24 May 2010
Acts 1:3, 6-9 & Romans 8: 12-18
Pentecost/ 23rd May 2010
Winds of Change. The last two weeks we looked at the winds of change blowing through the world and the church. We identified some of the ways the Holy Spirit might be at work extending the presence of Christ in our time, reforming the church and the world. On this Pentecost Sunday we turn personal. We’ve looked outward the last two weeks, this week we turn inward to reflect upon the winds of change blowing in us because of the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Yes, the Spirit is in the world and in the church, but the Spirit also abides deep within us, closer than our breath. Perhaps when we’re more attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the depths of our spirits, when we care for and cultivate this primary relationship, we might be better equipped to face all the changes and demands facing the church and the world today.
Romans 8: 12-18 is a good guide here. Although the opening verses of the text, where Paul talks about being debtors of the flesh and putting to death the “deeds of the body,” might sound confusing, if not Puritanical. When Paul refers to “flesh” he doesn’t mean our physical body; it’s his term for our natural existence, or human existence apart from God. Human existence divorced from God means to be of the flesh. Flesh is placed in contrast to Spirit, because the Spirit is the one who turns our natural lives, bound by sin and alienation from God, and transforms them into something new, lives that participate in the Spirit of Christ. Then we might come to see ourselves, “led by the Spirit of God” and thus God’s children. That’s the point here: it’s about change, transformation from one way of being to another, it’s about conversion —not once, but over and over and over again as the Spirit pulls us into the life of God.
He continues, “For you did not receive [from Christ] a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” That is, in Christ we have been, and are, and ever more are being grafted into the life of God, adopted by God and called into God’s life. This is because, as the cross and resurrection made abundantly clear, God desires to be close to us and our heart’s deepest desire is to be close to God. It’s this connection between God and humanity and humanity and God that stands at the heart of the gospel. It’s why Paul wanted the Romans to know, as we find in the culmination of this sublime, majestic chapter eight, that, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, …nor powers, nor height, or depth, nor anything in all of creation, will be able to separate us form the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 38-39).” It’s the connection that matters, so that knowing in Christ we are very close to God we are able to cry out, “Abba! Father!” Abba means, “Daddy.” It’s a term of endearment, of intimacy – so intimate in fact that our human spirits can cry out to the Spirit of God. Indeed, as Paul suggests, it’s the Spirit who allows us to become like children again in the presence of God, crying out, trusting, and praising God. That’s what the Holy Spirit does.
While we have been playing around with the winds of change metaphor we have to remember that all metaphors breakdown, that is, they’re all inadequate. One of the weaknesses of the wind metaphor for the Holy Spirit is that it’s far too impersonal. The Holy Spirit is not a force; the Holy Spirit is not an “it.” When Jesus and Paul talk about the Holy Spirit, they describe a person, with characteristics and functions, who comes either alongside us or dwells within us in order to relate to us – face-to-face, the personhood of God to our personhood. You see, the Holy Spirit is God, the Holy Spirit is the personal agent of God’s relationship with us who not only draws us into a deeper relationship with Christ, but who then in and through our ongoing relationship with Christ changes us. That’s what happens when we face Christ; we’re changed and never left the same again. We’re changed, again and again, when the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit, our souls, our hearts, the depths of our being, the core of who we are and tells us who we are; and from the depth of those places we live out a profound relationship with Christ. To be baptized means that the Holy Spirit is at work in us, participating in us as, we participate in Christ. Christ is not some distant historical figure that we believe in; he’s a present historical presence who deals with us personally.(1)
While in God’s grace we’re accepted where we are, God never leaves us there, but takes us to somewhere else. Part of that journey treks out over the landscape of the human spirit. Listening to the voice of the Spirit to get direction includes listening within. Part of that journey includes discovering who God is and who we are – seeing ourselves as God’s children. Part of the journey is done through our relationships, with this community of faith, with our families. But the journey has to also take place within.
In the depths of the relationship we discover that God is ever seeking us as we are ever seeking God, driven by love. The Spirit through the depths of our spirits seeks to draw us deeper and deeper into relationship with God (which is what Jesus came to do). And in the relationship, through this love, we are indeed changed, transformed. For in love and through love Christ wishes to change us – not to make us into something we’re not, but wants us to see ourselves as the people he already knows us to be, that we might see something of what God sees; that we might be more authentic and real and honest about who we are as God’s own, that we might be more loving and just and forgiving and hopeful, that we might have the heart of God.
Life in the Spirit is about transformation – of deepening our capacity to love and to be loved. In love the Spirit is forever trying to nudge us or kick us out of ego-zones, that we might discover God in the other, that we might discover empathy. The Spirit pushes us to do things that we resist because of fear. The Spirit, in love, calls us to listen to the depths of our souls to give up living on the surface and challenges us to go deep. In love, the Spirit prays for us, companions us, walks beside us, like a friend, and takes us where we need to go – not where we necessarily want to go, but need to go to do God’s will. In love the Spirit gives us an experience of God – the reality of God, the mystery and wonder of God – and that’s what matters most in the church and the world. In love the Spirit helps us to remember who we are and whose we are and connects us with the Source of our Being.
Our confirmands this morning began their journey with a quote from Lewis Carroll’s, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland (1865): “Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” Who in the world am I? Who in the world are you? That’s the great puzzle, whether one is 14, 44, or 84. Yet, we don’t solve the puzzle alone. This is what the Holy Spirit does in our lives. God knows who we are. The Spirit reminds us time and again, who we are and whose we are. Who in the world am I? Who are you? With the confirmands we can say, with the Apostle Paul we can say what Jesus came to show us once and for all: we are children of God. We are children of God!
Image: “Pentecost,” by online digital/fractal artist known as Jacqui “Purple Whirlpool.”
1. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “The personality of the Spirit is important for faith… because… in the Spirit meets us and deals with us personally. Without the personal work of the Spirit we could have Christ only as an impersonal memory. It is the living person of God, present in his Spirit, that unites us with Christ and through him deals personally with us.” George S. Hendry, The Holy Spirit in Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 42.
16 May 2010
Winds of Change: In the Church
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
Seventh Sunday of Easter/ 16th May 2010
Last week in this sermon series we identified some of the winds of change facing the wider world in which we live. We are immersed in it. Some of the change is good, very good; but not all of it. I left us last week with the question: How do we discern this season? How do we know what’s going on? Is it of “the world” or is it “of God?” Is the Spirit of God actually blowing the winds of change moving through the world? In fact, what if some of the change we’re experiencing is actually the work of God who is trying to teach us something about ourselves, about our neighbor? What if God is trying to teach us something new about what it means to be the church in order to wake us up, to form and transform us to be more faithful, more committed to the redemptive work of God in the world? If the winds of change blowing through the world have something to do with God’s sovereign plan for creation, then we better do a better job figuring out what is and what isn’t of God, because we run the risk of actually resisting and restricting the very work of God. For who wants to stand in the way of the Spirit? And by “we” here, I mean the church. Last week we looked at changes in the world; this morning we turn our focus on the winds of change in the church.
A lot of folks are asking: What’s happening to the church these days? Something has changed. Several years ago the Ford Motor Corporation, in an attempt to get a younger generation to at least consider looking at a Ford, had the tag-line: “It’s not your grandfather’s Ford.” Things have changed at Ford. The same can be said of the church: “It’s not your grandfather’s church,” today. Or, given the notoriously slow pace of change in the church, we should probably say, “It’s not your great-grandfather’s church.” Comparing the vitality of the church to the fate of the Ford Motor Company is probably not a good idea either, but the point is clear: Ford knows we’re in a new world. A younger generation of Americans looks out and sees the world from a different perspective. The church is discovering that we’re in a new world. Something has changed and is changing on the landscape of American Protestantism – actually, all of American Christianity.
How do we describe the landscape? That’s what I hope to do this morning, paint a picture of the landscape. Let’s start with some numbers. Last week I shared this statistic: depending upon the survey, either 52% or 58% of Americans under the age of 30 have never been inside a church.(1) Yet, when asked, the North American landscape is overwhelmingly Christian: about three in four adults identify themselves as Christian, with the next largest groups being Islam and Judaism. Did you know, by the way, that there are more Muslims in the United States than there are Presbyterians? Although the importance of religion is on the decline in most developed countries, worldwide, it remains strong in the United States; we have the highest level of church attendance than any other country at a comparable level of development. 53% of Americans consider religion to be very important in their lives (16% believe this in Britain; 14% in France, 14% in Germany). (2)
But go a little deeper. The percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christian dropped from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001 – an unprecedented drop of almost 1 percentage point per year. And it’s, no doubt, much lower now. In 2005, the percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Protestants dropped below 50%. All mainline denominations – United Methodist, Episcopalian, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Lutherans, and Presbyterian – are facing significant decline. Theologically conservative churches gained in numbers, especially over the last twenty years, but some sociologists see signs that this pattern is changing too; and their mega-churches, although they garner much attention in the press, represent only 1% of the Protestant church landscape. From 1992 to 2003, average attendance at a typical church service has dropped by 13%, whereas the population of the United States has increased by 9%. A 2009 Gallup poll listed the top 10 states in church attendance: Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Utah, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. The bottom ten are: Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Hawaii, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. All of New England is included in the list. New England must be one of the most challenging places to do ministry and to be a minister. Maryland is somewhere in the middle. The number of “unchurched” has also increased rapidly. At the present rate of change, most Americans will identify themselves as non-religious or non-Christian by the year 2035 CE. (3)
Carol Howard Merritt is a Presbyterian minister in Washington, DC, and has written extensively on contemporary trends in American Christianity. In her book Tribal Church, she argues that the church is missing an entire generation – an entire generation under the age of 40. Of course, this age bracket has traditionally been underrepresented in churches. The pattern is familiar: get baptized, attend church school, grow up in the church, get confirmed, go off to college, stop attending worship, begin a career, get married, have children, and then return. But in the last couple of decades something has happened, the pattern is broken. Not as many are coming back. The question is, why? There isn’t one simple answer. The contemporary historian of Christianity, Philip Jenkins, ways, “when people cannot find miracle in their churches, they seek it elsewhere.” If you look to Europe, where cavernous cathedrals and ancient churches are empty on a Sunday morning, at the Taizé Community in France, thousands of youth from all around the world gather weekly to pray. Why? Because they’re looking for an experience of mystery – they’re looking for an experience of God.(4)
And, just to make us really depressed, the findings of a major new study were released just a few weeks ago, this Millennial generation, as they are called, 18-29 years old, are drifting away from the church. One commentator has said, they will see “churches closing as quickly as GM dealerships.” Here are some more statistics: 72% say they’re “really more spiritual than religious.” Many are unsure Jesus is the only path to heaven (about 50-50); 65% rarely or never pray with others, and 38% almost never pray by themselves either; 65% rarely or never attend worship services; 67% don’t read the Bible or sacred texts. Of those who claim to be Christian: 68% did not mention faith, religion or spirituality when asked what was ‘really important in life;’ 50% do not attend church as least weekly; 36% never read the Bible. (5)
Finally, in one of the most significant studies of the Millennial generation – which will have a profound impact upon the future of Catonsville Presbyterian Church and any other church – Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s book, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, have shown that something has shifted in American Christianity, particularly in Mainline Protestantism. It’s the surfacing of something Smith and Snell are actually calling a new religion, a pseudo-religion, a distortion of what it means to be Christian found within the church. After thousands of hours of personal interviews, their conclusion, which is being widely received by sociologists and cultural observers in the church, is that the common religious belief among our youth is what they call: moralistic therapeutic deism. Now, if you asked a 24-year-old what he believed, he’s not going to say, “I’m a moralistic therapeutic deist.” Yet, here are the five statues of this belief system: 1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life; 2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions; 3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; 4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem; and 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.” On the surface, this might sound like a pretty good list of beliefs, it could be worse; however, there’s really nothing inherently Christian about this. It views God as “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.” (6) God is in the heavens; we’re here. We pull God down when we need God and then we send God away.
What’s missing? Discipleship with Christ, repentance, an understanding of the power of sin, a refusal to keep the Sabbath. There’s no understanding of being a servant of a sovereign deity, of entering into an ongoing relationship with God in prayer, no reference to observing special high holy days, or of the personal growth that comes through suffering –with and for one’s neighbor. What’s missing is the value of community, the church.
Given this context, combined with other contributing factors – such as, postmodernist thought with its complete collapse in confidence in God, in institutions, in humanity, in the truth, as well a battering (and sometimes a well-deserved battering) of the Christian image, harsh media criticism, “unchristian” behavior by church people, bad personal experiences people have had in churches, ineffective Christian leadership amid social crises – we should not be surprised that something has changed in the church. Should we be surprised that membership is on the decline? We should not be surprised that people are drifting away from the church. But we can also turn it around and say that if one is part of a healthy, active, vital church that is doing more than just hanging on and more than just looking to a gloried past then be very grateful. This congregation has its challenges, but we also need to be exceedingly grateful for what we have here and who we are and what we can do. This is a challenging time to be a Christian and to be part of the church of Jesus Christ.
If we’re going to continue to meet the challenges facing the church, the church has to change. This doesn’t mean we have to project images on a wide screen or introduce a rock band. It could. But that’s a technical change in response to a problem, not adaptive change. What’s the difference? You have an expanding church school attendance and you’re running out of space, so you build an education wing to accommodate the change (which is what we did back in the 1960s, along with countless other churches). Adaptive change is different: it’s making a deep systemic, paradigm shift. It means doing things completely different in order to face a new challenge. (7) Carol Merrit says, “Young adults do not need an entertaining experience that happens to them; rather, they need a connection, a place where they can be grounded in a spiritual community.” (8) The shift in focus that is needed is this: away from programs and institutional structure to relationships with one another and with God through Jesus Christ.
Yet, there are signs of hope. There is something new emerging within the body of Christ that will benefit the entire church; there is something new emerging in the world. Last week I attended a conference at Wesley Seminary on the Emergent Church phenomenon – the kind of church emerging from within the present church, the, twenty-, thirty-, forty-somethings, who are fully engaged with the spirit of the age, learning from technology, using it, critiquing it, forming something new. Two things were very apparent in the people I met, in what I heard, and in what I’ve been reading. These are things the entire church can learn. First: We’re moving toward an era beyond belief – that is, of seeing Christianity less as a body of ideas or beliefs (an ideology that we have to argue and defend), where we’re trying to “prove” the truth of our religion in order to prove the other wrong, toward see Christianity as a way of life. (9) Samir Salmonovic quote on bulletin cover get to this point. Samir spoke at the conference and I had a chance to talk with him. He writes, “We can either stay within the Christianity we have mastered with the Jesus we have domesticated, or we can leave Christianity as a destination, embrace Christianity as a way of life, then journey to reality, where God is present and living in every person, every human community and all creation.” (10) He’s point toward a way of being in the world that is rooted in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and through that relationship we reach out to people, all people with love and mercy and forgiveness and work for justice. Millenials are really more interested in mystery – and the value of religious experience that is real.
Second, is the value of relationships. People are looking for a place where they can be real, honest, transparent, not fake or phony or pretentious. My friend, Jan Edminston, who led one of the workshops at Wesley, said, “They want a way to follow Jesus that isn’t fake.” Don’t we all? Don’t we all want that for the church? These folks are looking to make connections with other people who take them seriously in their desire to walk the way of Christ and live into the Kingdom. That’s where the winds of the Spirit are moving the church – if we’re willing. Perhaps we can see here the hand of God, ever so slowly reforming the church.
I’ve never ever preached a sermon in which the biblical text for the morning showed up in the last two minutes of the sermon. As we think of the contemporary landscape of the church it might seem, at times, that we are like that valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision – “very dry” the text says, implying no possibility of life, no hope of resuscitation, no future, no hope. It might feel this way, particularly after hearing all of these statistics. Perhaps we can think of the statistics as dry bones. Or we might think of the current structure of Mainline Protestantism, of Presbyterianism, as a bunch of dry bones. But the point of this vivid vision is simply this: Yes, there are dry bones everywhere. Yet, never underestimate what the breath of God can do. God loves to bring new life out of death. Never allow the present moment determine what the future must be. Never assume that anything about the future is in our hands – when it comes to the world, or our lives, or to the church. These old bones of Protestantism might look “very dry,” but the spirit, the breath, the wind, the ruach of God – the same Spirit who moved over the chaos at the beginning of time – will breathe new life in us, will resurrect God’s people and will make skeletons dance! Why? Because God will not give up on God’s people. This new life won’t come about through church growth techniques or gimmicks or enticing programs – those days are over. It’s not the outcome of anything that we do. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit – the breath of the resurrected Christ – who will breathe new life into us — “that we may live” – and then form us and transform us into new people, so that others may live. That’s the work God requires of us today. This can only happen because the Holy Spirit is breathing through you and me and, together, through this body of Christ. This is the promise: “I will put my spirit within you,” says the LORD, “and you shall live (Ezekiel 37:14).” Then let us live into that promise.
1. Statistic quoted by Jan Edminston at the transFORM Conference at Wesley Seminary. She was quoting a Carol Merritt. I’m working on securing the exact source.
2. Trends among U. S. Christians. Religious Tolerance website: www.religioustolerance.org/chr_tren.htm.
3. www.religioustolerance.org/chr_tren.htm. See also the finds of the Barna Research Group of Ventura, CA.
4. Carol Howard Merritt, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation (Alban Institute Books, 2007); Philip Jenkins, “Pilgrims of Our Time,” Christian Century (May 18, 2010), 45. For more information on the ecumenical Taizé Community in Taizé, France, see: www. http://www.taize.fr/.
5. Findings of LifeWay Christian Resources. These findings reinforce the recent study done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Cited: USA Today, April 27, 2010.
6. See Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
7. See Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 12ff.
8. Merritt, Tribal Church.
9. See Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards A Church Beyond Belief (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2008).
10. Samir Selmanovic, It’s Really About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 63.
10 May 2010
Acts 2: 1-21
Sixth Sunday of Easter/ 9th May 2010
Last week Dorothy Boulton preached these words; toward the end of the first sermon in our series on the Holy Spirit, a series about the changing winds of the Spirit, in a sermon on how the Spirit actually blows through sometimes as solid and true as tradition, this is what she said: “Encountering the Spirit is not a tame adventure. The church is always being called to see beyond itself. To live in the midst of challenges. To wrestle. To discern. To be changed. To be made new.” These sentences capture the themes of his series: Encounter. Adventure. Called. Challenge. Wrestle. Discern. Change. New. The Spirit of God is not tame and when the Spirit of God arrives in our spirits, or in the church, or in the world – nothing is ever the same.
That’s what the first Christians discovered when the Holy Spirit arrived on Pentecost. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” It was a violent, ferocious wind blowing into their lives. It was a wind that burned with tongues of fire. It came upon them – they didn’t go asking for the Spirit – and forever changed their lives – the lives of the people who were huddled together in one place. We say that on Pentecost the church of Jesus Christ was born through the gift of the Holy Spirit. When we think of the Holy Spirit – when we think about the Holy Spirit – he or she is the “orphan” of the Holy Family, as it were, we connect the Holy Spirit with the formation of the church. And that’s true. Or we might think of the Holy Spirit moving in the depths of the human spirit. And that’s true, too. But there’s something else going on here in the way Luke tells the story.
First, notice how the Holy Spirit gave the first Christians the ability to preach the gospel “in other languages.” The gospel of Jesus Christ was not good news for only a few people, huddled together. It was not simply the theological reflections of a closed group of people trying to organize themselves around a new religious experience. It was not a private experience because the gospel of Jesus Christ was not given just for them. It was given in order that it be translated from one language to another, from one people to another, from one time to another. The gospel was not given for them alone, as the church; the gospel was given to them for the sake of everyone else. The gospel was not their private possession, but entrusted to them that it might be shared.
Second, therefore, note that once the church spoke the word went out to every nation living in Jerusalem, to the immigrant population in the city, which beautifully symbolizes the way the gospel will be unleashed and given to the world. Everyone is here: Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, from as far away as Mesopotamia, Asia, Pontus (which is Turkey), Egypt, Libya, visitors from Rome, Jews and non-Jews who worship Yahweh, Cretans and even Arabs. It’s an amazing ethnic and religious diversity. Just about the entire reach of the Roman Empire (except Northern Europe) is represented here. It’s the world that’s found there, receiving the good news of God’s redemptive love.
Third, Peter then stands up and begins to preach. The Spirit has moved through him and now he has something to say. He begins to proclaim to the crowd these words of the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).” Not just to Jews, not just to a special group of Jews who follow Jesus, not just to a special group of Gentiles who follow Jesus. The Spirit unleashed in Jerusalem, the ferocious winds that blew through their lives cannot be contained in that space, in that location, to that city or even to that time. The same wind of the Spirit blows through the world – out there, even the doors of the church. Yes, God is at work in the church. But we have to also say that the Holy Spirit is at work in the wider world, extending the redemptive activity of Christ to all people. I’m reminded of the world of Harold Kurtz, who died last year; a Presbyterian minister, raised on a farm in Idaho, heard the call to ministry, listened to the Spirit, and eventually served as a mission worker in Ethiopia for more than twenty-two years and later director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship. He loved to say: “The gospel is out of control!”(1)
Yes, the Spirit of God is at work in the church, in our lives. But an overemphasis on this view has led some to think that the Spirit of God is only present in the church or can only be found through the church. If you want to find God, some believe, you have to find God in a church. There was a time when this was the prevailing view, that there could be no salvation apart from the church; and a major reason why church attendance and membership was so high, especially in the United States. As we know this is not the conventional view today. Those days are over; that world is gone. The church needs to acknowledge this, grieve it, and then move on. People who thought they would find God in the church have found, instead, petty arguments, political squabbles, and plenty of judgment and shame to go around. Can you blame some for leaving the church? How often have you heard people say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual. I don’t believe in organized or institutional religion; I’m spiritual.” Just as many people feel they can commune with the divine hiking through nature or teeing off at a golf course or sleeping in on a Sunday morning. For those who have not given up on God or Christianity, for that matter, there are many ways to connect with the holy that does not include worship in pews at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Now, I don’t recommend any of these, of course, especially staying away from worship, obviously. For the truth is, one cannot be a Christian without being in community. Someone got very mad at me years ago over this. He called to ask me a question about, I forget the reason. I happened to mention one can’t be a Christian alone and he got very upset. We can’t. We are called into community. It’s just a way of illustrating that the world has change and it’s changing – fast, exceedingly fast. The world has changed and it’s changing – fast, exceedingly fast.
Next week we’re going to look at the winds of change in the church. We see the church in decline, both here in the United States and in Europe. The drop in church membership is a major concern for many. We’ll look at these trends next week. But what the church in this age has to come to terms with is that, yes, people are leaving the church (and, again, sometimes with very good reasons), yet we inside the cocoon of the church have to realize its not all about us because beyond the church, all around us, is a wider world, a world that has changed and is changing outside our doors. Declining membership is not the issue. It’s just a symptom of something deeper going in the wider culture.
There’s a wonderful German word that refers to the spirit of the age or time: Zeitgeist. The ghost, the spirit, the winds of change blowing through our time is enormous. The Zeitgeist is in turmoil. The world is changing fast. It’s becoming increasing complex and calling from us a greater capacity to process complexity. These are extremely challenging times. Scientific and technological developments are far outstripping our ability to morally, ethically handle them. A growing trend toward secularization started back in the early 1800s, with considerable help from the likes of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), which continue to grow unabated. (2) Twenty years ago this year I graduated from seminary and left the United States to study in Europe. I soon came across a word at the University of St. Andrews I never remembered hearing or never registered in my thinking at Princeton Seminary: postmodern (or postmodernism). I was forced to study postmodern thought, a philosophical movement that was sweeping Europe at the time and having a profound impact upon theological studies. Today, postmodern or postmodernism is not a foreign word in America – although, most are not really sure what it means, with good reason because it’s notoriously difficult to define (there are many definitions of it). I would sum it up this way: it basically points to a collapse in confidence at all levels of human experience. It’s a collapse in confidence in God, in the existence of God; the collapse in confidence in humanity, the good in humanity; it’s a collapse in confidence in institutions, in the value of community and institutions (which has had considerable impact upon church membership decline); and it’s a collapse in confidence in reason, which means that truth must no longer be referred to as Truth (capital ‘T’), but small-‘t’-truth or truths. (3) Truth has become relative – you have yours and I have mine and if we share the same truth we can talk. I was trained to be a minister in the modern world (so was Dorothy Boulton), but we have spent most of our ministries trying to figure out and say why the church is really relevant in a postmodern world. My point here is to say that the intellectual challenges facing Christianity are enormous – colossal!
Add to all of this the massive sea-change in cultural, political, and religious perspectives throughout the world as a result of 9-11. Rising religious fundamentalisms combined with the rise in terrorism. There’s climate change and environmental disasters to contend with. It’s not surprising there’s a rise in fundamentalisms and reactionary political movements, for all this change (whether real or perceived) is scary. There are people playing around with traditions, trying to redefine marriage. Nothing seems to be sacred any more. We call BGE or Comcast cable and hear: Press one for Spanish; press two for English. For some, all of this is just enormously unsettling. Add to this the worse economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. No wonder so many people are fearful. For some just trying to figure out Facebook and Twitter is very unsettling and disturbing (I’m still trying to figure out Twitter).
I was at a conference at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, last weekend. I’ll say more about this next week. But I heard a statistic that really shocked me. Depending upon the study, either 52% or 58% of Americans under the age of thirty have never been inside a church building. (4) Now, immediately we can mourn this (and we should) and put the blame on the church. Or we can flip it around and use it as a wake-up call to the church to confess that while we were busy “doing” church,” doing our church-thing, running our religious institutions, the world around us was changing and we never noticed. Yes, we can be concerned about the decline in church membership. The more faithful concern, however, is trying to understand the culture, the wider-world in which the church finds itself today. The more pressing concern is whether or not we are really relevant. Perhaps we’re answering questions that people have stopped asking. To some extent the world is passing us by.
“There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It’s always empty. Finally, one day, their eyes open: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves.” (5) Sometimes what should be most obvious is oblivious to us. Sometimes we think we’re seeing one thing, only to discover we were really blind to what was going on right in front of us. The church has to open its eyes.
We are immersed in a world of change. The winds of the Zeitgeist are ferocious. The church in its present incarnation might not be as relevant as it was fifty, twenty, even ten years ago, but Jesus Christ is just as relevant and the church needs to find the language to translate this truth, even if it’s a small ‘t,’ to the world. God hasn’t given up on the church, but the church needs to wake up and understand the world anew: to really love the world and not be afraid of it, to embrace the world in all of its wild diversity, to reach out from one place and touch the lives of “all flesh” with the good news of God’s love. Not all change is bad. In fact, if the book of Acts can be believed in this postmodern age where skepticism reigns supreme, then the Spirit of the Living God might actually be loose about the world, in the Zeitgeist, beyond the church. In fact, I want to know where the Zeitgeist ends and der Heilige Geist begins? That is, where does the spirit of the age end and the Holy Spirit begin? Are they intertwined together like a DNA-string? How do we discern where the Holy Spirit is at work in the world? If faith is, as Will Willimon puts it, “the breathless attempt to keep up with the redemptive activity of God,” then we as the church need to keep asking ourselves, “What is God doing, where on earth is God going now?”(6)
Next week I will risk being foolish by suggesting how the winds of change shaping the world might actually have the hand of God about them, how the winds of change in the world are actually forcing the church of Jesus Christ to be the church. I would push the question even further: some of this change (and certainly not all of it, but some) might actually be the work of God who is trying to teach us something about ourselves, our neighbor, and of God, trying to teach the church something new, to get us to wake up, to form us and transform us to be more faithful, more committed to the redemptive work of God in the world. This means that if some of this change is actually coming from God, the effects of the Spirit blowing through the world, then how do we know? Is it the spirit of the age or the Holy Spirit? And if we’re involved in resisting change, how can we be sure that we’re not in some way restricting the very Spirit of God? If so, who wants to be guilty of standing in the way of the Spirit? Do you?
1. Cited in Jerry L. Van Marter, Presbyterian News Service, December 21, 2009. http://www.pcusa.org/pcnews/2009/091094.htm.
2. For an intellectual tour-de-force charting this movement, see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
3. For good summaries of postmodernism, see: Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987);
4. Statistic quoted by Jan Edminston at the transFORM Conference at Wesley Seminary. She was quoting a Carol Merritt. I’m working on securing the exact source.
5. Story told by Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador 2008), 1.
6. William Willimon, Acts: Interpretation Commentary (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 99.