This faith community began in the 1920s , as the neighborhood of Beaverdale was starting to rapidly grow. Reverend Orf, the pastor of Crocker Hill UMC, recognized the growing need for a church presence in this area and so area churches banded together for a committee, remodeled an old farmhouse, and on Easter Day, 1925 the first worship service was held at this location.
As the community grew, the congregation made plans to build a church and the part of our building that is now the music room and offices was built in 1941. A big part of the design at the time was to build a church structure that would be in keeping with the style of the homes being built all around us. Classrooms were added in 1947 – part of Immanuel’s long legacy of education. Our church also opened itself up to the community in this part of our history, housing some of the local elementary school classes in our Fellowship Hall as the schools got too large for the students of the day.
As the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren church were merging in 1968 to form a new denomination – the United Methodist Church, this congregation was continuing to grow and completed work on this sanctuary. In the 1960s, youth bell choirs were formed, with adult bells following a decade later – another part of the way music has been a rich part of our tradition.
In 1970s, we began a new ministry that reached out to shut ins with tape recordings of the worship services. Members from Immanuel were instrumental in helping to pave the way for Vietnamese refugees to be welcomed into our state.
And since that time, we have continued to grow in faith, we are known as a caring and mission focused community, and we have been willing to take leaps of faith to respond to the needs we recognized within the church and the community, like our expansion of Faith Hall which was completed in 2004.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the people of Philippi to encourage them in the faith and as a church. And he reminds them that the God who began a good work in them would not abandon them, but would continue to help them to love and bear fruit for the gospel until that day when their work was finally complete.
And the Philippians needed some encouragement. While they had been on fire for God at the start, they also had experienced intense persecution because of their faith. Many were wondering how they could continue to go in in the face of the opposition they were experiencing. What should their church look like now? How could they continue to serve when so many around them were dying and falling away?
Paul’s letter called them to press on with rejoicing even in the midst of their difficulties and to return to God in a spirit of discernment, so they could discover a more excellent way and so they could be strengthened for whatever would come next… until that day when God fills the entire world with the love of Jesus Christ.
There simply is no comparison between the struggles we experience today in the United States and the persecution experienced in places like Philippi and in other places that are hostile to the Christian faith today. We gather in this room this morning without fear of death. We can sing at the top of our lungs and share our faith and the only consequences for doing so might be some angry words or cold shoulders. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t face bumps in the road or our own kinds of trials. That doesn’t mean that parts of our journey aren’t difficult.
And so, we need encouragement in our faith sometimes, too. And like the Philippians, we constantly find ourselves asking the question, what should our church look like now? How do we continue to serve in the midst of declining membership or in the midst of a culture that cares less and less about what the church has to say? What are we to do when the good news of the gospel seems to be falling on deaf ears?
What is it that we are fighting for? What kind of church are we going to invest in becoming for the future?
I began our message this morning by remembering a few fragments of our past, because the practice of spiritual discernment about next steps always begins with looking to see what we can learn from where we have been. And as I look at the history of who this church has been, I see that we began as a community of people who were willing to take risks and go to new places where we thought we might reach new people.
This church began as a renovated old farmhouse – a house church – that welcomed people into a family. But we didn’t just stay there. As the needs of this community of faith continued to grow, we expanded and grew ourselves. And we took care to continue to resemble the community around us – even thinking about making our physical structure look like the homes in the neighborhood. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Although I’m free of all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them. I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews… I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means.” (1 Cor. 9: 19-22)
So as we think today about what we might be called to next, I think its important to remember that we as a church were willing to take risks to meet new people and willing to adapt to the community as it changed around us so that the community might feel at home in our midst.
One of the problems with looking backward to find the answer, however, is that we can get caught in analysis paralysis and stay there. We can try to recreate exactly what we did before or keep researching and studying and waiting for exactly the right moment and we miss the opportunities that are right before us.
In What Are We Fighting For, Bishop Bickerton reminds us that as a church, we simply can’t wait any longer. He talks about the act of hitting a baseball and how difficult it is to time your swing just right. While it is easier in slow pitch to be able to see what is coming at you, as the game goes faster and faster, we often wait far too long to swing. And Bishop Bickerton says that the church game is going faster and faster and changing more and more rapidly every day. There are so many moving parts to a church and we need more technical expertise to reach people today. We have to adapt and be nimble, and react more quickly to the ways our community and culture are changing, or we might find that we have waiting too long, we have missed the pitch, and our church is no longer relevant.
All around us, there are pitches coming our way. There are opportunities a plenty. In fact, there are so many great ways that we could be in ministry today that it is tempting to try to do everything and toss out a whole bunch of new programs and activities like scattershot and see what works. But that itself is exhausting. Instead of scattershot, we need help to discern a clear focus. And part of that discernment is asking who is the new community that God is calling us to take a risk and step out in faith to reach? How can we be faithful to our heritage as a church, while also paying attention to where the Holy Spirit is leading us next?
As an administrative council, we spent some time last fall in discernment looking at a number of the opportunities, realities of our surrounding community, and ways that we are particularly gifted to lead and serve. We noticed things like that our surrounding neighborhood is now only 80% white, that we have more elementary schools in our community, and that over 1/3 of the families with children around us are now single parent families. We also have more younger, couples moving into the homes of the neighborhood.
How is God calling us to step out in faith and reach them for Christ?
As we continue to discern, we start by connecting our passions and our gifts as a church with the ways we will choose to live in the midst of this place. We can take the things that we value like music and education and being a caring community and we can carry them with us as we go outside of these walls to reach new people.
But we also should be willing to test the things that we have always done and do them not just because they are what we like to do, but to ask always if they are faithful to God’s will for our community. Do our activities and our programs resemble God’s love? Are they filled with the knowledge of our Lord? Are we bearing the fruit of the gospel in what we do? Are we doing them simply because they are easy, or are we rising up to meet the demands of call of Jesus Christ?
Next week, Trevor will be preaching once again and he will help us think about a final part of our discernment… how do we know what really is the core of who we are as a church that will always be the same and will never change no matter how the world changes around us, and where are the places where we can be more nimble and flexible, so that we can continue to grow towards completion for the glory of God. What are the things we should be willing to fight for, no matter what?