FACING GOLIATHS AS A CHURCH

This Sunday we continue in the Perfectly Imperfect series where we will consider the classic underdog story from the Old Testament of David and Goliath. As I will mention in my sermon, David and Goliath isn’t just a feel-good underdog story. This is a story about God delivering us from large, foreboding, and powerful forces and having the faith that God can use small and meek means to provide deliverance.

This Sunday evening my first State of the Church Address will be broadcast at 7pm via our YouTube and Vimeo channels or you can read it on the Pastors’ Blog.  In my address, I am going to name some of the large, foreboding, and powerful forces we face as a congregation. I will go into detail in the address, but the three main points I identity that can loom over our congregation as ‘Goliaths’ are: right-sizing our ministries, expectations, infrastructure and behaviors to the size of church we are and feel called to be; tending to our relationships and soul to bring healing and reconciliation; and overcoming internal and external cultural barriers. Each of these three challenges and any other ‘Goliaths’ we face as a church do not have a clear, risk-free, or pain-free set of solutions or strategies to employ in order to overcome them. However, these ‘Goliaths’ really don’t stand a chance before our God.

One lesson we can learn from the David and Goliath story is to look back upon the life of this congregation to see how God has overcome large, foreboding, and powerful forces in the past as a source of strength and courage to face ‘Goliaths’ of the future.

Last month, I was reading a compilation of articles on UMCG history that Shirley Anderson had written for the monthly Messenger several years ago. In one such article, Shirley shares the research she came across when our church faced one of its biggest Goliaths shortly after the first proper church building was built on the corner of Second St. and Hamilton St. that is now our Fellowship Hall. This is a lengthy story, but I find it deeply faithful and fascinating.

“The building was dedicated September 27, 1874, by the Rev. Hooper Crews D.D. A memorable sermon was preached by Rev. J. O. Peck, D.D. After that wonderful sermon, subscriptions were taken and $7000 was pledged. The church members were elated and considered the building to be unencumbered” [In 2021 dollars this would be about $227,000.]

On September 21, 1877, three years after the church was dedicated, it was sold by the Sheriff of the County at public auction for $2000. Mrs. Margaret Gulliver, a widow, was the buyer. The story of the loss of the church has been told in many church history writings. I found the article written by the Rev. Joseph Caldwell in the Northwestern Christian Advocate on July 24, 1878, gave the best explanation. I am quoting it in its entirety.

THE GENEVA CHURCH DEBT” by Joseph Caldwell

“To the readers of THE NORTHWESTERN CHRISTIAN ADVOCATE and the members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in general, the following facts are submitted.

The Methodist Church of Geneva, Ill. is burdened down with a debt that is impossible to carry much longer, and must have help or be crushed out of existence.

The church was built after the Chicago fire, when labor and material were high.

The panic came when the church was doing all that could be done to build and keep out of debt, but had to yield to the pressure of the times, and continued to work hoping to overcome the difficulties. After struggling for two years, the financial depression which has tested the strength of the resources of the country, forced the trustees to borrow money in the hope that the good time coming would enable them to save the church.

Many persons outside of the church, who subscribed liberally, have failed to meet their obligations owing to the sudden and unexpected failure of banks and business firms in the different parts of the country. We have done all that can be done to secure the amount of the subscriptions, but have failed. Money was borrowed on the strength of the subscriptions, which leaves us with a heavy load to carry. The trustees have paid interest for five years at ten per cent per annum, and have labored hard to save the church from the hands of the creditors. The building cost a great deal more than the trustees expected, and far exceeded the estimate of the architect, who is one of the leading architects in Chicago.

A number of the paying members have died within the last two years, and others have left Geneva. Generally speaking the remaining members are poor, and have done nobly in trying to save the church. The pastors who have served the church for the past five years have made great sacrifice in order to help the church out of their embarrassment. Every cent that can be spared out of the preacher’s salary is used in paying interest and other demands.

The church building was sold by the sheriff last September, subject to a mortgage of two thousand dollars. Since the sale, the claim which was twenty-five hundred dollars has been reduced to fifteen hundred dollars and interest, which must be met in September, 1878, or else we will forfeit all right to the building. If we can raise enough to satisfy the first claim, we can make arrangements by which the two thousand dollar mortgage can be carried for some time.

Geneva is the county-seat of one of the best counties in the state. Methodism has had a footing and has performed a noble and praiseworthy mission in Geneva for forty-one years. There are six churches in Geneva, some of which are doing more for the inhabitants than the Methodist Episcopal church. We cannot afford to allow the church to pass out of our hands after the struggle we have had to reach our present position. If we lose the church it will be the end of Methodism in the place. This is a grand opportunity for those who have money to invest it for the Lord and His cause. If person’s desire to have a monument to their memory when they have passed hence, they can have one in the solid masonry of the beautiful Geneva M. E. church. We appeal to the liberality of the church and all Christians to help us in our time of need. Please send your money to the pastor, Rev. Joseph Caldwell, Geneva, Kane County, Ill. who will thankfully and joyfully appropriate it in the right direction. “
(A response to this letter could not be found.)

The Rev. Joseph Caldwell arrived a month after the public auction sale to find a group of discouraged people, no church building, and a debt of about $7000. The board of trustees held a meeting to try to solve the problem and Mrs. Jennie H Caldwell [pastor’s wife] was made a financial agent and given the power to collect funds and settle claims and debts. After more than twenty months of constant and hard work, the debts were paid. The church was redeemed! On December 28,1879, there was a special service to give thanks.”

145 years ago, our church forbearers faced the loss of a minister, numerous beloved church members and ownership of their building. The economic barriers combined with the internal demoralization and lack of resources loomed as large, foreboding and powerful forces on the church. Then came some acts of faith over the course of 20 months of constant and hard work of those who loved God and their church, God delivered the church from its Goliath. 

Whatever Goliaths we face, I believe God still works to deliver us if we remain faithful to God and commit ourselves courageously to God’s acts of deliverance. Facing Goliath with no armor, a staff and 5 stones is a terrible strategy for battle, but in honoring God’s heart God delivered God’s people by faith. The strategies we will employ as a church will require courage and faith and they might seem too little, meek or ineffective against the ‘Goliaths’ of today but then again, that is the point – in remaining faithful we see the true power of our God! I’m in and ready to face the giants because I know God is with us and can deliver us. I hope you’ll join me.

PS – The image of Goliath above is part of a series of photographs by James C. Lewis that seeks to reimagine the Bible with people of color instead of white persons. It’s a beautiful and powerful series of photographs and you can see more of his photos here or read about the photo series here.