20 January 2008

On the State of the Church

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time/20th January 2008

In his book The Heart of Christianity (2003), Marcus Borg of Oregon State University describes how his university students have a uniformly negative image of Christianity. "When I ask them to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity," says Borg, "they consistently use five adjectives: Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and bigoted."

We might object by saying these are sweeping generalizations, but in a world where image and impressions mean more than the truth, we should be concerned. However, a new book called unChristian by David Kinnaman, of the highly-respected Barna Research Group, presents objective research that supports Borg's classroom experience. Kinnaman's three-year study documents how an overwhelming percentage of sixteen to twenty-nine year olds view Christians with hostility, resentment and disdain. He’s not working with stereotypes. Nor are these critics people who've had no contact with churches or Christians. These perceptions are based on real experiences with today's Christians. According to Kinnaman's Barna study, here are the percentages of people outside the church who think that the following words describe present-day Christianity: anti-gay 91%; judgmental 87%; hypocritical 85%; old-fashioned 78%; too political 75%; out of touch with reality 72%; insensitive to others 70%; and boring – 68%.
Just think of standing up in Starbuck’s or Panera Bread, announcing you’re a Christian, knowing that a sizable number drinking their lattes probably think of you in one of these ways.
Soon President Bush will offer his On the State of the Union speech before Congress, his perspective on the state of the nation. I thought this morning that I would offer my perspective on the state of the church, both nationally and locally.

The church exists in a less-than-friendly environment these days. It’s not surprising that so many churches are in trouble and so many ministers burning-out or leaving ministry altogether. The church is in time of significant, cultural challenge. I don’t necessarily view the culture as hostile toward the church, it’s more an attitude of bland indifference. These are tough times for the church but also times of opportunity. The church thrives best when it is under persecution, when we face cultural dislocation and alienation. For most of its history, the church has existed in times of difficulty and challenge.

The church in Corinth was no Disneyland. Throughout Paul’s epistles to this major metropolis of the Roman Empire, he’s trying to deal with sectarian divisions, rampant immorality, lawsuits, pseudo-preachers preaching a false gospel – all of this was in the church (!), not the culture of Corinth. One of the greatest challenges for a Christian in the Roman world, where everyone was religious, worshipping all kind of deities, including Caesar, was that you couldn’t be Christian on the side.[2] You couldn’t worship both Jupiter and Jesus. You had to decide. Christian discipleship required commitment, devotion to one God and not an assortment of gods. This sounds very similar to what we face in our own age where people worship all kinds of gods, but are reluctant to make a commitment to the God of Jesus Christ.

And yet, despite their considerable dysfunction, Paul still thanks God for them, for the grace that is nevertheless at work in them! In every way they are being enriched for the work God called them to do. They’re really screwed up and haven’t a clue what it means to be and do church, and yet they’re not lacking any spiritual gift; they have the gifts of speech and knowledge, which allows them to give testimony to the good news of Jesus Christ.

All of this bodes well for the church today, despite its many challenges and problems. The Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to lose members and the cost of per capita continues to rise. There are more Muslims than Presbyterians in the United States. We have internal divisions and strive to remain together. And we are holding together post-PUP, that is in light of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force Report that was approved by the last General Assembly. A few churches have left, but they were on their way out for a while. Most churches that threatened to leave are learning to living peaceably within the Presbyterian family and finding a way to find unity in diversity, instead of preferring uniformity – which is always exclusive and often very destructive for both the church and its people. After spending this past week in Bradenton Beach, Florida, with fourteen very gifted, committed, Presbyterian pastors, studying scripture together, talking about how we seek to be faithful in such a time as this, I’m optimistic about the future of the church. God is equipping the church with every gift necessary for its life – committed pastors and lay people who love the Lord and who not only want to see the church survive but, more importantly, thrive. We are not called to just survive, but to thrive.

I believe God has and is equipping this church with every gift necessary for our life together. We lack nothing. We have everything we need to be faithful to what God is calling us to be and to do; it’s all within us – we have the personal, spiritual, and financial resources to do amazing things. And the greatest resource of this church is YOU – the people, your faith, your commitment, your life-experience, your faith experience. I’m grateful that we don’t have the factions and the internal squabbling that goes on in so many congregations these days. We have a healthy sense of conflict, we don’t all agree on things – nor should we – but we listen to one another and make space for difference. We do more than just tolerate each another; we try to work together, to exercise what the Book of Order aptly calls “mutual forbearance.”[3]

A church exists to serve Christ. We don’t exist for ourselves. Christ calls his people to suffer with those who suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26), weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15). To share the burden and pain and joy of God’s people. This is the work of all God’s people, not just religious professionals. I’m grateful for the way this church does walk with those who are in pain and can celebrate with those who celebrate. I see it all the time, the way people reach out in a ministry of prayer and presence. Our deacons are amazing. Yet, inevitably, there are people who suffer silently, whose pain is too deep for words. There are people who fall through the cracks or just silently move out of the orbit of the church and then they feel hurt because they aren’t missed. This is always my fear. I’ve seen it happen here. This is everyone’s responsibility, not just your pastors or the elders or deacons. If you haven’t seen someone here for a while, pick up the phone and call them or drop them a note. I know that you pretty much sit in the same seat each week. If you haven’t seen your pew buddy in a couple of weeks, take responsibility for them. Seek them out. Do you know the names of the people who sit beside you, before and behind you? They’re your sisters; they’re your brothers. They’re part of the family. Care for them.

Reach out. Perhaps that’s one of the greatest challenges facing us: reaching out. How can we be better evangelists? It’s been said the church is always one generation away from extinction. We often think of individuals being evangelists – like pastors or Billy Graham-types. But it’s really the church as a whole that preaches and shares the good news.[4] Session is investing some dollars in outreach, trying to advertise more in different publications, such as The Urbanite. However the best advertisement for this church is you. Most people join a church not because of the pastor or the preaching or the music, worship style, education programs or mission programs, but because someone cared enough to invite them to attend worship or join an event. It’s through word of mouth that the church grows, through testimony, when we share what we see taking place here. Imagine if every person – or just one family working together – invited one person to join us, not once, but cultivated that relationship so that he/she became part of this family. Imagine the impact. I also think we should be praying that God send us people and that we be prepared to welcome them when they arrive.

Truth be told, most pastors become easily frustrated (including your own) when they see all the wonderful ministry going on in a church, but people don’t respond: growth is stagnant, commitment is low (even among members), that people just don’t seem to care. Truth is, there are so many other things, activities – other gods – competing for our time, attention, commitment, and money, which causes the church to suffer. I would love to see this church grow in numbers, for the pews to be filled every week. In addition to infant baptisms, I would love to see more adult baptisms – adults becoming Christian, seeking to be disciples, which is probably an even stronger sign of the future health of the church.

Yet, a long time ago I learned to check at the door of the sanctuary my American sensibility that numbers equals success, that a growth in numbers is a sign that either I’m doing something right or that we are doing something right. That’s a deadly formula for the church – it’s not biblical, it’s theologically abhorrent, and ultimately it’s unfaithful. We are not called to grow, but to be faithful. We are called to be a faithful church – which means Christ-centered. This church does not belong to me or to you its members (even if you pledge), it’s not ours, it doesn’t belong to anyone, except Christ. We have been invited in grace to be a part it. No one is part of this community because he or she deserves to be here or earned the right to be here. We are here by grace to be Christ’s disciples, to serve him with joy, to grow in our faith and commitment to him and to one another. We are here by grace because God wants to do something through us, together, that we couldn’t do on our own.

Growing in numbers is less important than growing in faith. What matters most is that ours is a faithful church; and a faithful fellowship implies being a healthy church. I would rather service a healthy church any day than a large, dysfunctional church.

What is a healthy church?
· A healthy church puts Christ first – which is another way of saying, puts love first.
· Trusts God to do the impossible through us.
· Looks to the future with confidence instead of pining for the past.
· Takes healthy risks.
· It’s a church that studies scripture in order to know God, with people who want to grow in their knowledge of scripture, grow in faith and commitment, people who engage their minds and their hearts as disciples of Christ; but also people who don’t have all the answers, that are still growing; a church where you don’t have to have all the answers first and your faith completely intact before joining.

· It’s a church that worships together and prays together; where we rejoice with those who rejoice and suffer with those who suffer; a place where people can bring their pain.
· A place where we practice what we preach.
· A place that’s unreasonably generous, that welcomes the joy and the responsibility of faithful stewardship of God’s gifts.
· It’s a place where egos are set aside and we seek the welfare of the whole church, caring less for “my needs” or what “I want,” thinking more about what God wants, what Christ demands, what the Spirit desires.
· It’s a place that is known for its mercy and kindness, that makes a space for all people to be fellow-disciples.
· It’s a place that cares for its children even as it cares for its elderly, indeed, as it cares for anyone who is vulnerable or weak or fragile or alone.
· It’s a fellowship where the presence of Christ is known – when guests walk into this sanctuary, attend a concert or meeting, they know and feel that there’s something different about us, that in us they somehow see the face of God.
· It’s a church where everyone knows that he or she has a calling because of one’s baptism, thus called to do something unique and needed to give a blessing to the world.
· It’s a church that’s not bent on surviving (which is really more about ego than faith) but on thriving and reaching out to a community, a world in need.

It’s a church where we prove to be an exception to the statistics.

Wishful-thinking? Not if you believe that God’s Spirit is within us and among us, equipping us with every gift needed to be an effective, faithful, fellowship of Christ. The church in Corinth prospered despite its many limitations. It wasn’t about them, but what God was doing through them. It’s not about us, but about what God is doing through us. This isn’t wishful-thinking, but faithful-thinking. And when the church lives this way, it will get peoples’ attention, it will cause a stir, it will cause people to wake up and notice. They might even meet Christ – the true Christ, the loving Christ, the grace-filled, welcoming Christ – through you, through us. That’s my prayer.

[1] See Dan Clendenin’s lectionary blog site for 20th January 2008, “The Outrage of Outsiders: Why So Many People Dislike Christians:” http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20080114JJ.shtml

[2] A. D. Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 [1933]).
[3] “…we …believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” (G-1.0305) Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part II.
[4] Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 120.
[5] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “The church is not the fellowship of those who have been fully and completely changed or saved and who require nothing more. In other words, the church is not the saved who are then to save others. The church is a fellowship, a gathering of those who are in the process of being changed, of those who are being saved and made new, and who invite others to join them in this adventure and this life.” Robinson, 37.

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