16 May 2010

Winds of Change: In the Church

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.

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