How can religious institutions persuade believers to come back to Sunday services?
That's what the new pastor at the United Methodist Church of Fayetteville wants to know. The Rev. Robert Sherburne began his tenure July 1, holding his first sermon, "What Must I Do?" the following week. The challenges he said that he and the mainline church face today is working with a contemporary society and ever-evolving technology.
"Can you imagine [the people of Biblical times] thinking we'd be using computers or be on the Internet? They didn't even have cars or electricity!" Sherburne said. "And yet somehow the Gospel of Christ has transcended all that. The message is there; we just need to find ways to connect with people."
Fayetteville UMC boasts more than 500 members, with 150 that actively attend service. The parish once thrived with more than 300 regulars, high numbers that Sherburne hopes to reach again.
"We welcome anybody, we welcome everybody," he said, explaining the church is open to all people in the community, not just Protestants.
Sherburne, born in Rye in Westchester County, was ordained in 1973. He served as pastor in churches located in Chittenango, North Syracuse, Corning and Horseheads, and spent a full eight-year term working with the bishop as district superintendent, where he oversaw 70 churches throughout the recently renamed Upper Annual New York Conference.
"I've got to help this church find a way to help connect with this community," Sherburne said. "It's done a good job over the years but a massive drop in attendance in all Protestant churches means that we have to turn it around."
Sherburne encourages open communication between clergy and congregation. It's a partnership, he said, and the two groups should work out and resolve problems together. One of his favorite Bible passages is from Matthew 28:19, where Jesus says to go and make disciples. Why?
"I'm an activist in the sense that I want a passage that empowers us," said Sherburne, who seeks to energize people's sleepy faith. "Live your faith. Get involved. Get engaged."
Sherburne and his wife, Virginia (nicknamed Gigi), have three grown children. The couple resides in Manlius.