Joel 2. 28-32
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
The Book of the prophet Joel is set in the aftermath of a swarming plague of locusts.
So keep your eyes on this picture while I read these words from the prophet:
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your ancestors?…
What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten…
Before them the land is like the garden of Eden,
but after them a desolate wilderness,
and nothing escapes them.
A locust swarm in western Canada in 1875 covered an estimated 198,000 square miles and contained 12 1/2 trillion insects. If you can imagine the end of the world, you can imagine the devastation these critters can cause.
The word “locust”, by the way, comes from the Latin “locusta”, which is also the word for lobster. Which is also why I don’t eat shrimp.
Anyway, the plague hits. The destruction is complete. Famine is close at hand. Joel calls the people to prayer and fasting:
Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning…
Return to the Lord, your God…
Yet Joel’s message is ultimately one of hope. God will not abandon God’s people, he promises. The future is not infinite grasshoppers. The future will be better beyond their imagination.
Afterwards, (Joel writes)
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions…
Now, that plague of locusts was very likely a real event. And Joel’s promise that God would carry them through to better times was a kept promise. But Joel turns both the plague and the promise into a metaphor for tomorrow.
Yes, the future will be hard; losses will seem unbearable. Nevertheless, God will always be with you. Whether fire or flood or swarms of bugs, you will come through. You will see then what you can’t see now; dream what you couldn’t dream before. Wonders lie ahead!
This is good for us to know, you know. It is good to have your faith reinforced in peaceful times.
Because the locusts are coming back (metaphorically speaking, of course). And they will be here sooner than you think.
Which brings me to this morning.
The first response to my request for sermon topics came in last Sunday before church was even over.
“Say something about the future of the church”, this person wrote; and then asked these 3 questions: 1. What’s the reality we are facing? 2. What is your vision? 3. What are some steps we could take together to continue embracing the now and the future reality.
Take a deep breath.
When you love the church, as I do, and when you learn a little bit about what the future likely holds, your feelings quickly run from anxiety to despair to depression and back again. This is unavoidable.
So let’s deal with the depressing part first.
Here’s a chart that shows the membership trend in the United Church of Christ, over the last 50 years or so.
In 1965, membership in the UCC was just over 2 million—that’s the far left blue bar. You can see those bars getting shorter as the decades progress to the right. In 2015 we slipped under 1 million—914,871 to be precise. In 2017 we were just over 880,000.
The orange line trending up indicates the rate of decrease in our membership. The line going up means the rate of membership loss is increasing every year. We’re picking up speed going downhill.
This next chart projects our membership decline out for the next 30 years—2015 to 2045. The blue line there in the center marks 2015. The line sloping to the right from there indicates a continuing slide, following the trend of the last 30 years, to a church wide membership of just under 200,000 by 2045.
This smooth decline is an optimistic projection. I suspect there will be a steep cliff or two ahead and I’ll be surprised if it takes 30 years to go that low.
There will, of course, be other changes as well. After a 90% decline in members, much of what we think of as the United Church of Christ will be gone. The number of congregations that shrunk from 6500 in 1965 to 5000 in 2015 will decrease to 3500 by 2045. I think this may be a very optimistic projection.
Now I don’t want you to think this is just a UCC problem. This is happening across the board at a similar rate to all the mainline Protestant denominations, and now also to the evangelicals—the Southern Baptists and others.
The only group showing a steady increase in growth are all the people who used to go to church but no longer do. These are the “nones”. When asked by surveyors to indicate the church they belong to they write in “none of the above”. This group has grown from 5% of the population in 1972 to around 25% today.
The locusts are coming.
on summer hiatus
It’s tough making predictions, especially about the future. But this, it would seem, is what we are in for. A lot of smart, faithful people want to see this turn around, but almost no one thinks it will.
Is that depressing, or what? Anybody feeling anxious? Take another deep breath.
I know how you feel, I really do. Been there; done that. But not anymore. This will sound surprising, I suppose, but I’ve come to the conclusion that all these statistics I just dumped on you amount to the best news the church has received in a long, long time. I’ll try to tell you why.
It was probably inevitable for the church to follow the course it has since the early centuries until today. It is human nature, after all, to build things. And so the church, beginning in the 3rd century or so, began building—stunning cathedrals, great institutions and millions of churches.
But buildings are heavy, you know; and hard to move and expensive to maintain. Sometimes they get in the way of more important things. And now we are nearing the point where the institutional church—most of it anyway, is at the end of its life.
This is ok. Really, it is. Nothing we build can last forever.
It feels awful. It feels like a plague, threatening everything. But God will be with us. That’s the prophet’s promise.
And when we have lost everything—or it feels like we have, when we are thoroughly emptied out, then God says; “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions…”
On all flesh, God says. Top to bottom, east to west. God built a new Israel on top of the stubble left by the locusts. God will build a new church on top of the rubble left by this ongoing collapse.
That’s the promise. I believe it is true.
What will this new thing look like? That’s where this conversation gets really interesting.
The questioner this morning asked me to share my “vision” for the future. I would refer you back to the prophet’s words. Young men see visions. Old men dream dreams. I don’t have a vision; but I do have a dream. And my dream comes in two parts.
First, I am quite sure there will always be enough churches and church buildings just like ours to accommodate all the people who want to “go to church” on a Sunday morning. This seems obvious to me. We give ourselves to what we value.
Some of you are wondering, I’m sure, about the future of this congregation—our beloved Mt Vernon United Church of Christ. Will we be here 30 years from now or will we be in that 90% who have gone away?
That depends, on whether you, and those who come after you, want to be here. If this congregation feeds your soul and nourishes your spirit and equips you for a life of meaning and purpose—and enough of you want these things, then you, or those who come after you, will probably be sitting together on August 2nd, 2048. You will give your time and energy and money to that end because of what this place gives you and gives your community. In my dream it is almost that simple.
Secondly, in my dream the church, which is us, tunes its own dream to harmonize with Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. And I’m thinking here specifically of the parable of the mustard seed.
That’s a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, is like a mustard seed which is the smallest of all seeds but when planted grows to be a large shrub.
Now, the point of the parable was never that the church would grow into a large, powerful institution. The point of the parable is that very small things can have a very large impact. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. Mustard seeds are always small. Mustard seeds can never be large.
But when planted in the right place and the right time a small seed can have a very large impact.
Like that. That’s a mustard bush.
My dream for the church is that we will love the places we are planted and treasure our smallness. My dream, after the locusts have gone away, is for us to commit ourselves to helping where we can; to disrupting things that need disrupting; to serving each other and all our neighbors in the way Jesus served.
This is important. We build things. That’s where cathedrals come from. Jesus never built any thing. Jesus built people. Jesus built friendships and communities. And he did this 1 or 2 or 12 people at a time. Small—like a mustard seed. Small and influential—like a mustard seed. Jesus was never into “big”.
Small is how we started. “Big and powerful” was the 1700 year long detour we took. Now, with all that crumbling around us, we have the opportunity to be transformed; to be born again into what we were meant to be all along—small bands of Jesus’ followers doing good and disrupting evil.
I’ve said, on a few occasions, that I wish I had a bigger church. I really don’t, you know. If I had wanted a larger church I could have had one 2 or 3 times over by now.
What I want, what I dream of, is a community where people have learned to love each other and to love their neighbors down the street. What I dream of is a community of people who know how to care for each other and listen to each other and feed each other.
What I want is Mt Vernon—maybe with our eyes open a bit wider and our arms extended to people who don’t yet feel welcome here. But I want this. Wendell Berry is right, you see: “Everything we need is here”.
A good dream, I think.
How do we get there? That’s the 3rd question for this morning. What steps can we take to embrace the now and the future reality?
There are many. I’ll give you one—it’s really two but they can’t be separated so we’ll call it one.
If you want this church to thrive now and be here 30 years from now, do this: Trust the Spirit God has poured out on this place. Breathe the breath God is breathing into you.
And follow that Spirit into the story of Jesus. Immerse yourself in the story of Jesus. Rehearse it. Breathe it in. Week by week.
This is what happens downstairs around the kitchen table on Sunday mornings, by the way. Just sayin’.
We won’t survive, much less thrive, now or then, without this immersion and rehearsal. Because it is as we find our place in the Jesus story and live there that we become, more and more, the people, the church, we were meant to be.
You don’t need lots of money to do this, though some helps. You don’t need a building to do this, though we can be thankful for this beautiful space. You don’t need a seminary education to do this, though you should take advantage of one when you can.
We do need a company of people together breathing in this Spirit and rehearsing this story until it is our own.
The locusts are coming. Yeah? So what? Nothing we build lasts forever.
But as long as God is breathing; as long as God’s Spirit is being poured into the world; as long as we are hearing and living the story of Jesus—the story that formed us and shapes us still—
As long as that goes on, we are going to be just fine. Amen.