Today I invite us to consider a key to all successful congregational endeavors: momentum. Years ago I was invited to attend the first “Nehemiah Institute” in Atlanta, GA. It was founded by Rev. Cameron Trimble and the Southeast Conference UCC to train church planters and church redevelopers. Nehemiah Institute is known today as Covergence, one of the premier progressive church organizations in the U.S. One of the speakers was the pastor of a small church in rural New Hampshire that had recently experienced a dramatic turnaround from a dying, conflicted congregation to a healthy, vibrant, growing congregation. One of the conference attendees asked this pastor, “What is your secret?” She said, “I follow the energy.”
Every congregation has an energy or “momentum.” The key to shifting from the decline side of the church life cycle to the growing side is shifting the momentum. It is looking for those signs of life–where the positive, healthy energy is manifesting–and nurturing them. This builds momentum. Failing to do this means that the congregation will simply keep sliding down the decline slope. It’s like looking around your yard while the snow is melting and the spring sun is shining and noticing what is coming up and then putting your time and attention into protecting those shoots and helping them grow.
Momentum is also key to church consolidation. In a “joining model” in which there is a “lead church” and a “joining church,” the “lead” church is the church with momentum. It is a common misconception that the lead church is the bigger church. NOT SO. The lead church could be the smaller church if that is the church that is growing, reaching new people, starting new ministries, and building momentum. (See Better Together, p. 7) Since First Church and South Church are NOT pursuing a joining model but a “marriage model” in which two congregations join as equals to create a new congregation, it is vitally important that we build momentum together. If not, we will encounter difficulties.
Under the leadership of our Vitality Team, First Church has been building some wonderful momentum. Already in 2021–in the midst of a pandemic!–we have welcomed seven new members! First Church has momentum. The question for our marriage model consolidation is: How will we build momentum together with South Church? It was the topic of our last Vitality Team meeting and I hope a topic in our upcoming conversations with South Church. Our combined efforts promise to bring even more new life and even stronger forward momentum.
We’ve been preparing all summer. Perhaps even longer than that: since high school graduation, or maybe a year ago when Olivia and I flew to LA to visit Occidental College. We could dial it back even further: to the moment I first met newborn Olivia, held her, and knew in my heart that one day life would ask me to let her go.
Tomorrow Nicole–my wife, Olivia’s mom–will fly with Liv to LA and move her into her freshman dorm. A couple weeks from now Nicole and I will move Liv’s older sister, Fiona, to Williams’ College for her senior year. Though it’s been happening in stages, the nest continues to empty.
Moving one’s youngest to LA to begin college is both a “change” and a “transition.” Transition and change are related but different concepts. In his book Managing Transitions, William Bridges writes, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.” Bridges defines “change” as “situational” and “transition” as “psychological.”
Change is starting a new job, moving to a new location, receiving a new diagnosis, welcoming a new family member, saying goodbye. Change can be big or small, welcome or unwelcome, pleasant or unpleasant. Change is the nature of reality. Change just is.
Transition, according to Bridges, “is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.” Change is moving Olivia to LA. Transition is coming to terms with a new identity: empty nester. The three phase process is 1) ending/losing/letting go, 2) “the neutral zone (chaos),” and 3) new beginning.
Change and transition happen on a personal level. They also happen in organizations. As your transitional minister, it is my job to help FCC Granby identify the kinds of changes our situation is calling for and then lead a transition through the three phases: ending, chaos, new beginning.
The distinction between change and transition is key because without that understanding, what most churches do is rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. They change their by-laws so that “committees” are now called “ministry teams.” They use different words for Communion or change the words of familiar hymns. They develop new programs that focus on the same people. They may even merge with another congregation but because there is no process of transition, the newly merged congregation just ends up being a dying, mashed up, grumpy repeat of the old ones. In dying churches there is often a ton of change but none that leads to a fundamentally new sense of purpose and identity. For that, one needs to go through transition.
As your transitional minister, I am not particularly focused on surface level change. Is whether we sing the Doxology following the offering or some other reponse really going to turn this church around? Is focusing on food insecurity instead of homelessness really going to be the key to a sustainable future? Is changing the words to Communion suddenly going to bring in the crowds? Usually when someone gives me permission to change something, it’s surface change. However, when I change something and the congregation says, “Change back,” then I know we’re into transition territory because what we resist is not “change” per se, but change that results in loss of some kind, exactly the kind of loss that is the beginning of transition.
Rev. Dr. Todd Grant Yonkman, Transitional Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Granby
Sermon for Pentecost
9 June 2019
Text: Acts 2:1-21
The Advent of this Noise
Scripture says, “And on the Advent of this noise the multitude gathered and were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” I chose this translation of the text because the phrase “Advent of this noise” made me smile. The word advent means the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event. I associate the word advent with the Christian season of Advent during which we prepare for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. Putting the word “advent,” which for me has a positive connotation with the word “noise,” which has a more negative connotation, is a humorous and provocative turn of phrase. The miracle of Pentecost is a celebration of noise, a blessing of cacophony with salvific power on the same level as the birth of Christ. Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church. The Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples and a new spiritual movement is born. Jesus is born in a stable. The church is born in noise.
But what kind of noise is this? First there was “a noise like a turbulent wind borne out of the sky” that “filled the house where they were sitting.” What does this noise make you think of? A storm? A hurricane? Some powerful natural force. In the Old Testament God often appears in storms and clouds. Psa. 29:9 says, “The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
On Mount Sinai God appears to a ragtag group of former slaves in clouds and thunder and fire. Out of that theophany God creates a new spiritual community called the people of Israel. God promises to be their God and they promise to do what God wants them to do. We are spiritual inheritors of those promises made in the midst of thunder and wind and deafening noise. And don’t forget the fire. The tongues of fire that rest on each of the disciples are reminders of the fire on Mount Sinai. In the new Christian community each of us is a mini Mount Sinai. Each of us is meant to be a place where others can encounter God. This is where the other noise comes in.
Scripture says, “And they were all filled with a Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them to utter.” It was at the sound of this noise–the noise of hundreds of people speaking dozens of different languages–that caused confusion among the Jewish people gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. (Yes, Pentecost is another holiday we have inherited from Judaism.) But why were they confused? You might assume that it was difficult to understand what the disciples were saying because of the jumble of languages all happening at the same time. Some churches do dramatic readings of Acts 2 by having folks read the text in different languages at the same time. That experience is indeed one of cacophony. But Scripture doesn’t say that the confusion of the multitude is the result of cacophony. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. The multitude is confused “because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” The multitude was confused because they actually understood what was going on. Why would that be confusing?
Here’s where the church so often gets Pentecost so wrong. The miracle of Pentecost is NOT that the world learned the language and adopted the culture of the church. It’s that the church learned the languages and adopted the cultures of the world. It’s not that the Holy Spirit suddenly changed non-church-goers and brought them into the church. The Holy Spirit changed church people and sent them out into the world.
This is where you have to understand the context of the situation. Scripture says that the multitude gathered in the house at Pentecost were Jews from all over the Roman Empire: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs,” to be precise. And when there is a public gathering in the context of empire you speak the language of empire. For the folks gathered at that first Pentecost it would have been Greek, because Greek empire preceded the Roman one, or Latin, because that was the language of Rome.
One of the expectations of empire is that you learn the language of empire and you conform to the language of empire. But that’s not how the gospel comes to people. Jesus is trying to teach us something so important here: the good news always comes to people in their mother tongue. In our churches we’ve got that completely backwards. We expect everyone else to learn our language. We expect them to learn our hymns and sing our songs and stand up when we say and bow their heads the way we do. We expect them to know who Cousin Becky is and that she has colon cancer and that they should sign up for TGIF even though they’re brand new and don’t know a soul. We expect them to entrust their children to our childcare even though it’s in the basement and they don’t know where that is. We expect them to appreciate choral music even though when they get in the car there’s hip hop on the radio. We expect them to come to this building to encounter God even though they live much of their lives online. But that’s the opposite of Christianity. That’s not the language of freedom. Those are the expectations of oppressors and empire builders. It’s not for others to learn our language and culture but for us to learn theirs.
We want to discern our future so what do we do? We survey ourselves because Christianity is all about what I want right? I suspect that people aren’t as interested in us as they might be because we say we are about justice but then we speak the language of empire. Empire is primarily concerned about itself. Jesus is primarily concerned about others. If we truly want a future, the next survey needs to be in person, and it needs to be of the town of Granby and what our neighbors want. When we do that, they might start to believe that we are Christians.
Everything communicates. Everything is a language: from our building to our bulletins to our staffing to our worship to our food to our programs. Everything tells the public what our mission is and who we value. And often there is a gap between what we think we are communicating and what we actually are communicating. For example we may think we are communicating inclusion, but are we? What could we let go of to make space for those who don’t feel like they have a place here? For me, personally, this is the most exhilarating part of being a Christian. I love the vast diversity of people and cultures and I want to connect with all of them. Remember the little Holy Spirit-Mount Sinai fires above people’s heads at Pentecost? Jesus doesn’t expect people to encounter God in church. He expects them to encounter God in you. Then, and only then, might they consider attending your church. There’s a theological word for this: incarnation. Jesus gave up everything to become God incarnate for us. We in turn are called to give up what’s most precious to us: the way we do our worship? The coziness with which we can assume people will recognize our faces and know our personal stories? The worship the town of Granby needs may sound like noise to you. But the advent of that noise might just be this town’s salvation, and ours. This is the true incarnation.
It is my experience that the more deeply and sincerely I follow Jesus, the more effectively and respectfully I’m able to connect with people across cultures, generations, languages, and worldviews. Humbly following Jesus is a pathway to connection to God’s great universe and connection is the pathway to healing and wholeness for me personally and for our planet. It could be for us as a church as well. It could be for you.
What a fun event this past Sunday! I’m grateful to Sandy Goldstein and Lynn Colatrella from the Stamford Downtown Special Services District for working with us on a last minute community partnership with the Bark in the Park event. We teamed up to offer a pet blessing to the folks gathered for a celebration of our canine family members.
The point of these kinds of events is for us as a congregation to get beyond our walls and make contact with people in the community who are not yet members of our church. As Mr. Rogers sang, “There are many ways to say I love you.” Offer to bless people’s pets is saying “I love you” to our neighbors. It’s fun. It’s easy. And, as you saw, people will line up to make that connection with us if we are willing to put ourselves out there to meet them.
Making these kinds of connections cannot be only the work of the pastor and staff. We had several congregation members who took advantage of this opportunity to offer blessings. Some folks handed out the treat bags we had prepared. But my intention in this was to give you, dear congregation member, the easiest, most convenient opportunity for you personally to reach out and make your own connections. This is how we share our faith. This is how we grow. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “I have said these things that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Complete joy is complete giving, complete offering of your heart to your neighbor. There’s no other way that I know of to do this than just to throw yourself into the experience, to step into the crowd, to say “Hello,” to smile. “Would your dog like a treat bag?” “What’s your dog’s name?” “Tell me about your pet.” “Does your pet have any needs I can pray for?” Every one of us can do this. Every one of us needs to learn to get comfortable with this sort of personal engagement because this is a big part of the work of church restart. As I’ve said before, our future is in the people who are not yet members of our church.