A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 29, 2017
(St. John the Evangelist)
One of the things I love about Annual Meeting Sunday is the opportunity to look back at the past year and reflect upon all the ministry that takes place here at St. John’s. It’s not always easy to find the time to do this amid our busy, deadline-driven communal life. It’s tough to revel in the successes and God-inspired moments that take place on a regular basis. And that’s to our detriment — whether in parish life or our personal lives. But the Annual Meeting forces us to press the pause button and take a long, hard look around. And, wow, there is some great stuff happening at St. John’s!
Now, statistics alone can’t tell the full story of a faith community, but they can shed some light on how things are trending. And I’m always seeking to understand what’s behind the numbers. It encourages me to wonder what it is, exactly, that has allowed us to not only grow numerically but to thrive spiritually over the past 12 months?
What is it that has seen our average weekend worship attendance rise by a whopping 20% from the year before? Sure, it helped that Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday which counts toward this figure but even without that, attendance is up 12%. And just to put this growth into context, nationally church attendance fell almost 4% during this period. In the Diocese of Massachusetts attendance decreased by nearly 6%. So we are bucking some pretty strong trends here on this hill in Hingham.
And what is it that allowed us to realize over an 8% increase in money pledged to support the work and ministry of St. John’s? Why is giving higher than it’s ever been in the long history of this parish?
Not surprisingly, I have some theories. And I want to name four reasons I believe things are thriving at St. John’s. It’s not that we can bottle this stuff and share it with the wider church but there are some transferable attributes if congregations truly do want to grow.
First, strong leadership. We have a Vestry that is dedicated to the mission of the church, passionate about their faith, supportive of clergy and staff, and willing to take some risks.
You know, this isn’t a for-profit religious corporation we’re running here. I’m not the CEO, the Vestry isn’t the board of directors, you aren’t the shareholders. We’re not gunning for a hostile takeover of neighboring congregations. We’re a community of faith that seeks to follow Jesus in word and action; a group of people that strives to inspire one another to live with compassion and boldly proclaim Jesus as our Lord; an inviting place that shares the peace of God with all who enter these doors. The Wardens and Vestry understand this and they are committed to continuing to grow in faith and service.
Second, keeping one foot firmly planted within the four walls of the church and one foot outside the church. Yes, holy space is important and this is a beautiful, inspiring place to gather and grow spiritually. We have a responsibility to maintain it to the best of our ability and available resources. But this must be balanced with looking outward, with doing outreach in the community, of being citizens of the world, of welcoming the stranger into our midst.
This isn’t a given in faith communities and we have had to forge a new way of doing church as we continue to live in an increasingly secular society. It used to be that the church didn’t have to reach beyond itself too much. Sure, there were good works to do and people in need to serve but people came to church because they always had. Of course many were deeply devoted to their faith, but many came partly out of habit and partly because it was simply the cultural norm. Plus, there was nothing else to do on a Sunday morning. Well, these days there is plenty to do from watching TV to surfing the web to playing youth sports to going out for coffee to heading to the mall. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, just that it’s the reality.
Now I know this change hasn’t always been easy; that it’s meant a different model of ministry. But there’s a reason I spend time online and writing newspaper columns and sitting in coffee shops in addition to meeting the pastoral needs of parishioners and writing sermons and planning liturgy. The church — and I mean this both globally and here at St. John’s — must be in two places simultaneously. Out in the world and here in the sanctuary. This is the balance we seek to strike. We don’t always get it right — I don’t always get it right — but I think we succeed more often than we fail.
Speaking of failure, the third reason we’re growing is that we’re not afraid to fail. That doesn’t mean we plan on it or rush hastily into new ideas or programs but if you’re not willing to take risks in ministry, you can quickly become paralyzed. To me this was never so evident as it was when Dan Fickes came to me with his crazy idea about wanting to host a Halloween event for younger children.
Now, usually when this happens, I nod my head, say something like “Hmmm. Sounds…interesting,” and hope the person gets distracted and forgets about it. But I was intrigued when Dan started laying out his vision and soon enough, I was sucked into his All Hallows’ vortex and we had organized a small team to plot and plan ways to pull off a large-scale community event.
There were logistical issues with recruiting an army of volunteers, publicity, graphics, Halloween-themed crafts, and food in the midst of a very full fall season at St. John’s. But we decided to take a chance on this idea and what emerged in our Not-So-Spooky Haunted House was pure magic. The church basement was transformed into an enchanting, interactive exhibit intended to delight and entertain before visitors were brought back up to the non-spirit world of Lower Weld Hall for donuts, cider, and crafts.
Over two weekends we had 1,800 people through, made some money to support the church, and were able to convey the message that at St. John’s, faith and fun are not mutually exclusive. And it all came about because we weren’t afraid to have something flop.
Finally, gifted staff. Every January I invite the parish staff over to the rectory for lunch. We do this after Christmas and call it an Epiphany party since, well, we’re busy in December. But what a joy to look around the room as we were opening our Yankee Swap gifts this year and see this amazing group of talented and dedicated people. We really are blessed right now and it’s important to take a step back and just recognize this. Our support staff regularly goes above and beyond and our program staff is making the spiritual magic happen on a daily basis. I am very proud of the ministry they are engaged in with all of you and it is a joy to call them colleagues.
Much of the fruit of our labor is highlighted in the full Annual Report. But I wanted to mention a few new initiatives that took place in the past 12 months. Projects we have undertaken to enhance our ministry both here on the hill and in the community.
In addition to the Haunted House, we redesigned our parish website, introduced an online giving option, held an adult education series on climate change that has morphed into the creation of a dynamic new Green Team at St. John’s, held another wildly successful Holiday Boutique, laid the groundwork for Laundry Love, an exciting new outreach initiative that kicked off last week, had more people than we’ve ever had at our Christmas services, started two weekly prayer groups, implemented healing prayers on the last Sunday of the month with the help of our beloved Sisters of St. Margaret, saw not only an increase in Sunday School numbers but also more regular attendance, added an online directory, grew the children’s choir, and started a Youth Group Steering Committee. Among other things.
But I’m most proud of what you can’t quantify, like spiritual connection and joy and the wonder of a small child learning that God loves her more than she could ever even imagine and the deep peace of a man slowly slipping out of this world supported by love and prayer and a rekindled passion for working for justice in Jesus’ name and a teenager’s making profound spiritual connections even when he’s not willing to admit it. This is why we do what we do around here. This is why we put so much effort into our respective callings — whether that’s to lay or ordained ministry. This is why I encourage you to be drawn ever deeper into the life of this parish. You will encounter Jesus, you will be transformed, you will be made new.
This is precisely what St. John the Evangelist set out to record when he wrote his gospel. He sought to testify to the Light of Christ that had entered the world so that others might hear and believe through his testimony. And here we are, 2,000 years later, as a faithful community seeking to follow Jesus.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, it remains a privilege to follow Jesus alongside of you. To proclaim Jesus in Word and Sacrament as fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith. And to share the peace of God that truly does surpass all understanding.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck