Mike Clingenpeel gave his annual State of the Church address at the business meeting on Wednesday, April 2, 2014.

Let me begin with a brief, though important, history lesson.

Two thousand years ago, Christianity emerged out of Judaism. So complete was this change in the course of Western Civilization that everything that preceded it was BC (Before Christ) and all after was AD (Anno Domini—in the year of our Lord).

Five centuries later the Roman Empire collapsed, and the Western world slipped into the Dark Ages. The Christian faith was left to monastic communities that carried on its vital functions.

At the beginning of the second millennium the West and East went their separate ways, becoming cultural, intellectual, political and religious opponents. From this split emerged an institutionalized, monolithic Catholicism.

Five hundred years later, a dissident Catholic priest named Martin Luther rebelled against this monolithic Church, and a new stream of Christianity called Protestantism emerged. This branch of the Christian family has been dominant on the world stage until now.

If you were counting you would have noticed that every 500 years a transition of historic importance has changed the religious landscape of our world. The Great Reformation replaced the Great Schism, which replaced the Great Descent, which replaced the Great Transformation authored by Jesus, Simon Peter and the Apostle Paul.

The year 2017, only three years from now, will mark the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Stated simply, religion in America is in a transition no less sweeping than what took place in 16th century Europe, an era known as the Protestant Reformation.

In her book titled Emergence Christianity, Phyllis Tickle describes our era as “an across-the-board and still-accelerating shift….every part of us and of how we are and how we live has, to some greater or lesser degree, been reconfiguring over the last century and a half, and those changes are now becoming a genuine maelstrom around us.”

Our time is being called by various names–a “hinge of history,” the “Fifth Turning” or “The Great Emergence.”

One statistic. In 1900, 80 percent of Christians in the world lived in Europe and North America. By the middle of the 21st century, 80 percent of the world’s Christians will live somewhere other than in Europe and North America. The worldwide center of Christianity has shifted completely. The United States, so often called a “Christian nation” (a misnomer I believe), is no longer even close to the center of the world’s Christians.

Let me repeat what I concluded in my State of the Church Address a year ago: “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.”

The Past Year

Enough history and sociology.

Now let me talk about River Road Church, Baptist. 2013 was a very good year in the life of our church.

  • The addition of Michael Kellett as our Minister With Children and Youth has produced a fresh infusion of ideas and energy in our work with the youngest faces in our congregation and their families. He continues to build on the excellent foundation laid by Chester Phelps during his 20-month interim with our youth.
  • The richness of our music programs continued to grow under the direction of Bob Gallagher. Every Sunday worship is a feast of song to the glory of God.
  • Our members who need care and compassion receive it through the encouraging work of Dan Bagby and those he trains to do healing deeds and speak healing words.
  • Our options for Christian education and spiritual formation have increased in number and variety under Sheryl Johnson’s able leadership.
  • Mike Price has overseen numerous projects to improve our physical facilities—the addition of a sound system and new lighting in the Chapel, completion of a ramp for handicapped into our Chapel building, the redecoration of our Reception Room.
  • Our attendance at this year’s Trunk-or-Treat event and Christmas Choral Concert soared due to publicity via Facebook and direct mail, initiatives led by our Communications Specialist, Cassandra Ducca.
  • The year ended with outstanding December attendance our offerings surpassed both our expenses and budget, and in January we adopted a 2014 budget that requires no financial contributions from our Endowment Fund.

We have been blessed. It is a positive time to be a member of River Road Church, Baptist.

The Year Ahead

Let me speak to four matters of significance for 2014 and beyond—a membership committee, the renovation of the sanctuary organ, an additional ministerial staff member and a congregational spiritual discernment process.

First, one of the items on our agenda this evening is the election of a membership committee, the purpose of which is to oversee efforts to activate our current members and invite non-members to join our church. I welcome this committee as it leads us to assume greater responsibility for this work so vital to our church’s future.

A word of caution, not about the committee, but about the changing face of church membership.

No longer are we in the 1950s, the decade when Americans joined churches in great numbers. One of our nation’s premiere sociologists of religion, Robert Wuthnow, says that young adults have new ways of relating to religious institutions. They are more likely to connect through informal networks than through religious institutions. Young adults and their families are not “joiners” like their parents and grandparents. “Belonging” to a religious organization is not as important as it once was. This means our efforts should focus on the creation of a community of caring and welcome, not insistence on formal membership as a prerequisite for participation.

Second, this evening we have approved a capital fund campaign to raise $1.5 million to renovate the sanctuary organ and to upgrade lighting and sound systems installed when the sanctuary was built 45 years ago. Worship is central to the mission and heartbeat of this congregation. The organ has enriched the worship life of this church for almost 45 years. Once a generation it is necessary to replace aging systems with new technologies appropriate to the inexorable passage of the decades.

I make no attempt to fake humility when I say that River Road Church enjoys the premiere performance venue for church music in Richmond. No program of classical church music, however, can claim to be outstanding if it does not have a pipe organ commensurate with the building that houses it. We are on the cusp of being one of the most outstanding church music programs in this city or Commonwealth. This is a goal to which we should aspire.

Third, in 2013 the church appointed a committee to search for a full-time Minister for Congregational Life. In November the Board of Administration gave resounding approval that this position be full-time. The proposed 2014 budget has funds for such a position. Why has this search not been completed?

The work of that committee stalled in the final quarter of last year, chiefly out of my concern that the church would not have sufficient funds to support this staff position beyond 2014. Our congregation’s excellent stewardship in 2013 has not eliminated my concern.

Last year a small handful of members gave almost ten percent of our total receipts. Two of those members are now deceased, and the other two are in excess of 90 years of age. Second, while the Board of Administration was clear in its support for the full-time ministerial staff position, they also were clear, by a margin of 3 to 1, that they did not want the church to rely upon Endowment Board contributions for operations.

What am I saying? I am saying that I am tasked with the responsibility of convincing a capable minister to leave her or his current church position knowing that we may not be able to pay that person’s full salary 18 months from now. Every time I think about this I have a Pepcid moment, and if you sat in my chair it might work on your stomach acid too.

Finally, our Committee on Spiritual and Missional Growth made a series of presentations last Fall to our staff and boards about engaging our congregation in a process of spiritual discernment. The Committee did not receive sufficient support from our congregation’s lay leaders for this recommendation, and the Committee made the correct decision to set this process aside for an undetermined time.

That said, I continue to believe River Road Church needs to engage in a process of congregational spiritual discernment. It asks the right question: what does God want River Road Church to be and to do? It is undergirded by the right theology; it presumes that God is involved in the daily life of this congregation and cares about our future. It gives ownership to the right people—the congregation. It is bottom up and not top down. It uses the right methodology: prayer before action, consensus prior to commitment to a direction. I hope we will not let 2014 end without making a more tangible step to initiate a formal process of congregational spiritual discernment.

Conclusion

When longtime member Harrison Daniel died in January, I re-read portions of his history of the first half century of River Road Church, Baptist. I continue to find these words in his Preface compelling:

“Although River Road Church might be very young in comparison to the history of Christianity, it is a mature and exceptional church. It is exceptional as a Baptist congregation and it is also an exception to the conservative environment of the area in which it is located. River Road is a Baptist church without a creed or statements of dogma. It is an institution which respects and honors the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and is also committed to our Lord’s injunction in the Great Commission. It respects and values all of God’s children regardless of their talents or abilities. It ministers to the intellectual, emotional, social and aesthetic needs of mankind. Ritual and ceremony, although present in its worship services, do not detract from or impede the intellectual content or appeal of worship at River Road Church.”

When he wrote these words in 1996, Dr. Daniel was attempting to describe of River Road Church as it is. I also hear these words as aspirational—this is River Road Church as we would like it to be in the decades ahead. I hope we will live our way into this vision, just as our predecessors did in their years of faithfulness and devotion to this dear church. River Road Church belongs to God, and this is our time to be and do what God has set before us.