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The Communion of Saints

photo by: Cynthia D. Stowell, Mary Hote, 1978

I’m ready to stop coming to church.  I have not been fed for a long time.  My faith is withering from lack of nourishment.  I leave church on Sundays with an empty feeling.  So why keep coming?”  These were words that came out of the mouth of a 75 year old woman who was baptized in the church in her teens and had continued to be a faithful member and leader in the church all her life.  She shared these thoughts with me following a worship service where I was the guest preacher.  She and I were baptized at about the same time in our life and have known each other for all these years.

As our congregations grow older and decline in membership, we understandably have focused more than ever our time, attention, energy, resources on attracting the young.  And in doing this we have essentially put our elderly out to pasture, letting them fend for and feed themselves.  Our assumption is that at a certain age, the elderly no longer need the care and nurture and feeding from the church.  After all, the future of the church belongs to the next generation.

This conversation brought to mind an eye and mind opening experience early in my ministry.  In the 6th year of ministry, I was serving primarily the children and youth of the church.  On occasion, I would be called upon to minister to the adult and older membership.  Eloise was an attractive woman in her 80’s.  She had been widowed for about 10 years.  Finally, she met a man who proposed marriage to her.  He was about 5 years her senior and had a home in another city.  So after the wedding, Eloise moved with her new husband to his home at the other end of the state.  Several months passed and one day, I ran into Eloise in town.  “Eloise!  How great to see you.  How are you?”  Almost immediately, Eloise broke down in tears.  “Eloise, Eloise, what is the matter?”  I feared that her husband had suffered a medical crisis or worse, had died.  When she regained her composure, Eloise sadly confided to me, “My husband is impotent.”  WHAT?!, I thought to myself.  In my naïveté, my youthful innocence, I assumed that 80 year old women did not have sexual needs and desires.

Regardless of whether we are talking about sexual needs and desires that need to be satisfied, or the hunger for biblical inspiration and theological stimulation, the elderly continue to grow and mature on their journey of life and faith.  The thirst for spiritual growth has not ended; and the journey is not yet complete.   This essay is concerned about the church today and tomorrow.  The decline and aging of our congregations do not give us license to dismiss the saints who continue faithfully to participate in and support our ministries and mission.  Yes, it goes without saying that every congregation needs the lifeblood of children, youth, college and young adult, and families to sustain the future mission of the church.  And yet, there is something to be said for those who are here now, in most cases, the elderly.  

I was ordained in 1966.  The main line church was peaking at that time; and I have essentially experienced the decline of the church throughout my years in active ministry.  The answer is not to try to reverse the decline by finding a way to return to the good old days.  In the good old days, when the mainline churches were thriving, we could count on infant baptisms to feed our membership; and we could rely on families that could manage on one income, providing a rich pool of volunteers to teach Sunday School and to advise Youth Groups and to serve as Deacons and Elders.  We live in very different times today, times that do not provide the same social and cultural dynamics to help congregations to thrive.  Much is now being written about how to reach the Post Millennials—Gen Z and yes, Gen Alphas!  And I will attempt to add to the discussion in future postings.  For now, my concern is for the Margaret’s and the Eloise’s, long time active members of our congregations, who have been the sturdy backbone year in and year out, with pastors coming and going.  They are found in our Women’s Fellowship and Bible Study groups.  Week in and week out, they are found in the kitchen and are the faithful stewards in good times and bad.  They have been our Sunday School teachers and Ruler Elders, bakers for bake sales and knitters for bazaars.  They feed us and clean up after us.  They are God’s people.  If we are serious about the communion of saints, the cloud of witnesses, let us not take them for granted while they are with us still.  They don’t have the same needs as the newly baptized infant or the newly confirmed youth or the young college graduate newly employed in her first job; but the aging, long time members in our congregation not only have much to give, they also need ministry.

5 thoughts on “The Communion of Saints”

  1. A message many if not most churches, especially smaller churches, can relate to. One can find individuals within them mindful of this need and try to do something. Alas, how does a continuing declining church which already do not have the needed resources to tend to the succession set find ways to care meaningfully to the benefactor set?

  2. Cal, Just received this from Cameron Trimble of Convergence (UCC) on Chat GPT and thought of you. I’m a disbeliever and do not believe it can produce the kind of sermons as you’ve been sharing with us on this blog.
    3 Ways to Use ChatGPT for Ministry (and 3 Ways Not To)
    In CPR Connects by Jim KeatApril 6, 2023Leave a Comment
    Have you heard of ChatGPT? It is a computer program that talks like a person and can understand what people say or write to it. It can answer questions, chat about anything and even make jokes! (In fact, ChatGPT wrote those last two sentences when I asked it to describe itself in a way that a kid could understand.) It is a type of AI, specifically a language model based on deep learning algorithms. And it has become quite popular.
    It reached 1 million users within a week of being released in November 2022. For comparison, it took Twitter two years to reach this number, Facebook took ten months, and Instagram took two and a half months. Within a few months it crossed 100 million users and continues to grow as people love it, hate it, or fear the potential of our new AI overlords. (Just kidding about that last one. I hope.)
    But more than just asking it jokes, creating diet-specific recipes, or writing your next book report, this platform has unique potential for ministry. And so here are three ways to use ChatGPT for ministry. And three ways not to.

    How-to #1: The Easiest Way to Tweet a Sermon
    You wrote the sermon. You preached the hell out of it. But you don’t have the energy to go through and find the perfect parts to share on social media. This is where ChatGPT comes in! Just ask it to create two dozen tweets and paste your sermon manuscript and watch the robots do all the work for you! Ok, not all the work, but at least enough to help filter all your brilliance into a handful of perfect pieces to share on Twitter or your social media platform of choice. Choose the ones you like best, and start posting!
    How-not-to #1: Preacher-bot
    While you can ask ChatGPT to write a sermon, even one from a progressive theological point of view, I wouldn’t recommend outsourcing this one to the robots. As robust as this platform is in some ways, its sermons tend to feel a bit shallow and cliche (though some human-written sermons might as well!). As much as it is helpful to use this platform to jumpstart your ideation, sermons require contextual nuance, preaching your sermon to your congregation at this specific point in time.
    How-to #2: What Should We Talk About?
    Anyone who has led a small group knows that having a handful of discussion questions are always helpful to facilitate a deeper conversation. But how do you write the perfect questions? Paste the text from whatever you’re focusing on and ask ChatGPT for ten discussion questions. They won’t all be good – the robots can’t completely take our jobs just yet! – but there might be a few you want to use and they will likely get you started in developing a few more of your own.
    How-not-to #2: AI Will Pray With You
    While it’s possible to use ChatGPT to create a chatbot that someone could use to share prayer requests, simulating the experience that an actual person is responding and praying with you, the robots aren’t really praying. (Or are they?!) While it is convenient and efficient to automate some tasks, praying with your congregants is more than just another to-do list. This is a way to offer a person-to-person connection, an embodied and incarnational presence, reminding them that God hears there prayers when we share our prayers with one another.
    How-to #3: Say It Shorter
    While you might have a longer description for a program or event on your church’s website, you might want a shorter version to include in an email or to post on social media. Simply copy the full description into Chat-GPT and ask it to write a one or two sentence summary. Just be sure to include the link to the full description on your website when you share it!
    How-not-to #3: Robo-theology
    Sometimes you’re looking for a new perspective on a Biblical text. And as easy as it might be to ask ChatGPT to tell you the meaning of a passage, these responses tend to lack any real depth (not to mention citations!). Stick with websites like, weekly videos like The Word Made Fresh (I might be a bit biased about that second one), or pull your favorite commentary series off the shelf to find more diverse and nuanced perspectives and interpretations.
    Overall, churches should use Chat GPT as a tool to supplement and enhance their ministry, rather than as a replacement for personal relationships and engagement. Careful consideration should be given to how it is used, and it should always be used in a way that respects the dignity and worth of every individual in the church community.
    (Oh, and that last paragraph? It was written by ChatGPT.)

    1. Gwen, I was alarmed when I first heard about this latest technological development. I appreciate this author’s analysis and comments and expect to hear much more in days/weeks/months to come. I’m afraid AI will exponentially add to the already wealth of resources pastors are tempted to use in place of personal prayer, discernment, reading, study, work required for preaching and teaching.

  3. On the journal entry, the issue is all too familiar. Maybe the other elderly in our congregation feel their needs are addressed, but I now usually come away from worship thinking that it has not been good for my soul. Part of that is my fault, but some is the failure of the church’s leadership, especially the weakness of professional preparation. Maybe this is just the old seminary professor talking.

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