These are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven lamp stands…You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place.
- Revelation 2:1, 4b-5
Warning: If you are easily offended, shocked, or scared you may wish to skip this
blog. If you think you can handle the truth, even if painful, then read on.
Last week we looked at the ongoing challenges to the Church presented by Covid-19 and the governmental response to it. Stay at home orders, restrictions on public gatherings, social distancing, and many other responses to this pandemic will likely be with us for a few years to come. Even if (and its a big if) a safe and effective virus can be developed, it will still take a year or more to make over 300 million doses for the US, distribute them to doctors, and give them patients. It is estimated that we would need 70-80% of the population vaccinated to create “herd immunity” and thus be safe (a relative term) against this pathogen. This assumes the virus does not mutate - which viruses are well known to do. So we may be dealing with this external “threat” for some time.
But there are also internal issues, ones we have some control over, that also should make us question whether reopening is the best thing to do. I think a good way of describing this is to look at the church like a nuclear power plant. I know nuclear physics is far more complex and nuanced than I’ll explain here, but bear with me.
In its most basic form a nuclear power plant is a controlled thermonuclear bomb. Instead of all the energy being released at once, it is a controlled reaction. An amount of fissile (splittable) material, usually Uranium235, is split by neutrons into the lighter elements of Krypton (sorry Superman) and Barium. This splitting releases more neutrons which impact more atoms of U235 and a large amount of gamma, x-ray, and infrared (heat) radiation. This infrared radiation or heat turns water into steam which drives turbines which generates electricity.
The first problem is that U235 is very rare in nature - less than .035% of all uranium. More than 98% of the uranium in the world is U238, which can be split but does not shed extra neutrons to sustain a reaction. So the uranium must first be enriched. Usually this is done by spinning the ore in a centrifuge and the heavier U238 is separated from the lighter U235. For every ton of uranium put in the centrifuge only 2 - 4 ounces of U235 emerges. It is only enriched uranium that is capable of sustained fission reactions.
So what does that have to do with the Church? As you know the Church is made up of believers, but not all believers are the same. Some are labeled as being more “mature” in their faith or more “practiced”. I prefer the term “enriched”. Those that practice the disciplines of a disciple tend to be more “energetic” in living out their faith. Things like frequent and regular worship, prayer, tithing and / or giving of time, talents, and treasures, service to congregation and community are all hallmarks of this enrichment process. How many members of Redeemer are actively involved in these enrichment activities? Without a certain amount of these enriched disciples, the church will lose power and eventually grow cold and shut down. This brings us to our next point.
Not only does a reactor need enriched uranium to operate, it needs a certain amount of it, known as a critical mass. If there are not enough atoms for the newly freed neutrons to collide with, the reaction will slow or cease altogether. The same is true of a congregation. There needs to be a particular number of people connected to that congregation for the congregation to be sustainable and viable. Church demographers vary in their opinions as to how many are needed to support a full time pastor, organist, and other staff and also do the work of enriching and reaching out that the Church is called to do. Numbers vary but most seem to think that 50-75 average attendance in worship is what’s needed to keep a church running (keep the reaction going - the critical mass). Sometimes it may be less if there are endowments or other resources or if the fewer than 50 is especially “enriched”, but this is rare. We just had our reopening service with 33 in attendance. Can we keep our building, programs, and staff at current levels with only 33 people? Probably not.
The other way critical mass manifests itself is in offerings. While the church is not and never has been a business with finance as its primary concern, funds are needed for the church to do what it is called to do. We have done a fairly good job of limiting expenses and our operational costs are much the same as they were 10 years ago. Yet we have a bit less than 1/2 the people we did 10 years ago. That means to pay for operations at 2010 levels (and we know prices have risen for everything from what they were in 2010) each person would need to give twice as much as they did in 2010. If we stay at an attendance rate of 33, then each person would need to give 3x what they did 10 years ago - and that’s if expenses are able to be kept at 2010 levels. As we see from the financial reports, this has not happened and by the end of October we will be unable to fully pay our bills or compensate our staff - both called and hired. It’s not really a matter of “people not giving enough” it’s more a matter of “Not enough people giving.”
So what can we do about this? How can we avoid either a meltdown or a cold core? There are many options, all them carrying differing levels of risk and discomfort as we move into this “new normal”. Some may not work out as planned due to forces beyond our control which we have no foreknowledge of - like a second shut down with a “2nd wave” in October / November or some other natural disaster. Our District President will be with us in early August and after leading the service, he’ll be having an open discussion on transitioning to a part-time pastor. We’ll look at some of these part-time pastorate models in next week’s blog.
Whatever the future holds for Redeemer, there is one thing we can count on. That one thing is that God will never leave us or forsake us. Congregations come and go, but the Church will endure until Christ’s return. The love of God in Christ Jesus is not bound to a place, time, or particular way of doing things. Even in challenging times such as these, we can look forward in the sure and certain hope that we are not on our own, but that God is with us wherever we may go, so we go forth without fear. May God’s peace remain with you all.
- Pastor Brian
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.