One question I am asked repeatedly will not surprise you, “Kevin, why is it that more conservative churches seem to be growing, or at the very least maintaining their relative size and enthusiasm, while more progressive or liberal churches seem to be in decline?” Have you heard this question? My hunch is that you have. I have pondered that question for some time, though I confess it has never bothered me the way it did so many of my fellow liberal and progressive Christian believers. I guess my focus has always been to be the most effective in discipleship, the most faith-filled, the most discerning, the most theologically honest, Christian I can be and to offer servant-leadership that inspires others to feel likewise about their congregation. I do want the church to be attracting new people, not because it is “bums in the seats” or makes the church look good to the community but rather because I believe Christian faith can change lives and change them for the better.
But comparing liberal or progressive churches and our more conservative sister denominations always felt pointless to me. Why? Because my experience of God is my experience of God. Just because more conservative churches are growing and liberal ones aren’t isn’t going to make me more conservative. It just isn’t. If I don’t experience God’s character in scripture, in personal relationship, in world affairs, in healing, reconciliation and transformation the way more conservative Christians do why would I change that because a church is growing or shrinking? I remind you that there have been many examples of churches in world history that were filled and those believers participated in unspeakable acts of cruelty and churches, like the resistance movement in 1930’s Germany, where that movement was a minority voice, that offered a witness for the ages. Numbers do not equal truth.
Still if you believe being part of your church can make a difference, if you believe that what you know about God can change lives, if you believe that knowing God can make the world a better place, why wouldn’t you want to know what others Christians have learned? So throughout my ministry I have listened to my more conservative Christian friends and fellow pastors. I know we are not always on the same page of how literally to read scripture or how God defines relationship or how God is working or not working in other world religions. But we do share a common faith in a God of love, in a Jesus who came to save and in a Spirit that takes shape and action in our very midst and around the world. And I give thanks for that, give thanks for them, give thanks to God for showing me and us a diversity of faith expressions in a mysterious and wondrous world.
We at Bethany have designated October as Volunteer Appreciation Month and we are inviting all past, present and future volunteers, and those who want to celebrate them, to our feast on Friday November 2 at 7 pm in our church hall. I hope you can be with us. One thing I know for sure, for every volunteer there is a unique faith story, a unique way that volunteer would describe her/his experience of God and why s/he chooses to live out that faith by offering gifts to the larger community, by volunteering. Spend any time with any church volunteer and really listen and you will hear these stories and be inspired. I do and I am.
But volunteers need to be fed. Karen Hatcher always brings along some snacks, Les Russell brings the pie (just as Lorne Finley did for years) so we have something to “graze” upon. But volunteers need another kind of food that is of more spiritual variety. We need to feast upon the Spirit, to be led into a conversation, a connection, a robust relationship, with the Spirit. One reason meditation of all varieties remains so popular in our culture is not only the obvious stress reduction part but surely there is a permission and an intention in meditation to connect to something beyond ourselves. Yvonne Macor guides us every Thursday in the Chapel in that discipline.
I worked for a spell with a colleague in ministry who would always insist that each and every gathering of the church; staff, volunteers, a committee, the congregation in meetings, we “practice”. What he meant by “practice” was discipline ourselves to listen and connect to the Spirit at work in our midst, to be aware and thankful for what God was offering to us. I confess at first I found this practice cumbersome, I wanted to get to work! Later I found it challenging, thinking of what to say, what was going on, and listening for the Spirit as others spoke. Later I came to appreciate the opportunity to take that time in community and be present in a way I/we seldom are.
In our Faith Study on Wednesday nights we reviewed the second section of Diana Butler Bass’ book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks where she shares her earliest memory of a Christian community giving thanks in a full throated manner. A friend had invited Butler Bass to a Pentecostal service, a first-time experience for a lifelong Methodist like her. “From every direction flowed thanks—appreciation for miracles received, prayers answered, healings bestowed, financial provision, good weather, missionaries, children who spoke in tongues, the pastor’s recent sermon, and all who came to paint the new church.” In short the litany and list of thanksgiving offered to God was extensive. Butler Bass wondered how she might experience this in her own church, in her own language, within her own theology.
I know many liberal Christians, myself included, who attended more evangelical conservative churches, wished we could have that kind of reaction and thanksgiving for the Spirit. And yet as Butler Bass realizes she cannot use that same language for she does not think of God as offering “financial provision” to her unless it was part of larger understanding of abundance. She could not with authenticity give thanks for converting “heathens” as if persons of other faiths were somehow doomed to hell. And as for prayers answered, yes she believes that but surely it was not as simple as praying that cancer would go away and just waiting for it to be so. From her own experience of loved ones Butler Bass knew this was not part of her reality.
Butler Bass realized that gratitude is not just an emotion, “it is a disposition that can be chosen and cultivated, an outlook toward life, manifesting itself in actions—it is an ethic. One way to cultivate that sense of gratitude and relationship and understanding of faith is a daily discipline of acknowledging the gift, giving thanks. Not only does this “practice” remind you who and whose you are it also elicits a feeling of humility. Butler Bass believes that in acknowledging the benefactor, God, we realize how blessed we are and thus feel compelled to share with others, volunteering.
Do you have a “practice”, a daily connection to the Spirit? I have heard many speak of daily devotionals like These Days, the ancient Liturgy of the Hours, morning or evening meditation, downloading the daily readings from the Canadian Bible Society, the book I use, God is Still Speaking: 365 Daily Devotionals (written by the United Church of Christ) and countless other texts. Over coffee last week I met the author Juanita Shay who has written One Million Gratitudes Exchange Movement: Raising Love and Communication on the Planet a guided gratitude journal for readers to write and reflect on their daily source and experience of gratitude. Still others write a daily thank you cards to someone they have met, writing something like “I thank God for meeting someone like you who revealed the depth of God’s love for us all…”
Finally, at the end of this section, Butler Bass tells us that the Jesuits recommend a prayerful evening review of the day
1. Become aware of God’s presence
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward tomorrow.
I share all of these “strategies” with you because I think I am now starting to understand that one reason more liberal churches have not always succeeded in “feeding their flock” is the lack of intentionality around practice. There are many liberal churches, like Bedford United, that attract a lot of loyal faith-filled followers. They do this, in part, by providing their community with the resources and the opportunities to “practice”. I think liberal churches have often found the discipline of repetitive journaling, speaking about the Spirit in community or alone, of reading very specific prayers or liturgies, to be less than fresh and invigorating. But without a daily discipline our minds and hearts can easily find other distractions, especially in the culture we live in today. I do not mean this in a judgmental way, I do not believe today is any more or less challenged by virtue. But as a matter of fact our accessibility to, and sources of, distraction is unprecedented in world history.
Churches like ours need to create, cultivate and encourage conversations about faith, practices of daily connection, and rich and deep inspiration for our volunteers so they know why they do what they do and appreciate why others do likewise. Faith is a gift, sharing it and being fed by it, the best way to give thanks to the source of all blessings. Amen.