Back in September, I attended the annual meeting for the ABC of the Great Rivers Region. One of the workshops I attended was led by Dr. Jeffrey Jones, entitled “Facing Decline, Finding Hope.” In this workshop he helped us pastors see that the church is in the middle of a change in paradigm right now. When I grew up, the church was the center of the community’s life. Stores were closed on Sunday, and any business owner who opened up shop on Sunday met opposition. School athletics as well as private sports leagues for children took place on the other six days of the week. Never on Sunday. Football programming was delayed on Sundays until after church services let out. Churches were trusted to be the moral compass of the community.
During the past thirty years most of those things have changed. People are suspicious of the church’s claims to have authority on issues of morality. All kinds of athletic programs schedule games for Sunday mornings. Almost all businesses are open on Sundays. Even some banks. And the church is no longer a center for social networking. Because of these and other factors, churches have seen a steady decline in attendance, giving and overall relevance in society.
As I listened to Dr. Jones’ presentation, I was struck by the parallels between our situation and the situation in the Middle East during the time of Jesus’ birth. Most people had lost faith in religious institutions like the temple and the priesthood. Secular forces seemed to impose other standards upon the people of Israel. People weren’t taking a day off on the Sabbath every week. They were less knowledgeable about the Bible. Most people thought they were seeing the last days of Israel’s time as a people of faith. But Jesus’ Advent was a ray of hope to a “people who had walked in darkness.” (Isaiah 9:2).
Dr. Jones shared some questions that churches should be asking themselves as they try to find new hope in one of the most trying times ever for Christians. During this season of Advent, we will be exploring our answers to some of those questions. As we do that, we will be considering what it means not only for Jesus to be sent but also what Jesus means when He says that He sends us. I am hopeful that as we reflect on these questions, we will see new avenues of hope for our congregation. There is still plenty of reason for hope, even if we feel we are swimming upstream right now. We now have a long-term plan in place for our church’s ministries. A plan we will begin to implement next year. So let this time of Advent be one of waiting, of expectation, and of hope. That’s exactly what God intended it to be.