(This is the State of the Church Address given by Amy Jacks Dean on January 31, 2016.)
Recently, as a matter of fact it was just yesterday morning at Caribou Coffee, when Russ and I were meeting with some recent visitors - a young couple with a young child – and they said, “We have a few questions for you.” I just love that. They had done their homework about us: visited, gone to the website, read a few blogs, and now they came with questions. Their leading question was so good: “Where do you see your church in the next 5-10 years?” What a great question. In the next 5-10 years, their son will be in middle school and then high school. We sat back in our chairs a bit to answer carefully.
The truth is I don’t know.
I think that’s exactly how uncertain church life – I’m talking The Church Life – is. And we told them as much. BUT, we went on to say what many pastors we know can’t say: We see Park Road alive and well and thriving in 5-10 years. This will not be a road we travel that will be smooth sailing. That is for sure. We will have our ups and downs, curves and potholes, icy stretches where we will slip and slide, but we see us alive and well and thriving.
Another year has passed marking 15 for us. I never dreamed we would get to raise our sons here for almost their whole lives. What a gift that has been. We will be forever grateful for that. And as we personally sit on the brink of a completely empty nest, it feels good to say that even on the days at church when we ask: "Where is everybody????" – we can also see so many new and old faces. Our church nest is far from empty!
New church members. New visitors. Folks that feel like they are a part of us even though they have not officially joined us. Which we are learning more and more is simply one of the changes that has come to the life of every church and really every organization: People are just not joiners like they once were. Which means WE will have to make some adjustments in how we define what it means to be a part of the Church.
On the days when I feel most discouraged, I think I’ll spend about 4 minutes and replay that video that kicked this meeting off. The faces. The ministries. The mission. The worship. The fellowship. The laughter. Young and old. Side by side. Together - trying to understand the Love of God and the Way of Jesus in ways that can transform us and the whole wide world.
And there are days that I feel discouraged. Just this past week I sent the following message to my group of women pastor friends who are spread out all over the country. This is what I said:
“An observation: lately I've come up with several new ideas and initiatives, in addition to being more attentive to making good pastoral care visits, and I find my love of my job intense. Some of the new initiatives include: Community Office Hours (27 people have showed up – which is exactly 27 more people than would have ever come to my office to see me!), Tutoring at our partner school, Online Book study group, making gluten free bread with children with allergies for use as our communion bread, pulling together a couple of new families to meet long time families, all of whom are struggling with the same rough waters that life has thrown at them, so that they can get to know one another and support one another because how else can we swim the tough seas if not together.
It’s all just so wonderful. I really wish these things brought in people and money. I hate those parts of my job, and I thank God that Russ carries the larger load of that stress, but still the stress remains. One day I want a job where I get to do all the creative things without having to think about 'will they come/will they stay/will we grow' and 'will they give.' End of observation.”
Now I’ve just let you in on a very honest reality of our jobs, but the truth is it’s like most all other jobs I know. Church work isn’t different even if sometimes we assume or wish that it was. But even on my most discouraged days – the days when we have disappointed you and on the days when you have disappointed us – even on those days I find myself in awe that we get to be a part of this. This. Church.
Park Road Baptist Church.
We are a people of Hope. Do not be afraid has been a focus recently in light of the fact that we live in a very scary world. And since kicking off Advent 2015 with Well Glory Be, perhaps that should be yet another phrase that carries us into a new year. Do Not Be Afraid and Well Glory Be - I pledge to you in this coming year to be intentional to be more Encouraged than Discouraged as we work together at learning what it means to Be the Church. We should stop saying we "Go to Church" or "Join a Church" and instead just talk about "Being the Church."
The summer article about our church in the Charlotte Magazine has done more to boost our visibility and bring in new folks than anything we could have ever bought. It has been a reminder to us that there are so many people looking for a place like this, and they have no idea we exist. We must welcome them with open arms when they come. A college student that was home over the holidays said to me one day – “I’ve only been gone 1 ½ years and there are SO MANY people at church that I do not know!” That is so great!
If you live here and go to church here regularly and have been a member here for some time and you join in this college sophomore’s sentiment, let me beg of you to change that. Get to know the people you do not know. Welcome them into this family of faith. Learn about who they are, what they do, and what makes them tick. Tell them your story and the stories of this church and then listen to them tell their stories. We are small enough that you can know everyone if you want to. I implore you to Want To.
I end with this about our Next Big Thing: Uplift Sedgefield. Some of our extended family members just returned from a mission trip to Haiti with their church. It is actually the first church Russ and I ever served. It is the church where Russ’s sister is a minister now. She posted a picture on Facebook from their trip. A very white man who now has mostly no hair and what he has is partly grey who was a part of the youth group when Russ and I were Youth Ministers at that church 30 years ago.
Thirty Years Ago??!!
Craig, white skinned and whitish, mostly gone hair, was bent down with his arm around a little boy. The little boy’s skin and hair were very very black. The caption of my sister-in-law’s picture read: “This is John Peter with Craig. In Haiti, families have to pay for children to go to school. John Peter's family could not afford to send him to school, so he came to the work site every day to help our team build a house. Craig and Cathy felt led to sponsor John Peter so that he can go to school. He begins school on Monday!!!”
Craig changed the world last week. He changed the world for John Peter. That I know for sure. Every single child that we have a chance to impact at Sedgefield Elementary has the chance for his or her world to be changed. That is some of the best work of The Church. Before we cast stones at politicians and agencies and teachers and parents that we judge are not doing enough, let us look within. And let us be driven by the Way of Jesus and let us be empowered by the Love of God to change the world – one child at a time this year at Sedgefield Elementary School.
My Dear Fellow Church People, may God bless us this year as we seek to bless All of God’s People, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.