Choosing Frontier Over Fortress

frontier church, horses

This sermon was preached on May 1, 2016. it is the fifth in a series of six sermons that I offer as reflections on our study of I REFUSE TO LEAD A DYING CHURCH, a book written by Paul Nixon that we are studying in several small groups. You are invited to join one of these small groups, which meet on Tuesday mornings in my office at 9:30 am, and Sunday after church at the manse. All are welcome.

We face six big choices as a church. Here is the fifth.

One day in Ohio I was meeting with some clergy friends, each of whom represented different Protestant denominations, when the Presbyterian minister began to gently chide the Methodist minister. “You Methodists,” said the Presbyterian, “you used to be everywhere! You were the ones who beat a path out west, riding out there with covered wagons, starting churches, expanding, growing, what ever happened to you guys?”

The Methodist minister sighed, and acknowledged that her denomination hadn’t done a good job of starting new churches lately, and in fact was losing churches and people at an alarming rate. From 1960 to 2000 the Methodist lost 21% of their people, a net loss of two million souls.

“Well, don’t feel so bad,” said the Presbyterian. “We’re not doing well, either. But at least you tried. While you were evangelizing the wild west, training lay preachers, sending all those circuit riding preachers on horseback all over the land, we Presbyterians were ensconced in our leather chairs back east having cocktails in hotels and waiting for the railroads to be built.”

We all laughed, but it was an an uncomfortable laughter. The truth is, all of our mainline Protestant denominations were in trouble, and we knew it.

It was not always so.

In Paul Nixon’s book, I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, he points out that from 1790 to 1830, Methodists grew from roughly 58,000 adherents in 1790 to half a million in 1830, a growth of nearly 900 % in forty years! They outpaced population growth three times over, growing from 1.5 to 5.1 % of the U.S. population during these four decades. In countless communities across North America, the Methodist Episcopal Church, as it was then called, predated the formal founding of the towns where they settled! The Methodist movement was so nimble that the churches were organizing faster than the municipalities, arriving prior to the people in some cases! It is estimated that one third of these congregations had no building. They met wherever they could, in homes, in schoolhouses, even in taverns, and out in the open air! A circuit was usually between 200 and 500 miles around, and the rider was expected to complete the course in two to six weeks, riding on horseback, stopping every few miles to set up another meeting, and preaching two or three times a day.  The pace was always hectic. This of course meant that meetings could happen on any day of the week, not just on Sundays. Of those churches that had buildings, many had a simple clapboard chapel that would last only a few years before fire or the church’s growth would force their replacement. The emphasis was not on the building but on the people of God, and “Grace” rather than education was considered to be the main qualification for the job.  And the measure of grace was the ability to speak to the heart and win people’s hearts and minds for Jesus. The life of a circuit rider was physically grueling.  They traveled, usually by horseback, with little more than the clothes that they were wearing through all kinds of weather.  On the frontier where conditions were primitive, there were stories that preachers sometimes declined the offer of a bed and slept out of doors to avoid the fleas and bedbugs.  Circuit riders were supported in their task mainly by the fraternity of other circuit riders, whom they would often meet at conferences.  A great camaraderie developed, and many circuit riders maintained a lifelong mail correspondence among themselves.  Illness and accident were constant perils.  At the beginning of the 19th century, about one in six of the circuit riders died on circuit.  Speciakl hymns were sung at the end of the preacher’s visit that commend him to God’s care in case he doesn’t make it back the next time.

But by the 1840s the movement;s growth rate was slowing dramatically, about the time that American churches began building substantial buildings. Paul Nixon notes that there is a real correlation between the steady slowdown of the Methodist movement’s expansion and the steady construction of substancial church buildings, and makes this prophetic declaration: The more building-oriented any church becomes, the more it will be tempted to take on the settled attitudes and habits of an institution, and to leave the free-spirited, frontier-oriented attitudes and practices that grew it to start with.

It is fascinating to study the historical record and to see how many churches share this narrative arc. Just this week, a small group sat in my office on Tuesday, and several long time members recalled the origins of our church, a story recalled in this wondeful booklet that was put out on the occasion of our church’s 75th anniversary. I love the way the story begins. Let me read it to you:

“Along the muddy unpaved roads of the Highlands in the bleak winter of 1922, a few resolute people trudged past cornfields and apple orchards to reach religious services in scattered homes and to take children to Sunday School in an old barn.”

It was the beginnings of The Church in the Highlands.

The square mile of Highlands farmlans grew since 1922 into a cicrocosm of middle class suburbia until every street became paved and scarcely a lot was left without an attractive house and landscaped yard.

The new church was named the Greenridge Congregational Church, a name that remained until 1930.

The old barn behind the home of Thomas Bernie at 151 Longview, no longer need for horses and cows, was converted for Sunday School use. An overhead hayloft accommodated some of the classes.

When news of the new congregation seeped through the city, a local newspaper editorialized: “There’s a little church up our way, urged on by zestful earnestness, that has shown itself to be contagious in the community.”

I love those words, “zestful earnestness, contagious in the community.”

That is the frontier spirit.

Sadly, too many churches have now settled into a fortress mentality, with big imposing buildings built in another age that look like impenetrable castles to new neighbors walking by. Our Tuesday morning study group took the “fortress test,” answering true or false to questions like these:

  • Less than six persons a year join our church from within a mile of our church building
  • All doors to our church building are locked during weekdays, even if some have an intercom and buzzer.
  • There are warning signs posted on our church property for any of the following: skateboarding, loiterers, unauthorized parking, trespassing on the playground…
  • The major outside doors from the street to our church’s worship sace have no windows to see inside
  • There is an imposing tower or steeple attached to our church building
  • Our facilities are closed for business most of the time during weekdays.
  • 90 % of church group gatherings and ministries are help inside our building (as opposed to elsewhere in the community
  • The church phone number sends me to an answering machine during daytime hours
  • None of our weekly worship services specializes in a style of music that many neighborhood people under the age of forty or fifty would listen to on their radios or electronic devices
  • The official church sign on the street offers no specific invitation to a specific event, or invites me only to worship services.

Well,we took the test, and we did not fare so well, I’m sorry to say. Like so many churches, our church is in danger of slipping into a fortress mentality, holed up in a fortress, oblivious to the neighborhoods around us. Our buildings have become idols and albatrosses.

It was not always so! We were once called by the local paper “zestfully earnest” and a contagious force in the community.” And we worshipped and dd Sunday School in a barn.

So here is a question: Even though we currently worship in a beautiful Gothic fortress, with lovely stained glass windows containing 7,000 pieces of rare glass and 1,500 pounds of lead made by Mantague Castle, a master craftsman who studied the famous windows of the Chartres Cathedral in France—can a fortress church go back to having that frontier spirit that it possessed at its origin?

Can we shift the focus of our ministry away from Board meetings in the building to street ministries in the community, in the homes and businesses and public spaces of White Plains? Can we go from an insider game—a church for members—to outsider ministry to the wider community? Can we become the church for others?

If you would have asked those circuit riding Methodist preachers what business are we in, they would shot back a quick answer: They believed that their mission was to “reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness over the land.” Folks, that is a BOLD mission.

The unstated mission that drives most churches today is “providing fellowship, comforting ritual, and care for insiders.” This would have shocked and horrified our Highlands ancestors! They understood their mission as changing the world, not exhausting all their energy on one another. They understood with infectious zeal that the mission of God in Christ is about carrying good news to the frontier, not guarding it in a fortress.

They are a great cloud of witnesses, praying for us, encouraging us, cheering us on, counting on us, to choose frontier over fortress. May it be so.  Amen.


  • Source: Paul Nixon, I Refuse To Lead A Dying Church, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006. This sermon is drawn from ideas in this book. I am grateful to Paul Nixon for his ideas, and excited that many of us are reading this book together.