Reaching Out to the Unchurched

Download (right click and choose save as)

May 19, 2013. There are big changes ahead for the church. Today, 20% of people in the United States say they have no affiliation with any religious group. They are the “unchurched.” How can we reach them? Pastor Penny draws a parallel between this challenge and the day of Pentecost. She suggests that Pentecost was not a one-time event but that it goes on, and that we need it.


*** Transcript ***


When we had this lesson on the day of Pentecost in Bible class on Wednesday, one of the women said, “You know, we never hear what it was like from the disciples’ point of view.” We don’t, really. So if you will imagine with me and permit me, I’d like to imagine what the day of Pentecost might have been like from the point of view of one of the disciples: Peter.


When Jesus told us, the disciples, that we would receive this power, we had no idea what he meant. I thought the power would come gently, gradually. But when Pentecost day came, I discovered it was anything but gentle. I was almost in pain with the light and the sound and the sense that a spirit was filling me and moving me. We were literally drawn out of the door of that room and into the crowd waiting around the outside of the building. And I, walked up to a group of people I would never have approached before — Peter, just a country bumpkin from Galilee — and I walked right up to sophisticated Romans. And I began to speak to them. And I discovered that I can speak Greek, even though I was never taught that language. And they could understand me, and I could understand them. And so of course I began to say: I need to tell you what this is all about, what my friends and I have experienced, about how God is changing everything through this man called Jesus.


But I had no longer begun to tell them, when I was compelled by the Spirit to climb up on a wall and begin to preach — me, a fisherman, who just days earlier had been too afraid to tell a group of servants that I was Jesus’ friend. I was preaching to hundreds of strangers. And here is the most amazing thing: they listened. And thousands of people joined our group that day because of what we said. And the marvels kept coming, because we did things entirely differently. We were used to worshiping in the synagogue, but we began to meet in homes. We were used to staying with our own, you know the poor and the rich. We were all together. We pooled our money. We ate a common meal. And I have to say, I didn’t always like the people I was eating with. But I grew to love them because of one man: my friend, my savior, the one who took me — a sinful fisherman — and cleaned me up, forgave my sins, and gave me a reason to live. That’s how that first Pentecost felt to me.


I’d like to suggest this morning that Pentecost was not a one-time event — that it goes on, and that we need it. Because there are big changes ahead for the church. The church has been changing over the last fifty years. Fifty years ago, half of the people in our country went to churches like this — mainline Protestant: Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal. And now maybe 8% to 16% do. Fifty years ago Christians filled the Muny for an Easter sunrise service. They filled Kiel Auditorium for reformation services. Not anymore. Today, 70% of our youth fall away from the church, and only a third come back when they’re older. Across the board, congregations — and not just in Protestant churches, across the board — are reporting that Sunday morning attendance is down, collections are down. And it trickles up to their church bodies, to their publishing houses, to their seminaries. The Seminary I graduated from just let 8 of their 44 professors go for financial reasons. While the Protestant, the Christian, the organized church like this is diminishing, something else is growing in our country — and maybe you’ve seen the statistics. It is the “unchurched.” Today, 20% of people in the United States say they have no affiliation with any religious group.


Now here at Christ Lutheran, we are truly blessed. Our membership is stable and grows a little bit. We have a nice cross-section of ages. We have vital lay leadership. We meet our budget — not always easily, but we do. But even here our Sunday morning attendance diminishes. We’re okay right now. But we have to be prepared. And I don’t mean to cast guilt; I think we’re all doing the best we know how. But what I’m saying is across this nation, people are meeting in churches, they’re baptizing, they’re marrying, they’re burying, they’re communing, they’re praying, they’re talking about doctrine, they’re singing songs, and they’re shrinking. So clearly, we need to be open and thinking about how we can share the gospel in a new way.


Now I think we get some guidance, and we definitely get some hope, from the story of Pentecost and from the gospel. The story of Pentecost shows us that if people, the unchurched, are not coming to us, it is very important that we go to them. And you do that because you work with unchurched people, you live next door to them, you go to school with them. They may be in your families. And the second thing we learned from the Pentecost story, besides the fact that we need to go out, is that communication is essential. Now, I don’t suggest that you get on a wall and preach to your friends. That wouldn’t be effective. That’s not how we do it. But as you engage people that you know, or don’t know so well, but are unchurched, you listen. You learn from them. You learn to care. You model in your life the hope that is within you. And you are ready and may be given the opportunity to answer the questions “So why do you go to church?” and “What is this all about to you?”


The individual, the one-on-one, is going to be the new thing of the future. It’s the old thing of the past, but it’s certainly going to be part of our future. But beyond that, how the church will organize itself, how it will worship, how it will share the message and pass it on — we bring this challenge to the Holy Spirit. We bring it to the Holy Spirit the way the disciples did: they waited and they prayed.


Because we learn two things about the Holy Spirit that give us the confidence and the hope that that’s the place to go. The first is we learn the Spirit is powerful. The spirit of Jesus — and that’s what we’re really talking about when we say the Holy Spirit, that Jesus lives on in our lives — the spirit of Jesus can do new things in the most unusual places and ways. Jesus turned death into life by rising from the dead on Easter and brought us back to God. So the Spirit is powerful. But this is maybe even more important: the Spirit is forever. Jesus said that: I send you an advocate who will be with you, not for a time, not for a generation, not for a millennium. But forever. This Spirit as believers lives within us. We make that a formal event here at the baptismal font, but the spirit of Christ lives within us and uses us as it used the first disciples, to move out and to wait for change.


So we have a challenge before us. But we don’t bury our heads in the sand like the ostrich, and we don’t look at it fearfully. What we do is what we heard the disciples doing in the story today. They prayed and waited for the Spirit. So we pray, and we wait to see how the Spirit will bless us and use us to bless the world. We pray and we wait to see what new thing the Spirit will do among us.




*** Keywords ***


2013, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Acts 2