Hamer’s Homily

This is a transcript of John Hamer’s homily that he gave on September 25th, 2022. You can watch it here.


Amidst the joy we have shared in celebration this weekend, we should nevertheless observe that three baby blessings in seven years is not a high rate for the congregation, at least as compared to the 1940s and 50s when we may have celebrated as many as a dozen or more baby blessings in a single year. The truth is that in the past 70 years, this congregation, Community of Christ in Canada, and, indeed, Christianity in the developed world as whole has experienced a steep demographic decline.

1. Failing to compete in a time of ever increasing competition

In my own analysis of this trend, as a historian, I see several causes. The first is beyond our control. The truth is that in the 21st century, people have innumerable distractions that occupy their time and attention. Entertainment options today are enormous: from the multitude of on-demand streaming television services to the video game industry — which has expanded year after year $190 billion annually — to professional sports, social media, and more. That market competition for eyeballs did not exist at the congregation’s height in the 1950s. Indeed, the church was given a preferential monopoly on Sundays by legislatures that banned competition, including even shopping.

Therefore, like a local industry in a small country that was protected by national tariffs can be decimated by international competition when those tariffs are removed, churches which had grown dependent on that artificial subsidy (no competition on Sunday) have suffered when it was eliminated. That said, I do not think we have done enough in Community of Christ to consider what it means to “compete” in this new reality.

My father is an Evangelical Christian. While on our recent trip to the States, I was able to visit my parents, my brother, and two of my sisters and their families in Minnesota for the first time since the pandemic closed the border. I attended my father’s Evangelical mega-church, which has been the fastest growing church in Minnesota. From a technical and competitive entertainment perspective, the mega-church’s show was impressive. The sanctuary was a large, modern amphitheater ringed with stage lighting and cameras. There was a lightshow backing up the live, in-house Christian contemporary band, and the giant video monitors cycled a video feed drawn from half a dozen cameras. All of the music and the speakers were rehearsed and precisely timed. This is a formula that has been known for 30 or 40 years. When I was in Independence soon afterwards, I wondered to myself, how is it possible that none of the dozens of Community of Christ congregations in the area had (to my knowledge) successfully experimented with attempting to professionalize the framework of their service? In theory, such a ministry could grow and within a decade or two, fill the Auditorium. We already have the basic infrastructure.

In our own way as a livestream service, we have attempted to compete in the reality of the 21st century marketplace. While most of our speakers are not professional — indeed, presenters are almost exclusively drawn from people around the world who regularly view the service — we have teams of volunteers who help everyone achieve professionalism in their presentation. All of the text for Beyond the Walls is due on the Monday 6 days before the service goes live. Each presenter is given our technical guidelines document and our Content team works with everyone to make sure their part is within the correct word count limit, and we often help authors edit for clarity and focus. The text then goes to the translation team who render it in each of our three core languages. With the text finalized, hundreds of slides are produced each week pairing the words with appropriate images. Our production and technology team helps make sure each presenter is comfortable with the technology during a rehearsal that happens each Saturday. How is your lighting? Are you in the middle of your camera area (or off to the side)? What are you reading from, and can we hear you clearly? We gather again in the ministers meeting a half an hour prior to the service for a second run-through, when we are joined by our chaplain who also helps each of us prepare spiritually. In the service itself, our technology teams switch between cameras and take charge of muting and unmuting. Meanwhile our social media teams are shepherding engagement in the comments on YouTube and Facebook, welcoming and supporting everyone joining us from around the world. And, of course, the process for producing the music: both Mike’s ministry in the prelude and postlude and Leandro’s direction of the Beyond the Walls Choir, including mixing together 40-80 individual voices, is an even lengthier process.

There is no question that a lot goes into this service each week, and I am so grateful to everyone whose effort makes this possible. And we are gratified that these efforts at housing meaningful worship within a professional setting has had such remarkable results. People from nearly 100 different nations have engaged our Sunday services by commenting on, liking, or sharing the video. Since 2020, 397 individuals have served either as on-screen ministers or on one of the behind-the-scenes support teams I mentioned. In that same time, 168 individuals have shared their voice with the Beyond the Walls Choir, which has recorded 154 hymns. We are also thankful that 508 unique households have made donations in support of Beyond the Walls (not including anonymous contributors).

Distractions are ubiquitous and the 21st century competition for eyeballs and attention is very real indeed. And we have the ability to track that reality. As Leandro reminds me each week, if and when this service crosses the 1-hour threshold, accounts immediately drop off the livestream. We appreciate that so many of you have other obligations. Knowing your time is valuable, it is our goal to acknowledge your gift of spending it with us by making each minute meaningful.

2. Mistaking outdated social norms for the gospel

This brings me to the second factor which I believe has caused Christianity in the West to decline in the past 70 years. The first was: failing to compete in a time of ever increasing competition. The second is mistaking outdated social norms for the gospel. The show at my father’s Evangelical mega-church was professional and slick, but the content was deplorable. The sermon was given by their former senior pastor and it consisted primarily of dog whistles and straight, white grievance culture. He had the audacity to claim that middle-class suburban Minnesotans were facing the same kind of “persecution” as ancient Christians martyrs executed by the Romans when they get pushback for speaking their own bigotries aloud. To prove his point, he then engaged in hate speech against trans gender individuals, denying their identity. To my thinking this man was not simply unchristian, he is antiChrist.

So many Christians have presented bigotry as gospel that a substantial percentage of non-Christians have come to fully equate Christianity with bigotry. And yet Jesus’ example should be clear to anyone. In a famous story now found in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, verses 2-11, we read:

Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and, making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Jesus is faced with a Biblical law about sex that called for an honor killing. Although in the Bible, this was an unjust, bigoted law rooted in the local social norms of his time rather than any ethical or moral teaching. Jesus did not enforce that law by taking it upon himself to police the private life of the woman. Rather, his example was to break that unjust, unrighteous Biblical law. As disciples of Jesus, Christians are not to enforce local and temporal social norms as if they were eternal gospel truths — blindly condemning one another for the motes in their eyes. When we, as Christians, reject Jesus’ example and take it upon ourselves to police each other’s private lives, we sin against human dignity — and it’s no wonder that seekers are repulsed. Unfortunately, this beam is not solely contained in the eyes of Evangelicals. As a church, we too in Community of Christ still need to repent.

3. Failing to maintain relevance

Finally, I think a third and equally important factor in Christianity’s demographic collapse is failing to maintain relevance. Christians have spent a lot of time talking using jargon terms that do not immediately appear to have meaning in life outside of the church. People may wonder what we mean when we talk about atonement, salvation, sin, repentance, grace, works, and gospel — but more likely they not only do not know what we mean, they do not care.

However, this is not because everyone in the world has become a nihilist. People are still seeking meaning in their lives. Whether they are aware of it or not, people long to be part of inclusive communities that extend beyond their individual families and workplace. People want to work together in causes that improve the lives of others. And many people are dissatisfied because of a spiritual void in their lives, whether or not they perceive its cause. To reach these seekers, it is incumbent upon us as a church to transcend our own jargon, to translate the meaning of the Enduring Principles of the gospel so that they are relevant to our own time and place in history. When we do this, we enable people outside our existing circle to see why sacred community is so important that we have committed our lives to creating and growing it.

There is hope. This community that extends beyond the walls of any sanctuary is a sign of hope for renewal. But it is only one such sign among many. Today we are blessed to receive ministry from the three disciples who serve as the new Mission Centre President Team for Community of Christ in Eastern Canada. They are here to share what they have learned and experienced in the first months of their calling and to offer us their visions of hope for church renewal going forward here in Canada, and around the world.