On August 12, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and his “Corps of Discovery” expedition reached the source of the Missouri River in the Montana mountains. He took a cool drink from the spring, rested a while, and ascended to the top of the ridge at Lemhi Pass. The group had been travelling in canoes upstream and uphill for many long months. They had endured illness, a harsh winter, grizzly bears, and the death of one of their companions. As they ascended that ridge, they expected to see what all the scientific experts of the day just knew to be true: the land and the river gently descending toward the Pacific Ocean. They thought they had finally discovered a water passage across North America. What he found when he stood on the top of that ridge was not a gradual descent to the ocean, but massive, awe-inspiring, snow-capped mountains as far as he could see. Lewis and his company were skilled canoe men, able to navigate the most challenging waterways. But if they were going to reach the Pacific, they had to become mountain climbers in a hurry. In an instant, all their preparation and training were thrown out the window by the awesome site of the northern Rocky Mountains.
I came across that story in a book I’m currently reading called Canoeing the Mountains. It compares the situation of the contemporary church to that moment in Lewis and Clark’s journey. Churches of every variety have been on a steady path of decline in membership, attendance, and participation since the late 1960’s. The fastest growing religious group is those who have no religious affiliation at all. We are now several decades past a time when Christian identity and belief could be assumed. Anyone who has a serious commitment to a Christian community in this moment is swimming against the stream. The church of early and mid-twentieth century America was a wonderful fleet of canoes, led by skilled water travelers, carried along by the current of culture. But standing on the ridge of 2018, the church is looking at a new reality, and suddenly needs to learn how to climb mountains.
According to every statistical trend, as a downtown church, founded before 1900, this old canoe ought to be wearing out, and coming apart, and facing a crisis of survival. But by every objective measure, that simply isn’t true. In 2017, we welcomed more than thirty new members to our cathedral community, our fourth consecutive year of double-digit growth. Our Average Sunday Attendance is up by more than 30 per cent since 2013, and our annual giving is up by more than 60%, moving from $214,000 pledged a few years ago to nearly $350,000 pledged for 2018. Our total membership is over 500 for the first time in more than a decade, and that’s not counting the dozens of people who are regular participants in our ministries but haven’t formally joined as members. Our children’s programming is expanding, children cooing and crying and joyfully singing are as regular a feature on Sunday mornings as the big organ trumpets. This crew of rowers is quickly learning how to climb mountains.
The people who are joining or renewing their commitment to our community regularly report they are doing so because you are showing how following Jesus can make a difference in our lives and in the world. Our ministries with the poor and marginalized, through the Friends of Tamar, DEO, Yates Outreach, and the Fricke Food Pantry have become more and more central to our identity in recent years, and they go hand in hand with our weekly worship to form us more and more in the image of Christ, and send us out into the world. We are learning how to climb mountains by simply connecting people with the power of Jesus to change lives and heal communities, and finding ways to share our lives more deeply with one another.
In 2018, I plan to devote more of my time to doing a deeper dive with spiritual formation and discipleship. In addition to continuing to build the ways we are forming both children and adults in the faith, I’ll be starting a handful of small discipleship groups that help people go deeper in their daily walk with Jesus. Father Steven, with several lay leaders, will be starting a series of small dinner groups, who will meet regularly to share life and faith in more substantial ways. I hope that this year will be a year of growing deeper in our faith and spiritual practice.
While God is up to great things in our midst, there certainly continue to be challenges as we learn to navigate this new terrain. While your incredible generosity continues to expand, we are still relying more heavily on our endowment each year than what is sustainable over the long term. Favorable market conditions mean the total balance on our trust funds is higher now than it was a year ago despite a heavy draw, but we need to continue to work to reduce the amount we are drawing each year. That means we will likely need to develop more creative and innovative ways to generate revenue for our cathedral.
One way we began to explore that in 2017 was to appoint a task force to begin to craft a plan for renovating an ageing and increasingly challenged parish house. We contracted with the architecture firm Alley, Poyner, Macchietto to help us dream about how God might be calling us to utilize and leverage this resource in the coming years. You all contributed big dreams and ideas, and the task force and architects are busy in this new year working to develop a more concrete plan. Stay tuned for more in the coming months.
Our corps of discovery here at the cathedral is led by some seriously talented and faithful field guides, and I would put our staff up against any staff, at any church, of any size, anywhere. In the first draft of this address, I tried to list out the specific things that each of them do for all of us in this place, and it literally doubled the length of this sermon, so I’ll say more about each of them downstairs. But when you see Father Steven King, Deacons Ellen Ross or Teresa Houser, Stacy Gustin, Erin VanZee, Brother James Dowd, Christine Misek, Maurice Thompson, Marty Wheeler Burnett, or our newest staff members, Linda MacTaggart and Kyle Smith, please say thank you to them. They all work longer hours, and handle more responsibilities, than any one of us fully realizes. That’s not even beginning to name the countless lay volunteers who put in long hours each week to support all that we do here.
In every generation, it can feel like our challenges are unique, or that no one has ever been looking at mountains like this before. But just look around this space, picture the people who are no longer sitting in these pews, or go look around the museum, and you’ll see that there is an army of people who have stood right here before, who are cheering us on. George Selwyn and James Patteson are memorialized in those windows, and they had to adapt and innovate in the South Pacific. Jackson Kemper is memorialized in that window back there, and he adapted and innovated across most of the central U.S. Dean Charles Gardiner, and Libby Lauritzen, Jack Fricke, Dan Loring, Gloria Dunbar, Warren Whitted, George Barger, Brad Ableson, and on and on and on, all had to do in their day exactly what we are doing in ours. What an unbelievable privilege for us to stand in that line, and be called to embark on that adventure.
Last March, my family did some mountain climbing of our own by way of a cog rail to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. As we stood at the summit, we could see as far as Kansas on the horizon, and just beyond Kansas, the actual curvature of the earth. We could see the edge of our planet while firmly planted on it. Standing in this pulpit, seated in that chair, I have the incredible privilege of looking out over all of you who I have promised to love and nurture as best I can. I see us learning to climb the mountains before us. And every day, every week, every year, I can see the horizon of God’s kingdom of love and peace, justice and life, drawing closer and closer, so that we can almost touch it. Amen.