I believe that we have established that I am a nerd. I watch Doctor Who. I see Marvel movies and Star Wars movies pretty close to opening night. I play Dungeons & Dragons. My credentials as a nerd are well-established.

So it might not surprise you to know that a while ago, I did something very nerdy. I went through our Sunday-morning attendance records and made a spreadsheet… for every Sunday service… since January 5, 1997. Because I wanted to see the trends.

So I can tell you that on the third Sunday of February in 2003 there were 121 people in worship. And on the fourth Sunday of April in 2011 there were 254 people here for Easter morning. 

I can tell you that on the Sunday after we took our Open and Affirming Vote, there were 103 folks in this sanctuary. And on the Sunday after Pastor Jeff’s last Sunday, there were 60 people here for worship.

And I can tell you that we are living through the same story that every other church is living through. For decades, our attendance has gone down little by little. Sometimes, it has plateaued. Sometimes it has popped up just a little. But, in general, it’s been meandering downward.

And I know that some of us are scared about that. Some of us remember better days of a full sanctuary and full classrooms and a million things to do during the week. And sometimes we want to find something to blame. But the truth is that we are simply living through the same story that every other church is living through.

In today’s reading from the book of Isaiah, we get two sides of a prophecy.

On the one hand…

The Lord, the God of Israel, planted a vineyard. The Lord planted a nation. The Lord found a fertile hill and cleared it of stones, and put up a hedge around it and built a wall around it and built a watchtower in the middle of it. And the Lord planted choice vines and watched them grow.

But where the Lord planted grapes, there grew wild grapes. Where the Lord expected justice, there was bloodshed. Where Lord expected righteousness, there was the cry of the oppressed.

So the Lord is going to tear out the hedge and tear down the wall and abandon the watchtower. And the Lord is going to let the wild reclaim the vineyard.

And empire will come. Israel will be defeated. The people will be sent into exile. Destruction and ruin and death.

But… on the other hand…

The Lord, the God of Israel, planted a vineyard. The Lord worked on this vineyard. The Lord isn’t just going to let the wild reclaim it forever.

A shoot will grow. The spirit of the Lord will rest on that shoot: a spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And that shoot will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek. Righteousness and faithfulness will be his belt.

Where there was bloodshed, there will be justice. Where there was the cry of the oppressed, there will be righteousness. The kingdom of God.

“Things will get bad,” says Isaiah, “Things will get terrible. Things will hit rock bottom. Things will get to the lowest of the lows… and then the world will be transformed.”

We’ve established that I am a nerd. I watch animated movies and musical television shows. I’ve read a lot of books by Terry Pratchett. I listen to Hello From the Magic Tavern. My credentials as a nerd are well-established.

So it might not surprise you to know that a while ago, I did something very nerdy. You see, the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ gave us access to this huge repository of demographic data. And I went through it.

So I can tell you that within 10 miles of this church, people have a slightly higher than average education, have a bit higher median income than the state of Iowa overall, and are pretty evenly split between blue collar and white collar jobs.

I can tell you that the biggest single lifestyle group within 10 miles of this church are the No Place Like Home Boomers, who are upper middle-class boomers who live in multi-generational households, and who have lived in the area for somewhere north of 20 years. But I can also tell you that the largest generational cohorts are Millennials and Gen-Xers.

And I can tell you that we are living through the same story that every other church is living through. About 40% of people in our area are likely to be involved in a religious congregation (and that’s actually better than the national average). And that’s been steadily decreasing.

And I can tell you that the people who aren’t involved, that 60%, aren’t involved because…

…they think that religious people are too judgmental and inflexible…

…and they aren’t so sure about this God person, and they’re disillusioned with religion, and it isn’t relevant to their lives, anyway.

And I’m willing to bet that where they thirsted to see justice, they saw bloodshed. And where they hungered to see righteousness, they saw oppression.

If they’ve come across the vineyard of the church, they’ve seen a hedge and a wall and a watchtower that have been put there to keep people out. So they’ve stayed out.

And I know that can sound scary. Some of us can remember when everybody went to church and everyone was expected to go to church, and no one scheduled anything that would interfere with church. And sometimes we want to find something to blame. But the truth is that we are simply living through the same story that every other church is living through.

But here’s the thing: no matter how bad things get—no matter how hard things get; no matter how much things change—there is this promise. God planted a vineyard. And maybe the hedge came down, and maybe the wall came down, and maybe the watchtower came down, and maybe the wild reclaimed it.

But there is still a shoot. There is still this little bud that grows out of what remains… and flourishes.

Sometimes, we can measure that with numbers. Our attendance is stable. Our giving is increasing. We have four people who are joining our church family today. We have students in confirmation and folks in a youth band and a few kids who come to Sunday school. We have a vibrant book study. We even have a couple of people who come to family movie night.

(The choir could be bigger.) And I know that some of us remember a time when things were different and bigger and better… maybe. But even if we just look at the numbers, we are living through a better story than a lot of other churches.

But if we just look at the numbers, we miss the point. Because the kingdom of God is not about numbers. The kingdom of God does not grow for the sake of growth. The kingdom of God does not share its ideology with a cancer cell.

The kingdom of God is about spirit. And it cannot be hemmed in by a hedge. It cannot be contained by a wall. It cannot be seen from a watchtower.

You see, the kingdom of God is like this. Someone plants a seed in a vineyard. And it grows. It gets big. It becomes a tree. And the birds nest in its branches. And the poor eat its fruit. The meek find shelter in its shade. And it gets everywhere. It grows into the entire world and transforms it.

And when we are the church, we are part of that. When we love our neighbor and our enemies and total strangers, we are part of that. When we see bloodshed and plant justice, when we hear the cry of the oppressed and plant righteousness, we are part of that.

When we tap into that spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and might, of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, we are part of that.

And we grow. Not just in numbers—maybe, sometimes, not in numbers at all—but in the spirit. And I cannot think of a better thing—I cannot think of better news—than that.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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