Signs of Hope in the Catskills

There’s an old church tradition that, when you go on vacation and miss Sunday services at your home church, you must bring a bulletin from the church you attended while out of town, back to your pastor. Ken and Colleen Kelley have been especially diligent about doing this while I’ve been at KPUMC, but I’ve received bulletins from others, too.

And so, in case you’re wondering, I have in my possession the July 16th worship bulletin from Roxbury United Methodist Church in Roxbury, New York.

While Leah and I were on vacation last week in the Catskill Mountains, we stayed at the summer home of Otto Wagenbach. He and Pat were gracious hosts, and we had a marvelous time of rest and relaxation.

But we went to church on my Sunday off! For one, Otto and Pat wanted us to meet their summer pastor, Donna LeRoy, who turns out to be a dynamite preacher and warm personality. Donna works hard on Sundays, because she is responsible for three different churches; in Methodist terms, she has what’s called a three-point charge. She preaches at Roxbury only on the first and third Sundays at 9 am; then she’s off to Margaretville UMC to preach at 10:30 am.

I was extremely glad that we went to church on that Sunday; the four of us practically doubled the congregation! There were ten of us in attendance that morning, not counting Donna and the organist.

I suppose one could be disappointed or distraught at the decline of Methodism in upstate New York; after all, this is historically one of the strongest bastions of Methodism in America. One could conclude that Christianity is slowly dying in the northeast, which is a narrative that is certainly being spread by some pundits.

The truth is that these small towns and villages are themselves in decline. Dairy farming was the primary industry in Roxbury and Margaretville at one time. Times have changed; big factories now do dairy work on a large scale. Jobs have shrunk, and most kids who grow up in these small towns move off to raise families elsewhere. Otto told me that, unfortunately, drug use has become a problem as opportunity has passed these places up.

Thus, the shrinking church is merely a symptom of what is happening in the larger community. There are fewer people around, so of course there will be smaller congregations.

But numbers are never the true sign of a vital church. The sign of a healthy church is the kind of mission it embraces, and the fruit it bears.

Fortunately, it appears that Roxbury UMC is a healthy church, and not just because Otto and Pat are there! That little historic church knows that they don’t exist merely for themselves, but for the good of the whole community. Earlier in the month, Roxbury UMC participated in the Celebrate Roxbury Festival; later in the summer they plan to have a joint service with a neighboring Reformed church. During announcement time, Pastor Donna shared that the churches in the parish were planning a joint Vacation Bible School for the children in the area.

In the sermon, which centered on Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, Pastor Donna emphasized the fact that the church was responsible for sowing the seed of the Gospel. She challenged all ten of us to be diligent in sharing God’s good news with other. She even dared to remind the church that its mission was to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The church of Jesus Christ only prospers when it recognizes that it is part of God’s mighty work in the world, and wants to participate. We are part of a movement, the unveiling of God’s kingdom on earth, and we have a deeply important role to play in that movement.

It was incredibly encouraging to see signs of life at Roxbury UMC, but I confess that I am even more excited about getting back to church at Kessler Park UMC, because the same thing is happening here.

Let’s get back to work!