remick offered us another illustration. He once found himself in a similar position while serving as a minister to a church that was growing. He showed the congregation a beautiful healthy plant and then he pulled it out of the pot, revealing that the plant was root bound. This plant was not going to grow any further, in fact, it was going to start losing its robust health, if they didn’t get a bigger pot. Our little church is like that root bound plant – we are root bound when it comes to our physical building.
We are root bound when it comes to our sources of income. Even as you give generously, and truly, you do, our pledge income has plateaued, has remained the same for the past four years, despite the growth in programming. What happens is that our oldest givers are among our most generous. As they die, it can take up to ten new givers to equal the income of the one giver lost.
We are root bound when it comes to volunteers. As our programs expand and the energy and ideas of new folks beg for action, our usual volunteers become overloaded and we struggle to find easy entry points for new volunteers. Leadership development takes time and yet the momentum is now.
So, the pressing task before us is to align our resources (our building, budget and people power) with our vision, mission and values. Aligning our building into the space we need will take time, but we do have the opportunity to align our finances and people power now. In the coming days and weeks, you will receive more information about this, along with ideas for unleashing the next level of growth for our church. This will be a time of transition. And as we trust in God’s provision and the presence of the Holy Spirit, this time of transition will become a time of transformation.
We know this story of transformation and change well. Scripture tells the story in numerous ways. Today, Jesus is submerged in the waters of baptism. He takes a plunge, and even as he is blessed, claimed by God as Beloved Son, there is drama and disruption. Jesus sees the heavens being torn apart and he is driven into the wilderness, where he is tested.
We’ve known in our personal lives that even when we are grounded in our identity as a child of God and believe ourselves to be held in the hand of God, we still endure tests, the challenges still come. The only way out is through. Through the rough waters, the tests of our egos, our body, mind and health, we must go, in order to emerge transformed. For Jesus, the promise of God’s love and the belief in God’s love for all people, will carry him through his tests. And this is true for us as well, our vision of beloved community, of sacred wholeness, will surmount any challenges that come our way.
In the Hebrew Bible, Moses and the Israelites stand on the edge of the Red Sea. The Egyptians are in hot pursuit, and the Sea stretches before them. They are stuck. You may remember, I preached on this passage this fall. The people begin to panic, blaming Moses. They are furious with Moses: You drew us out of Egypt, claiming to free us, and now we are to die by drowning! Moses tries to remain calm, to stay non-anxious, and he asks them to hold tight, the Lord will make a way. But the wait on the Lord approach doesn’t seem to work. The Lord the scolds Moses, you must move forward! You must act. Essentially, you must step out in faith.
Don told us yesterday about a Hebrew interpretation of this text, that the people had to enter the water before it parted. And that it took much courage to enter that water, for the water was up to their knees, their waists, their chest and finally just under their noses before it parted. Sometimes we must endure very difficult transitions before the transformation comes.
The theologian, Brian McLaren, speaks of this scriptural moment in his new book, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian. McLaren is writing about the changes ahead for Christianity in the 21st century. He writes, “Our calling is forward; we can’t turn back….in that agonizing place where there is no way ahead, God makes a way…And suddenly, the core message of faith becomes clear to me afresh: we hear the call to go forward not after the sea has opened, but before. The call to get moving comes not after the way is clear, but while it still seems impassable.”
I have no doubt that the God of the Waters will be with us as we navigate the waters of church growth. I have no doubt that we will emerge from these waters transformed. So forward we must go.
This morning, I invite you to take the first step in our process of moving forward. This first step is a prayerful one. I feel like we do have the luxury right now of being able to pray and reflect as we line ourselves up for action. After all, we have the privilege of being in crisis of growth, not a crisis of decline. Failing to act will not lead to our death. In our case failing to act, will mean missed opportunities, and being sent back a few turns, as in a board game.
So let us take some time in the coming week to reflect on our bubbly, passionate, welcoming, caring and active church. What is it that you love most about our church and our congregation? What aspect of our life together would you be willing to cross a Red Sea for? What are your church non-negotiables? Through the Mapping our Faith Journeys workshops, we have heard a lot about what people love about our church. Community. Beauty of the space and liturgy. The music. Intergenerational life together – the young ones and the elders side by side. Opportunities to serve the community. A place of shared values. Our care for one another.
Please pray in the coming week, and then next week we will pass out index cards and invite you to write down the top three things you love about our church. To prepare us for the steps to come, let us say together again now our call to worship from the beginning of the service….
One: God of the waters. Water of birth,
Many: moving us from safety into the world.
One: God of the waters. Water of connection,
Many: engaging the playful Spirit,
the passionate Christ,
the challenging God.
One: God of the waters. Water of life,
One: God of the waters. Water of trouble,
Many: journeying us from here to there, from the known to the unknown.
One: God of the waters.
Many: Birth us.
Live in us.
 Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to be Christian. Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2016. pp. 221-222.