By Ed Thompson

In his book Quietly Courageous, Gil Rendle says he will ask church leaders if they think of themselves as younger than they actually are. Frequently, people will laugh as their hands go up in response to that question. “Thinking of ourselves as younger than we actually are reflects the fact that we actually know more about who we once were than who we currently are.”

There’s a TV commercial that has a 53-year-old man who admits that he thinks of himself as being 35. Maybe that’s extreme, but I suspect it’s not uncommon.

The question we need to ask is “Who are we now?”

In 2010, the churches in this presbytery gave $684,750 in mission giving. In 2020, they gave about half as much – $332,475. In 2010, our per capita giving was $314,253. In 2020, it was $213,106, a drop of over $100,000. It would have been worse if we hadn’t raised per capita by $4 per person during that decade, although to be fair, only $1.10 of that increase was in presbytery per capita.

In 2010, we used $106,000 from our reserves to fund the budget. That was 11.2% of the total. In 2020, we used $286,900 from our reserves. That was 33.4% of the total budget.

In 2010, the costs for staff, office, and travel made up 71.8% of the total budget. In 2020, those costs made up 81.4% of the total budget. That percentage increased even though the number of employees decreased from 16 to 9. I’d say only nine, but that number means we’re tied for the 8th largest number of staff among the 166 presbyteries in our denomination, even though we rank 63rd in terms of the number of members.

In that same time frame, our churches also lost about 4,000 members, and 20 churches either closed or left for other denominations.

We are not who we once were. However, we still have faithful pastors, faithful ruling elders, and faithful deacons. We still have churches caring for their members, serving their communities, reaching out to share the gospel, teaching the faith, and feeding the hungry. In that way, things haven’t changed over the past 10 years. You could argue, I suppose, that we’re still the same as we were 10 years ago. We can keep going. We can keep doing the same things the same way that we’ve always done them. I suppose we could try to do that, but is that being faithful or is that being foolish?

Being faithful involves, among other things, facing the changes that have happened, accepting that we don’t have the human or financial resources that we once did, and discerning or discovering who and what God wants us to do and be now. The more I think about it, the more I think the 3 themes of the Matthew 25 Initiative represent what God wants and needs us to do now: eradicate systemic poverty, eliminate structural racism, and build congregational vitality. It is a sin that people go hungry. It is a sin that people are treated differently because of the color of their skin. It is a sin that too many congregations are lethargic, simply going through the motions, more worried about their building than anything else. Although if you look at some church buildings with their peeling paint, dead bushes, dusty classrooms, and moldy basements, these worries evidently don’t translate into action.

Since we are well fed, we can and do ignore the needs of the hungry. We might, when reminded, bring a few cans of food for the local food bank. That doesn’t address systemic poverty. Since the majority of us have white skin, we can and do ignore the way people of color are treated. We may get upset when we read about the death of a George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor, but after a few days, we fall back into our old patterns. That doesn’t address structural racism. And as long as the church doors are open and the sermons aren’t too bad, we don’t complain. That doesn’t address congregational vitality.

Where are we going to focus our time and our efforts? Are we going to try to preserve the past – what we like, what makes us comfortable? Or will we try to create a better world that involves changes in the way we’ve always done things and that may make us uncomfortable and, to be honest, may not work. We cannot avoid making choices. Not doing anything differently means that we have chosen to preserve the past. In doing so, we will have become a museum rather than a church. I love museums. I think God blesses museums. But I don’t think God is calling us to be a museum.