Sermon for Feb. 23, 2020 -- Critical Mass

CRITICAL MASS – 2/23/2020 – Pardeeville

Matthew 18: 10-20 & Judges 6:1-15; 7:1-17

So, how many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? – 2 or 3 to report the light is not working, a committee to determine how to replace the bulb and who is responsible for doing it, , a treasurer to determine that there are funds available to purchase a new light bulb, a report from the property committee that the person actually replacing the light bulb is covered by the church’s insurance, someone to actually climb the ladder and replace the light bulb, and a clerk to report the above was done decently and in order.

There are as many versions of this story as there are identifiable groups of people with their peculiar way of getting things done. I am certain there are several Ole and Lena stories that could make the same point that for every task there is a critical mass of people necessary to get it accomplished. I wish Gerry could be here.

The concept of critical mass is everywhere in our lives:

  • In science we know that nuclear reaction requires a certain volume of material to ensure that escaping particles will strike other atoms to keep the reaction sustainable. We often visualize this as a room full of mousetraps and ping pong balls.
  • In public health we continue to follow the rise and spread of the new corona virus or the local spread of the influenza virus, we remember again the concept of Herd Immunity – the critical mass of a population that must be immunized in order to prevent the spread of a disease.
  • In engineering we need to know how many vehicles can be supported by a bridge before it collapses?

Critical mass was on the mind of the writer of Matthew’s Gospel in the selections read this morning:

  • How many are necessary in order to get God’s attention? Just one – the lost sheep. Jesus will spare no effort to find and restore to community.
  • How many are necessary to resolve a conflict? Depends on how willing the parties are to find a resolution. As few as two or as many as the whole church.

It was on the mind of Gideon as he faced the Midianite armies that were devastating the land of Israel. How many men in arms did he need to defeat them and drive them from the land?

Critical mass is on the minds of many of our small membership churches these days. How many members do we need and how much money do we need in order to be a church? We find clues to answer that question in our scriptures this morning.

We find in Matthew that even one person is enough to get God’s attention, that even as few as 2 or 3 are enough to settle a disagreement, that however many are gathered together – there Christ is in the midst of them. This should be great news to churches experiencing yearly decline in active membership.

The critical mass of members and participants required to be a church is not measured in numbers but in faithfulness – ability and willingness to be about the great ends of the church: (see bulletin)

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
  • The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
  • The maintenance of divine worship
  • The preservation of the truth
  • The promotion of social righteousness
  • The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world

These are what matters – not how many people are involved.

Over the course of my 50 some years in ministry, I have been part of administrative commissions working with closing churches all around the presbytery. In all that time, I have never seen a church close for lack of money or members. The closing as always come as a result of lost vision of purpose – either the work was finished or the will to engage was no longer alive. Often the loss of that vision was due to an unwillingness to adapt to changes in the world around them. Two churches stand out as examples of these two routes to closing.

One, was founded by Swiss immigrants in a small and rapidly growing river town. The people wanted a church like they were used to in the old country in their new homeland. The founders of the church were also the founders of the community. As the community grew, others moved in from other backgrounds. They were not comfortable with the Presbyterian ways of worship and government nor were they particularly welcomed by the founders – they were somehow “other”. Other churches from other traditions filled the gaps and thrived. In time the founders of the city died or moved on to other challenges on the frontier. Their descendents did their best to keep the church alive and true to the traditions of their ancestors. As the culture of the community changed, so did the spiritual needs of its people. Other churches adapted to address these needs, the Presbyterians didn’t. The church closed shortly after its 150th anniversary with members on the roles and money in the bank.

Another was also founded by immigrants – English and Scotch farmers moving onto new rich lands. They also brought their traditions and practices – they also brought a purpose --- to minister to the needs of those who farmed in the county. The organized, built a little church and opened a cemetery. At first it was only them and they cared for each other. Gradually, over the years, many of these Scotch/English Presbyterian farmers were drawn to the even richer lands in Iowa – they sold their farms to German Lutheran immigrants who moved here complete with their church – often still connected to the particular congregation back home in Germany. As time went on, more and more farms changed hands until about 150 years after its founding, with only 6 non-Lutherans left in the county, the church closed – they had finished the task they were called to do. The Lutheran’s spiritual needs were being met very well by the congregations they formed when they arrived. The church building became a cemetery chapel (run by the people of faith in the county). The 6 Presbyterians moved their memberships to neighboring Presbyterian churches and continued to share their gifts, leadership and energy in new locations

Neither church closed for lack of member or for lack of funds. One closed because it had refused to adapt its mission; the other because it had completed its mission.

Mission/purpose determines the critical mass for a congregation. As I read the Scriptures, I become more and more convinced that God is not concerned with butts in the pews or treasure in the offering plate or even with a well kept building. God called the Church into being to be a source of Healing, of Worship, of Welcome and of Service to others. We are not in the business of filling cathedrals, but of putting ourselves in God’s way (offering ourselves for God’s use). And that doesn’t take very many people or very much money.

The story of Gideon offers another caution that especially pertains to churches that dream of being bigger and younger and stronger.

When Gideon had raised up an army of 30,000, God told him to send most of the soldiers home – paring this army down to about 300. Remember the Midianites army numbered over 70,000. God’s reasoning was profound: “If you would prevail, you would think it was because of your brilliance and bravery.” “When you prevail with a mere 300, you will know that it is I, the Lord, who has prevailed.”

The Rev. Mark Achtemeier’, biblical scholar and former member of our presbytery is in the process of understanding the decline in our denomination in Gideon-like terms. God may be removing those idols of self-sufficiency so that when we prevail, we will know that it is the work of our God, not of our own brilliance and bravery.

So the question before us, particularly as small membership congregations, is not “how much is enough for us to be effective?” but “how small and weak do we have to be before we can recognize the Sprit of God working through us, even when only 2 or 3 are gathered?”

Linda and I have thoroughly enjoyed our time with you these past couple of months. In that time we have come to value your creativity, faithfulness and generosity. We have also heard around the edges some of your concerns about the future. So, based on our biblical understanding of critical mass, here are some thoughts as you go forward.

Keep on making a difference. In the last presidential election here in Wisconsin, the total difference between presidential candidates amounted to a single vote in each precinct. It doesn’t take a whole mob to make a difference. Continue to be alert to needs for healing and support.

As you have extravagantly welcomed a parade of worship leaders, continue to extravagantly welcome all of God’s people. Let them share the work God calls you to do. We don’t lose people because of failure to entertain them but because we fail to give them something meaningful to be about as followers of Christ.

Claim and use what God gives you – God gave Gideon’s army trumpets, torches and clay jars – that was enough. You are adept at multiplying your gifts through community organizations and efforts. Keep it up!

Be always ready to change direction in response to God’s prompting. It is always hard to change. Returning to our opening theme: How many Presbyterians (first heard about Episcopalians) does it take to change a light bulb? What do you mean change?

Yes, that kind of faithful trusting is risky. We cannot be fully in charge. We might not get the results we are looking for. But it is not as risky as going it alone.

When we are assured of Christ’s presence, no risk is too risky and no number is too small. With Christ among us, we are and always will be at Critical Mass. THANKS BE TO GOD!

 
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