One year ago this week, do you remember what our church was about to do? Or, I should say, do you remember what our churches were about to do? It was something that was sometimes hard and sad and something that made some of us grieve. And yet, it was also something that brought new promise, and new hope.
A year ago this week, we were preparing for the final service of Wilmington Congregational Church after over 220 years of ministry. But more was happening than a church closing. Things weren’t just changing down in Wilmington. Things were changing here at West Dover as well.
The leaders of this church got together and made a decision. They decided that they wanted to actively invite the members of Wilmington into this congregation, and they even decided to open spaces in leadership on the committees here for Wilmington members. We even brought the Wilmington communion table and sanctuary cross here as a visible reminder of Wilmington’s legacy.
A year later, I get a lot of feedback from outside people who watched the whole process. It’s overwhelmingly positive. They have rarely seen such a positive major church transition happen. And I think they’re right. And I also think they don’t know the half of it.
In the past three years, we have grown in membership numbers by nearly 70%. We have also grown in terms of the thing that really matters: the number of lives we touch. In a way, who we are is not just a merger of two congregations. It’s a merger of three. West Dover, Wilmington, and those who in the past few years, for a multitude of reasons, have come through our doors who weren’t in either of the two.
So what does that have to do with today’s text, a portion of a letter sent almost 2,000 years ago to a church in a town called Corinth? At first glance, maybe not that much. But, dig a little deeper, and maybe this town in Greece and this valley in Vermont have a thing or two in common.
Corinth was right at the center of a lot of different cultures. People passed through it as trade took place between Europe and Asia. They came from different backgrounds, and different ideas, and they were trying to figure out how to live and work together. And Paul writes this letter to them not because he’s angry at them, but because he holds this church dear and he has some suggestions.
And in one of the passages, the one we read today, he says something that must have hit home for a community trying to figure out how to be the church together. He gives them a metaphor. He says that the church is like one big body, the body of Christ, and all of the members, no matter who they are, are members of that body. A body has a head and feet and hands and a heart, and they are all different, they are all parts of that body just the same. The church, Paul says, is the same way. We have people who come from different places, who are good at different things, who have different beliefs, and yet they are all a part of the church. They are all members. And they are all essential.
Paul asks them, what if the body only had eyes? What if it only had ears? What if it only had hands? Paul shows that every part of the body works for the greater good, and every part of body matters.
The same is true of the church. All the members have a place. And he cautions against those who think otherwise. Not only do you never say, “we don’t need you,” but Paul says “those people you think don’t have much to offer…they are the indispensable ones”.
Paul says what we in the church, not just this church but the whole universal church, need to keep being reminded of…we all matter. We all have a reason for being here. We are all just as valuable as the next, and the next is just as valuable as us.
Churches sometimes don’t get this. I sometimes talk to people who have tried to be involved in other churches. And as hard as they’ve tried, they’ve found themselves turned away for one reason or another. And usually it’s not because someone has said “you’re not welcome here”.
Usually it’s a lot more subtle than that Someone makes a comment to them about people who don’t give to the church, not knowing that the person they are talking to isn’t able to give themselves. Or they make a dismissive comment about the AA group that meets downstairs not knowing that the person they are talking to is in the same program. And then, they wonder why that nice person who came for a while never comes back.
That’s sad for the person who leaves, but it’s sad for the community, too. Because they never know what they might be missing. They never know when they’ve cut off their own hands or feet, and cut themselves off from the gifts that God was sending to them.
I don’t know if that has ever happened here. I hope not, but in times of change like we have had for the past year, the potential is high. And that’s not just about us. I’ve been involved in a number of different churches in a number of capacities, and this is the one truth I have always found: community always gets messy. When new people come in, when the way we have always done things changes, when a group decides to keep growing and moving and doing good things, it is never neat and easy and simple. It is always messy. But, if you’re deliberate about it, it can be pretty great too.
For the last year we’ve fallen into this habit, not deliberate and not malicious, of sometimes talking about other people not in terms of where they are now, but in terms of where they used to be. The West Dover people. The Wilmington people. The new people. And we might not mean any harm by it, but we are not three bodies, or even two bodies, anymore. We are one body.
We are the West Dover Congregational Church people.
We are West Dover. It doesn’t matter if you are brand new here. It doesn’t matter if you came from Wilmington. It doesn’t matter if you have been in the same pew every Sunday for the past 30 years. It doesn’t matter if you are 4 years old or 94. You are here because you are a part of this body. And you are just as important to what Christ has in store for this church as the next person. No more. No less. We are West Dover. Period.
So what does that mean? What does it mean to have this body of people from so many different places, with so many different gifts, sitting together. And what does it mean for where we go next?
During Lent we are going to be entering the second stage of our visioning process. The first involved the survey that many of you filled out online. The second will involve talking together over the course of several weeks about where we see the church, and where we want the church to head. And the third will starting to think about our actions. We are deliberately not jumping in now and making decisions because we need this time to keep getting to know the other members of our body, and to listen to what they have to tell us first.
But today I wanted to give you a little foretaste of what is to come in that process. I want to tell you a little about where we are coming from, in your own words. And I wanted you to be able to look around at the church and see that we are not all hands, and not all ears, and not all hearts. We are very different. And yet we have all chosen this place. And we all have a place here.
Of the surveys returned, 77% were from those who had stood up to become formal members of this church. But, significantly, 23% were not. 33% members for 3 years or less, another 8% 3-5 years. 18% were former Wilmington members. And the two most common ways people came here to this church were this: being personally invited, and being a former Wilmington member.
Our commitment to the larger body of Christ was significant too. 33% came to this church because we are a UCC congregation. An additional 43% on top of that reported being committed to the UCC because it is our denomination. Only 7% said the UCC was of little interest.
And where you came from varied. 43% raised in the UCC. But the Lutheran Church. Lutheran, Episcopal, and Catholic traditions tied with 13% each. Geographically, 28% live in West Dover, 24% Wilmington, 21% East Dover, 17% Wardsboro, about 28% live elsewhere. 83% said they wanted this to be a church for the whole valley, and 17% said focus on Dover, Wilmington, and Wardsboro only. But no one said we should just focus on Dover
What you give was also telling in terms of your generosity. 11% give a full 10% of their income, 29% give 5-10%, 54% give up to 5%, and 7% say they would like to give but can’t. What’s amazing is that 0% say they do not wish to give. Everyone who answered that survey had a giving heart.
Now, there were more figures, and I’ll share them at the congregational meeting. But I’ll tell you that in terms of service time, we have our biggest split in opinions there. And, that’s okay…that’s something that we will look at together, deliberately, over the course of our visioning process, valuing each member of our body in that discussion. But, the good news is no matter what the decision, I have faith we will choose a faithful course of action.
Why do I have faith? Because I know the members of this body. And I know you to be the sort of people who can do what many thought was impossible. I know you to be people who a year after a church closure and a merger are creating a new body in Christ’s image. Actions may matter more than words, but sometimes words matter a lot too. Which is why I share these with you today.
I asked in the survey, what difference has this church made in your life? And what do you love about the church. These answers tell us more than numbers do. They tell us about our hearts:
“I love that it is so accepting of everyone that comes through its doors. There is very little judgement from the church as a whole.”
“(I love) the fellowship and love felt when you walk through the doors.”
“This church has brought me a loving community that I feel safe in no matter what I believe or feel or think. I can be myself.”
“(This church) makes me feel part of a larger family that supports me as I support those in it as well as the wider community.”
“(This church has) made me realize the importance to have a “Christian” family to worship with.”
And the shortest answer, and perhaps my favorite. What do you love? “The people.”
And that’s the point. We become the church by loving Christ, and loving one another. If you don’t have one or the other, then you don’t have church. But, I’m happy to report, I think we have plenty of both here. And the future of our body looks very good. And now, let all of us who are West Dover Congregational Church say together, “Amen”.