The Elephant in the Living Room

April 26th, 2013

Consider the following situation. A woman has spent most of her eighty years in the same small membership church. Her grandparents donated the property on which that church stands; her grandchildren attend when they are home for the holidays. She knows who sits in the pews and who once sat there. She can name twelve preachers back. She knows the doers from the big talkers. She keeps up with each family’s sagas. She can tell you who donated most of the religious artifacts and on what occasion.

The twenty-something pastor fresh out of seminary with residues of irritating preppy talk sprinkled in her speech comes to town. And the eighty-year-old member thinks to herself, “My dear, what can you possibly teach us?” But if the young pastor has been well served by her education, and if she has the courage to follow her call to be an overseer of the congregation, the answer is, much. For one thing, she can teach them to start paying attention to the elephant in the middle of the living room; that is, those flagrant violations of the congregation’s espoused core values that have been around so long that persons like the eighty-year-old member, a strong disciple on many other fronts, no longer even notices them.

What kinds of elephants show up in the living room of small membership churches? The core value may be vital worship, but the reality is that poor playing by a pianist or organist has been the overriding factor in the quality of its worship for decades. The core value may be forming disciples of Jesus, but the self-designated lead teacher of the adult Sunday school class habitually uses the occasion to bash the modern mainline church about educated clergy, ordained women, or tolerance of homosexuals. The opportunity for a life-giving encounter with the Scriptures is neglected. The core value may be to share the good news with all persons, but the reality is that first-time visitors would have a hard time finding the church, would not find parking when they arrived, and would find no accommodation for their children if they brought them.

Church leaders must keep in the forefront the congregation’s pressing issues, knowing when to push harder and when to back off. They need to recognize the little games that congregations invent for avoiding the hard work of facing their pressing issues. When they see the congregation getting bogged down in minutiae or creating an obvious scapegoat instead of taking constructive action, leaders must figure out how to cut short such games. Much of this is behind-the-scenes work, but the church leader as preacher can lay the foundation for this work and can reinforce it in three ways. One, the preacher as leader can preach regularly on the congregation’s core values in a manner that invites the congregation to self-examination. Two, the preacher can hold up the virtue of truth-facing and truth-telling in their sermons. And three, the preacher can maintain a zone of safety in worship and preaching where the conflict over pressing issues does not reach. This last point needs some unpacking.

If a small membership church is to engage in the hard work of facing the elephant in its living room, there must be times when that church can stand back from the work and catch its breath, times when the collective attention of the congregation is focused elsewhere and upward. The preacher as leader will exercise careful stewardship over the worship, including announcements and, especially, the sermon, so they remain plowshares in the service of unity rather than swords in the service of polarization.

State of the Church Sermons

What we have in many small membership churches today are New Year’s sermons focused exclusively on individual repentance and resolution; what we need are New Year’s sermons that also focus on the congregation’s repentance and resolution. What we have is “Form 23: State of the Church,” filled out by the pastor and submitted in triplicate for the packet of reports given to the handful of people who attend the annual business meeting. What we need is a sermon by a preacher who has reflected on the congregation’s ongoing story in the light of biblical accounts of God’s grand project to create a people that will be a blessing to the nations. The sermon would be preached before the entire assembly, a noteworthy event with some flourish, in the tradition of Scripture where a leader assembles the people to advance the plot of their collective story as do Moses (Exodus 19:1-9), Samuel (1 Samuel 7:3-6), and Ezra (Nehemiah 8:1-12).

Most often in a small membership church the plot of the collective story will be one of maintaining a healthy equilibrium, so the state of the church sermon will answer questions like these: What honored leaders have we lost this year and who will take their place? How did we recover from storm damage to the sanctuary or adjust to the steep rise in oil costs? How will we adjust to our placement on a different charge of churches with a different rate of shared expenses? What hopeful signs are there that we will remain multigenerational? And most of all, what must we do to be faithful to our core values as we face changes and challenges in our environment in the coming year?

Some small membership churches are transitioning to larger churches, so the state of the church sermon will answer different questions: Where has our growth caused the most stress in this past year and what are we going to do about it in the coming year? Do some of our volunteer positions need to become paid and where will we find the money for those salaries? What changes in our grouping with other churches may be needed? What changes in the level of our pastoral presence may be needed? And most of all, have we been faithful to our core values in the past year even as we were swept up in the sheer activity of growth?

The hardest test for the preacher as leader giving a state of the church sermon has to be the small membership church that was once a mid-size or even a large membership church. The questions must help the congregation refocus its energy from the glory days to a less grand but good-enough future: Is our administrative structure needlessly complex and are there more economical versions we should explore? If we give up our station status as a church with its own pastor, where will lay leadership need to step up? Is it time to leave behind the much-loved but oversized building so we may be more faithful to our core values in the coming year?

Regardless of its collective plot, every small membership church must advance that plot, must take the next faithful step. With a thoughtful state of the church sermon a leader can build up corporate identity, name pressing issues, keep first things first, and encourage the congregation to take that step.

This article is excerpted from Preaching in the Small Membership Church Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press. The digital edition is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.
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