Acts 16:11–15 (NRSV)
The Conversion of Lydia
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
In 1783, a man named Richard Owings traveled through Washington County, Pennsylvania in search of places of prayer, places where hearts and minds were receptive to God. And as he went from place to place, Owings stumbled across a small community, between Avella and Eldersville, where there was a place of prayer, filled with people of prayer. By the next year, a class meeting was organized in this community on the Wells farm, where the Methodists of this community gathered to watch over each others souls, to pray for each other, to ask probing questions about faith, and to keep each other accountable in following Jesus Christ.
This Wells Class meeting, a house church of sorts, continued to meet, supported by the Methodist clergy that traveled through southwest PA and West Virginia on the Redstone Circuit. But most times they met, there would be no clergy present. This class meeting learned together and grew together, inviting others into their small group to learn how to follow Jesus.
In 1814, after 30 years of meeting together, the first church building was built for this Bethel congregation. Then, as a reform movement spread through the Methodist Episcopal Church that ended up separating the Bethel congregation into the newly formed Methodist Protestant church in 1829, under Rev. Josiah Foster.
That same year, Rev. Foster came across another place of prayer in Eldersville and a person of prayer, named Thomas Ward, who provided the property in Eldersville to build another church there.
Eventually, in 1978, the Bethel congregation was closed and merged with the “newer” Eldersville congregation, where we have continued to seek after Jesus Christ and share the good news with our community.
Now, 189 years after the founding of the Eldersville congregation and 234 years after the beginnings of Methodism in our little township, things have changed just a little bit as we try to maintain a spiritual presence in this community.
We can tell from looking around how things have changed, both in our community and in our congregation. As I’ve lived among you these past three years, I’ve heard and experienced some of those struggles with you. We recognize that there aren’t as many “butts in the pews” as there used to be. Congregational worship and Sunday school aren’t as important to people as they used to be. Those who want to be here often can’t because of other factors in their life. Others come around every once in a while, but don’t actively get involved. Some have left our congregation for other places due to their needs or conflicts in the church.
Many of us lament that people we love and care about don’t care about church like we do. We lament that there are people in our community that are “unsaved,” who don’t know the good news of Jesus Christ.
One of the big changes since the late 1700s is that people have choice when it comes to where they worship. Back in the day, you could assume that people who were Christians in a community would go to church in that community. If they weren’t happy with the local church, they might have to start their own because it was difficult to travel long distances.
Nowadays, people have choices and can travel to churches in the next town over. Churches that have more resources and people and have programs, ministries, and worship services that can attract people.
The other big change is the rise in people who are completely disconnected and disillusioned with the church for all sorts of reasons. We know this, not only because of demographic studies, but from our own experience. Our brothers and sisters, children, and grandchildren, our coworkers and friends have different Sunday morning routines than we do. They’re involved in other activities and community organizations, perhaps.
We react in all sorts of different ways to this reality. We lament the reality of declining involvement. We resent and harbor ill feelings against those who aren’t involved or have left. Or we just try and continue as we have been, hoping for better days ahead.
We hear Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: “You are the salt of the earth,” but we fear that we have lost our saltiness, our relevance, our impact on the community. “We are the light of the world,” but we fear that our light is hidden. We wonder if people can really see the impact that Jesus has made on our lives. We wonder if, in this world of darkness, people can find the light, can find places of prayer where they can experience the risen Christ.
We might fear, as Jesus says, that if we lose our saltiness, our potent power to season our community with God’s love, then we might not be good for anything, we might too be eventually thrown out.
The truth is, I think, that we understand the importance of our church community and our congregation as a place of love in the midst of a world of hate, a place of refuge amidst the storms of life, a place of light in a world of darkness. And we want to be the best that we can be. We want to raise new generations into the faith. We want to raise money and collect goods to help meet the needs of our community.
We want this place of worship to be a place of prayer, as it has been for almost 200 years.
So, as we think about our second area of focus, “creating new places for new people and renewing existing congregations,” we want to be renewed! A lot of our work over the past few years has been to renew our congregation by taking care of our building. First it was painting the fellowship hall, replacing our tables, and installing new curtains. Then it was installing a french drain to keep the water out of our basement. And as our Trustees have continued to work this year, we’re focusing our attention on the classroom spaces in the basement that have long needed attention, especially because of water seepage. When we think about the importance of our worship space, we can think back to the Temple of Old Testament times and how much attention to detail there was, how much time and care was invested in the house of the Lord.
But, as we engage in these important projects, we wonder about the fruit of our labors, don’t we? We can wonder what exactly we’re accomplishing in this process of structural renewal. As we try to exercise good stewardship of what we have and as we give sacrificially to the present and future of our church, it’s easy to wonder if those future days we’re preparing for will even come. As we sit in meetings and process disagreements about what we should do or shouldn’t do, it’s easy to get disheartened.
As you can probably guess, I think it’s important for us to make use of our resources to care for the church we’ve been entrusted with. It’s important that this is a place that is safe, inviting, and accessible to all individuals in our community. It’s important for us to do all that we can with what God has given us.
But it is easy, as we try to maintain what we have as a church and have meetings, do paperwork, and complete projects to think that we’re accomplishing something, only to realize that the pews that were empty last week are still unoccupied this week.
That’s not to say that we haven’t tried to get other people involved. We’ve invited others to church. We’ve started prayer groups and held bible studies. We’ve volunteered for church dinners and for Christmas in the Village. We’ve given sacrificially of whatever time, energy, and resources God has given us.
When I think about the history of this congregation, and the work of God in this community over the past 200+ years in relationship to this goal to create spaces for new people and renew our congregation though, I think it’s important that we remember what the main thing is. The reason why we are here in worship. The reason why we would want renewal in the first place.
Everyone in our community wants renewal. The Christmas in the Village committee wants the festival to be successful. Local businesses in our surrounding areas want to grow and be profitable in providing valuable services. Other community organizations want to recruit new leaders and participants.
But our focus is different than all these other organizations. Our mission is different. Our vision is not just to be renewed and to fill the pews with participants and our committees with leaders or even to make our building look more welcoming.
No, the reason why we are here, the reason why we want renewal, the reason why we do all these other things as a church is because of the saving love of Jesus Christ. It’s because we’ve experienced something here with our Christian family that we believe is worth sharing. It’s because Jesus has changed our life and we know he can change the lives of others too!
It’s because, in the words of our Scripture from Acts 16, we have found here in the Eldersville United Methodist Church a place of prayer. Haven’t we?
However we came to be involved in this congregation, whenever we first attended worship (whether it was last week or 60 years ago), we’re here because this is a place of prayer, a place of encountering the living God, a place of fellowship with likeminded believers.
We’ve celebrated new birth together and we have grieved together. We’ve prayed for members of our families and prayed for difficult situations at work. We’ve shared with one another everything about our lives and have sought words from God that are relevant to our situation.
Like Lydia and Paul, gathered by the river, we have spoken and we have listened about God. We have felt the cleansing waters of baptism. As a congregation, you all have extended hospitality to pastors, friends, and visitors, just as Lydia welcomed Paul and the others into her home.
When we think about the conversion of Lydia in Acts 16, this powerful moment of God’s grace which transformed her life, the life of her family, and the life of those who were ministering to her, we remember what all this is really about.
It’s not about this sanctuary or this building. It isn’t even about us and our own needs. It’s about the people, like Lydia in this story in Acts, who need a place of prayer. Who need encouragement and support during difficult times. Who need to hear some good news or need to receive some hospitality.
We’re here because we know that this church is a place of prayer, but there are people who might never stumble across this place of prayer and come inside to get what they need and to hear the message of good news, of God’s grace.
There are people in our community who are lonely, who are concerned about the future, who are burdened with stress, and who have no idea how the church could ease their burden. Maybe they’re even separated from the church because of a bad experience.
What if we, like Paul and his companions, went from place to place at God’s leading, reaching out to those who need love and support. What if we went from this place of prayer today in search of other places of prayer—whether that’s the restaurant where we eat after church, or on our front porch chatting with a neighbor, or even when we’re at work tomorrow.
When I think about places of prayer in my own life, the Sunday morning worship in church has always been a stable place of prayer in my life. But when I think about real turning points in my life, where someone has prayed with me and offered real support and guidance, it’s almost always happened beyond the places we label “church.” I think about the times I’ve randomly ended up in a conversation with another follower of God who I didn’t otherwise know. I think about times praying out on the bike trail or while doing work around the house. I think about times when people, knowing that I go to church, have asked me questions that they had never felt comfortable asking before.
There are many things that will contribute to the renewal of our community of faith, but I think the most important thing is to get back to the basics. To do what Paul did in our reading from Acts and follow the prompting of God to share God’s love when we’re given the opportunity. To do what the first Methodists in Eldersville did, and meet with other believers in their homes and pray together.
In essence, the way to renewal is to remember that Jesus is with us wherever we go and that every place we enter has the potential to become a place of prayer for someone who is searching.
We may sometimes get frustrated. We may spend a lot of our time doing things that aren’t immediately fruitful (like coming to church even when the sermon isn’t that great!). The path to renewal isn’t paved and there often aren’t clear signs along the way. We’re always going to have struggles and disagreements as we try and do God’s will.
But here’s the thing. Here’s the good news. The best news of all: God is with us! And God will be with us wherever we go and whoever we encounter. Every place we go can be a place of prayer, a place where people encounter the living God.
May it be so! Amen.