The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

"2020" VISION

Delivered 2/25/96
Text: Ezek. 37:1-14 (Eph. 4:1-16)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Wonderful imagery. The prophet stands before a vast panorama of desolation...an ancient valley full of parched skeletons, baked in the desert sun for who knows how long. The grim reaper had had a field day.

Now a conversation. God says, "Tell me, Son, will these bones ever come back to life?" The prophet responds, "C'mon, Lord. You know the answer to that - when you're dead, you're dead." To which God answers, "Preach to them, Son. Tell them that I will bring them BACK!" A wonderful word of hope from Ezekiel to those exiled Israelites who were afraid their best days were behind them and they would never get back home.

It is a great word of hope for you and me too. Here we are together on the first Sunday in Lent and, coincidentally, our church's 38th birthday. We are fast approaching "middle age," and just as anyone who arrives at this time of life, we look at our history and wonder what happened. Of the hopes and dreams of our youth, some may have been realized, but many were not. That is why so many have a "mid-life crisis," an attempt to reclaim those visions of an incredible future just waiting for us to arrive. But mid-life need not be a"crisis" for individuals or congregations - it can be a time of NEW dreams, NEW visions, NEW hopes. Since our birthday just happens to fall in Lent, a traditional time of introspection and self-evaluation, we can use this moment to develop what I will call "2020" vision - a picture of what St. Paul Presbyterian can look like approximately a quarter century from now. And Ezekiel's word to Israel can be our inspiration.

Another inspiration can be an interesting article published not long ago entitled, "Will Your Congregation Be Alive in 2025?" (1) It comes from the pen of Lyle Schaller, one of the most insightful analysts of the modern American church. Schaller begins with a note that brings us up short. He says, "One of the most significant changes during the past three decades is the increase in the number of failures. It is far easier to fail today than it was in 1900, or 1950, or even 1970. One recent example is the number of farmers who failed during the 1980s. Far more numerous are the individuals who started a new business and within two or three years were facing bankruptcy."

Many businesses fail, and Schaller says that churches do as well. But he notes that, "This is not a new pattern, churches have been closing for decades. Between 1890 and 1990, for example, the United Methodist Church and its six predecessor denominations, through mergers and dissolution, eliminated 40,000 congregations..." Statistics are no doubt comparable for us Presbyterians. And Schaller expects that the rate of failure will not only continue but increase.

He says, "What is new is the set of higher expectations younger generations bring to the church." He uses the illustration of pole vaulters. "If the bar is set at six feet above the ground, most apprentice pole vaulters can clear it easily. Raise the bar three or four feet and that will separate the skilled from the unskilled. Raise the bar to twelve feet and you will separate the committed from the wannabees. The mediocre pole vaulters can clear nine feet, but not fourteen feet."

He goes on, "A parallel pattern has been taking place all across American Protestantism. New generations keep raising the bar. They bring a higher set of expectations. A hundred years ago, the younger generations began to expect the building should and would be heated on a cold winter morning. Seventy years ago, the younger generations began to expect indoor plumbing. Forty years ago, younger generations began to expect a convenient parking place. Thirty years ago, they began to expect the churches would provide an attractive, soundproof and comfortable room for each Sunday School class. Today, they expect a high-quality nursery for their babies."

Do you remember going to church in the summer when you were growing up? No air conditioning. Perhaps a big oscillating fan or two, but other than that, only the cardboard fans that were placed in the pew racks as a gift from the local funeral home (always a funeral home - I do not know why). No one thought anything about it. Would folks these days attend here in mid-summer without complaint if there were no air conditioning? Ha! Expectations.

Schaller continues, "Today's younger generations also come expecting relevant, meaningful, and memorable sermons, several opportunities for enriching their own personal spiritual journey, excellent physical facilities, including an abundance of offstreet parking, challenging and well-organized arrangements for them to be involved in off-campus ministries, music that speaks to their souls, inspiring worship experiences, seven-day- a-week programming, attractive choices in the teaching ministries, an affirming emphasis on the power of intercessory prayer, quality pastoral care, attractive ministries with children and youth, healthy small group ministries, and visionary pastoral leadership. Not every congregation can earn a grade of A on every one of those expectations, but many of the newcomers expect an A on at least two or three, and a B or C on the others.

He is absolutely right. We are not content with mediocrity. Health care? Of course not. Restaurants? Never - bad service, don't go back. Cable TV? If the signal isn't perfect, we are on the phone in a flash. Politicians? We are TIRED of what we have been getting, and we have been running the hacks off. As Schaller says, "The bar has been raised. People expect more." And that means from their churches as well.

To be honest, I think that is just fine. In fact, the very first sentence of a book that has become MUST reading for clergy in recent years called The Once and Future Church,(2) an examination of what we can expect as we move into the new millennium, says, "God is always calling us to be more than we have been." Amen and Amen!

How many congregations in the this nation will disappear during the next quarter century? No one knows, of course. The record of the past 25 years suggests it will be at least 75,000, and perhaps as many as 100,000. New congregations will come along to replace some of them, of course. But they likely will look very different from those that closed. Schaller notes, "The preferences of the churchgoers born after 1955 for large and very large congregations may mean those 75,000 that disappear will be replaced by only 35,000 or 40,000 new congregations. Today 8 percent of all Protestant congregations account for one-third of all churchgoers. It is possible that in 2020, the largest 10 percent may include one-half of all Protestant churchgoers." Hmm.

Who will disappear? The common characteristic shared by the vast majority will be their inability to adapt to a changing world. For many, that means they will not be able to raise the quality of their ministries enough to attract, serve, and retain a new generation. For some, they will be unwilling or unable to expand the area from which they draw their people. For others, their attachment to the "old ways" will make them appear irrelevant to new folks. Some congregations will die because they project relatively low expectations of people.

Who will survive? Easy answer. Those who attract and retain new people. Let's face it - some of us are going to die; if statistics are any help, between now and 2020, approximately one-fifth of our present members will die and an overlapping 50 percent will drop out or move away. The congregations that survive will be the ones who are able to replace the 65 to 85 percent of their present members who will be gone.

I am convinced that St. Paul Presbyterian Church can, not only survive, but THRIVE as we move toward 2020. We can be one of to 50-75,000 congregations that will experience substantial numerical growth. But it will take work...from ALL of us.

Schaller identifies some characteristics which will be typical of those which grow and says most will display at least eight of these dozen:

(1) Continuing efforts to improve the quality of their ministries. Are we content to allow things to continue as they are for no other reason than "This is the way we have always done it?" No. But that means a concerted effort to examine our strengths and weaknesses, with an eye toward significant improvement. As the Epistle [St. Paul's weekly newsletter] two weeks ago indicated, the Session has invited all those who are interested to participate in the work of a Long-Range Planning Committee - want to help? Call me.

(2) The churches that thrive will display a deep sensitivity to the religious needs of a passing parade of people. Times change, people change. The needs that folks have today are not the same as those our grandparents had. Old answers to modern questions may not be answers at all anymore. We need to be aware of that.

(3) The churches that thrive will have the capability to communicate the gospel in ways that new generations find to be relevant, meaningful, and challenging. Just as old answers may not be sufficient, neither can we be bound by getting the message out in just the same old ways. Should we add a Saturday evening Praise Worship service to our schedule? Perhaps. Are there new mission opportunities such as what we did with the Society of St. Andrew yesterday, Urban Ministry, Habitat, etc., with which we could encourage hands-on involvement? How can we best make use of the Internet? Things to think about.

(4) Churches that thrive will have a high level of communication skill in the preaching and teaching ministries. We keep trying. The Ezekiel lesson gives great encouragement - the resurrected bones are reinvigorated by preaching. Listen to the words (the Leininger paraphrase):

So I preached as I had been commanded; and as I preached, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were muscles on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then God said to me, "Preach to the breath; Preach, Son, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these dead ones, that they may live.'" I preached as God commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. (Ezek. 37:7-10)
It is amazing what God can do with preaching! Even raise the dead. Wow!

(5) Churches that thrive will have visionary pastoral leadership. The jury is still out on this one, but, by the grace of God, I will come up with an idea or two every once in awhile.

(6) Growing churches will offer a clear projection of high expectations of those who seek to become members. I doubt that we have done as much as we should with this one - we need to do better. Membership means more than having one's name on a roll; first and foremost, it means a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of your life with all the implications for behavior that that implies; it also means a commitment of time, talent and resources to the on-going work of the Lord in and through this place. We need to communicate that in no uncertain terms.

(7) A thriving church has an effective and challenging program designed to convert inquirers, agnostics, skeptics, seekers, and casual visitors into believers and to transform believers into disciples. This is another area in which we need to improve. Perhaps we could establish some "Seekers" classes to meet that need. We need to have more small-group Bible studies and prayer cells. We need regular opportunities for congregational fellowship - many more than currently. Give it some thought.

(8) A thriving church places quality, performance, and results ahead of money and the perpetuation of local traditions in self-evaluation. This is always a good idea. We cannot be dominated in setting our priorities by either money or tradition. In my experience at St. Paul, this has never been much of a problem. One hopes it will never become a problem.

(9) A thriving church has an above-average emphasis on the second and/or third persons of the Holy Trinity in worship, in preaching and in teaching. This is something you will find in more fundamentalist or charismatic churches than ours. Schaller is correct in identifying the phenomenon, but this will not be the case with me - I try for a better balance.

(10) Thriving churches have long pastorates of fifteen to thirty years. Well, we are working on it. Three-and-a-half down; by the grace of God, more (maybe even lots more) to go.

(11) Churches that grow will have a systems approach in designing their ministry plan. That means constantly questioning how each of the elements of our life together fits in with our overall mission, the one the Ephesians lesson so eloquently lays out - each one being equipped to use his or her own gifts in service to the Kingdom.

And (12) A growing, thriving church will have a nongeographical definition of their identity and role. We already have that. Although St. Paul began as a neighborhood church, time and mobility has moved our congregation far and wide. We draw from everywhere, and with God's help, we will continue to do so.

"2020" vision. What will St. Paul look like in another quarter century? In many ways, it is up to us who are here right now because WE are the ones who will put together the necessary elements which determine our future. Just remember, "God is always calling us to be more than we have been." Can these bones live? By the power of the living God, YES! Happy Birthday, St. Paul.

Amen!


1. Lyle Schaller, The Clergy Journal, Oct. 1995, pp. 20-24
2. Loren B. Meade, (Washington, DC: Alban Institute, 1991)

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