A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 28, 2018
(St. John the Evangelist)
“It’s not about the numbers.” You hear this a lot in church circles. It’s a way of reminding people that there is more to church life than can be conveyed by statistics. That the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be quantified or reduced to a spread sheet. That the pastoral relationships between clergy and parishioners cannot be collected as data. That the inspiration that comes through soaring music and challenging sermons and engaging education programs cannot be relegated to a spiral-bound report. That spiritual growth cannot be measured.
And of course, it’s true. It’s not ultimately about the numbers; it never has been. But often the people who insist most vehemently that it’s “not about the numbers” are the same people serving congregations with dwindling numbers. Parishes stuck in survival mode. Congregations spending their energy on merely keeping the doors open, rather than boldly sharing Jesus’ message with passion and creativity. This is not meant to belittle anyone or any congregation — it’s tough out there. All over the country, pews are emptying. Here in Massachusetts, according to a recent survey, we’re living in a place tied with New Hampshire as the least religious state in the entire union. Which is shocking to me. But across the Commonwealth, church attendance is dropping and financial contributions are down. The church as an institution is changing in dramatic ways.
Now, I don’t believe this is entirely a bad thing. Without the social and cultural pressure to go to church, the people who are in the pews are more committed to following Jesus. And it certainly makes for a fruitful mission field as we seek to share the Good News of the Gospel with an increasingly secular society. We do have a compelling story to tell; one that offers hope and meaning to a world that so desperately craves it. But the evolving nature of our cultural context also highlights just how much of an outlier St. John’s has been in recent years.
By all the measurables, 2017 was a banner year at St. John’s. Attendance was at an all-time high, as was financial giving; registration for Sunday School and Confirmation Classes was off the charts, as was participation in Youth Group and our children’s choir. Our annual Holiday Boutique was more successful than it has ever been; our Not-So-Spooky Haunted House was wildly popular in this community and beyond; Outreach programs like Laundry Love took hold. We’ve never done more baptisms in a single calendar year and even our intimate Wednesday morning service is outgrowing the chapel.
Now, it may not be all about the numbers, but numbers do matter. They can point to an underlying vitality and presence of the Holy Spirit infusing what we do at St. John’s. Our Average Sunday Attendance was up 6% in 2017 and this fall alone, from Homecoming Sunday through December, attendance was up 11% over the same period last year. Pledging also increased by 12%.
To offer some broader context, in the last four years attendance has increased by 22%. In real numbers this means that on an average Sunday there are 45 more people in the pews than there were in 2014. That’s significant. And it’s why if you think coffee hour is more crowded or that there used to be more spaces in the parking lot, you’re not nuts. During this same time-frame, giving went up 31%. Which is astounding. And it’s why we’ve been able to hire additional staff, increase our outreach budget, and make needed repairs to our sacred space.
While we know it’s not ultimately about the numbers, these numbers do point to something extraordinary happening up here on this hill. Which is why I think rather than saying “It’s not about the numbers,” a better and truer statement would be “Numbers don’t tell the whole story.” There’s more to it of course, but numbers do matter.
And around here they highlight the fact that an increasing number of people are drawn to encounter God through St. John’s and they are being inspired to give generously to support the mission and ministry of this place. Rest assured that the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid,” never sees you as just a number. And neither do I. You are a beloved child of God and I hope you take great pride in being part of this particular, vibrant community of faith.
This is not to say that we’ve figured everything out or that we don’t have our challenges. We do. While our challenges tend to be “good problems,” like limited parking and overcrowded Sunday School rooms and packed pews and overstretched staff, they are still issues that demand attention.
This is precisely why we are entering into a parish discernment phase in the weeks and months ahead. The time is right to discern where God is calling us as a parish in light of our continued growth. We could just stumble forward and hope for the best. I mean, things are going well! But in order to do this intentionally and faithfully and strategically, we need to take a broader look at our ministries, staffing requirements, and explore the possibility of raising some money to make sure our facilities meet the requirements of our mission. I want us to harness this incredible growth and the amazing spirit that pervades this place. It is truly a special time at St. John’s and we have both an obligation and an opportunity to make the most of this moment in our history.
This time of discerning who we are and who we want to become must be a communal process because we are, all of us, St. John’s. St. John’s is not just a beautiful building but a community of faithful people. And so we will be asking lots of questions in our small group discernment sessions. Things like, how can we be more accessible and inviting? In what ways should we interact with the wider community? How does our physical plant support our mission? What are your dreams for the St. John’s of the future? We’ll hear more about this process from our consultant, Leslie Pendleton, at the Annual Meeting but this is simply an invitation to participate. We need your insights and input to make this the fruitful, productive, Spirit-driven process that I know it can be. And, frankly, it’s exciting! I am incredibly jazzed about seeing where this will lead us in the years ahead.
In the meantime, as many of you know, I will begin a four-month sabbatical five weeks from now. I’ll be doing some traveling and some writing and some coffee drinking and some writing about coffee drinking. It will be an opportunity for me to recharge and renew and reconnect. And I think the timing is right as we reflect on a full and fruitful year that is past, and look forward to an abundant future together. Four months won’t be long and while I will miss you all dearly, I have great confidence in our lay leadership — our Wardens and Vestry — and Father Noah to carry on in my absence.
You know, in times of uncertainty and confusion, faith is an anchor. It grounds us and provides hope. It offers perspective and meaning. It shines a light in darkness. St. John’s, as the physical manifestation of our faith, serves as a beacon to all who enter these doors. And St. John’s, as the communal embodiment of our faith, demonstrates the power of God’s love. At its best, this is a place of inspiration and beauty; a place of motivation and challenge; a place of relationship and joy. I am proud of the ministry we have done together over the past twelve months and I am grateful to everyone whose presence and participation helped to build up the body of Christ that was St. John’s in 2017.
In the end, it’s true that Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, not count them. If we continue to feed the children of God, to minister to all who enter our doors, the numbers will follow. We can and should be grateful that God has richly blessed this community. And in return, our calling is to continue to share the Good News of Jesus’ love with passion, integrity, and faithfulness.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it remains a privilege to follow Jesus alongside each and every one of you. To proclaim Jesus in Word and Sacrament as a fellow pilgrim on this journey of life and faith. Thank you for doing your part and may God bless us all in the year ahead.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018