By Rev. Joe Connolly
“Many were amazed and perplexed, and asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mockingly said, ‘They have consumed too much new wine.’” — Acts 2:12-13.
The Pew Research Center in Washington D.C. works on a broad range of topics from religion to politics. Some would say these topics— religion and politics— are the same, but I won’t get too deeply into that today. Or I hope not.
In its interaction with these and other areas, the Pew Center tries to focus on and provide information about social issues as they interact with public opinion and demographic trends. Their operating thesis says once trends are identified, you can more accurately see and assess the current shape of the world around us.
In short, the Center tries to lay out just facts, not opinion. I, briefly and in passing, last week mentioned a new report from the Pew Research Center about statistics related to religion, related to denominations, the institutional church.
And as a whole, organized religion— denominations across the board, right, left and in between, it does not matter— organized religion is in decline says the report. Further, the share of Americans who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. These changes effect all regions of the country and all demographic groups. 
As church historian and theologian Diana Butler Bass has pointed out, given its breadth this shift is obviously not about faith. This is clearly a social movement. Of equal interest is in the 1950s the opposite social movement happened. But we don’t often refer to it that way, we don’t see it that way— a social movement— even though it was.
To reflect on that history: in the 1950s it felt like everyone was going to the institution called churches. But that movement into the institution was not necessarily about faith, just as the movement today in the opposite direction is not necessarily about faith.
In fact, with great surety there is one thing which can be said concerning the numbers who added to the institutions called churches during 1950s. In terms of American history, this phenomena was a total anomaly, completely abnormal.
Numbers like those had never been seen in the American churches before. If you think a greater percentage of the population were in the institutions called churches in America in the 1790s, for instance, as opposed to the 1950s, you would be wrong. In the 1820s? Nope. In the 1860s? Uah, uah. In the 1920s? Not even close.
The 1950s into the 1960s were just different. Never before or since has anything like that happened.
So in that sense, to think the 1950s numbers were normal, or to even think these numbers had to do with institutionalized religion, given the aforementioned evidence, one would have to suspend disbelief, ignore the facts. Here is a quick and simple way of thinking about this: institutions in no way make belief. Let me say that again: institutions in no way make belief. I would suggest the purpose of the institution is to help you and those around you reflect belief. But institutions do not make belief.
There is one more point I need to state. I am not, nor is anyone else especially the researchers I mentioned who collect this data, questioning the faith of those inside the institutions called churches or the faith of those outside the institutions called churches. What is being noted is the location of people of faith— inside, outside— doesn’t mean any of them lacked faith or had faith. (Slight pause.)
These words are from Luke/Acts in the section commonly called Acts: “Many were amazed and perplexed, and asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mockingly said, ‘They have consumed too much new wine.’” (Slight pause.)
Another fairly well known statistic is that, on average, the percentage of people who attend church in America on a fairly regular basis runs in the mid-thirty percentage range. On the other hand, in Europe the percentage of attendance is less than ten percent of the population.
Well, given that lack of attendance across the pond, there is a fascinating thing happening in jolly old England. Recently, the Catholic Church there said the number of women becoming nuns has reached a 25-year high. Many are aged 30 or under. To paraphrase Acts, ‘What does this mean?’
One reason may be a concerted effort in England by the Catholic Church to demystify what nuns do and to explain life in the orders. Christopher Jamison, the Catholic Church’s national vocations director in England says this: “Increasingly, young people find Christian faith filling a meaning gap,… because it leads them to the heart of human life today: to the heart of working for the poor; this helps them lead a balanced life with a great conviction that there is more to life.”  (Slight pause.)
In a recent article the Rev. Erik Parker, a Lutheran cleric whom I have quoted before and who blogs under the name Millennial Pastor, cautions that we are wrong about church decline. With an interesting take he says the real decline we are seeing is the end of the state church. He insists that’s not what people who are serious about practicing faith want, and insofar as the church remains a voice for the state, it drives people away.
Christendom, he says, is no longer and can no longer be the church of the empire it was and has often been since Roman times. That’s the church, claims Parker, that’s the institution which is dying.
The state, he says, always supports the status quo, a staid, static way of doing things. That’s not church. In the same writing Parker also admonishes the reader to remember the church did O.K. in its first 300 years, those years before it became so entangled with Rome and its descendants.  (Slight pause.)
So, what is going on in Acts 2, the earliest point in those 300 years before the church became a part of the state? Or as the writing, itself, poses the question: “What does it mean?” (Slight pause.)
That question— “What does it mean?”— that question may be the most important question asked in all Scripture. It is the basic question Scripture, itself, asks. Scripture, itself, never asks, what does this say or what are the details of a story? Scripture always asks, “What does this mean?”
Hence, for all the happenings in the reading we heard, and there are plenty of happenings— from tongues of fire to speaking in tongues. For all the happenings in this reading the question one should never ask is: ‘what happened?’ So, what does it mean? (Slight pause.)
As I said earlier, Pentecost— the feast we celebrate today— is arguably the second most important feast on the Christian calendar, the first being Easter.  Indeed, most theologians would say Trinity Sunday and the Epiphany would rank as third and fourth.
But what makes Pentecost important? Pentecost is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church. And I am just enough of a defender of institutions and institutional life to say the institution has some important.
And [the pastor starts pointing to people] when you and you and you and you and you come together as a community, form community, belief happens. Sometimes belief happens even when we are unaware it’s happening. And, coming back to the reading and all those details, from tongues of fire to speaking in tongues, the meaning of what happens in that reading has to do with belief. It is a belief in the presence. It is a belief in the reality of God.
Now when it come to second meaning in this passage, in a real sense I gave away my hand earlier: the purpose of the institution known as church is to help you and those around you reflect belief. The purpose of the institution known as church is not to make belief. It is you— and you and you and you who make belief happen. (Slight pause.)
I have proof of that we, as individuals, make belief and the proof is in yesterday’s news. I mean that literally— yesterday. Pope Francis announced the beatification of murdered Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero. This leaves the late cleric one step from sainthood. And what does that mean?
It means the first Pope from the developing world, Francis, has placed the poor at the center of this papacy. In doing so, the Pope is directly engaging a theological movement that was distrusted by this Pope’s predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
As a young Jesuit leader in Argentina, even Francis had qualms with the movement. But now, in a very personal move, Francis speaks of creating a poor church for the poor and is seeking to position Catholicism closer to the masses. It is the personal belief of this Pontiff that the church needs to be a church for the poor, a church devoted to outreach and helping others. 
So to reiterate, the purpose of the institution known as church is not to make belief. It’s much more personal than that. And no, I’d be the first to admit it: I am not the Pope, you are not the Pope, we are not the Pope. But we are Congregationalists, are we not. So it is you— [the pastor starts pointing to people again] and you and you and you and you who make belief.
So, here’s the question: can we Congregationalists be as forthright as the Pope about the mission of the church? I think so. And if we do, I’ve got good news. The church will not go away or be in decline. I’ve got even better news. The Spirit will be alive among us for we will show the fruits of the Spirit. Amen.
05/24/2015, Pentecost Sunday
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I suggested Pentecost is important because it’s about each of us. I say Pentecost is about each of us because I believe the Spirit of God is with each of us. The Spirit of God blesses each of us. I believe the Spirit of God showers many gifts on each of us. Further, I believe the Spirit of God lives with each of us and all of us now, right now. I believe the Spirit of God lives with us throughout eternity.”
BENEDICTION: Let us acknowledge our many gifts. Let us seek to use them for the common good. Let us commit ourselves as people of action. God, the creator, is at work in our midst. The Holy Spirit is present to us. Jesus, the Christ, lives among us. Let us go from this worship to continue our worship with work and witness. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts, minds and spirits centered on God, this day and forevermore. Amen.
 This was stated at the start of the service.