This is the text of “The State of the Church” address given by the pastor at the annual business meeting of River Road Church, Baptist on the evening of January 30, 2013.
THE STATE OF THE CHURCH—January 30, 2013
A couple of months ago I met with a subcommittee of the Personnel Committee for a review of my performance as pastor of River Road Church, Baptist. They encouraged me to use the annual business meeting of our congregation to give a “state of the church” address, a “pastor’s-eye-view” of our current position.
A Time of Transition
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the United States is an intensely religious place. We are not “deophobic,” afraid of God, as some pundits suggest. I would insist this is not in spite of, but because of, our historic commitment to a free church in a free state undergirded by the First Amendment to our Constitution and long defended by Baptists.
That said, it also is clear that Americans are less traditionally Christian than we were a half century ago, ten years ago for that matter. The religious institutions that left us with the illusion that we are a Christian nation are in steep decline. The numbers are clear—a smaller percentage of Americans attend church and adopt traditional Christian beliefs, a growing percentage of young adults claim no religious affiliation and a growing percentage of the population wades in non-Christian streams.
Religion in America is in transition, a transition no less sweeping than what took place in 16th century Europe, an era known as the Protestant Reformation.
Generational and cultural changes affect the way our current and prospective members view and practice their faith. Past generations were building-centered—their priority was to buy land, build a building and attract people to come to their buildings for religious services. This is true of River Road Church. The current generation, however, is less connected to location and physical plant and more interested in mission and community. Prior generations were joiners, younger Christians are participants. Prior generations found comfort in structure and programs, while this generation thrives on relationships instead of bureaucracy. The process of faith-formation for the prior generation was first to believe, then to belong. This generation wants to belong first and move in increments toward belief. The past generation connected to one another by geography, this generation forges ties by affinity or similar interests. The past generation was denominationally-loyal, this generation has little or no interest in denomination. The past generation consumed information on paper, this generation consumes information by digital communications. They would be happy to follow the bulletin on their cell-phone or iPad and have no printed bulletin at all. The past generation of teens passed notes in church, the current generation texts and tweets. The past generation gave money out of loyalty, the current generation gives in proportion to their commitment to a cause.
This is the context in which River Road Church carries out our mission. River Road Church grew up in a world that no longer exists. The greatest challenge facing our church is whether we will recognize these sweeping, seismic shifts and choose to live and work in the world we now occupy.
Our Many Assets
River Road Church is blessed with assets that enable us to make this transition to a postmodern world better than most churches. Let me name a few:
First, we have a solid core of capable leaders who understand our context and want to lead our church in it. A year ago almost 30 young adults spent 9 winter and spring evenings in a leadership training course here at River Road. All are now in positions of leadership (chair of deacons, chair of finance, several new deacons, members of two search committees, one on the committee for spiritual and missional growth, etc.). This human asset is invaluable, and growing in influence.
Second, we have a functional, spacious and attractive physical plant in a prime location accessible to our city. The people who founded and grew this church are leaving us with a solid base from which ministry can flow to our community.
Third, we have greater financial resources than most congregations, a fact that has helped us weather the recent economic recession with less impact on our staff and programming than most other churches. This year’s stewardship campaign represents a tangible commitment and confidence on the part of many of you to our future, and our Endowment Fund has stepped in to underwrite new and existing initiatives to keep us moving forward.
Fourth, we have a wonderful staff. The current ministerial and professional staff is a talented, committed collection of persons, all with whom I enjoy working and who give the congregation great value for what we pay them. They work as a cooperative team. I try to get out of their way and let them work without my interference as they innovate and seek fresh ways to grow our work.
Fifth, we have a healthy fellowship. River Road Church experienced an uncommonly difficult year in 2011. Between January and December of that year we saw the departure of three full-time ministers. We also sustained the loss of members, financial contributions and leadership. The conflict this created within our fellowship was deep and intense. You made the decision to keep moving forward rather than getting mired in permanent conflict, and 2012 was the fruit of your desire to put 2011 behind us.
If these are our assets, then what are some of our challenges as we move through institutional and cultural changes?
The Challenges We Face
It is my observation that in a person’s greatest strengths reside his or her highest potential for problems. This also is true for institutions. These beautiful buildings at the corner of River and Ridge Roads present a huge challenge. There is only a little distance between these buildings being used to further our mission and them becoming an end in themselves. The former is mission, the latter is idolatry. Here’s the risk—it is not uncommon for middle-age congregations like ours to discover that in early years of expansion they built structures that are difficult to update and expensive to maintain when growth levels off or declines. As years pass an increasing percentage of the congregation’s material assets, both regular budget and endowment, must be devoted to building maintenance and upgrades. That concern could soon face us.
A second challenge which follows from the first is this—as more money has to be assigned to building upkeep, a shrinking pool of money is available for staff and programming. Let me state it in stark terms—can we afford the two full-time associates for whom we are now searching? Apart from assistance from the Endowment Fund, or substantial increases in gifts from our members, I believe the answer long term is “no.” An ad hoc committee composed of persons from our Finance Committee and Endowment Board soon will begin looking at the issue of how these two income streams should address the financial needs of our church in future years.
Third, the social and political culture in which we live suffers huge differences on many issues—abortion, gay rights, gun control, immigration, health insurance, tax reform, the proper role of government—I could go on. A church in our local association has been removed from the Baptist General Association of Virginia because they ordained a man who is a homosexual, and a committee of the Richmond Baptist Association is meeting to consider whether to follow the BGAV’s lead. The issue involves theology and ecclesiology. I am certain of two things—one, there is no unanimous opinion on this matter in our congregation, and two, if we let this become the focus of our mission it will divide us and hinder our efforts to do what God has called us to do. It is always a challenge to know how to address such issues of conscience without rending the fabric of our fellowship, and we need to respect one another as we figure this out.
A Need to Adapt
Life would be simpler if we did not live in the midst of transition. But our spiritual forebears who left Egypt, who occupied Canaan, who lived in Exile in Babylon, and who reoccupied Jerusalem managed to live and adapt during eras of transition. They created new institutions and found new ways to experience God’s presence. So can we. So must we.
I cannot predict what changes will be necessary for us to consider as individual Christians and as a congregation in order to address these and other challenges of this era of transition. I can make a few conjectures:
We will have to locate new ways of funding our ministries. Our church, for example, likely will not be able to sustain our current level of ministries unless our younger members embrace a greater financial support for our staff, programs and buildings. Our Endowment will need to grapple with how it can support our church without allowing us to neglect our responsibilities for stewardship.
If professional staff is reduced, laity will need to invest more time in church and ministry enterprises if we are to maintain them.
Our culture will no longer give favored status to prop up Christian causes. Christians will need to become more intentionally and consciously Christian.
Christians today think politically or culturally more than we do theologically. The capacity of Christians to “think theologically” can no longer be assumed. Christian formation will take place only as families, assisted by their church, work at it.
The vision of our church to be open to a diversity of people, in the many ways diversity is defined, challenges our desire to be tribal, to cluster ourselves in homogeneous groups. We will need to resist this tribal impulse.
The ancient-future church will need to morph from being attractional to becoming more missional. Our members will need to move from thinking of church as a place to attend and more of church as a launching pad. The community, not the building, needs to become our arena of ministry.
A Call to Mission
Eighty years ago Emil Bruner wrote that “the church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.” When a church loses this sense of mission it loses its passion for life, its reason for being. We have not lost our sense of mission, but it must be sharpened.
So what is River Road Church’s mission? We have a beautifully-crafted six-line mission statement in our 2007 Strategy Plan. I commend it to you.
Let me suggest a simpler statement by John Stott, in a book titled The Living Church. Stott says that we have a double identity: “On the one hand we are called out of the world to belong to God, and on the other we are sent back into the world to witness and to serve.” Centuries before, another man named John articulated our mission in his epistle to the early church: “This is God’s command: to give our allegiance to his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (I John 3:23).
We exist to follow Jesus and to love one another. All of what we do here should help us fulfill one of these two purposes.
A Final Affirmation
Over the past two years I have experienced the presence and power of God in the form of sustaining grace. I have been sustained, first, by words and tangible kindnesses from so many people at River Road Church. Second, I am continually sustained by quiet and gentle ways the Spirit is working in and through the lives of the people in this congregation. I am completely convinced, more now than at any time in my ministry, that God is at work around this place and in this people. That sustains me and energizes me, and I hope it will do the same for you.