Looking Ahead: Future Church, Rev. Arthur G. Severance

Start Date

A man sought medical aid because he had popped eyes and a ringing in the ears.  A doctor looked him over and suggested removal of his tonsils.  The operation resulted in no improvement, so the patient consulted another doctor who suggested removal of his teeth.  The teeth were extracted, but still the man's eyes popped and the ringing in his ears continued.      A third doctor told him bluntly, "You've got six months to live."    In that event, the doomed man decided he'd treat himself right while he could.  He bought a flashy car, a chauffeur, had the best tailor in town to make him an expensive suits, and decided even his shirts would be made-to-order. 
        "Okay," said the shirt- maker, "let's get your measurement.  Hmmm, 34 sleeve, 16 collar--" 
        "Fifteen," the man said.  
        "Sixteen collar," the shirt-maker repeated, measuring again.  
        "But I've always worn a 15 collar," said the man.  
        "Listen," the shirt-maker said, "I'm warning you.  You keep on wearing a 15 collar and your eyes will pop and you'll have a ringing in your ears."

`    Things change, don�t they?  Whether we want them to or not. Remember that January is named after the God Janus, who is two faced-one looks ahead toward the future of course, but one looks back to the past.  It was my favorite theologian, Mark Twain, who said, �The future ain�t what it used to be.� Think for a minute and realize that that great futuristic novel of George Orwell, 1984     is now 26 years past, and we didn�t turn out that badly.  Now do you remember the future?  Watched any old science fiction movies lately?  I seem to remember that by now we were supposed to be living on space stations and have flying cars and there would be no more suffering or hunger because we would all be the Jetsons and our food would be pills.  Funny, I don�t remember what religion was supposed to be like in the future.  Did you ever notice that there were few treatments of religion in any of the sci-fi shows or books, except for maybe the one that was actually invented by a science fiction writer, Ron Hubbard- Scientology!  Except that depending when you were growing up, some of us remember hearing that the church had no future and that God was dead, again. It reminds me of that great sweatshirt which said:

     �God is dead- Nietzsche�; then underneath, it said: �Nietzsche is dead- God..�

      Let me share a poem I wrote about my memory of church probably freshman year in college; it seems like freshman year cynicism as I became part of the counter culture--

Church

Buildings
Tall Steeples
Bells that ring every hour
wall to wall  carpet
Benches called pews
People called church goers
Man called minister
Introit
Hymns
Mass spewing of the �Lord�s Prey-er�
Everyone confesses generalized sins
Only true statement is that we are sheep
Sermon
Somber, silent men
With carnations in the lapels of their identical dark suits
Pass the plate
Fill it with money
Choir sings songs of the 17th century
Then the show is over
Say �Hi� to Agnes
Shake the minister�s hand
Tell him it was a nice sermon
Even though you were bored
Say, �We�ll see you next week�
Or next show
Same thing
One-hour performance
two or three of them
Which ever is more convenient
If you can�t come send money
God loves cheerful giver
What does that make the taker of money
Watch out for Jesus, though
He�s a radical
He upset a Bingo table last week
So you go home from the show
take off your Sunday clothes
Put on your normal ones
Get ready for a delicious Sunday dinner
(Clean your plates so others won�t starve)
You�re going to visit Auntie later
Mind your manners now
You can hardly wait for Monday
Normalcy returns
Until next Sunday.

     Like many baby boomers, in college I began to view the traditional church, and especially the church or synagogue goer, as hypocritical, and indeed, read it as well in literature and cultural music, etc. The church was irrelevant for many of us  and as soon as we were out from under our parents influence, we stopped going! Though many of us were still very spiritual, still interested in religion and spending millions on books, music, and gurus especially outside of traditional religion! Imagine, for a minute, if some of the churches we left had been more like some of our UU churches and invited in various other religious practitioners and programs so that we wouldn�t have had to leave to continue exploring religion! That�s one of the great advantages that we have, you see. We�re not pushing one way or one brand or one belief or one message or even one God! I might argue that what I am suggesting is �one-ness� itself, of course, the idea of the interconnectedness of all things- like in the new movie �Avatar!� But more on that later...

     As we begin a new year and even a new decade, we are concerned with the future of course. What is the future of the church? What is the future of this church?

     In an article, titled, �THE BISHOP'S VOICE:  If I Have Seen the Future of the

Church, I Do Not Like It, � retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong says the most secular parts of the world are New Zealand and Australia, where he recently spoke on a book tour, not Europe or North America.  Eighty four percent of New Zealanders, according to recent polls claim no tie with any organized religious body.  Spong says that while figures for Australia weren�t available, observers suggest Australia is not significantly different. �So the reality is that a majority of the citizens of these nations has moved beyond the boundaries of the traditional religious frame of reference. They are citizens of what Harvey Cox once called "The Secular City." That, however, is only half of the problem. The other half becomes obvious when one analyzes the make up of that decreasing minority who still do claim religious attachment. They are overwhelmingly of the evangelical, fundamentalist Protestant or the conservative Roman Catholic tradition. They are basically ghettoized religious enclaves out of touch with the world in which they live.

     These religious bodies still utter claims about how evangelical and conservative Catholic churches are growing while remaining ignorant of what is really happening in the broader religious picture They still expend primary energy debating the fitness of women to serve in ordained capacities. They seek to demonstrate, in opposition to everything we now know in the scientific world, that one's sexual orientation is a chosen and not a given way of life. They appear to be dedicated to a simplistic view of Holy Scripture that assumes a literalness that has been abandoned by the academic world of scholarship for almost a century. In order to justify this mentality, they demonstrate a radical anti-intellectualism, which is marked by a defensiveness that manifests itself in religious anger and paranoia about the causes of their increasing irrelevance.  They see themselves as a beleaguered minority battling for the truth of God, which they have confused with their distorted version of truth. They have become unpleasant, unattractive and unappealing to the vast majority of their fellow citizens. From such a faith community modern men and women have fled in droves.�

     You see the problem? When we speak of the �Church� we must realize that, like religion itself, or like we UU�s there is what I will describe as a continuum of beliefs from what we might simplify as from conservative to liberal. We do know that denominational affiliation is decreasing in Protestantism.  Historically, of course, we started out in this country without any, they are a 19th century phenomenon, and once held great sway and  each had a theological difference which might show up more in actual church running, that is, how the church was governed.  Was it governed by a presbytery? Guess the denomination? Or was it Congregational?  Did they believe in adult Baptism? These days, most folks would be hard pressed to tell a Lutheran from Presbyterian, so when families move, they often church shop without limiting themselves to their family of origin�s denomination, if they had one! Most mega-churches either are non-denominational, started by an independent, or the denomination is seen as secondary and an impediment to growth.

     We are technically an Association, and I think our name is important because it sets us apart! It means that we are different and more of a liberal religious search for meaning and social justice than thinking we have all the answers or requiring folks to believe just our way or even  the Judeo-Christian idea of God or Jesus.  It is important to remember that we come out of the Christian tradition, we have UU Christians among us.

     While visiting my daughters in San Antonio for Xmas, I went to the church I used to serve in San Antonio last Sunday.  I haven�t been to Sunday services there for at least three years.  How have they changed?  Well of course, they have a new minister, though a seminary student was preaching since it was the Sunday after Xmas. I didn�t know about 1/2 the people there!  A good sign, remember there would be lots of visitors in a city and less regular members since it was a non-minister Sunday.  They had a jazz band to provide music, (the choir was off) though a member played piano for the hymns.  Instead of people getting up and lighting candles and sharing joys and concerns which sometimes took up to 10 minutes, they now write concerns in a book in the narthex which is brought in to the minister who reads it as a pastoral prayer while people can get up and light a candle silently. The service is different, though not very!  There were lots of new signs directing identifying buildings, etc., and the place looked different with a good energy. They have grown by about 100 members, to about 450, but being in the city we had gotten to that number once before as well.  But there are activities going on for all kinds of different interests everyday- there is a Buddhist group as well as Christian group and very active social justice outreach etc..  It is still a church I would want to be a part of.

     So too, this service this morning is different than the one under the last minister, interim minister Sara, and that was somewhat different than under Nicole that was somewhat different than under the last minister who would have been an interim minister, etc. So OUR future church will continue to change somewhat depending on who is in the pulpit, who is providing music, and how the worship committee is working as well, of course, as how the congregation is responding.

     That�s another difference between our church and many traditional churches; we have the freedom to change our liturgy, our order of service, to use whatever kind of music we want, to try to find a way to make the worship service meaningful, intellectually stimulating, spiritual, comforting, a call to reach out to work for justice in the world, and a part of building beloved community. The future is certainly to continue that, but my hope is to go beyond that as well.

      Karan Sing, Member of Parliament, India-writes in  a wonderful book,

Prayers for a Thousand Years Blessings and Expressions of Hope for the New Millennium.:

      �The golden thread of spiritual realization that links together all the great religious traditions of the world needs to be strengthened. So that as we enter the new millennium, we can shed the baggage of fanaticism, fundamentalism, and bigotry that so cruelly distorted the 20th century, and move into a new dimension of an integrated human being living in an harmonious global society.

     The Vedas, the most ancient living scriptures of the human race, teach this entire cosmos is permeated by the divine power, and that each human being encapsulates a spark of divinity. Fanning the spark into the blazing fire of spiritual realization is one of the major goals of human existence. The other is to work for the welfare of all beings-human as well as nonhuman. We must raise the level of human consciousness to comprehend the tremendous creative potentialities of the human mind and spirit.�

     The future of the church, any church, depends on its willingness to be relevant to the future needs of future people. You may quote me on that. I believe that we stand on the edge of a great potential for the very reason Bishop Spong spoke about. We represent one aspect of religion as it may be in the future- a way of way of open minded and hearted spiritual  seeking together as well as working together for the common good-without requirements of certain creeds.

     I wonder what the future of the Roman Catholic Church is, for instance. Fifty years from now, I think they will have women priests and not have to be celibate. That will radically change the priesthood obviously! In Protestant circles, denominations are going to have a struggle to exist and many will merge once again- as the choice for many people continues to become either to become more conservative and start going to nondenominational churches, especially mega-churches) or just stop going all together.

     This is where I think we have the potential for growth, though not mega-potential! Our future, you see, depends, on our commitment, yea, even our cash!  My vision for this church is to be a beloved community where we are in religious search for meaning found through service, classes, worship, church leadership, work, reflection/meditation. reading, discussion, and a generous giving from the heart, hands, mind, and pocketbook. Yes, I hate to mention money, but our future depends on IT in a much more concrete way, though we need the previously mentioned to motivate us to give IT.

      My vision is that we become a hub of spiritual and social justice activity and outreach for and to the community.  That we are known for it and that we find great pleasure and deep spiritual dimension in doing it.  That our adult religious education is as strong as our children�s RE and that our community outreach involves us all and does so excitedly.  That we bring in many different kinds of inspirational music and maybe have a coffeehouse for the community!  That there be social activities for the family, and a pastoral care team so that as we grow people feel cared for when they need personal attention.  That our worship services (yes, perhaps more than one!), reach people in a variety of ways, perhaps by a variety of services. My vision is that this church, through the mystical religious process of Love, of Beloved Community, of what or who some call God,   transforms us into better, more loving people and helps us transform the world into a more loving and just place.

     In an essay entitled, "Worship With Sacrifice: The Path of Radical Love," my colleague ,  Barbara Hamilton Holway, writes:

     "In A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield writes of a visit to a temple in Vietnam during the war years. 'On top of a hill was an enormous sixty-foot-tall statue of a standing Buddha. Just next to Buddha stood an equally tall statue of Jesus. They had their arms around each other's shoulders, smiling. While helicopter gun-ships flew by and war raged around them, Buddha and Jesus stood there like brothers expressing compassion and healing for all who would follow their way.'

      I imagine," she continues," a gateway with an enormous sculpture. Joining hands and reaching arms around others' shoulders a circle of people forms. The circle is huge. Among the entwined figures, are Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Humanists, Feminists, Panentheists--a wide circle of compassion and understanding. Through the letting go of our tight grasp on our preferences, through the stepping outside ourselves and through deep listening to others, we join the circle, knowing connectedness, wholeness, truth, and love. Worship with sacrifice is the path of radical love."

     To see the future, look in to the eyes of your neighbor, or better still, the mirror.

We are the co-creators. What a decade we have just experienced! We begin this new year, this new decade, 2010, with new hope that we may co-create through beloved community a better    one,  Come, let us be therefore transformed  by love, and let us transform the world. Let us believe in one another and in the holy power of love.

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow."  Albert Einstein

 Amen, Peace, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity with me greets  the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and  one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. �Vaya con Dios� is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is �Go with God,� So I adapted it to say �Vaya Con Su Dios, �Go with your idea or interpretation of God.�

Peace,Love, Shalom,Salaam, Blessed Be, Namaste, Abrazo a Todos, Vaya con su Dios

Event type
Worship Service