Pentecost, June 5, 2022: Nigel Bunce
Peter’s Pentecostal fire burned brightly on that first Pentecost Day. He convinced many people that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and he held a mass baptism. Today, post-pandemic, we find that the Pentecostal fire has dimmed in many congregations. At St. George’s, numbers attending worship are still fewer than before covid. But good news is that Anglicans are loyal to their parishes, and so far, we have been able to sustain the parish financially.
Pentecostal fire: the Holy Spirit comes
Every year, we read from Acts Chapter 2 on Pentecost Sunday. The imagery is of the Holy Spirit coming with fire. Actually, “like tongues of fire” not actual fire. But that’s just a quibble. Because this account completes the prediction by John the Baptist.
John had told the crowds that he baptized them with water, but the One coming after him would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And Pentecost repeats those same motifs. The Holy Spirit not only came, it came as if with tongues of fire. Pentecost fulfilled Jesus’ earthly ministry.
The lectionary reading ends when Peter gets up to address the crowd. We take it further to hear what Peter actually said.
Pentecostal fire: why was Peter so excited?
Peter’s excitement arose because he and the other disciples had witnessed the Resurrection on Easter Day. He had Pentecostal fire in his belly.
At first, people thought that Peter must be drunk. Peter responded with, “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning.” Several years ago, the OPP stopped me for a “sobriety test” one Sunday, on my way to church. I don’t think the officer would have just let me go if I had argued that it was only 8 am.
Peter was so persuasive that eventually there was a mass baptism. Like an altar call at a revival meeting. Peter quoted several different pieces of Hebrew Scripture. The crowds, remember, were all Jews. Emerging Christianity still existed completely within Judaism, even when Luke wrote Acts.
The Apostles were a somewhat off-beat bunch of Jews. They believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. Peter had to convince them that Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were compatible with mainstream Judaism. Clearly, his Pentecostal fire burned bightly enough to let hm accomplish that goal.
Relevance of the Pentecost story to St. George’s today
Chapter 2 of Acts ends with an account of how those early converts shared everything in common. On Wednesday, at Evening Prayer, I’ll explain why this early experiment in communal living was a failure. For now, I ask, Why is that relevant to our parish today?
Two weeks ago, I mentioned the barrage of news stories about seemingly inevitable church decline. The pandemic has got people out of the habit of church on Sunday mornings. Will they ever return?
Pentecostal fire burns less brightly: the pandemic and congregationla churn
You think things are bad at St. George’s? Try to do visioning at the famous mega-church Willow Creek in Chicago. Five years ago, Willow Creek attracted 25,000 worshippers each week. Numbers dropped because of scandals involving the church leadership.
Then, the pandemic cut the remaining congregation by more than half. Now, probably fewer than 10,000 per week. Willow Creek has just laid off one third of their highly paid staff to save $6.5 million annually. Yes, I said 6.5 million dollars. That must put out your Pentecostal fire in a hurry.
Churches like Willow Creek operate on a growth model. They have a lot of “churn” in their numbers. People come, stay for a while, leave. So, ‘growth’ means they have to recruit more than they lose every year. That gets harder the larger they grow.
Netflix has exactly the same problem. A lot of churn in the subscriber base. Recently, investors hammered Netflix’s share price. Netflix had reported a small drop in subscribers. Instead of the growth they had expected.
Pentecostal fire and congregational “stickiness”
However, I have to wonder about the “stickiness” of Peter’s new recruits at Pentecost. Were they like Willow Creek? Vast numbers of people joined the movement, but Scripture doesn’t tell us how many of them stayed.
However, manyt churches in our diocese have had a similar drop in attendance post-covid to typical mega-churches. About half. But much smaller loss of income. The reason is the loyalty (stickiness) of most Anglicans to their parish. It’s certainly true at St. George’s.
Our income is down post-covid. However, so are expenses. And, thanks to incredible generosity by donors, we met our budgets in both 2020 and 2021. I suspect that this explains the lack of negativity at our recent visioning meetings. It gives us hope for a brighter future.
We mustn’t be complacent
Small congregations are wonderful. I have been part of one ever since being a parishioner at St. John’s Rockwood, and throughout my time in ministry. However, there’s a down side. And it’s a question of how well Sunday worshippers know each other.
Large congregations can seem very anonymous. Maybe you don’t know anyone when you first arrive. Therefore, leaders in large churches put enormous effort into developing cell groups of people with like interests. What I call, frivolously, one cell group for divorcees with dogs and another for divorcees with cats.
So, you say, that’s never a problem at St. George’s. We all know each other. We don’t need cell groups. That’s true. But suppose you are a newcomer. It’s very intimidating to enter a group of people who all know each other and are comfortable with one another.
We do a great job of welcoming newcomers. But why don’t they “stick”? Part of the answer is that it’s hard to change from being an outsider to an insider.
Michelle belonged to a spirituality group at the U of Guelph for many years. The members were a great source of mutual support. But eventually the group folded. Members retired or left, but newcomers never “stuck”. It was too hard to break in.
Large congregations are actually very easy to join. You are just one of the herd. But it’s hard to become incorporated . Therefore, leaders work hard to place you in a suitable cell group.
Small congregation. Very intimidating to join. Members have to work hard to make newcomers feel truly welcome, not just superficially welcome. Perhaps each person must feel a call to act as a mentor to a particular newcomer. And for much longer than just a couple of weeks.
I said last week that Pentecost was graduation day. The disciples became apostles. I believe that this is how we need to see ourselves, one and all, as we look to the future of the parish. Amen.