ANNUAL REPORT TO THE CONGREGATION
The Rev. Matthew Emery, Associate Pastor
April 29, 2007
Grace and peace be with you all!
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In the opening chapters of the book of Acts in the New Testament, we read about those very first moments in the life of the Christian church—-that period when the earliest Christians had to figure out exactly who they were and what their mission was as followers of the risen Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit. As the very first converts joined the community of the disciples, the author of Acts shares this description of just what the church was: a gathering of people whose identity consisted of their devotion to “the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
I believe that we, this gathering of people known as Second Congregational United Church of Christ, are ourselves on a journey of re-discovering our true identity as an authentic Christian community of disciples and on a mission of renewing our commitment to live into such an identity. As this journey and mission goes forward, I think we will find that this identity and life together looks an awful lot like that earliest description in the second chapter of Acts. In other words, we are finding ourselves called once again by God to be a community “devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
Our work of re-devoting ourselves to this identity takes many forms. One of these is through our worship life: our reading of “the apostles’ teaching” in scripture, the preaching in our midst of the still-speaking Word of God, our prayers for the world and all in need, and our gathering around the table of grace for the “breaking of bread”. I am thankful for the numerous opportunities I have already had to preach among you, and hope that the ministry Pastor Mike and I both carry out in this area continues to faithfully call all of us deeper into the Word that God speaks to us today and the life demanded of that Word. I am also very thankful for the ministry of Paul Laprade, Bob Bates, and all of our church’s musicians in supporting our worship together, and particularly for their commitment to connecting the music with the scriptures of the day and with the overall ‘work’ of the whole congregation in worshipping God. A number of members of our community have offered their gifts and time to visually enhance our worship space for each season of the church year. This church has together explored a few new and renewed ways of enriching our liturgy (the pattern of the worship service); I offered much input, planning time, and logistical execution in the renewal of some of the ‘special’ services on the church calendar: Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter Sunday. Our continued work to live more fully into the rich practices of Christian worship helps us journey toward the identity to which God is calling us.
Of course, the “apostles’ teaching” and the “breaking of bread” around which we gather in worship also calls us from inside the church walls to live out that teaching and that gracious meal in the world. Many ministries of mission, justice-seeking, and community outreach continued here at Second Congregational United Church of Christ. I believe our partnership with the Boys and Girls Club has and will continue to transform lives, both among the Boys and Girls Club youth and among the people of our own congregation. Even though mission and outreach is not part of her official job description, I continue to be amazed at the behind-the-scenes “social work” our own Becky Erbe does when a crisis arises, for both church and Boys and Girls Club families. Our very capable Board of Missions has taken the lead on many other areas of our mission ministries. One area of this work in which I have been more directly involved, though, is the process of re-visioning the purpose and work of the cooperative downtown ministry currently known as ‘Neighborhood Ministries’. As of this annual report, it remains to be seen what new form this ministry might take. As concerns all of our mission, justice, and outreach work, though, I am thankful for the growing awareness among us that the mission of the church out in the world is essential to the vitality and life of the church within the church walls.
Our devotion to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” also shows itself in our ministries of Christian education and formation. It has been good to see a growing interest in education/formation opportunities for adults as we began including adults in our Wednesday night programming thanks to the work of Fred Krauss. I am sure you will read much about this and other Christian education/formation ministries in the reports from Becky Erbe and the Board of C.E. As for myself, though, I have been directly involved with these ministries by leading our high school youth ministries and by assisting with the confirmation program. Our high school youth ministries have been in a sort of ‘re-building’ phase for this year, as the recent years’ turnover in associate pastors has taken its toll on both the program and on the youth themselves. I am encouraged by the relationships I have been able to build with our current 9th-graders, as well as with this year’s 8th-graders in our confirmation class—these two classes together will form our core group of high school youth for the next few years. Our annual junior-senior high Snow Camp was again a huge success. This year also saw the beginnings of a semi-regular newsletter to all of the youth connected with our church, a newsletter currently written by myself but which I hope will begin to include contributions from the youth themselves in the future. As we face the changing landscape of our society and our youth, we will need to continue to expand our vision of youth ministry beyond the confines of simply youth group. For example, some of our older high school youth have been active this year in other ministries within our congregation, including worship, music ensembles (Sanctuary Choir and Martin Ringers), and fellowship and athletic activities. In the coming years, we will need to challenge ourselves into a more comprehensive vision of the ministry possibilities with and among the youth of our congregation and our neighborhood.
Our increasing efforts to welcome new members into our church community forms part of our sharing in “the apostles’ ... fellowship” and our sharing of “the apostles’ teaching” with them. Our own morale and sense of positive excitement as a congregation-—the evidence of vitality within—-serves as a key component in our efforts to welcome newcomers. It has been wonderful to hear from many about the sense of new energy and positive mood shift within our congregation in the last year or so. No doubt that as we live into our true vocation as a Christian community, this will continue. Newcomers and guests among us will see and sense that there is some good thing here that they want to be part of. In fact, this is already happening. Since our last annual meeting, we have welcomed 21 new members into our congregation, and we have seen a higher percentage of them remaining ‘active’ since their joining than in some recent years. It was a joy for me to teach our January-February inquirers classes, and I look forward to another series in June for which we already have 8 to 12 potential participants. We will also welcome up to 10 new members on May 6th as our current confirmands affirm their baptismal vows and join our fellowship. Other efforts within my work around ‘new member welcome and evangelism’ have included active participation with our Board of Membership and Church Growth and Vitality Task Force, work on our forthcoming church website reconstruction, the creation of the guest stations and guest information packets located in our two narthexes, and participating in our March evangelism event with David Schoen. As always, though, all of these efforts are only secondary; our primary task as a congregation is to continue to live into our true identity as that community dedicated to those teachings, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers that mark us as a community of the Gospel. Only when others can experience the substance, gift, and good news of this kind of life together will they find themselves seeking to join us.
Finally, my work since coming here in September has included much in the way of ‘fellowship’ and ‘the prayers’ as I have accompanied you all in various fellowship activities and attempted to connect with those in need in pastoral care situations. Pastor Mike and I have begun using a more structured schedule for our own visitation of shut-ins, and we look forward to seeing some renewed effort in ‘lay visitation’ in the coming year. As always, the cycle of life on earth comes full circle for some people each year; since coming here in September, I have conducted four funerals myself and co-officiated four others with Pastor Mike.
I want to express some special thanks to some of the folks with whom I have worked most directly over the past year: Pastor Mike, Becky Erbe, Paul Laprade, Bob Bates, church secretary Mary Jensen, bookkeeper Nancy Yoeckel, Deacons chair Linda Tolodxi, Membership chair Dick Nielsen, Moderator Karen Olson, all the adults who helped with Snow Camp, and so many others. And most of all, thanks to the wonderful search committee that brought me here to be among you all—-were it not for their efforts, I would not have the gift of working and living among the wonderful people and staff of Second Congregational United Church of Christ.
In addition to the continuing of the ministries I’ve discussed already, I am very excited about some of the things we are looking forward to for the coming year.
As I mentioned above, I am encouraged about the possibilities for greater vitality in our youth ministries this coming year, with the rather cohesive group of youth that are currently 8th- and 9th-graders forming the core body of the youth group and other ministries with and among the youth. I hope that our mission trip this summer to Washington, D.C., will provide a formative experience for the participants that will be a springboard into the fall. Also, on the date this annual report is being presented, I will be doing some continuing education time at the Princeton Forums on Youth Ministry, and I hope that this experience will also impact our program.
In addition to continuing with our high school youth ministries, I will be taking the lead in our 8th-grade confirmation program beginning in the fall. Mike, Becky, and I have selected a new curriculum for this program that I hope will greatly enrich the confirmands’ experience. Also, with me taking the lead for confirmation, Pastor Mike will be more available to teach as part of an upcoming expansion of the adult education/formation opportunities offered during our Wednesday night programming.
We are looking forward to some greater intentionality around various forms of small groups within our congregation in the next year or two. We already have some types of small groups here, such as athletic teams, circles, the book club, fellowship groups, and so forth. As we move forward, though, we hope to both diversify the types of smaller groups available for our members to plug-in to and help make all of our small groups into supportive communities where folks can engage in conversation and exploration that can deepen their faith journey and provide support and care in times of need.
In our efforts to welcome new people in our midst, I hope that over the coming years we can begin to think about what it means not only to welcome people from other churches, but what it takes to invite people into Christian faith in the first place. A majority of people in my own age bracket have never been part of a church at any point in their life. As Christians, we believe that we have good news to share, a reason that someone would want to part of a church community (never mind whether it is our church community specifically). Much of our society, though, doesn’t know this-—and doesn’t know what it means to be Christian in the first place. If we are really going to be serious about inviting people into our congregation, we are going to need to challenge ourselves to stop providing merely education about our church and to begin providing formation into our faith. There are many possible answers of how we can begin to live into that challenge, and I hope that together we can explore some of them over these next few years.
As a congregation, we are definitely moving in the direction of that early Christian community we read about in Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Our congregation’s new mission statement expresses that direction quite well:
Second Congregational United Church of Christ is a welcoming, historic, and progressive Christian community in the heart of Rockford.
As a people gathered in response to God’s call, our mission is to proclaim the good news of God made known in Jesus Christ and to courageously live toward Christ’s inclusive reign of justice, mercy and peace.
In fulfillment of this mission, we covenant to…
-- join together faithfully in worship of our Triune God, through preaching, prayer, sacrament, and music;
-- grow continually in our understanding of our faith through ministries of Christian formation;
-- deepen our discipleship through service, justice-seeking, and reconciliation;
-- act as stewards of the abundant gifts we receive: physical, spiritual, financial, and relational;
-- intensify our commitment to the downtown Rockford community; and
-- celebrate and strengthen each other’s faith through friendship, compassion, and care in times of sorrow and rejoicing.
I am excited to continue watching this congregation live into these words—-and for me to live out my calling to help enable you in that work.
Yours in the journey,
The Reverend Matthew C. Emery