Silent sanctuary?

Five years ago, the Dormont Community Presbyterian Church, once a thriving congregation in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, closed. The property was acquired by North Way Christian Community. North Way is an evangelical congregation in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, 25 miles away. Today, the former Dormont church is a thriving North Way campus. (What once was the Dormont United Methodist Church is now a Buddhist Temple.)

A couple years ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did a photo essay on two dozen churches in Allegheny county that had closed, with many of the buildings falling into decay. Dormont was one of the few to find new purpose.

(To see the photo essay, Google “Post-Gazette Silent Sanctuaries.”)

What happened? In every case, the neighborhood changed.

The mill closed and the workers moved away; a tight-knit immigrant community dispersed over time; the white middle class moved to the suburbs. Then people with different ethnic, racial, or economic backgrounds moved in.

The church was no longer ministering to its neighbors.

A stalwart generation kept the church going as long as it could, but then a big bill came due; the roof needed to be replaced; and that was that. The Rev. Dr. Sheldon Sorge, general minister for the Pittsburgh Presbytery, said the [Dormont] Presbyterian church reached a similar point as many congregations in changing neighborhoods. “They’re good people; they just didn’t have the energy to reach into a new community.”

Well, our church just got a report from a roof consulting company. Our roof, which was built to last 125 years, is 113 years old. But parts are in bad shape. We’ve only got five years of roof left, and its going to cost a million dollars to fix.

Is it curtains for us?

Well, our neighborhood is booming. $8.5 billion has been invested here in the last ten years. We still have money in our own investments to perhaps seed a rebirth.

Promising. Hopeful.

Here’s the rub. The people moving into our neighborhood are changing, too. Most no longer go to church.

If we hope to reach them, we have to make a difference, and be known for making a difference, in things that matter to them. We have to provide ways to welcome them, get them involved, let them see us making a difference.

Will we have the energy to do those things?

Will we have the courage to change the good things we’ve been doing to reach them?

I pray we will.

Wee little man

There’s a children’s Sunday school song that many in my generation learned growing up. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” It’s one of those tunes that sticks in your head. You may not remember what you had for breakfast, but if you sang that song 60 years ago, you might start singing it now, just because I brought it up.

The problem with songs like that is that they can leave us with memories that aren’t quite right. This is not a sweet little story about Jesus sticking up for someone who was picked on because he was short.

Jesus was passing through Jericho, about to begin the long climb up to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. In just over a week, Jesus would be dead, yet he stopped, not to accept the adulation of the crowd, but to spend the night in the home of Zacchaeus.

Instead of mingling with the crowd, Zacchaeus had stationed himself high in a sycamore fig tree on the road out of town. He didn’t do this because he was short and wanted to see, as the children’s song would have us believe.

He did it because he was hated.

Tax collectors were universally hated because they collaborated with the Roman occupiers. Tax collectors got rich by extorting as much as they could and keeping the difference for themselves.  Zacchaeus was the chief among tax collectors. If he had mingled in the crowd, he likely would have wound up dead, and no one would have missed him.

Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must stay in your house today.”

Jesus took the hatred of the crowd upon himself.

It was a hint of the unexpected, lavish, self-giving love that would be on display on Good Friday of the week ahead.

Cut off

The health services company, Cigna, just released the results of a national survey of 20,000 adults on the impact of loneliness:

  • Nearly half of Americans report feeling alone or left out.
  • Over 40 percent feel their relationships are not meaningful.
  • 20 percent rarely or never feel close to people.
  • Only about half have meaningful personal interactions (quality time) with others on a daily basis.
  • Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation and may be in worse health than older generations.
  • And by the way, social media use is not a predictor of loneliness.

The bottom line: most American adults are lonely. And do I need to mention the devastating effects of all this loneliness?

Ezekiel 37 is the passage where God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel worked at a time when the people of Israel were in exile. The exiles described themselves as “cut off” from their people, their homes, and their faith. It’s amazing how many times the phrase “cut off” appears in the Bible. In a desert culture where connectedness was critical to survival, to be cut off from the community was a severe punishment. To be cut off from God was the worst thing of all.

Could it be that what people experience today is a problem of biblical proportions?  They’re exiles, cut off from others and from God.

But there’s good news. There’s a place where four generations come together every week. It’s a place specifically designed to provide the connectedness that we were made and long for.

Come on church. We were made for this.



Assessment of authenticity

I’ve watched the short video maybe 20 times. I’ll show it to our new church officers again this year. The speaker is Dr. Rodger Nishioka, one the top Presbyterian teachers in the country. Rodger is speaking about the “21st Century Reformation.” The theory is that every 500 years or so, God holds a “rummage sale,” throwing out things in the church that are outdated and making room for the new. He says a reformation is a terrifying thing to undergo, but in the end, the church emerges stronger and more faithful. Every time I watch I discover something challenging, new, or encouraging that I hadn’t noticed before.

Rodger points out that most young adults today who grew up in the church no longer attend.

He was speaking about Christian mission to a group of those young adults, and one of them challenged him. She said, “The problem with ‘you people’ (the church establishment) is that you seem to have no effect on the place in which God has planted you.”

For young adults, the impact of a church on its neighborhood is an assessment of its authenticity.

The young woman said she watched people come and go from the church across the street from her condo complex. If the church disappeared, the reaction would be, “Cool, more parking. Wouldn’t it be nice if they made a difference here?”

I don’t doubt that Jesus’ call to Christian mission is global. But the average age of our congregation is a generation older than our neighborhood. Are we making the impact here that we should? Do the unchurched (or formerly churched) young adults in our neighborhood assess us to be “authentic?”

What about the young adults who grew up here who no longer attend? Would they miss us if we disappeared?

You can watch “21st Century Reformation” at