Our Biggest Changes the Past Ten Years - Reservoir Church
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We Are Reservoir - 2023

Our Biggest Changes the Past Ten Years

Steve Watson

Oct 01, 2023

This weekend was very special for Reservoir! In addition to Steve celebrating his 50th birthday, we also celebrated Reservoir’s 25th anniversary.  Then this Sunday, Steve also renewed his ordination vows as a minister and as the Senior Pastor of Reservoir!

Read or revisit Sunday’s inspirational Renewal of Ordination vows in-person sermon from Rev. Laura Everett as well as the online sermon from Steve.

In-person sermon with Rev. Laura Everett.

Online sermon with Steve Watson (below).

Hey, folks, we did some special stuff in our live service that we aren’t able to replicate here online today. After 10 years of ministry at Reservoir, I renewed my vows as an ordained minister of the gospel.

It’s one of the great surprises and joys of my life that I’ve been asked to do this work. And, whoo, I’ve made a ton of mistakes these past 10 years, but with God’s help and the help of this community, I am still on the path, so to speak. So I’m grateful to be able to promise to God again before this community that with God’s help, I will love and worship God, love and pray for all God’s children, care for the community I serve, and live in and teach the good news of the way of Jesus. 

A few local pastors who mean a lot to me and to this church helped with this, but we couldn’t really get all of this into the studio for YouTube today, so I thought: is there anything else we could do in our online worship that would also be a part of Reservoir’s 25th anniversary and mark the 10 years of service I’d had here.

And a recent conversation came to mind. 

One of you – a longtimer in this community – was noticing something in this church that had changed. And this person realized as he was thinking about it that the change itself didn’t seem bad to him, but at first it had made him uncomfortable.  

Because – and now these are my words, not his – change is really hard. It’s unpredictable, sometimes disappointing. Some changes we really hate, and even the ones we end up liking, well the process can be really difficult. Change is hard. And yet change is constant. Everything – the cultures and politics and economies we live in, the relationships and experiences and technologies that fill our lives, even the very atoms that make up ourselves, are in constant change and motion. And if anything, we live in times where change is accelerating more than usual.

That’s a lot. 

My friend who’d noticed this change was like:

Hey, Steve, you’ve been part of this church for most of its 25 years. And for 10 years of it, you’ve been the senior pastor. Maybe sometime you can talk a little more about what’s stayed the same and what’s changed. 

That seemed interesting to me. 

So I decided I’d give that a first shot today. I’m going to share the biggest way I think our church hasn’t changed and the two biggest things that I think have changed in this church the past 10 years. 

In some ways this sermon is very inward looking. It’s a pastor thinking about what’s happened in a single church during a single pastor’s tenure. 

But I hope there’s some perspective here that might help you beyond just that topic. Maybe something about anchors we drop in the few things in life we don’t want to change. And maybe something about getting a little less white knuckled about the inevitable constancy of change in every area of our lives – our bodies, our health, our churches, our work, our everything. Change can be hard, but it’s not going anywhere, so what do we do about that?

Three weeks ago I taught this message I called Old and New, about how preservation and innovation, old and new are part of all the best things in life, faith included. 

I read these two scriptures we’ll read again, the first a line Jesus says about teaching and about professional lives of all kinds.

Matthew 13:52 (Common English Bible)

52 Then he said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.”

And we said that in all our lives, in all of our professions, it’s like this – we’re best off when we can mine the heritage of our traditions, holding on to what is good and true and beautiful there. But then we also said that in all areas of our lives, we of course need to keep learning and trying new things too. 

We have to adapt to new rules in our professions. We have to keep up with all that our kids are experiencing that is different than when we were young. We age, and we face new choices in our health and our housing and need to be open to new treasures, not just old ones.

Jesus makes it explicit in another scripture that we read that this applies to what God is doing in the world too. His life and teaching were grounded in an old tradition but it was also a renewal movement.

Jesus taught:

Matthew 9:17 (Common English Bible)

17 No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If they did, the wineskins would burst, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined. Instead, people pour new wine into new wineskins so that both are kept safe.”

In this little bit of folk wisdom, the idea is that the new work of God requires new containers to hold it. It’s new religious systems and structures, but maybe more than that – new imagination, new habits of mind and heart. 

It’s clear from history and even from within the pages of the Bible itself that this wasn’t a one time adaptation that Jesus required during his lifetime. 

The Bible is full of moments where people come to believe not only have their lives and circumstances changed, but what God is doing has changed as well. Look, God says,

I’m doing a new thing!

The New Testament has all these little moments that hint at the tensions that were occurring even within the first century of the Jesus movement. The scope of what this movement would become kept broadening, and that required a lot of change in its communities. 

Early this week, as I was getting ready for today, I wrote like five pages of notes about the evolution of attitudes toward traditional dietary laws among the first generation of leaders in the Jesus movement. This was super interesting to me, still is. But I realized, probably not to most of you. So we’re going to skip that for today, but the upshot is that sometimes things that seem really important to us have to be reexamined in light of a better today and a more hopeful tomorrow.

Even in the parts of our lives we can sometimes think of as anchors – our faith, our religious heritage, our churches – sometimes we discover we were wrong about something or whether or not we were wrong before, new opportunities call for new ways of meeting them. 

All to say, for all of history, people have had to make choices about roots and branches, about where we stay tied to unchanging convictions and practice and the ways we adapt and branch out and grow in new ways. 

Faith communities are no exception to this. In our faith, we figure out over time where we are going to lay anchors, where we stay moored to beliefs and traditions that serve us well, that connect us to God or what’s best in life. And where we’re going to set sail, to integrate new ideas and experiences and change. 

So all this true of our church of course. We have roots and branches, anchors and sails, old and new. We have ways that we’ve been in the same church for the past 25 years and hope to be for the 25 years to come. And we have ways we’ve changed a lot over the past 25 years, even over the past 10 years. 

Whenever I think about where Reservoir has come from and where we are going, my first thought is over how much we are still the same. Over 25 years ago, some young adults with big dreams wanted to start a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts that would be a fresh expression of Christian community for this city. Cambridge was way ahead of the curve on the story of what got called the “rise of the nones.” This is the huge increase in people who don’t affiliate with any particular religion at all, let alone belong to a faith community.

Our founders imagined a church that could be helpful in a time and place like this – that would be anchored in the deepest, most beautiful parts of the Way of Jesus, but that would use fresh language, that would engage creatively and non-defensively with the science and ideas and experience of contemporary culture. A church that would practice a form of Christian faith that would genuinely feel like good news to many people. The church was a hit at first. It grew really fast in its early years. Charles Park tells some of this story in one of our 25 stories for 25 years videos. You can check that out right here on our YouTube site

What’s fun to me is that we’re still very much that church. We’re still committed to plumbing the deepest, most powerful parts of the ancient Way of Jesus – the stuff in this faith tradition that empowers love, peace, justice, healing, and joy. And we’re also as committed as ever to an expression of that faith that is good news to everyone all the time. Right here and now, in this particular beautiful and broken and just plain weird time to be alive. 

That’s still in our DNA as a church, the dream of our founding mothers and fathers, so to speak.

So in some ways this church hasn’t changed all that much. But in other ways, we’ve changed a lot. I started listing the ways. There are a lot of things. But for me at least, most of them fall into two categories. 

Here are the two biggest ways our church has changed over the past twenty-five years, or especially I’ll say over the past 10+ years I’ve been with us as a pastor. 

The first is that we’ve prioritized health more than growth

I’ll say that again. We’ve come to care more about health than growth.

Now let me clear that when I talk about the change in our church, I am casting no shade on our church’s early years or any of our founders. This church was a dynamic, amazing community in its early years. And our founders and early leaders were genius in many ways. We owe this church’s very existence to them.

I’ll name some of them. People like Dave and Grace Schmelzer, my predecessors in this role of senior pastor. And other founders and early leaders, like Christopher Greco, Val and Andrew Snekvik, Charles Park, Rich and Lisa Lamb, and many more. One member of that high octane founding team, who moved from the West Coast just to be part of starting this community, is still with us. Cheers for Titi Alailima, who plays bass sometimes on our worship team. Reservoir OG. 

These folks were all part of a crazy success story in our early years. A church in Cambridge, MA that in 10 years from its founding had grown from 30 people to a thousand, had touched the lives of many hundreds more, had gone from a little church plant meeting up in a high school cafeteria to owning this big and beautiful campus. 

The story of those early years was one of explosive growth!

And that was really important to the church. We were part of a network of churches that had been really influenced by a whole series of strategies for growing churches in America and it had worked here. 

My family first showed up here in 2005, right near the end of that early period of super-fast growth. I remember in one of the first Sunday sermons we heard, the pastor talked about the story of this church’s growth, and how it was a troubling thing that the church had leveled off. And it was true – the peak size of this church in terms of both attendance and budget – was in 2007 to 2008. And it really bothered the church that the church wasn’t growing anymore. I remember wondering, is it us? Like things slowed down when my family showed up. What did we do?

Even in my early days as a pastor, I remember saying in a sermon, healthy things grow. I had picked that phrase up from the American church growth movement myself, or maybe from American entrepreneurial culture. Which – they’re the same thing anyway. But the line, Healthy things grow.

And one of you came up to me afterwards and politely said:

Steve, maybe don’t say that anymore. It’s not true. Healthy things don’t always grow. 

And I thought, oh that’s true, if my middle aged body is growing, it’s probably one of two things. It’s probably a bunch more weight I’m picking up on my dad bod, or much worse, it’s something like cancer. 

Because some healthy things grow. But there are also really unhealthy things that grow too. And there are also healthy things that are beautiful more than big, and that aren’t growing. 

These days, very few churches are growing. The numbers vary, but something like 40 million people in America have left churchgoing in the past 25 years. Around here, churches are a dying industry. Most churches are shrinking. 

That Reservoir as a church is holding steady in terms of budget and membership and involvement is unusual around here. 

It’s not like we don’t care about growth at all as a church. We hope to make it easy for people to find us, if they’re looking for what our community has to offer. We hope that all of us will share the best parts of our experience here with others. 

But over the past 10 years, we’ve paid more attention to being the healthiest church possible than to be the biggest church possible. 

Personally, I want to practice a form of faith that people don’t have to leave, that people don’t have to abandon or detox from years down the road.

We have always had a passion for a community that invites people on a spiritual journey without trying to control exactly how it goes. When I joined the church 18 years ago, I was told the church values openness, not conformity. 

But turns out back then, we still had some blind spots on this front. We had some unwritten rules that could get you kicked out of leadership for instance. A lot of communities do this – they say they welcome everyone but it turns out that if you cross this or that line, you’re not welcome anymore. So we’ve tried hard to make sure that we have no unwritten rules here, because that’s what’s safe and healthy for a community. 

Some of the journey to healthy church shows up in boring ways. When I was hired, we’d had a senior pastor with a lot of integrity, thank God. But we were set up for abuse of power to occur. No one evaluated our senior pastor. Our bylaws gave way too much power to one person. We had a culture of a single leader having kind of a dominant, outsized voice we all trusted. 

Again, this mostly worked out okay for us in our early years, but it’s because we were lucky. It’s not healthy to have too much power in the hands or the heart of a single leader. That goes bad for organizations of all kinds, certainly for churches, in lots of ways. So we’ve changed how our Board operates, edited bylaws, practiced new habits of leadership. Stuff that on the surface looks sounds kind of boring, but the stuff that makes us healthy. 

One of the parables of Jesus I love is the parable of the mustard seed, where Jesus compares the ways of God on earth to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great big plant that does wonders for its ecosystem.

Many people’s take away from this story Jesus tells is that with God’s help, little beginnings can grow into big successes for the world. And maybe that’s true sometimes. We should never despise small beginnings.

But in teaching this passage in more recent years, it’s been important for me to notice that Jesus chose the mustard tree for his story. Had he wanted to talk about the biggest growth story in the plant kingdom of his region, he would have chosen the mighty cedars of Lebanon. They too started small and were real wonders of impressive growth. Mustard trees are biggest for a bush, but they’re still just that – shrubbery – valuable and significant but no great wonder of the world. 

So it is with most things we are and do, even with the help of God. We should care most not that they’re impressive or ever-growing, but that they are healthy. Healthy things do no harm. Healthy things serve their purpose well. So we’re much more focused on being a healthy church.

The second big change I’ve noticed over the past 10 years is that we are no longer an evangelical church. 

We were never the most typical evangelical church, I suppose, but we sure were one when we got started. Evangelical Christians in America were a mid 20th century rebrand of the conservative, more fundamentalist side of Protestant Christianity. Those that rebranded as evangelicals wanted to keep their conservative theology and Bible reading but engage more constructively, more intellectually with the rest of society. 

On the plus side, evangelicals in the 20th century tended to be very passionate about the unique value and significance of Jesus. They were very motivated to help people learn to read their Bibles and to pray and to gain value from these practices. They were also serious about the power of religious and spiritual experience to change one’s life for the better and to motivate people and communities to change the world for the better too.

And we benefited from having roots in all that. We too have been and are still passionate about the value of the Bible and prayer. We too have always called ourselves a Jesus-centered church. Our spiritual roots are in the life and teaching of Jesus, and we try to draw upon the best and deepest wells in the Christian tradition. Many of us have seen the love of God and the power of God’s spirit transform our lives in some way and give us power and motivation to do good in the world as well.

So I’m grateful for these roots I have and that this church has in evangelical Christianity. 

That said, the down sides of this movement have gotten more pronounced over the years. They’re sort of screaming out louder, it seems. 

There’s the patriarchy, the homophobia. There’s the Trumpism, the anti-science and anti-intellectual strands. There’s the way that a hope in God’s saving power becomes triumphalism – thinking that God’s going to make sure every story in our lives is going to have a happy ending. 

I could go on, but I won’t. 

We were never the most typical evangelical church, but our roots were there. And after a years-long drift away from those roots, and a big provocative push from the association of churches we used to be part of, we left.

We used to be called the Cambridge Vineyard, and then as we grew, the Greater Boston Vineyard, because we were part of a group of evangelical churches in America called the Vineyard churches. 

Ten years ago, we were already leaning toward leaving that behind. And then, when I was called as senior pastor, my job was to help us decide for sure, and then to leave and do all the stuff associated with that big change. It was really hard for this community. We lost a bunch of people who left because they didn’t like the decision or who left because the process was so painful. It was terrifying and heart-breaking in different ways for me personally. And I’m not alone in that.

But you know what it hasn’t been, ever. It’s never been a regret. It’s been so good. 

We left the Vineyard because we wouldn’t toe the line with their anti-LGBTQ policy they had just developed. And that matters. Our queer selves and friends and family deserve a safe place to call their church home with the same full seat at the table as anybody else.

But it was more than this too. It was a chance to really get off the bus of American evangelicalism. 

And boy, has that been good for us. 

Just a few ways:

  1. One, we’ve been breaking the habit of over-promising. That triumphalism I talked about with the happy ending to everything if you have enough faith. It also gets labeled the prosperity gospel. That was never our Vineyard main thing, but we were sick with it still. We had annual campaigns where we encouraged our members to name the one thing we most want God to do for us, and to fast and pray, and to trust that in faith, it would be so. There were some beautiful stories, some miraculous stories, that came about in this. But some crushing heartbreaks and some self-blaming and some loss of faith too. We tried to avoid that. We said many of the right things as we did this. But we over-promised. One of our taglines for a while was that we were empowering impossibly great lives. But a lot of times, even with the help of God, our lives are never impossibly great. Maybe they’re 10% better, maybe we still fail but we do so with dignity and grace. Maybe in our mixed bag of suffering and victory, of delight and disappointment, we find more joy, we love better, we live in more peace. If that can happen, that’s pretty good news. That’s worth celebrating. 
  2. Two, we’re as serious as ever about the Way of Jesus. That’s the theme for our mid and late fall preaching – the Way of Jesus. But we’re also more serious than ever about no one-size-fits-all way that the Way of Jesus looks. Reservoir isn’t here to tell you exactly how to live your life. We’re here to create conditions for a life connected to a loving God and a rich community, in which you can sort that out for yourself. 
  3. We’ve come into a richer vision of the work of Jesus on earth. Our more evangelical vision of the Kingdom of God really majored on a few things – on people becoming personal disciples of Jesus, on good churches growing and thriving, on more prayer and personal goodness growing in people’s lives. And all that can still be great. But our vision is deeper and wider and richer than that. I listen to a sermon like the banger of a message that Ivy gave last week, with its call to generous personal kindness and its call to the healing of everything – from broken hearts, to broken and evil systems that do harm. And I think, oh a vision that big didn’t used to be possible for us. 

As we work on this 25th anniversary campaign we’ve had this year and will come back to later this fall, we’ve been asking you to name some aspect of Beloved Community vision you’d like to see our church do more with. Because we’re trying to imagine what we’ll invest in more as a community when we pay off our debts and don’t have to keep writing monthly checks to our bank.

And it’s been so good to listen to the vision of what the people of Reservoir care about and think is possible. No one is saying that this church needs to be at the center of our hopes. We’re not imagining as we used to in our evangelical days that we are always God’s best hope for our city, that we the church of Reservoir have to be God’s big cedars of Lebanon. And that’s healthy.

But we are believing that the seeds we have here can grow to something good. Or to use a different metaphor of Jesus’, we think our life together has given us some yeast to mix into the dough of the life of our region. And it’s not just the explicitly spiritual things we’ve always cared about – things like eternal salvation, and more worship, and more prayer and all. Those are great. But more and more, it’s recognizing that everything is spiritual. So we’re asking how we can participate in more flourishing of the arts, and in better community mental health resourcing, and environmental impact, and in resourcing the dreams and vocations of people in under-resourced communities. 

Leaving evangelicalism has helped us get more holistic, to have a humble but wide ambition to better enrich the whole of life in our communities. And that’s good news for all of us.

So in some ways, we’re the same church we’ve always been. And in other ways, we’ve changed a lot. No longer an evangelical church, but up to something we like better. Less about growth, more about health.

Roots and branches. Anchors and sails. That mix of old and new is what we need for all the changes of our lives and our communities. 

Friends, if you call this church your home, know that we’re so grateful to be on this ride together through both constancy and change. 

And if you’re tuning here online but don’t have a church you call home, I’d love to talk to you sometime about how Reservoir could be that home for you or how you could find another church to call home if you like. Just send me a note. We’ll talk.

That’s it for me today. Peace to you all, friends.