Monday, November 6, 2023

Preaching at my home church with sadness

Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach at my home church, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Worthington, Minnesota. The web address to the entire service is on that church's Facebook page: 

The congregation celebrated their 150th anniversary on the Sunday after Labor Day. As part of their celebration, they invited all of their previous pastors and people who grew up in the church who became pastors to attend. My sister and I are part of the latter group. I wasn’t able to attend the anniversary celebration as we had a very large event happening at Chain of Lakes Church that day. However I told Galen Smith, the pastor at Westminster, who is doing a terrific job as their pastor, that I would be willing to preach on a Sunday when he was gone. Yesterday was the day.

Westminster has made some significant decisions in the past two months. They agreed to sell their building to a local Pentecostal church and buy the church building of that congregation. They also agreed to share Galen with the Presbyterian church in Round Lake. The move to the Pentecostal building will take place in January.

I’m not attached to church buildings. Though I have to admit that I’ve spent a lot of time in my ministry raising money for buildings. At Community Presbyterian in Plainview we did a complete remodel of our building and bought the two adjacent lots next to the church. That involved three capital campaigns. Here at Chain of Lakes I’ve participated in two capital campaigns and was part of the leadership team that made decisions for our new building. Our next captial campaign will be in a year.

Despite the thousands of hours I’ve spent raising money for buildings, I’m not attached to church buildings.

However—I know the reality that church buildings are important. At their best they help the congregation be successful at their mission; at their worst they become the most important mission for a congregation.

Westminster’s building has a lot of memories for me. I started attending worship when I was one-year old. I certainly don’t remember that, but I do remember being quite bored in worship as a child. During that period of my life, I spent a lot of time gazing at the beautiful stain glass windows during worship. In high school I shared a violin/piano recital. I enjoyed singing in the choir and looking out at the congregation from the choir loft. As a young adult I was ordained to the office of pastor, now called Teaching Elder, in the sanctuary on February 7, 1993. I helped officiate my sister’s wedding in that sanctuary and spoke at my sister’s ordination service. There isn’t a space in Westminster’s building where I don’t have a memory.

For what it’s worth I completely support the decision of the congregation and Session of Westminster to sell their building and buy the Pentecostal church building.

But I’m still sad.

The decision will keep Westminster going, but it reflects the decline of the congregation. When I was one-year old the congregation had to set up folding chairs in the large sanctuary. Over 650 people attended every Sunday. Yesterday I preached to about forty people. And I might have been the youngest person in the room. And I'm not young!

I have hope for the future of Westminster. I’ve told my parents many times that I believe the church needs to hire a full-time youth/children director. I believe that if the church made this move many new children, youth and families would come over time.

But it’s still hard to see the decline of a congregation I love dearly. And it’s hard to know that the decline at Westminster has happened in many other Presbyterian churches. In 2022 the Presbyterian Church (USA) had 747 fewer congregations and about 340,000 fewer members than in 2016. No business would tolerate that without making significant changes.

Though these statistics are shared every year, I’m almost astonished that these statistics haven’t been a clarion call to focus more on church growth as a denomination.

This call to church growth doesn’t have to come at the expense of the outstanding ministries of Presbyterians. I’m proud to be a Presbyterian partly because we are so concerned about what happens in the community. At Chain of Lakes Church we have an extensive ministry with homeless organizations. At Westminster that congregation went out of their way to be a part of the community in multiple ways. Both Westminster and Chain of Lakes have been successful in this ministry.

But a ministry that focuses on social impact at the expense of church growth and evangelism won’t work.  The numbers of the denomination I love dearly bear witness to this reality. 

This week we’re taking in a new group of people who will join Chain of Lakes. When they go through our process for joining I share that at Chain of Lakes we are as passionate about prayer, Bible Study, and worship as we are about serving the homeless. I tell them that we support LGTBQ ordination and marriage, but if a person doesn’t share that support he or she will still be welcomed. For what it’s worth I sometimes tell them that in my thirty years of ministry the worship attendance of the congregations I have served has increased in 26 of those years. And two of these were COVID years!

The consequences of decline in the PC(USA) are significant. Without a congregation in Worthington, a strong ministry of service in the community won’t exist. And a group of people won't have an opportunity to grow in faith. I don’t anticipate that will happen, but Westminster, like all congregations, needs to grow. 

I believe that Presbyterian congregations are thirsting for resources and leadership from the leaders of the Presbyterian Church to help them grow in numbers of people.

I don’t believe that the leaders of the wider governing bodies are responsible for the decline in congregations and people, but I do think that there hasn’t been enough focus on growth at the Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly level. I’m not trying to call anyone out, but I think that most Presbyterian congregations want to grow. And part of the problem is most have not been resourced well from our wider governing bodies. I’m not solely talking about money—though money helps. I’m talking about focus, success stories, a willingness to talk about what is working and what is not, and the expectation that congregations will grow. A culture that desires growth hasn't existed enough.

I’ll continue to exhort the people at Chain of lakes to grow in numbers while serving passionately in the community. And I carry the sadness of a necessary change in my home church that I love.


Anonymous said...

Well said Paul. While your blog calls me “anonymous” I am Todd. A Cobber of good Lutheran faith. I believe in what you do and what you stand for. One day I will worship Him with you.

Anonymous said...

The first church I served was Ellsworth Minnesota in 1972 to 1975. I spent a lot of time at Westminster for meetings of various sorts and I preached there once I think. Later in my career I became a presbyterian executive and stated clerk and during the 90s we tried everything possible to grow churches in Central Illinois to no avail. Presbyterian churches that grow are located in growing areas with very specific demographics if the area is declining in multiple ways which so many are there will be no church growth. This is a very different time we live in totally different than the 1950s and '60s when Westminster was built and thrived. No church building should be thought of as immortal.