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A Fruitful Life

Painting With Ashes  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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The Decline

The institute for family studies shows that in the three years since the Covid 19 pandemic began, church attendance has fallen rather drastically. Which, you have likely witnessed with your own eyes. It’s not really a big secret that churches have struggled to return to pre-pandemic numbers.
But nationwide, the percentage of persons age 18 and up in America who attend church 1 or more times per month dropped from 34%-28%. Thats a really concerning number. We are nearing less than a quarter of the American population actively engaging in the life giving community called the church.
Even more concerning is that the percentage of Americans age 18 and up who NEVER attend a religious service of any type has risen from 50%-57%. That’s a 7% increase, which is rapidly approaching a 2/3rds majority of the nation’s adults.
And folks, these numbers are only tracked through 2021. Time will tell what occured in 2022 after that data is compiled and reported. The point of all of this is to say that things are not going well for Christianity in America.
And perhaps that has to do with the fact that all of the largest and most prolific denominations or brands of Christianity in the world have faced their own difficulties that have sullied the reputation and public opinion of the Church as a whole.
The horrific realities that have surfaced about child abuse within the catholic church, followed closely by the prolific cover up of sexual abuse and misogyny within the Southern Baptist Convention has all but crippled the Church’s reputation in an already skeptical world.
The United Methodist Church has not been immune to this either. We have hit point break in our current conflict over the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. And it has become a very public issue in a world that doesn’t view discriminatory practices and beliefs very kindly.
But the truth of it is that these recent developments are really just contributing to the overall spiritual decline in the Western world. The Church is flourishing in other parts of the world, which means that the church is not some dying relic of the past. The church is declining because the way that church has been done over the past several hundred years is no longer the way that the church is most effective in our world.
What needs to happen is for something to change. I hinted at this in last week’s sermon. We are in the middle of a sermon series called “Painting with Ashes” which is an attempt to see how God paints with the brokenness and the ashes of our lives and creates beautiful masterpieces out of the dust, and how we are invited to be a part of that process as well.
We’ve looked at the fact that we need to recognize our own frailty and the broken, dry, “desert” places that sin has created in us, and that we need to surrender to God and ask for help in coming out of those places. And I also talked at length about how the church is called to be a place that fosters the transformation of those who are seeking new life in Christ.
Today we need to take a side step, because it’s important that we realize that the church itself is not immune to dry and broken spaces. The church has found itself in a big old desert as well. In some instances this is because the church has commited corporate sin on a massive level. In some instances it’s because we’ve become complacent. In some it’s because we’ve become primarily inward focused rather than focused on the communities that we inhabit. In some instances it’s because we’ve failed to continue to do the work of understanding the needs of younger generations. Sometimes it’s because the church has stuck its nose where it doesn’t belong, and sometimes its because we haven’t suck our noses where it does.

Surrender Redux

And so how do we, as a church, move out of the desert and into the call that God has placed on us to be the light of the world? Well, really the same way that we as individuals find our own way out of the mess of our personal lives. By admitting that something isn’t right, and then seeking God’s help in turning things around.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus gives us a pretty good word on this. Jesus is in the middle of teaching some pretty controversial stuff, things about judgment of those who refuse to change, that the consequences of following him are pretty steep, and particularly that it’s going to get a bit uncomfortable for those who truly want to follow him.
And so right at the beginning of Luke 13, we get these strange words:
Luke 13:1–5 (NRSV)
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?
No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
So what’s happening here is that Jesus is being asked about two specific tragic events that happened in the area. We have no other historical or biblical information on these two events. But it’s not the events themselves that are important. It’s the question being asked — were the people that these things happened to worse sinners than the rest of the people living in the area?”
And maybe what’s even more important is the question behind the question. That question is this: Do bad things happen to people because they are worse sinners than those for whom bad things don’t happen?
Jesus’s answer, twice, is no. But without repentance, the judgment is the same. What this really means is that there is no hierarchy of sinfulness. There is not worse sins over here than over here in God’s eyes. There’s not steeper consequences for some than others. There is simply those who will perish and those who will not. And the difference between the two is repentance.
This is a good thing for us on a personal level, it means that in the economy of Grace, we are all on equal footing. We are all offered the same deal, regarding of our debt - Repent and be relieved of the burden of sin so that you can move forward into the new and transformed life that awaits us.
And when we look at what is happening in the church as a whole, as a Western world, we have to reckon with this reality. There is a lot of commentary around what’s happening with the decline of Christianity. And a lot of people have concluded that the problem is that the church has been too tolerant of sinners, that the church has lost doctrinal purity — and therefore God is punishing the church.
I reject that premise, because — well because the words of Jesus don’t back up that logic. However, I do believe that what we find in our modern context is that the church is in grave danger of perishing. Not the Universal Church — Christianity, like I said, is flourishing in other parts of the world. I believe that individual churches, maybe even entire denominations, are in deep danger of perishing. And they are in deep danger of perishing because they refuse to surrender. They refuse to repent. And repentance is a word that means to move in a different direction.
Those that do not survive this post-modern world that we live in are those who refuse to turn and head in a new direction. They are those who refuse to reckon with their past, who refuse to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly and decide that a new day must dawn, or else the end is near.
On a denominal level that looks like sweeping change and accountability — we can only pray that this is what comes for our Catholic and our Southern Baptist siblings. For United Methodists it means persevering through the pain of separation and then moving forward into the future as the dust settles.
But more importantly I think for our communities, it really is going to come down to what individual churches do. It’s going to come down to the decisions that are made that lead us into our future. And maybe you look at the landscape and you think, “but those numbers, the decline, it seems so helpless!”

New Figs

Jesus has a story for you my friends. This is right after that last section that we read. Luke 13:6-9 says this
Luke 13:6–9 (NRSV)
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.
So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’
He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.
If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
This is a good word to a declining church. What this signals is that there is hope for a turn around. There is hope for a fruitful future, if we will allow something new to happen. In The West this means radically rearranging the soil and the values that we feed off of. The church of the past has relied on tradition and the tendency of children to follow in the spiritual footsteps of their parents. And that’s just not the case any more.
You know that this is true. And so if we can no longer rely on tradition, then churches in the west have got to start to innovate. They have got to stop being relics on the corners of downtown areas and they need to start being vital places where the real work of Jesus is being done in ways that engage and transform the lives of those who have do not know the message of Jesus and the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Churches that embrace this reality, who realize what we’ve been doing doesn’t work anymore and who tap into the fruit enhancing fertilizer of innovation and engage the world with love put themselves into a much better position to bear the fruit of ministry.
And that passage is a good word to us as we sit and look around at all the things that we don’t have. It’s not uncommon for us to recall memories of the past, when youth groups and Sunday school classes dominated this old church. These marks of fruitfulness are easy for us to default to, because they are how we stereotypically measure the health of a church. Do they have kids? Do they have a future?
But I’m going to tell you that those aren’t the only marks of a fruitful church, in fact they aren’t even the most important marks. I know. I was part of a church that had to close its doors, and it wasn’t because we didn’t have teenagers and children. We had tons of those.
When you look around at what is happening here at this church I see the fruit being grown. It’s evident that in many many ways this is a spiritually vital church. This is a church that is embracing and engaging in a new way of being in ministry. We are innovating. We are growing literal fruit (well veggies) across the street.
And so while yes, I want 100 kids running around this church too, I want us to not be so hung up on that result just now. We need to focus on embracing change and embracing new and innovative ways that God is calling us to be the church. In the words of one of my very favorite movies Field of Dreams “if you build it, they will come.” And that doesn’t necessarily mean physical buildings. But we are building ministries, we are building bridges to the world around us, we are building relationships that are offering us a new means of being in Fort Pierce.
My dear friend Greg Rogolino keeps saying “Something is going on here.” And I can’t help but agree. Something is going on, and our city is starting to notice it as well. It’s our job to keep building, to keep dreaming, to keep moving in a direction that will lead us into the fruitful life that God has for us. Perhaps we will be the light and example that others can follow as they seek to become the church of the future: A fruitful and consistent representation of Jesus’s love to the world.
We’ve got to rely on the help avaliable to us. We’ve got to take risks when we can. We’ve got to reimagine what the church can be if we are going to make it long term. I believe that’s not only possible but it is what God wants.
God wants the church to be vital, because vital churches are the vessels that transform God’s people. And that is our true mission. If we want people to find fruitful and transformed lives, then we as a church have got to model that. And we are well on our way.
This church has seen the desert. We’ve been in the ashes am I right? From just dealing with the modern church decline, Covid 19, and to living through real and unforseen tragedy. These past several years have not been easy on us. But just look at the beauty that is happening through it all. We have come out stronger, more spiritually centered, innovative, and willing to do whatever it takes to bring the Gospel message to the people of Fort Pierce. My prayer is that, together, we will continue to show the rest of the church in America what it looks like when we paint with our ashes.
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