Friday, September 30, 2022

"That All of Them May Be One"

 I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one,  Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me,  that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity..

-John 17:20-23 (NIV)

Like many of you who read this blog, I belong to a church that calls itself a “Church of Christ.” I’ve spent my entire life in Churches of Christ, and though I know something about our weaknesses and failures I have no regrets. (I imagine that’s largely because of the particular congregation I’ve spent almost 30 years of my life with.) There are things I love and deeply appreciate about our fellowship: our insistence that baptism and Communion matter, our willingness to let the Bible be our authority, our eclectic music tradition, our tendency to push against authoritarianism. But my favorite thing about us, I think, is that we are at heart a unity movement — even though we too easily forget it.

     Without going too deeply into history you can dig up elsewhere, we came about after a wild collection of Presbyterians, Baptists, proto-Pentecostals, and who knows what else with a desire to just be Christians dared to imagine that they could jettison their denominational baggage and unite around Scripture. To me, it doesn’t matter that we haven’t always been true to that vision, and in fact some of us have been about as sectarian as anyone in Christendom. It doesn't matter that, to some degree, it was a naive hope to imagine that we could ever arrive at perfect unity based on the Bible. That impulse to be united was a noble one. It still is, even if we're a little more cynical than our forebears that it can be achieved.  

     Jesus’ prayer before his sacrifice was that those who believed in him would be one, just as he and the Father were one. That unity, he said, would come not from everyone agreeing about everything but from the glory of God that Jesus places in us. It would come when “the love [the Father has] for [the Son]” is “in them so that [Jesus himself] may be in them.” God’s glory and love — that’s where unity comes from. The reason we haven’t gotten there yet is because God’s glory and love are ever in need of renewal in us.

     Unity’s hard, but it isn’t only up to us. That’s why Paul wrote that we should “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” The Spirit creates that unity, the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but we have to maintain it by keeping the bonds of peace strong. That work never ends.

     So if you believe, like I do, that unity among believers is important, then let me suggest some tangible things you can do to help keep that Spirit-created, love-infused unity.

     1. Pray for unity. Jesus did. Pray for people you know from other groups, denominations, and tribes, people you know who love Jesus but might see some things differently from you. You can pray for them to see the light, fine — but not before you pray that God will help you love them just as they are.

     2. Repent of pride. If we don’t watch ourselves, we can really get proud of how we have “it” — whatever “it” is — right while everyone else has “it” wrong. If we do, it’s because of God and not our own righteousness. And “they” — whoever “they” is — probably have some things right that we have wrong. And having “it” right or wrong means nothing anyway without love, grace, and humility.

     3. Refuse to caricature anyone else. Sometimes we aren’t fair to other groups, to their intentions or their efforts or their authenticity. We tend to compare the best examples of “us” against the worst examples of “them.” I grew up hearing  that Catholics don’t care about the Bible, for instance. Imagine my surprise when I discovered Catholic Bible scholars! I learned too-simple criticisms of Calvinist teaching that never acknowledged how Calvinists themselves discussed and worked through those problems. Paul reminds us to give each other some grace and assume that others want to please God as much as we do. Let’s do that.

     4. Look for evidence that God is working through others who aren’t in “your” group. Jesus seemed genuinely shocked to find his disciples stopping someone from casting out demons in his name because they weren’t part of their group. “Why would you stop him?” he asked. You know why, don’t you? Sometimes we don’t want to admit that God might be doing something through this other group of Jesus-followers that aren’t much like us. But if God can use imperfect “us,” surely there are some imperfect “thems” he can use, too. Affirm it when you see it. Join in if you can. 

     5. Focus on Jesus. Read the Bible to see the story of God’s salvation as it narrows down to the teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Not to learn how to win arguments and correct others. If you learn Jesus, you’ll start to look, sound, and act more and more like him. And then you’ll know how to discuss differences and help others grow through love and service.

     6. Take small steps. Unity doesn’t just happen, especially where it’s been absent. I’ve been a part of an ecumenical Thanksgiving service in our neighborhood. I’ve been talking with some church leaders in the neighborhood about a regular “clergy” breakfast. Our church will be the meeting place for a group of religious leaders and police to discuss community needs. Maybe you’ll find common cause with members of other groups in a community food drive or a Bible study group. Maybe it’ll just be a friendly conversation with that other person at work who reads their Bible every day. Maybe you’ll read a book by someone outside of “your tribe.” Don’t cross any lines that you can't feel good about. But take a step toward understanding and appreciation. 

     7. Hold on to your convictions. Authentic unity isn’t least-common-denominator Christianity in which most every truth is relative. It happens when we love one another in spite of our differences, and begin to learn from each other. The differences that matter to us can help us to see how multi-faceted the kingdom of God can be. And how little of God’s truth any of us grasps by ourselves. Unity, contrary to what some might have you think, doesn’t require you to give up any convictions. It only requires that we give up pride, hostility, and arrogance.

     8. Don’t let yourself be bullied into intolerance. Sometimes when you extend peace to someone who differs from you, others will say you’ve compromised. They’ll try to force you into line. That’s their fear talking, fear that in unity something is lost. Resist that. Truth has nothing to fear from dialogue and collaboration. Ignore your critics. Don’t let their fear turn you away from the unity Jesus prayed for. But do pray for them. Include them in your efforts for unity. The kingdom is big enough to encompass them and the people they can’t accept.    

     Again, none of this requires that you let go of any of your convictions, that you change anything that’s important to you. It only requires that you have a view of the world that allows for the possibility that you and the followers of Jesus you identify most closely with might not have cornered the market on truth, nor are you the only recipients of God’s grace. We are united with others who have put their hope and trust in what God has done for us through Jesus. Thinking alike about everything else is not possible, and not required.

     May we look to the Father, Son, and Spirit, and find there a model for unity.

     And may our unity be a witness to the world of what Jesus can do.

Friday, September 23, 2022

On Shutting Up

 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

     With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

-James 3:7-10 (NIV)

So I’ve realized something about myself over the last 30 years or so. I talk. A lot.

     Now, I’m not usually the guy who walks into a room and all eyes are on me. As a rule, I don’t strike up conversations with strangers. In social situations I’m probably just as likely to sit and listen as I am to talk. By temperament I’m an introvert, which means among other things that social situations wear me out and time alone recharges me. 

      Still, I know that I talk a lot.

     Sometimes it’s necessary. If I just sat and said nothing at a meeting, someone would ask me what’s wrong. I teach. I get phone calls. Sometimes someone wants to talk to me about something going on in their life. I talk to my family, of course. I speak to clients at our food pantry. And, every Sunday, my church kind of expects me to have something to say. I try to take that seriously and make sure what I have to say is worth hearing (though I imagine some Sundays they’d be OK if I said a lot less). 

     So I know I talk a lot. After a meeting recently, I realized I had probably spoken more words (not the same as saying more) than anyone else there. Well, there was a lot I wanted to say. Some things I felt strongly about and wanted to get out. Things I felt we needed to accomplish. I may have overdone it. 

      I also know that more words from me does not equal a better outcome. 

     I didn’t come up with that all on my own, of course. Proverbs says the same thing, in lots of ways. One of my favorites is this one: “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.” Another Proverb says, “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.” Or how about this one, all the incentive I should need to just shut up sometimes: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.” Or, in the same vein, “Do you see someone who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for them.

     In fairness, Proverbs also has a lot to say about “words fitly spoken.” That’s what Proverbs does; it pushes in one direction and pulls in the other in the hope that you’ll get the idea and live in the tension between those extremes. Of course there are times we need to speak, times when well-chosen words can make all the difference. But if you’re hoping to find those effective words by just spitting as many words as possible and sorting through them later, you’re going to be disappointed. The general drift of Scripture is that lots of words isn’t constructive. Fewer words, carefully selected, will be the most helpful. 

     Which brings me to my point, I guess: maybe you, like me, need to shut up occasionally. 

     Oh, my mother won’t be happy with me for saying that. She hated it when my sister and I would tell each other to shut up. She disliked that choice of words, and rightly so. Don't tell other people to shut up; it’s demeaning, dehumanizing, and you wouldn’t like it if someone said it to you.

     However, I think it’s pretty important for all of us to have a self-censorship button in our heads. We all need to tell ourselves sometimes to just…shut…up.

     James, Jesus’ brother, said it this way: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak….” See, I think that’s one of the problems with talking a lot; when we’re talking, we’re not listening. Sometimes, in our rush to say what we think is so important, we literally talk over someone else. But even beyond that — when you’re speaking, someone else isn’t. They’re not being listened to. They’re not being heard. And one of the most egregious ways to sin against another person is to decide that what you have to say is more important than what they have to say.

      Maybe that’s why James has such harsh things to say about, well, speaking. He says, this for instance

“Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”

     Ouch. That stings a little, doesn’t it? Now, listen, James isn’t saying you’re not really a Christian if you have a hard time shutting up when you should. He admits later in the same letter that “no one can tame the tongue,” and that a person who never sins in what they say would be “perfect.” What he’s driving at is that expression of our faith ought to include the exercising of control over the things we say. While none of us will get it right every time, part of our “religion” — James probably means “worship” or even “discipline” — should be putting a filter on our mouths. And if we have no filter, then we can’t really say we’re putting much into worshipping God or exercising our faith.

     So maybe we all need to talk a little less and hear others a little better. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that James follows up that statement about religion with another one that almost seems out of place: 

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” 

     But maybe those statements are a little more related than we think. You can look after those on the margins of society without saying a lot, can’t you? And, in fact, maybe we don’t hear the distress of the orphans and widows of our world — who God has a special love for — because we’re too busy airing our opinions about, well, everything. Maybe we need to be quiet sometimes just so we can hear the cries of those around us who need to experience the love, compassion, and faithfulness of God in action. 

     And maybe one of the ways the world pollutes us is through our open mouths. In our social media obsessed world, we’re encouraged to talk about everything. But could it be that always wanting to have an opinion might lead us to spend far too much time thinking about things that aren’t worthy of the space in our minds and hearts they’re taking up? And far too little time thinking about and considering the things that ought to fill our minds and hearts?

     I’m going to go out on a limb: I don’t think I know anyone who talks a lot about politics, or celebrity culture, or the social issue of the moment, or their own grievances, or even “religious” issues, whose faith really seems to be growing. I know that faith might give us a point of view on things like that, but it seems to me that talking too much about such things stunts our spiritual growth and makes us deaf to what God is really calling us to. 

     So, I’m going to try to shut up and listen every chance I get. I’m excited about what I might hear. When I do speak, I’m going to ask God to help me to make sure I’m saying the right things, in the right ways, so that people can see his glory and hear the good news of Jesus.

     How about it? Feel like shutting up with me?

Friday, September 16, 2022

Narrow Way

 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. 

     Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

-Matthew 7:12-14 (NIV)

     I’ve been thinking a lot lately about recently-released data from the Pew Research Center that shows Christianity will likely slip to minority status in America over the next 50 years. (In 2020, 64% of Americans were Christians; by 2070, as few as 35% of Americans will be Christians.) They imagine four different futures, and in three of them by 2070 Christians are in the minority. (The one in which we are not is the least realistic of the three, imagining that no one in America changes their religion after 2020.)

     The same data suggest that religiously non-affiliated people in America will become the majority by the same year, 2070.

     Interesting numbers, but what do we do with that?

     Well, in one sense…nothing. These are admittedly all projections based on to what degree current trends continue over the next 50 years. As Pew acknowledges, of course, their data can’t account for the work of God, for possible revivals, for the work of the Holy Spirit and new ways of being the church that might disrupt the course of future events. As Christians, of course, I think we should be assuming that God won’t be sitting on his hands over the next 50 years, and that neither will his church. 

     Something else comes to mind, though, and I hope you’ll hear me out on it.

     I wonder if sometimes our views of Christianity are too isolationist. What I mean is, I wonder if sometimes we have trouble seeing the influence of Christianity on the world around us, and on the people around us, because we’re too caught up in the expressions of faith that we’ve come to appreciate best and consider correct or orthodox. If it’s only we and people exactly like us who we think of as “Christian” in any sense, then maybe we’re missing some things God might be doing in the world.

     I’m thinking of the Uber driver that took us to the airport a couple of weeks ago. Josh was sitting in the front and saw him better than I did, but apparently before every lane change our driver made the sign of the cross. Now I’ve heard folks in “my” tradition, even recently, be dismissive of that kind of thing: it’s not real faith, it’s not mature faith, it’s not biblical, it’s superstition. Still, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t trying to integrate his faith in Jesus, as he understands it, with his day-to-day life as an Uber driver in Chicago. It’s hard to argue that the Christian story, the gospel, doesn’t have some kind of influence on his heart and mind. It suggests to me that he saw our safety as a responsibility entrusted to him by God.

     Yeah, for sure, I’d want to have a conversation with him about our understandings of baptism, for instance, or any one of maybe two dozen points of teaching and practice — important points — we might differ on. But, if God is working on me — and if he’s not, then it’s not because I’m in any sense “done” — then he’s “in progress” on my Uber driver, too. And he’s “in progress” in the world around me, even if Christianity is shrinking or has already shrunk to a minority in America. Surely we can pay attention to the forms of Christianity we see around us, and say thank you to God and praise him for them, even if there are things in those forms that bother us. Surely we can recognize that the sick have been healed, the poor served, and the gospel proclaimed in the name of Jesus for centuries by folks who thought that making the sign of the cross made them more mindful of Christ. No, they didn’t always represent Jesus well. Neither have “we”. But maybe a broader view of what God might be doing in the world will allow us to be more clear in our conviction that we aren’t alone. 

     Oh, and maybe our isolationist views of Christianity are too focused on Western Christianity, too. Christianity is growing rapidly in South America, Asia, and Africa. According to Lifeway Research, in 2000, 814 million Christians lived in Europe and North America, while 660 million Christians called Africa and Asia home. Twenty years later, 838 million live in the global North, while almost 1.1 billion Christians live in Africa and Asia alone.  Those are big numbers, so don’t miss it: 440 million African and Asian Christians came from somewhere in 20 years! 

     Among many Christian denominations, a growing trend is the sending of missionaries from Africa, Asia, and South America to the United States. If in fifty years churches in the global south are planting thriving churches in the United States, God will not be any less behind that than he was when the paths of the missionaries ran the other direction. 

     Elijah was just sure he was the only one left in Israel who was faithful to God, until God opened his eyes to remind him that a) there were a lot more than he thought, and b) he wasn’t being all that faithful! Maybe we need reminding that there are plenty of people in our world and in our immediate vicinity who haven’t bent the knee to or kissed the images of the Baals of our age. 

     But let’s remember this, too: Christians have always done well as the minority. Better, I think, than when we’re in the majority. When we’re in the majority, we play the power games that majorities in a democracy always play. We create political blocs that elevate ambitious people to power, and they create fear that we’ll lose our way of life if we don’t keep electing them, until before you know it winning elections has become the only thing that matters. When we’re in the majority, we try to enforce our will — and sometimes in doing so we run roughshod over those who don’t have power. 

     When we’re in the minority, we can behave more like Jesus. When we aren’t chasing power, we can show love. We can change things by serving and laying down our lives and caring for those on the outside looking in   instead of by exercising our influence and prosperity.

     The way of the minority is the way of Jesus. He told us, in the Sermon on the Mount, that we would be in the minority — not because we’re so much better or smarter or more spiritual than others, but because the way of Jesus can be, in his own words, hard to enter and difficult to walk. Maybe being in the minority is baked into Christianity, not because God’s grace is limited in any way but because the gospel makes more of a demand on us than many are willing to pay. Maybe these words of Jesus should remind us not to gravitate toward the majority, but to seek Jesus far from the places where the crowds gather. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” Sure, there can be disgrace in being a minority. But maybe that’s exactly what we need to discover the real power of the gospel.

     Maybe our kids and grandkids will discover, if Christians do indeed become the minority in the next 50 years, more of what it means to identify with Jesus, to boast in him instead of nice buildings and social media followers and candidates who know they can’t get elected without us. And maybe they’ll be able to do a better job than we did of communicating the good news of Jesus to a broken, fragmented world in dire need of good news.

      If so, becoming a minority might be the best thing that ever happens to us.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Party Planners

 But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger  and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again;  he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate. 

     Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”

-Luke 15:22-27 (NIV)

The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of Jesus’ best-known parables. Though we name it after the younger son, the “prodigal” one (prodigal just means wasteful), you could argue that the oldest son is the main character. Jesus told the story to those who didn’t care for the way he “welcomed” sinners and shared a table with them. The oldest son, the one who was irritated at his father’s generosity to his younger brother, represents their attitudes. He literally refuses to join the celebration for his brother’s return, and the story is supposed to make Jesus’ opponents who do the same realize how ridiculous they are. 

     We know the story: a father, two brothers. Their interactions represent the grace of God for sinners pushed up against the gracelessness that the brothers and sisters of those sinners can sometimes show toward them. 

      Just three characters, right?

     Well, not exactly. There’s one other character — well, a collective group of characters — in the story. You see them, don’t you, there at the point in the parable where the lost son comes home?  

But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe  and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again;  he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate. 

     Yes, there they are: “the servants.” They don’t have any lines, but then again servants aren’t necessarily there to talk. Silent though they are, they’re pretty important to the story. The prodigal wastes the inheritance his father gives him. The older son pouts when he hears that his dad is going to drop a bundle on his no-account little brother yet again. But the servants — they just do what they’re told. They obey their master’s wishes. They run and get the robe, the ring, the sandals. One of them brings a calf they’ve been preparing for just such an occasion and slaughters it. (I’m assuming that had to be the servant with the least seniority!) If the boss wants a party, a party there shall be. 

     They don’t get an opinion, nor do they seem to think they should have one, as to whether or not the prodigal deserves his party.

     They aren’t consulted, nor do they seem to think they should be, about whether or not the father should use his resources in this way.

     They just do what they’re told. “We had to celebrate,” the father tells his eldest son, but the servants already know that. They’ve told the eldest son the same thing: “your father has killed the fattened calf because he has [the prodigal] back safe and sound.” They don’t have a problem with it because they understand why the father wants to celebrate. 

     But, without those servants, the celebration wouldn’t have happened, would it?

     Maybe Jesus is saying that those religious leaders who don’t like the fact that he hangs out with sinners need to remember that they’re supposed to be servants. Yes, they’re God’s children — but that doesn’t privilege them over other of God’s children, and when it’s time to celebrate then they just need to take off the petulant older brother hats and put on their servant hats and make the celebration happen.

     Maybe we need to hear the same thing. It’s we servants who will — or won’t — make the celebration happen. God entrusts us with that responsibility. If prodigals are going to feel like they have a place, it will most often be because we show them that they do. It’ll be because they’re treated with love and joy, not resentment over their past mistakes. We shouldn’t treat them like they’re on probation, quarantined until they’re no longer sin carriers. We treat them like God’s children who are trying to believe that they have a place in their Father’s house. We let them know of the Father’s pleasure in their return. When he says make the celebration happen, we should.

     I say that because I don’t think most people associate the church with celebration. I don’t mean to be unfairly hard on us, but I think if you asked unchurched people who we are in the story of the prodigal, most would say we were the older brother. There are multiple reasons for that, and we only really have any control over some of them, but it’s hard to deny that we have at times conducted ourselves like we want no part of the celebration God throws when his lost children find their way home.   

     We’ve all been the younger son. We do all need the grace and love of the Father through Jesus. But you can’t live forever as the younger son, always straggling home from the latest pig pen. 

     We’re not the Father, who decides if the prodigals are sufficiently penitent to deserve the celebration.

     And we certainly shouldn’t be the oldest son, thinking we’re so superior to the prodigals that we resent our Father’s extravagant grace.

     That leaves servants. So let’s be servants.

      How can we serve God by making our churches places that celebrate over and over the return of prodigals? 

      First, the servants in the parable knew that it was not their wealth that the youngest son had squandered. We need to learn the same. If our Father is thankful when those who have squandered his grace come to their senses and come home, so should we be. No need to be stingy with God’s grace; he has plenty to give.

   Celebrating doesn’t necessarily mean that you endorse everything a prodigal has done. It certainly doesn’t mean that God can’t appreciate and celebrate long, consistent faithfulness. It’s just getting on board with God’s conviction that when the lost are found and the dead are made alive again, everything else gets put in perspective.

    Let’s be churches where everyone is treated with the joy, respect, and appreciation that should belong to a child of God. If their clothes are stained with whatever pig pens they’ve most recently been in, we don’t make them display their shame. We clothe them with honor.

     If they come hungry, we give them seats of honor at our table and full plates of the best we have, spiritually and physically, not make them stand outside begging for the scraps we might toss them; we. 

     And we give them whatever tokens we can of God’s faithful love for them. Like rings on their fingers, we gift them with kindness, patience, compassion, acceptance, and peace.

     If we’re places of celebration, people who didn’t dare hope they could come home will find their way, and find the place their Father has for them in his house and in his heart.     

Future Church

 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

-1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (NIV)

     In a recent blog post that caught my eye, Carey Nieuwhof made seven predictions about what the church will look like in 2032. You might want to read it yourself, as I’m sure I won’t do it justice here. As you read, ask yourself what sounds really good to you about his predictions. Ask yourself what bothers you or even angers you. And, in each case, ask yourself, “Why?”

     The title itself grabs you; “It’s 2032. Here’s What’s Left of the Church.” What’s left? That sounds ominous. Is he predicting some outbreak of persecution? Some apocalyptic event? Turns out no, but what he is saying might not sound a whole lot better to you. Here’s what he says may very well have happened by the year 2032: 

  1. Christian America died.
  2. Growing churches are now digital organizations with physical locations.
  3. The majority of church attendees are no longer in the room. 
  4. On-demand access now greatly surpasses live events. 
  5. Growing churches shifted their focus from gathering to connecting. 
  6. Community and connection matter more than content.
  7. Growing churches staffed for digital.

I don’t know how you feel about those. Probably, like me, your reaction is mixed. Here are some of my random thoughts, drawn from no expertise and no special knowledge other than what is easily visible and demonstrable now, in 2022.

     Number 1 has already started happening. It’s inevitable. That doesn’t mean that the church will disappear from America, but it does mean that we just might as well give up on what some of us — white, middle-class churches, mostly — have long seen as the ideal. I don’t see America becoming a purely secular nation in ten years; religion is just too deeply woven into our national fabric. But the days in which Christianity is the dominant religious influence in our nation are over. It’s time that we lay that ideal to rest and admit that it was only ever the ideal for a small but influential segment of American society. Political power and influence won’t change the tide. The job of the church by 2032 will often be that of domestic missionaries preaching the gospel to people who increasingly have no direct Christian influences in their lives.

     Numbers 2, 3, and 4 are already happening as well. COVID restrictions two years ago pushed most every church into some kind of digital ministry. Think about how most of us do everything else. Want to find a restaurant? Buy a book? Reserve a rental car? Find DIY advice? We Google it. Church is the same. A church’s website and social media will, increasingly, be our new front door. Physical gatherings will still be important, and so will a physical location, but increasingly churches will be digital-first, offering opportunities to connect throughout the week for content and interaction. It may be that, for many churches, online connections will far outpace physical attendance. 

     We may not love that, because most of us love being “at church.” But we’ve always known that the church isn’t the building, and that there’s a lot going on in a healthy church far away from the building on days other than Sunday. Being digital will allow people to access what we offer when and where they can. It can increase, rather than decrease, engagement with the church.

     That’s what numbers 5 and 6 are getting at. How many people slip away from churches each year simply because they get lost in the shuffle of coming and going on Sunday morning? Most churches tried to remedy that with other gatherings during the week, but that leaves out anyone who can’t or won’t come to the building then. But connection can be facilitated by digital ministry. Nieuwhof makes the point that content is available everywhere, great sermons by great preachers are at everyone’s fingertips. What’s in short supply is community. Connection.

     My chief disagreement with Nieuwhof is that I think he underemphasizes content. The Greek word for “content” in the New Testament is kerygma. It means, “what’s preached.” You see it in 1 Corinthians 2, where Paul says his “message and his preaching” — his content — was not filled with wisdom and persuasion. It was about Jesus, and his cross, and backed up by the work of the Holy Spirit in his life. I don’t think Nieuwhof would disagree with that, but I don’t think creating connection and community should be the message we preach. The message we preach — our content — should always point people to Jesus. We’re not just called to bring people together — there are lots of organizations that do that well. We’re called to proclaim the good news that in Jesus God is bringing everything together, and if we do that well, in a way that will let people see in our lives that God is at work, community will be created.

     Nieuwhof’s number 7 is a matter for church leaders to take seriously. Who a church decides to spend money to employ speaks volumes about what is important to them. Most churches don’t have an unlimited payroll budget — I’m certainly part of a church that does not. Our own staffing choices have a lot to do what what we think our ministry is. If we believe that things are changing rapidly in our world, then we need to take those changes seriously. If a church can’t hire with their digital ministry in mind, maybe they can reeducate and reallocate their existing staff members. Maybe they can invest in people who aren’t necessarily staff, but who can get some training in how to put together a digital presence that is true to the gospel message while helping people to connect with one another and with the Lord. There is an expertise to that, some special knowledge that will be as valuable in the near future — maybe is already as valuable — as presentation skills before a physical audience and other abilities and knowledge that churches usually look for in staff. 

     I’ve been preaching on the book of Acts on Sunday mornings lately, and I’m reminded of how the early church had to adapt to be faithful to Jesus’ mandate that they be witnesses “in Jerusalem, and and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jerusalem wasn’t exactly like the rest of Judea. It certainly wasn’t much like Samaria, and even less like “the ends of the earth.” Different people stepped up to lead. The gospel was preached in different ways. Existing technology and infrastructure was put to use. Different vocabularies arose. All to proclaim the message that Jesus was risen, and that in him was salvation. 

     Whatever our future looks like, our mandate won’t change. May we be as faithful as they were in letting go of the old ways when they’re no longer useful to that mandate, and embracing the new ways when they are.