Friday, June 23, 2017

The Reports of the Church's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated -- Part 7

    I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
-Revelation 3:8 (NIV)

Some years ago now, I remember a group conversation with some church leaders in my area. We were talking about church growth, and the conversation had degenerated into comparisons of all the ways our churches were growing. (Thus validating our existence — though we wouldn’t have said that out loud.)
     I was one of the younger people in the room (that happens less and less), and probably a little more insecure about my own church’s size and growth rate, and so I pointed out that growth doesn’t always have to be about numbers. (A classic case of saying the right thing for the wrong reasons!) 
     One older minister bristled at that. “If your numbers aren’t growing,” he fairly shouted, “then the Holy Spirit’s not at work in your church. Read the book of Acts!” 
     I wish I’d pointed out that Acts also has stories about folks being flogged and stoned and shipwrecked. 
     Earlier in this series, I suggested that at some point we needed to take on the question of what growth looks like. If it isn’t swelling by attracting more of the existing religious “consumer base” than neighboring churches, then what is it? Is it true that the Holy Spirit isn’t at work in a church that isn't growing numerically?
      If you’re a small church in small town with a population that is static or shrinking, are you doomed to be a static or shrinking church? 
     If you’re a medium-sized church in an urban area and you don’t look much like your surrounding community, are you destined for a slow decline into irrelevance?
     If you’re a church of limited resources that can’t compete with the big-budget Sunday morning productions of the church down the street, are you fated to be a haven for the last traditionalist holdouts in town?
     If growth is only a numbers game, then each of those churches is in a difficult position. Not only that, but the statistics for the church as a whole don’t paint a very rosy picture. They suggest that the rapid growth of some churches has more to do with the shifting of the existing religious “consumer base,” and that explosive growth in one church is offset by the losses in other churches — and may even represent the movement of large numbers of believers out of smaller churches and into a few large ones. 
     Because, as we all know, large numbers of people have always marked where God is at work. (I wish there was such a thing as sarcasm punctuation marks.)
     Maybe part of the reason that some of us perceive that the church is dying is that we equate health with size. To be sure, there are troubling signs. But the fact of the matter is that America has been moving in the direction of becoming less churched and less monolithically Christian for a long time now. The numbers may never again look as impressive as they once did.  
     So I suggest that it’s time we consider a different set of criteria for health, and acknowledge that churches can and should grow in all sorts of ways. One caveat: I’m not suggesting that the sharing of faith isn’t important. I’m not saying that we should lose our interest in seeing people follow Christ in the life of the Kingdom. But I want to say that small churches can be growing churches too, and that they contribute something to the body of Christ in the world — even if it isn’t butts in seats.
      So here’s how we might think differently about growth in the world in which we live. 
     Churches can grow in ministry. One of the great things about a small church is the ability to adapt quickly. Large churches sometimes turn about as nimbly as a cruise ship with a busted rudder. With small churches, you can much more easily branch out into new works of service. Want to partner with a food bank to start a food pantry? Want to start a new Bible study in the neighborhood? Want to have a back-to-school child’s clothing drive, or set up a safe place for kids to get homework help or use the internet, or collect food and medications for a refugee camp? In a small church, you don’t usually have to go through two committees and three pastors. Think less about how many people show up on Sunday morning, and more about the number of people you serve, and you may begin to see that increasing the ways in which your congregation serves might be as important as increasing the number of people in the doors.
     Similarly, churches can grow by equipping each other for ministry. That’s what Paul seemed to think churches should be doing anyway. In a larger church with a huge staff, sometimes professionalism sets in. When you pay people to do certain tasks of ministry, the church can start to think that no one else can do it, or not nearly as well. In a smaller church, though, the need to equip one another for ministry is necessary. If the regular preacher is gone, someone has to fill in. Sharing the gospel is something everyone has to do. Taking care of the building, or putting together the visuals for worship, or visiting the sick — someone has to do all of that. Equipping becomes not as much a nice idea as something that’s necessary for survival. 
     Churches can grow by multiplication. A few churches do this as a matter of course. Most don’t. With the emphasis on numerical growth, it may seem counterintuitive to imagine growth by shrinking. Try to imagine it, though, because if you’re a small church that isn’t growing where you are, then one of the things you might consider is planting a new church in another neighborhood. In fact, some statistics indicate that two smaller churches will grow numerically more rapidly than one larger one. At the very least, starting a new church in a nearby neighborhood — or on the other side of the world — increases the number of communities potentially impacted by your church.
     Churches can grow by sending. If you’re a church in an urban area, you especially know the frustration of having people move into the area, attend your church for a few years, and then leave with a job change or corporate move or whatever. I get that frustration. We need to consider, though, the influence those people will have for Christ in the new places where they live. When someone moves into your church, and you know the odds are good they’ll be there for 3 or 4 or 5 years at most, invest in them like they’re going to be there for life. Love them, help them find their place in the body of Christ, help them develop their gifts and strengthen their faith and grow to maturity in Christ. When they land somewhere else, then, they'll be ready to bless the church they become a part of and the community in which they live. 
     Churches can grow in love. Love is the hallmark of the presence of God’s kingdom. If a church loves each other, and is willing to have that love stretched to include those outside its walls, it will become apparent that it is a community of Christ. If love isn’t evident, it doesn’t matter what they do. But love always takes discipline and effort. It requires us to be involved in each others’ lives, to have some knowledge of each other beyond our Sunday gatherings. In some ways, a small church is best suited to be a laboratory for the love of Christ. 
     In short, your church can grow. If it isn’t numerically right now, then consider some other ways to grow.

     I think the Holy Spirit will be just fine with that.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Reports of the Church's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated -- Part 6

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,“Your God reigns!”
                                 -Isaiah 52:7 (NIV) 

So, if the ubiquity of information in our world means that it’s less significant than ever for making important decisions, the church has an obvious problem. Whatever else it may be, the gospel is information. 
     The word itself denotes “good news,” and we know what news is. And our struggles with news as a culture actually makes my point. How do we know what’s real news and what’s fake news? And from what perspective is the news reported? When the church proclaims the gospel, we can expect the same questions: “How do I know this ‘good news’ is real?” “For whom is it good?” 
     The gospel, however, isn’t just good news. It’s surprising news. Startling news. And perhaps part of our problem in communicating it is that we aren’t surprised by it anymore. We’ve domesticated it. We think it’s information that we’re supposed to master, and when we’ve mastered it we can communicate it to others. Like a proof in geometry, or a sequence of events in history. 
     It’s more a stunning, out-of-left-field announcement. It’s the Miracle on Ice. It’s the PEACE! headline in The New York Daily News on August 15, 1945. It’s the breaching of the Berlin Wall. We don’t master it; it masters us. We don’t make the gospel good news any more than the media created good news out of any of those stories. It just comes crashing into the world and redraws our maps. 
     That’s what I mean when I say the gospel is surprising and startling. Look at Isaiah’s “good news,” for example. The next chapter begins, “Who has believed our message?” Well, who could? Israel is suffering under foreign rule, so it doesn’t look much like her God is reigning. But that suffering is actually the means of God’s action. Through his servant’s punishment, Israel is given peace. The suffering of Israel’s righteous ones is brought to its full measure. The unrighteous are given the chance to see how their actions have added to the servant’s wounds. In all of this, somehow God is returning to Zion to comfort his people and redeem his city. No, it isn’t easy to believe. But, if you can believe it, it changes everything.  
    This was the gospel of Jesus: “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Again, tough to believe. It didn’t jibe with the facts on the ground, and still doesn’t. But that’s why Jesus said “repent and believe the good news.” It isn't the kind of news that claims to add something to an already pretty good life. If believed, it changes the way we see the world, ourselves, others, God….everything.
     Here’s where, perhaps, the church has made a misstep. We’ve made the gospel into a nice additive to our lives, a way to have our cake and eat it too. We’ve boiled it down into something that can coexist happily with our jobs and marriages and stations in the world, as though God is acting merely to redeem our own choices and save us from our own bad decisions. The problem with this gospel is that it doesn’t reorient anyone. It doesn’t call into question the assumptions of the world around us. It doesn’t rebel against the status quo, and it certainly doesn’t require real repentance to believe. It doesn’t ask us to see the world differently, to buy into a new vision of reality where God’s reign has commenced, his kingdom has come near, and everything is new.
     Our salvation is not just protection from the consequences of our sins. It’s being startled and shocked into seeing all the ways in which we’re complicit with the powers of the world, and not the kingdom of God. This is the repentance needed to believe the good news. We must see our world, and ourselves in relation to it, more like God sees these things, and this requires that we be startled out of our comfort with the way things are.
     But we tend to arrange things so that we’re not surprised. Take, for example, the American church’s association with a particular brand of right-wing politics that wants to preserve the majority culture’s stranglehold on the privileges and wealth of our society. Or its association in other circles with a particular brand of left-wing politics. In both cases, the church suffers blind spots in which we can’t see how our political philosophy of choice takes the place of God’s work of salvation in the world. We’re not shocked, we’re not startled, in fact we’re quite comfortable and at peace with the main assumptions of the world around us. And so there’s no repentance and thus no believing in world seen through God’s eyes.     
     Or we see poverty, for example, as a plight endured by those who haven’t been able to secure their own lives. And, if we’re being honest, we might even entertain at least a sneaking suspicion that there are moral causes: they aren’t smart enough or good enough or hard-working enough. And if someone showed up in our churches to say “blessed are the poor,” we’d be puzzled. And that would turn to outrage if this person said to us, “you have your reward, and it has nothing at all to do with God’s kingdom.” 
     And that, of course, was Jesus’ gospel.
     And that suggests something of a starting point. 
     If the gospel we proclaim in our churches is more often than not the message that Jesus has made it possible for good folks to go to heaven when they die, then perhaps we need to be startled. And, if our world thinks that the church has nothing to offer and has in fact sold itself to political expedience (and they do, in increasing numbers), then they need to be startled too.
     And the way we do this is by preaching the gospel. 
     Not some “good news” that affirms that things aren’t so bad, and all we need is a little help to make ourselves all we can be. Not just “good news” to the wealthy, but to the poor. Not to the religious insiders, but to the perpetual outsiders. Not to those who have it all together, but to those for whom it’s all falling apart. The gospel of Jesus is the startling, surprising news that the kingdom of God is for folks just like that. 
     To preach that convincingly, though, we have to make sure that folks like that are the centerpieces of our churches. For most churches, though, they don’t feature on our websites. They aren’t represented among the leaders. They don’t figure in our planning, they aren’t asked to teach or to lead ministries, and their stories don’t get told. They sit, week after week (if they will), and hear talk of God’s blessings from people who look on the outside like paragons of success and wonder “What’s wrong with me?” and “Do I have a place here among these people?” They suffer silently, hoping that maybe one day they can get it together enough that God’s blessings will be for them too.
     And the gospel shocks us all: God’s blessings are for them, right now. 
     And they don’t know it, because the rest of us don’t make it concrete and real in their lives.
     “Blessed are the poor,” said Jesus. “And blessed are those who weep, and who are hungry, and who are hated and excluded and insulted. Yours is the kingdom of God.”
     And Isaiah says, “blessed are the feet of those who run to them, bringing that good news.”

     May our feet be blessed.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Reports of the Church's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated -- Part 5

    Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.
     When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
                                 -Acts 2:36-37 (NIV) 

When I was probably 14 or 15, I was in a church van on the way to some youth event or the other. We went to pass another van, and when we did we noticed that they were from another Church of Christ. We knew this because the name of the church was painted on the side of their van. Our church name, however, was not on the side of ours. We waved, but there was no way for them to know who we were or why we were waving. 
     That is until someone had a brilliant idea. They wrote a Bible verse on a piece of paper and held it up to the window. Just a reference, that’s all. And if you’re from Churches of Christ, you know exactly which verse. 
     For the rest of you, it was Acts 2:38 — “Repent and be baptized,  every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
     That’s our verse because it answers the question “what shall we do” with the very thing that we’ve always kind of felt made us different from other groups. While other Christian groups practiced baptism without repentance (infant baptism), or have converts say the sinner’s prayer without baptism, we’ve always connected repentance, baptism, the name of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. 
     In fact, when I was growing up every preacher among us had a go-to sermon based on “What Shall We Do?” or “What Must I Do to Be Saved?” (from Acts 16:30). The answer to that question, of course, tended to focus on the supplying of information that the preacher assumed his audience didn’t know — that they needed to be baptized to be certain of their salvation. It was assumed that all a person needed to come to Christ in baptism was this knowledge that we possessed. 
     It worked for us, too, at least to some degree. But that approach was based on a worldview that exalted knowledge, logic, and rational argument. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, when Churches of Christ became a recognizable group, this was the dominant understanding of how the world worked. The Bible was largely seen as a collection of propositions, syllogisms, and arguments that would convince the minds of rational people. Those rational people would all agree, Christian unity would be restored, a golden age would ensue, and Christ just might come again. 
     All people needed was the right information.

     We don’t live in that world anymore. As I’ve said previously, we live in a changing world. We’ve looked at two important factors in our world that push against the kingdom of God and make it difficult for the church to be heard: distrust of biblical authority and a widespread failure of institutional loyalty. But perhaps even bigger than either of those is this: information is easily available to anyone. Information has been made available to the masses in a way unprecedented in human history. That’s a good thing. But it also means that the church is no longer the sole or even the most respected authority on spiritual matters. The religious and spiritual wisdom of the ages is now accessible to literally everyone on earth.
     This is problematic if the church still thinks that the main problem human beings are dealing with is a lack of knowledge about Scripture. If we think we can simply supply the knowledge our audiences lack and they will respond with changed lives, we may be in for some disappointment.
     Two things happen when knowledge is readily available to anyone. On the one hand, folks know and understand theological dispute now. They can research questions sitting in their pajamas that used to be the province of seminary students and academics. 
     The other thing that happens is that knowledge tends to be devalued. The more folks have it, the less it matters. When a firehose is hitting you in the face, the last thing you need is a glass of water. And yet, in many cases, the church is offering waterlogged people just another drink. 
     It might be helpful to point out that Peter’s response in Acts 2 is a heart response. It isn’t that his hearers were just one piece of information away from knowing everything they needed to know. It was that they had been cut to the heart. They had, in other words, been convicted by the news that they were complicit in the rejection of the One through whom God was doing his work of saving the world. It wasn’t new information that drove them to Jesus. They weren’t rationally convinced that baptism was a good idea. They came to the water because their hearts were laid open and they were left shaking, convinced of their own sin and helplessness and that somehow this risen Jesus might offer them hope.
     For many decades the American church existed in an atmosphere of general acceptance in regards to the basic premise of the gospel. The world in which we lived and moved more or less believed in the idea that we needed God to save us, and that in Jesus he has done so. There were differences of opinion as to how that happened, or what it means for us, or what we should do about it. But those were matters of discussion and debate, rational dialogue, the exchange of information between believers who already accepted at heart level the premise that Jesus had died for our sins, that God had raised him, and that our hope was in him.
     But that isn’t the world we live in today. There’s much more diversity of opinion. Many, perhaps most, don’t necessarily believe there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the world that we can’t fix on our own. And more information won’t convince those today who don’t believe. When we come to unbelievers today trying to convince them that they are caught up in the fallen nature of this world and need God to rescue them through Jesus, it’s one more glass of water. And their experience doesn’t necessarily reinforce our message.
     Because experience rules when information is devalued. That’s the only way to tell what’s true from what isn’t: experience. Rightly or wrongly, and often wrongly, people look to their experience to evaluate truth.
     So our proclamation of the gospel today must be experiential and not just informational. We need to tell people not just to sit and listen, but to come and see. Come and see the gospel that we’re preaching lived out in our community. Come see us love each other, accept each other, honor each other above ourselves. Come see us forgive when we’re sinned against, and ask for forgiveness when we’re wrong. Come see us work together to address the problems of our community and our world. Come see us worship joyfully and thankfully. Come see us offer our lives to the One who offered his to us. They need to be welcomed into our lives so that they can experience first-hand the presence of Jesus among us.
     That’s an intimidating responsibility, I know. And yet we’ve always called the church the body of Christ. This just requires that we live that out practically and consistently. 
     This is one way that the church can come back to life: by creating communities in which the gospel can be experienced first-hand. Only then, perhaps, will they come to accept as true the gospel we proclaim.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Reports of the Church's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated -- Part 4

     As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
                                 -Acts 11:15-17 (NIV) 

I’m thinking about chicken. Of the Kentucky Fried variety.
     If you’re my age or older, maybe you remember the old Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials, with Colonel Sanders walking around in his white suit, with his smile and a bucket of chicken, bringing joy to the people and teaching them what “finger-lickin’ good” meant. The commercials were played straight, almost solemn, with the image of the restaurant’s founder. 
     If you’re younger than me, though, then maybe you don’t even know what Kentucky Fried Chicken is. It’s more often branded KFC now, just one example of how the restaurant has tried to rebrand itself. (The name change, official in 1991, was apparently to distance itself from the unhealthy connotations of “fried”. Most everyone called them KFC anyway.)
     Another example is their treatment of the Colonel’s image. In a series of increasingly ridiculous commercials, the Colonel (played by, in succession, Darrell Hammond, Norm MacDonald, Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton, and Rob Riggle) has been portrayed in a comical and satirical way. To adapt to a changing market, KFC has played fast and loose with their name and even the mythos of their founder. 
     To KFC, there are apparently no sacred cows. Or, well, chickens.
     In a previous post, I identified three of the cultural shifts of the last few decades that I believe are most affecting churches trying to minister in our world today. While there are other factors, I identified the easy availability of information, the loss of institutional loyalty, and the distrust of biblical authority as perhaps the most significant. In this post, I want to say more about the loss of institutional loyalty.
     In our world, especially among younger people, longevity is not seen as a positive thing. This is especially true where institutions are concerned. In our world, long-lived brands are increasingly discarded as irrelevant in favor of newer ones perceived as more in touch with today’s world. Internet startups and small, independent businesses are seen as preferable to large, established corporations, which are increasingly thought to be soulless and impersonal. Local, artisanal; that’s where it’s at for large segments of our society.
     This distrust of large, established companies extends to other institutions as well. Government, of course; much has been said about the declining trust of Americans for their government. Charities and social service organizations have to work harder to be transparent and deemed trustworthy. And the same is true for the church. Folks assume now that the hierarchy and rules of any institution, including the church, conceal corruption, abuse, and malfeasance. Otherwise, why not just be transparent?

     Check out this list of the 100 fastest-growing churches in America. Notice anything? Look at the top 20. The top 50. The whole list. How many of those churches contain the name of a denomination? Some of them are affiliated with denominations. Many of them, even. But very few are advertising that fact in their name.         
     Why? Distrust of institutions. Gateway Fellowship Church plays much better to those suspicious of what they perceive as institutional corruption and abuse than would Gateway Assembly of God.    
     Is that fair? Of course not. Many, many — most — churches with more traditional-sounding names are made up of good people who love the Lord and want to serve him. But, fair or not, the lack of institutional loyalty that has built up over the last several decades in our society means that churches with those more traditional names are perceived as irrelevant, out-of-touch, and more interested in propping up the institution than in taking the gospel of Christ to the world, or making a difference in the communities in which they’re located. At best.
     What do we do about that, then? How do we get past that suspicion and distrust in our society of the institution known as The Church? Should we all change our names? Well, maybe, but that’s just a gloss that might not really change anything. 
    We do need to acknowledge that the church as a whole deserves some of the distrust we’re getting. We haven’t always been trustworthy. We’ve sometimes been rigid and stubborn. We have sometimes seemed more interested in the survival and prosperity of our favored versions of “Church” than in the work of Christ.
     We need to be transparent. People need to know where the money and resources they commit to the work of the church goes. Leaders need to be transparent about who they are. We have to guard against our tendencies to want to police the boundaries of the Kingdom on the one hand and to tell people what they want to hear on the other. We have to be genuine and honest and absolutely scrupulous, because any perception that we’re hiding something, obscuring the truth, or even playing a role, just the hint of a facade of any kind, will only feed into the distrust that many feel toward the church.
    We need to be open to the unexpected. When questions are asked, plans are second-guessed, ideas are raised that upset the existing order of things, and long-loved ministries rejected, we need to resist the tendency to fight. It will only feed the perception. Not every new idea is a good one, and not every tradition needs to be thrown out. But we need to hear each other. There is a “faith that was once for all” given to the church, but it doesn’t include every hymn your church ever sang. 
     This is what the early church had to deal with from the moment Peter baptized a non-Jew. They asked tough questions when they heard. There were concerns about Peter’s faithfulness. Anger that they were so easily welcoming among them the very people from whom God had called them to be separate. What they couldn’t question, though, was the action of the Holy Spirit.
     Sometimes, when the Spirit moves, the church’s assumptions are the first casualties. It wasn’t easy for them to accept that Peter was only going where the Lord was leading him. It isn’t always easy for us to see it now. But folks are right to doubt the intentions of churches that quench the Spirit because we can’t tell the difference between the work of God and keeping the institutional machinery of the church operational.
     So we need, finally, to be prayerful people. Pray prayers that welcome God’s work among us, even when it’s destructive of what’s easy and familiar and comfortable. Increasingly, what’s comfortable to church people is not to the unchurched. Pray prayers that help us remember that we serve God, and that his Son bought us with his blood, and that the energy for what we do is the Holy Spirit. We need God to help us let go of self-preservation so that we’ll be free to grasp the work he gives us to do with both hands.   
     May we never play fast and loose with our Founder and his story. He is, after all, our reason for being.
     And never may our unwillingness to change as the Spirit leads us keep others from knowing him.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Reports of the Church's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated, Part 3

     They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
                                 -Acts 2:42-47 (NIV) 

In a recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, staff writer Jen Hopfensperger suggests that “Wednesday is the New Sunday.” 
     The article identifies a “trend” among Minnesota churches to begin offering worship services on Wednesday night, in response to the “scheduling quirks of modern families.” These churches have discovered that their families are pulled away from traditional Sunday worship by kids’ sports and activities, jobs, the demands of farming, and the allure of getting away to a cabin on the lake for the weekend. For those folks, a worship service in the middle of the week can be a great way to, in Hopfensperger’s words, “accommodate the hectic lives of the faithful.” Quoting Rev. Dawn Alitz, of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, the article ends, “God may be working more than just on Sunday mornings.”
     That line kind of made me roll my eyes like a sulky teenager and say “Duhhh” to myself. I think it’s safe to say that God isn’t confined to Sunday mornings. The article is frankly a rather surface treatment of the issue. But some of the questions it doesn’t really even address, and some issues that it leaves hanging, are actually relevant to this ongoing series on “The Death of the Church.” (You can read the first two posts here and here.) 
     Let’s start with this: the article quotes a study on church attendance as concluding, “to grow, distinguish yourself from other congregations.” I mean, OK, but that would be good advice for say, a coffee shop, or a gym, or a restaurant trying to get a leg up on their competitors. Do you see the assumption there? There is a relatively static number of religious “customers” available to your church, and “growth” is attracting them to your church instead of one of your competitors. In that case, growth in your church means decline in others.
     I don’t see that as the attitude of, say, Paul. Or Jesus, for that matter. But that’s been the growth model for a lot of churches, in America and elsewhere, for at least the past century or so. It’s meant the swelling of many churches, and the corresponding decline and disappearance of others. And yet it amounts to the reshuffling of the existing (aging) customer base, and rising numbers of unchurched people. In short, there aren’t a lot of churches who are introducing a lot of new people to Jesus. 
     In my last post, I identified three of the cultural shifts of the last few decades that I believe are most affecting churches trying to minister in our world today. While there are other factors, I identified the easy availability of information, the loss of institutional loyalty, and the distrust of biblical authority as perhaps the most significant. Others would probably have other lists. To “grow,” we have to address those factors.    
     Hopfensperger’s piece reminds me that we have to tackle the question of what growth looks like. I think I’ll push that to a future post. For now, let’s deal with these shifts and how to address them. We’ll start with the one I listed last: distrust of biblical authority.  
     Here’s a question raised but not answered very well in the article: Is there a “scriptural” day of worship for the church? Platitudes like “you can worship God anytime” are true enough, but woefully inadequate. We have examples of the church meeting together every day, but we also have examples of them meeting together on “the first day of the week” (Sunday) to “break bread,” and a command for at least one church to aside money to help the needy on the same day. There’s even one reference to “the Lord’s Day.
     That’s what we know. There’s a lot we don’t know. Why did the early church (at least sometimes and in some places) pick Sunday to “break bread?” Was it because Jesus was raised on the first day of the week? If so, then maybe the idea that gathering on Sunday is subject to our convenience is to be rejected. Or is just Sunday itself kind of a cop-out, because the example we should be following is the one where they met together every day? Or is it simply that we shouldn’t give up meeting together, and time and frequency are matters of culture and convenience?
     Your answer to those questions may partly have to do with your view of that Sunday gathering. Is it mostly for us, or for God? That is, is it mostly intended for Christians to encourage each other, or is it mostly intended to please God and fulfill his commands? (You may object to that choice, but chances are that you think it’s more one than the other.)
     This is my point, of course: “the Bible says it and that settles it” doesn’t really work that well anymore, especially in communicating the gospel to those who have been burned by their experience of church and biblical authority. Now, I’m not saying we should thus throw out the idea of biblical authority. To reach out and “grow” beyond reallocation of existing religious “customers,” though, we’re going to have to think a little more deeply than maybe we’re used to about how biblical authority works. Unchurched people aren’t unchurched because they don’t know what the Bible says. They’re unchurched because they don’t want to be churched, don’t see any reason that they should be, can’t imagine what the church might offer them that they don’t already have, and don’t care what the Bible says. Oh, and some of them know very well what it says, but for various reasons have rejected it as an authority in their lives.
     To address that, we may have to rebuild the Bible’s credibility. Wherever it’s been used to control, coerce, manipulate, and exploit, we have to spread the real gospel of Jesus Christ. You know, the One who said his burden was light? What Jesus has always called people to is life in a community where possessions and food and grace and prayer and the love and presence of God are shared. What he’s always called them away from is harsh, rigid biblicism — even when it’s stamped with his name. To grow, then, we don’t beat “the Bible says it and that settles it” like a drum. Instead, we create true communities of Christ in our churches, where we share together as he taught us and open our arms and our doors and our table to the world. Then, safely at home in a community like that, people might be willing to open the Bible and hear its words.

     As we allow the Bible to guide us in the creation of authentic Christ communities, instead of using it to argue, control, and divide, we give people a chance to see for themselves the life that Jesus makes possible.  

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