by Ellen Sims
text: Acts 2: 42-46
I started seminary fifteen years ago with merely a glimpse of how Christianity was evolving and only a vague dream of what the church of the future could be. In early adulthood I’d been a member of a quirky, peace-loving, justice-seeking church that helped me understand more about what Jesus might have been talking about and what the church might be capable of. Into my dreams wafted fleeting intuitions about a more authentic way of being Christian and a worship life marked by simplicity, beauty, depth, and surprise.
I was not planning to start a church back then. I was a teacher. I was also a church member who was learning a little about the Church’s history and imagining the Church’s trajectory. Yet I was not at all drawn to the personality-driven, amped up worship services of the megachurches everyone else in the 80s and 90s seemed to think were the wave of the future. I was especially not attracted to theology that promised prosperity to those who were true believers while wounding other poor souls who didn’t conform and infecting our larger society with a religious zeal devoid of love for those on the margins.
I also distrusted the superficial changes many churches implemented: adding drums to a praise band in worship or a fitness center to the church complex, for instance. Nothing wrong with those additions. But how were such changes creating more compassion in this world? Was the Church’s goal just to fill the pews? I looked for answers in biblical scholarship as well as process theology, eco-theology, liberation theology, queer and feminist and womanist and mujerista theology for the church of the future. Writers like Spong and Borg and Matthew Fox were suggesting some real world applications for a changing Christian landscape. Christianity had always evolved. The Church would have to figure out how to remain rooted in the essentials while adjusting to new ways of being Christ in a changing world. In fact, some thought that Christianity’s declining cache could bring it back to authenticity and humility—away from its imperialism and pride.
In seminary, while some in my cohort focused on how to express their personal theologies conventionally enough so they’d still pass muster with their ordination boards, others of us were wistful that Christianity might develop a more expansive vision of God, a more radical care for neighbor, a more inviting and innovative spiritual path—while remaining rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus. It seemed Christianity was already being influenced, for the better, by other religions. And by science. Christianity—no, dare I say it?—even God—was evolving, had always been evolving.
Now one impetus for preparing the Church for the coming changes was a heap of data showing that the church was in steep decline. Although the stats I’m about to share come from a 2014 Barna study, the decline in church membership and attendance was already obvious 20 years ago. But here’s what we know today:
• Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).• 59 percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out.• 35 percent of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.• Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church (by far).
As I was completing seminary, it was becoming crystal clear that the church as we’d known it was dying—or as Phyllis Tickle would express it just a few years later: “About every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And . . . we are living in and through one of those five-hundred-year sales.” Churches in America were closing their doors so fast that some denominations predicted their denominations or the idea of denominations might not survive beyond a generation or two. This was not an auspicious time to plant a new church!
And I didn’t have a clue how to do that. Seminaries do offer classes in church planting now but not then. Besides, there was no blueprint to follow for the church I’d envisioned. Besides that, Mobile did not need a new church, thank you very much. We had more churches than you could shake a stick at. Oh, I could counter that objection by saying, “Yes, but Mobile doesn’t have a progressive and inclusive congregation like the one I have in mind.” To which the wise person would respond, “Well, there’s a reason for that. Such a church has no chance in, well, hell, to succeed here.”
But I had this longing. And I thought maybe others, not many but some, were feeling this longing for something big enough to claim our lives and transform our community. I thought that even though I didn’t have a map to follow or a mission statement to start with or one cent of financial support, I had this . . . longing. I took as my mantra the quotation from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry you can see printed on the first page of our bulletin:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
You may think my job as a church planter and your pastor has been to preach sermons and teach the Bible and lead meetings, to baptize and marry and bury you, to counsel or comfort or confront, to engage us in community outreach and actions for justice and care for our neighbors. Not so. My chief job has been to hunger for God. “To long for the endless immensity of the sea.” My job is not even to explain the sea to you. It is to long for the endless immensity of the sea. That mystery. That dark and dread and beautiful force. That unfathomable vastness that draws us to it and into it.
I’m not here to help you navigate the sea but simply to yearn for it with you. We have no sextant. We have no charts. Maybe just the stars to steer by. Maybe.
Besides, the church is continuing to evolve. Progressive Christians must be adaptable, experimental, visionary. We listen to the pulse of the culture. Not to be “popular” but to recognize how ideas evolve in response to scientific knowledge advancing and technology affecting our interactions and diverse cultures mixing in new ways to reshape our understanding the world. You and I are curious about how the church is changing in the midst of these other rapid changes rather than being worried the church we’ve known will likely cease to exist and the church we are longing for does not yet have a model we can follow.
As I was midwifing this church, I saw Jesus as revolutionary, and God was by then, to me, evolutionary. God keeps growing and expanding. God is not static. God is force, movement, a verb not a noun. And the expanding galaxies of God captured my heart as much as they stimulated my thinking. Awe . . . Awe . . . Awe . . . was the catechism of my heartbeat.
Notice that AWE was what the earliest church experienced, as described in Acts 2:43: “Awe came upon everyone.” Awe is how the church then and now responds to God, responds to the “endless immensity of” that which we call God.
Notice also what is NOT mentioned in today’s text as essential or important to the early church: Acts 2 does not mention how the early church made decisions, what were their theological beliefs, what rules, if any, they followed, what was their annual budget, what specific prayers they prayed and songs they sang and specific teachings they were learning, and rituals they followed. We’ll learn some of these details later from the book of Acts and Paul’s letters. But in this first snapshot of the first moments of the church (2:42), here’s the response of those who experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem after the death of Jesus:
1. they studied the teachings of Jesus,
2. they got to know and love one another,
3. they shared meals,
4. and they prayed.
And—shockingly—(2:44-45) this little band pooled their resources and redistributed their possessions and money according to people’s needs. (If health insurance existed back then for the early church, they surely would have all contributed to the health insurance pool so that all, regardless of their financial resources, would be covered for their medical needs!) And they contributed to the common good “with glad and generous hearts.”
There are hints that, because they broke bread when they gathered and because the writer of Luke and Acts says Jesus had urged disciples to have a meal to remember him, very soon a habitual practice became more and more fraught with meaning and symbolism and power — until it because a requirement and a ritual.
But what’s really at the heart of the “church’s” first gatherings? It’s simply this: learning together, being together, eating together, praying together. And holding all things in common. Is that what people associate with the Church today?
The basics of life shaped the basics of their communal life and eventually a Christian theology: learning, loving, eating, praying, and sharing their possessions in common. The Christian life, from the beginning, exists in community. Although each one of us has at some point been hurt or irritated by another person within our faith community, Christianity is not something we can practice in isolation. It is a communal experience. And it is a “day by day” practice that leads to gratitude and generosity and good will for ALL the people (2:46-47). It’s not a set of things to believe; it’s a way to live.
The earliest church gives us a pretty simple but very ambitious model to follow, it turns out. So let us aim to be bold rather than big. Let us focus more on increasing our compassion than our financial resources, valuing orthopraxy (right actions) over orthodoxy (right belief), creating community rather than doctrine, being a movement of justice and love rather than an organization. At times we do need to gather wood and perform tasks and do hard work in order to build the boat. After worship today your church council will be doing some of that when we meet and report on the tasks we’ve completed since our last council meeting and plan what wood we need to gather in the coming days to keep building our boat. And because we are a new church, we have been are building this boat WHILE sailing it—an especially challenging feat. Thank God there are times when a new gust of awe billows our sails and takes us out a little deeper.
Because what will inspire us and form us and bond us and delight and sustain and provoke and connect us and what is our truest vocation—what will really float our boat—is a shared longing for the endless immensity of the sea.
O Voice that calls us out into the deep, though we get distracted, keep luring us farther out into your beauty, your love, your life of oneness in Christ. Amen.