Jesus says, “A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14b). While I know that St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church ELCA is not a city unto itself, we are indeed a community within a community. But with the phenomenon of being one of three churches at an intersection, just how visible are we? Are we hidden? Are we just one of the “three churches” or just the “church next to the CVS?” This week I was told by another pastor that we used to be known as St. Stephen’s by the steakhouse, and now we’re just the St. Stephen’s by the drug store. I wonder what our community would say about us- what people who don’t attend worship here would say about us. If we shut the doors to the church tomorrow, would our community miss us? I know all of us would miss the community here, but would our neighbors miss us? I would love to say yes, but honestly I’ve not yet been here long enough to know the real answer to that.
The answer to this important question is something for us to seriously consider. The number one way that people hear about churches is by word of mouth. Certainly people look up churches on the internet, but people still really want to know from someone who goes there what its like, if they think the person inquiring would like it.
Interestingly enough, this is the same thing that restaurants worry about. I learned an important lesson when I was in high school waiting tables at restaurants. One of my dear friends who was my manager at the country club where I worked once told me that if a person has a positive experience there, that they weren’t really likely to tell anyone. But if they had a bad experience, it could be counted on that they would tell every single person they know to avoid eating there like the plague. There’s a whole lot of truth to that.
Since the advent of social media, churches have become increasingly susceptible to having their dirty laundry aired in public spaces, thus turning people off to thinking about visiting or joining congregations that they were once intrigued by.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this might be a challenge for us as a community, and with good reason. In the last 10-12 years or so, St. Stephen’s has been through a lot, some positive and some negative. We’ve had some difficult relationships with pastors; we’ve lived through some pretty big changes in the life of our denomination, and we’ve lived through a good bit of staff transition. Those things all together are tough on a congregation. While we as a congregation have been trying to hold ourselves together- which from my point of view- you’ve done a really good job at- the world around us has changed immensely. Just thinking about the amount of time I’ve been here, Springs Road has changed a whole lot. There’s a new Sheetz gas station, there’s a new Zaxby’s, Walmart Neighborhood Market, Arby’s, carwash, and a new church all between here and the stoplight at the intersection of Springs Rd and McDonald Parkway. All of that has been done within the last year or so. So how do we keep up? I don’t have that answer in front of me- but it is something that I am committed to wrestling with, as is your church council.
Jesus gives us some good ideas about where to start addressing these challenges that face the church. Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth. And not only are we the salt of the earth, but that we need to stay salty! Not salty as in people who swear like a drunken sailor, but that we need to hold onto the thing that makes us different from the world, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the same way, we are a city on a hill whose light cannot be dimmed or hidden. So, how do we keep our lights from burning out? How do we stay salty?
There’s really no magic answer to this question, either. In fact, it’s a simple answer. Keep coming to church. Hear the word of God proclaimed. Share in the Lord’s Supper. Study scripture with fellow Christians. Pray without ceasing. Give to the poor and needy. Visit the sick and imprisoned. And when you feel like you’re tired and you cannot keep doing these things, just show up. When you can’t sing, we’ll sing for you as a community. When you can’t find the words to pray, we’ll pray for you as a community. When you can’t give any more of yourself, come here and find the care and mutual support of your brothers and sisters in Christ. This is what we do as a Christian community. It is here where we are refreshed and strengthened for service. It is here where we come to find our saltiness for the world so that we can season those around us with the love and grace of the gospel. It is here where we rekindle the fire in our hearts for Jesus so that we can carry that light out into the world just one more week.
If that litany of things I just suggested sounds like the things we’re already doing- then maybe we’re headed in the right direction after all. Martin Luther, when asked about what to study once one had “mastered” the Small Catechism, said to start over and do it again. The basic things of our faith are the things we’ll never out-grow or out-learn. They’re the central things that we must continue to do. Each time we circle back around and revisit the basics of our faith, we usually notice something different about them that we didn’t pick up on before. Part of this has to do with cognitive development, and part to do with life experience and finding new applications for these basic principles. For example, if we think about the commandment “thou shalt not kill,” we usually think, well that’s pretty easy, I haven’t murdered anyone lately. I may have thought about it, but I didn’t pull the trigger on anyone. As we grow in Christ, we learn that murder isn’t the only prohibition of the commandment. It has to do with not only not killing, but also with helping to preserve our neighbor’s life, to protect the vulnerable, and not to kill people emotionally or spiritually by bullying or pastoral abuse.
But just because we need to keep doing the basics doesn’t mean that we stay static and keep doing the same things over and over again expecting different results. That is the definition of insanity. As we seek to grow and spread the good news, we must continue to look for new, innovative ways to share the gospel with our neighbors. We must pay attention to the ways in which the world around us is changing- not just so we can change with it- but so that we can remain contextually relevant in a rapidly changing world. Sometimes that starts with some basic things- like installing Wi-Fi throughout the church so that we can invite people to remain connected and for us as church leaders to access more resources to help teach. It looks like updating our organ- which we’ll talk about next week at the semi-annual meeting so that the instrument that we use (at least in one service and at all of our joint services) can be used appropriately to support congregational singing. Remaining culturally relevant and context minded looks like finding new events to open our faith community to our neighbors around us. It looks like finding ways to partner with other non-profits and aid organizations to make sure that our community around us knows that we care about their health and well-being as children of God.
Those places where we’re called to change can be the scary parts. But the God who has seen this congregation through the past 180 years will see us through the next year, and the next, and the year after that. As long as there are faithful people who call St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church home, there will continue to be an active presence of faithful disciples who seek to make the world around us a better place and to proclaim the gospel to all the ends of the earth- starting right here on our corner of Springs Road. And even though change can be a scary thing, we have to change. Do you know what kinds of things don’t change? Dead things. And we’ve been called by the LIVING GOD to have a LIVING, ACTIVE faith that will shape not only us as a people, but will change the face of this entire earth.
So don’t lose heart. God has brought us this far and will continue to lead, guide, and direct our ways. God has called some wonderful, insightful, inspired leaders to this congregation that are sitting on your church council, in the committees of the church, who work behind the scenes in our admin and finance offices, literally all over this place there are gifted people, working to make a difference. Keep the faith. Fight the good fight. And stay salty, my friends. Amen.