For the last year of my life, I have spent more time in prayer for this moment than I have ever prayed for anything else in my entire life. It was apparent to me early in my time here that the cost of our properties would be a topic we could not ignore. This building is beautiful, but it also requires half a million dollars in the next couple years in addition to another half a million to truly do it justice long-term. Those are not small figures for a church that has steadily declined in attendance over the last fifteen years. With COVID’s impact set to last for at least a few more years, these numbers look even more daunting. I have prayed and wept and cried out for an answer. The way I see it, there are many factors that are shaping this conversation tonight. Let me share a few of them with you.
In December, the Trustees met to look at these numbers. In their last meeting before we moved to a single-board structure, that group voted unanimously that we can no longer in good conscience sustain both campuses. Repairs had been put off at both campuses over the last decade or more because funds were tight. Both campuses have suffered as we waited for better days. In addition to the large number of major repairs, our yearly budget just for building insurance, utilities, and general maintenance across both campuses is over twenty percent of the budget and exceeds $140,000 a year. In the spring of this year, you heard some of the cheaper repairs we can do this year at the Life Center campus: A/C units that have been out for eight years or more, water heaters that have been out for 10 or more years. These repairs were budgeted for this year and are finally happening, just as we are fundraising for the roof repair at Downtown. Our Trustees and maintenance departments have been doing all they can to ensure we can still worship, but they decided our current trajectory is no longer sustainable or a responsible use of God’s resources.
From that meeting of the Trustees, it was suggested to reach out to the city to see if they had any interest in our Downtown building. In January, our Trustee chairperson met with the Mayor of Goshen to inquire about their interest. The mayor told us they were not interested. In February, the Mayor’s Office reached out to us and requested a walkthrough of the building. We obliged in early March and the city officials who came expressed interest in the building, even suggesting a possible option for our church to still lease the sanctuary wing for worship and study if they were to purchase. This initial walkthrough was followed by a second walkthrough in May. At this second walkthrough, a building official joined the mayor to look at handicap accessibility items as well as building update and repair needs. Because of the cost to have a true feasibility study done, the mayor needed to know that we were willing to talk seriously with them about selling the building soon. This thought was brought before the board in July, who then scheduled this churchwide meeting to discuss this plan.
However, since the original scheduling of this meeting, the mayor has notified me that the cost of the repairs and handicap-accessibility upgrades are too expensive for the city to purchase the building. Because of the cost, they are no longer interested in purchasing our Downtown building.
While the cost of the building has been a popular topic over the last year or more for many of you, the topic that keeps coming to my mind is the heart and mission of this church. I believe building conversations and heart conversations go together. As we have debated what to do with the buildings, the heart issue continues to rage on. We have people who believe we are two churches because we do not worship the same way or in the same place. We have been supremely focused on how we worship and where we worship instead of who we worship and why we worship.
A church preoccupied with how and where will not and cannot reach the community we live in. As you will learn at our mission docket night later this month, the community we live in is much younger and much more diverse than our congregation. Diversity means that our effectiveness depends on our church becoming a church that looks to worship however and wherever is effective in reaching more people with the Good News of Jesus. The mission is to be effective in reaching people of all different groups by being whoever we need to be so that people know who and why we worship. To be sold out on this mission means we must be willing to sacrifice everything we love to effectively reach the lost.
Over the last twenty or thirty years, the Church has been in a season of transition. The how and where that many of you learned to love growing up is no longer effective at reaching the younger generations. Traditional worship in traditional buildings has been on a steady decline across denominational lines for almost as long as I have been alive. Traditional services are great at reaching people who have fond memories of church as a child and are looking for a place to plug back in with God. Many of you connect to God in our traditional service every week, connecting with Him and His Spirit through the music and the liturgy. For you, this style empowers you in worship.
However, our population has a huge number of people who do not view traditional church in a positive light. They remember being chastised for the clothes they wore, the talking they did during service, and the tattoos they got. They were told LGBTQ people should not attend church, the color of their skin dictated which church they could attend, and that “the poor would always be among us” so we should not bother helping them. I am not accusing this particular church of these sentiments. I am voicing something that many Christians are coming to realize: these misguided years of the church have done church hurt to people, who now equate traditional buildings and traditional styles with these hurts. They look at the Church and wonder what good she is doing in the world. They read the Gospels! They do! But they look at the Church and they do not see Jesus. They see insider thinking, favoritism, selfishness, and lack of empathy. They read about Jesus’ weeping for the lost, the broken, the downtrodden and then they see the Church only doing these things when it is convenient or gets butts in seats on Sunday mornings. We live in a generation of people who want to see the world changed and the Gospel lived. When they look to the Church, they do not see this.
My greatest concern in these building conversations is our witness to our families, friends, and neighbors. Many of you have children and grandchildren who do not attend church, many of them for the very reasons I have shared. I ask myself, “Would they want to part of our church knowing how much money is spent on the building while our neighbors go without homes, food, or love?” Can we justify spending this much money to maintain a building when we could do the exact same worship service in our other campus and put up a dozen tiny houses as transitional housing for our unsheltered neighbors or finish off the human trafficking wing at Bashor Children’s Home or plant 250 new churches in East Africa for the same cost as the repair bill this year? What do we exist for, church?
I am reminded tonight of the words of Jesus in Luke 14: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” For many of you, this building has been part of your family like your own child or an old friend. Yet Jesus asks us to sacrifice anything and everything to serve his purposes, to reach his children, to be his disciple. He does not stall here: we must be willing to set ourselves aside in order embrace his cause.
To say the last year of my life has been difficult would be an understatement. While attempting to love you and love my neighbor through a pandemic, deal with building issues, and attempt to kickstart a missional movement at our church, the staff and the leadership board at this church has endured an unending onslaught of complaining, insults, and gossip behind their backs. Every person in leadership at this church believes God has called them to lead this church into the future and is only serving because of that call, but the constant pull back into “the way things used to be” or “what is normal” has drug every one of them through the mud. I can tell you this: I haven’t spoken with a single staff person or leadership board member who has not debated resigning at multiple points in the last year. They are heartbroken by the bitterness, strife, and downright hatred they have seen from people in our own pews, people they looked up to as children and youth in this very church. Many of them have expressed that even attending this church right now feels difficult because of the looks and constant complaining they receive. It is not lifegiving to lead here right now.
Meanwhile, those teams keep on dreaming for the Church. They keep sewing seeds into the ministry we are doing here. They keep pushing forward for the sake of the Gospel. Your staff and leadership board are amazing individuals who love the Lord deeply and desire for the Kingdom to be built in Goshen. They want to see lives changed. I fear that if this culture of entitlement continues, you will not have a staff or board left. A toxic culture, when allowed to fester, does not lead to life and growth. It leads directly to death, as those who are tired of fighting leave for the greener pasture of healthier churches. Without a correction in this culture, there is no hope for a bright future, no matter what we do about buildings or ministry. It will poison every attempt to move forward.
The aforementioned factors play a much larger role in this church than the denominational divides, but I still find this to play a part in our ministry because many of you ask me about it. The UMC will split, likely next fall if all goes as planned. We will have to decide who to align with. Should we align with the newly formed Global Methodist Church (the name for the more conservative-leaning group in the split,) we will not be able to call ourselves a United Methodist Church anymore. From what I have shared of the culture today, this is actually a good thing. Our culture and my generation in particular does not trust institutions and institutional names do us no favor. With this decision looming, we have had people leave already. I plan that some of you will choose to leave no matter where the church eventually aligns. This means we have yet more difficult conversations ahead. I only mention it here tonight because this is yet another piece of the giant puzzle we are attempting to construct together, a puzzle with a giant building piece we need to fit into our picture for the future.
However, this is my heart on this matter. I have prayed vigorously and continuously. I feel it is time for me to finally share my personal conclusion as your pastor: I believe God is calling us to relaunch our church. First UMC and the Life Center needs a new start. I believe we should finish the roof (the only required repair at this very moment,) sell this building, and start again as one body in one location. We can choose, courageously, to relaunch under a new shared name in one building with two services: traditional and modern. Please hear: two services, traditional and modern. We can choose to do both well in one space. We can choose to be defined by a shared mission and passion to reach the lost in our city and around the world, united in who and why we worship while still diverse in how we worship. We can choose to relinquish our prejudices and discords so that our church becomes a community-changing, gates-of-hell-shaking congregation. We can be so convinced of our mission that our wills align with the will and heart of God. We can set aside the continued repair of an aging building and place those funds into ministry again.
There is no power on earth that can stand against that church.
We can become that church, friends. I have seen it in my prayer life and my dreams. What I support may feel to you like an ending to your church, but what I am actually proposing is a new birth, a church born again (born anew) with a fresh fire for the Lord. A diverse, growing church united and praising God together. A church constantly on witness to our community. A church defined by joy in the Spirit and consistent moves of God. A church where addicts find freedom, the lost find purpose, the saint and sinner worshiping the same God. None of these visions require a certain space and especially if that space will continue to rise in cost.
I want this vision more than anything else, but we cannot see it together if we are not willing to lay down our strongholds and submit our purposes to the Lord. I invite you this evening to join me on this great journey toward something powerful. I invite you, as Jesus does, to lay down your desires and histories to pick up the cause of Christ for people today and in the future. Join me in putting the mission above the building, the community’s needs above the church’s wants, the eternal lives of our children and grandchildren above our preferences. I invite you to join God in what He has planned for us.