Reflections on 2018
Happy New Year, my Sweetheart Church!
Someday when I look back over my long ministry at Chapel Hill, I suspect I will remember 2018 with particular fondness. Because it appears that this was the year when God, in his kindness and for his purposes, did something that is all too rare.
Let me explain. For more than a decade, Chapel Hill has been in a slow, almost unbroken decline in worship attendance. It wasn’t easy to spot because we still had more than 1,000 people in worship on a weekend, but the numbers didn’t lie.
Your elders had a decision to make. We could either ignore the trend, mutter something about “the faithful” still being here, and press on. Or, we could take a hard look at all we are doing, evaluate what was working, what no longer worked as well and what else needed to be done to reach the lost for Jesus.
(And let me just say, that mission—of reaching the lost—must and must always continue to be our core purpose as a church. It is easy for established churches to decide that their primary reason to exist is the care and feeding of its members. But the Church of Jesus has always (when it is at its best) existed primarily to invite those who do not know Jesus into a covenant family that has been loved, redeemed and adopted by God to be his own.)
So—the Session made the courageous decision to bring in a consultant to help us look at everything—EVERYTHING we were doing—to insure that we are accomplishing our mission of “…working together to present EVERYONE mature in Christ.” In particular, since weekend worship services are still the primary front door to our church, we evaluated everything we are doing on the weekends to welcome newcomers, even as we continue to “feed” and equip our veteran members.
This review led to many changes; new worship leadership, improved sound system, improved lighting (with more to come!), remodeled lobby, greater attention to our use of “insider” language, greater emphasis on welcoming newcomers (“mugging” first-time guests by giving them free Chapel Hill mugs, etc.), a focus on increased hospitality by all members, the closing of the balcony to enhance a sense of community on the main floor—just to name a few.
We really stirred a lot of things up—and we stirred some of YOU up, too! Change can be painful. I know; every single thing we changed had my fingerprints on it! I don’t know which of these changes has been most helpful, but I do know this: over the last seven months, for the first time in more than 10 years, our worship attendance has grown. Significantly. We are averaging a 17-percent increase year to year. One weekend recently, we were up a whopping 51 percent higher! And we just had 4,016 people at our Christmas Eve services this past week; that’s up 21 percent from last year, and the largest Christmas Eve attendance since 2010.
When I asked a nationally-respected consultant about this upward trend, he said that what is happening here is “almost unheard of.” His exact words.
Which means, really, that this is a work of God. Which we would all affirm, of course—but this really, REALLY is a work of the Lord. It’s not about techniques or methods or plans or means. It is about God’s decision that this is a season when he will entrust more newcomers and seekers and visitors to our care.
Prayerfully—hopefully—God will continue this work into the New Year. And we will do all we can to be ready for it. I’m sure that a year from now, we will have other wonderful things to report. But this year—with deep gratitude—we report a season of growth and fruitfulness. Thank you for your part in that; for your generosity, your sacrifice, your willingness to be inconvenienced, your patience with change and with things that you really may not prefer at times. Those qualities are some of the many reasons that I love you, my Sweetheart Church.
So, here’s to 2018—and a Happy New Year!
P.S. Don’t forget, January 5-6 will be our annual Baptism Weekend. If you wish to confess your faith and be baptized (and please note we will offer baptism by immersion!), please contact us. (Please note that this is also the first weekend that the Saturday night worship service will take place in the Sanctuary.) And the cherry on that weekend’s cake is this: our congregational meeting Sunday, January 6, at 10:00 am to vote on calling Rev. Ellis White as our new Associate Pastor!