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.  

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Reports of the Church's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated -- Part 2

     Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
                                 -Romans 9:19, 22-23 (NIV) 

In the time and place I grew up, you could pretty much predict a church’s weekly schedule. Whatever the name of the denomination on the sign, wherever it was located, you knew that there was, of course, at least one Sunday morning worship service. Before, after, or in between there would be Sunday School. There would be an evening service, probably around 5 or 6 p.m. And there would be a midweek gathering: Bible study, prayer meeting, confirmation class — it could be called any of those things, but it would be probably Wednesday or Thursday night, somewhere around 7.
     Here’s something you might not always consider: there were reasons for the development of that schedule. Sunday evening could be an alternative for those who couldn’t come on Sunday morning. The two services might have different emphases. Wednesday night would have a different emphasis yet, or help contribute to community during the week. While it sometimes seems to us that our church schedules have been handed down to us written in stone from Mount Sinai, as they were originally conceived they were culturally relevant. Someone said, “How can we best serve our church and our community? How can we best respond to the demands and needs of the world in which we live?”
     Forty-odd years ago, the church I’m a part of did just that. As I understand it, the leaders of the church were pushing to have everyone involved in some kind of service together on Sunday afternoons. To make that more possible, we served lunch every Sunday, and then moved the evening service up from 6:00 or 7:00 to 4:00. That way, everyone could worship together, eat together, serve together, and then worship together again before going home. 
      I doubt there was ever a time when 100% of the congregation participated in that full schedule. Maybe not even 50%. But two things are equally certain. The first is that the schedule they chose reflected the values and priorities they had at the time, and that they believed best enabled them to serve the world around them. It wasn’t the same as the one they had inherited. It came about through a conscious effort to shape the schedule to fit the kind of ministry they wanted to do.
     And the other certainty is that a schedule like that would probably not work in most churches today.
     Is it because we’re less committed than our predecessors? Less spiritual? More selfish? Maybe, but I think probably not.
      It’s just that we live in a different time and place.

     I referred in my previous post to the changing circumstances in which the church finds itself. I argued that it’s those circumstances that contribute to the notion that the church is dying. But the church isn’t dying.  
     It’s just figuring out how to change to meet those circumstances.
     I know the church seems to be in a bit of trouble, especially with our younger generations. But, see, it’s those younger generations that tend to be most firmly embedded in the changes that are happening and have happened all across our society. As we struggle to negotiate those changes, it’s no wonder that the segment of our membership that’s most affected by those changes might feel the most alienated.
     So here are some cultural shifts that, in my opinion, are most affecting churches that are trying to minister in our world today. They’re traumatic because they mark the loss of some shared assumptions that have served the church well in the West through most of the 19th and 20th centuries. They require the church, in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ, to change our thinking in order “to win as many as possible.”

The Availability of Information
      We live with a perpetually wide-open firehose of information. Anyone, anywhere, can in seconds access much of the accumulated wisdom of the world on any topic. While in earlier ages the church was one of the major curators of information, that same information is now freely available to the masses. As such, it has less perceived value, and information alone is less likely to transform lives and change minds. We must find new ways to convince based in character and credibility gained through unselfish service free of agendas and ulterior motives. 

The Loss of Institutional Loyalty
     People today are less likely to identify themselves as members of institutions, be they political parties, civic clubs, or denominations. Institutions are perceived as being corrupt, driven by self-interest and the desire for self-preservation, and exploitational with regard to the people who make up their membership. Longevity is now often seen as a liability, The people who make up our churches are less and less likely to be satisfied with goals that revolve around getting more people to commit more time, energy, and money to the institution. They’re looking for genuine communities that help the people that make them up to use their talents and resources for the work of the Kingdom of God.

The Distrust of Bible Authority
     “The Bible says it and that settles it” doesn’t work so well anymore. Folks know something about how the Bible has historically been used to oppress just as often as it’s been used to liberate. They want to see that our appeals to the Bible are not more of the same. 

     Being all things to all people requires that we understand even the points of view that we don’t share, and think and pray rigorously about how our churches might need to change to “save some.” We do this, after all, for the sake of the gospel. Communicating the good news of Jesus is always the point. In my next post, I want to suggest some ways we can begin to consider changing to better serve that goal.    

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Reports of the Church's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated -- Part 1

      …On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
                                 -Matthew 16:18-19 (NIV) 

We hate to talk about it. It makes us feel somehow diminished. We know there’s a problem; after all, everyone says so. And yet we don’t know what to do about it. 
     “Why isn’t my church growing?” 
     First off, let me say that I know some churches are growing. If yours is, great. See if you can figure out why, and contribute something positive to the conversation. Only, don’t be cocky about it; whatever the reason, it’s probably not that all of you are better Christians/more spiritual/more devoted/smarter than the rest of us.
     But if you related to my first paragraph, and you’ve heard the question asked in a Bible class or informal conversation, the next few posts here are for you. Because, whether we like to talk about it or not, lots of churches (American churches, at least) are struggling with that question: Why aren’t we growing?  Everyone has a theory, usually revolving around the thesis that we just don’t care enough, we’re too comfortable, we’re too focused on pleasing ourselves over reaching out to others, or some other, similar character defect.
     So we just don’t talk about it, because it makes us feel bad.
     And, when we do talk about, we invoke phrases like “the church is dying”. Which is interesting, since Jesus seems to suggest that, whatever is happening, it isn’t that.
     Well, I think we should talk about it. But I’m not going to make you feel like whatever is happening to the church is your fault, personally. And I’m going to try to avoid sounding like Chicken Little in predicting the imminent disappearance of two millennia of Christianity. So millennials aren't going to church in record numbers right now. Wasn’t that many years ago that millennials wouldn’t have missed Teletubbies for the world. Things change, is what I’m saying.
     My friend Todd Dildine, reflects in a series of blog posts on Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone. The book suggests that there are larger forces at play in the supposed “death of the church” — forces that have affected the development of community in America since the early sixties. Putnam, in short, says that the same influences that have made it difficult for many churches to enjoy sustained growth have also affected involvement in other volunteer organizations, political parties, and in hosting and visiting each other at home. Todd suggests, with Putnam, that the three main factors in this destruction of community over the last 50 or 60 years are the growing number of dual-career families, sprawl and mobility, and technology. 
     Now, I think Todd’s a sharp guy, and I don’t want to be critical, but I think we should tap the brakes just a bit. For one thing, we’re not the first generation that has to deal with the triple threat of lack of time, distance, and technology. When women didn’t usually work outside the home, they still had plenty to do inside the home, and I doubt there were, in reality, many Leave It to Beaver moments when a wife and mother met her husband at the door in heels and pearls, presenting perfectly-behaved children and a well-prepared meal. The same faults laid at the digital doorstep of media and the internet today were laid at the analog doorstep of radio a few decades ago. And while the rise of the car has contributed to sprawl, that’s not a new development either. And, arguably, it solves as many problems with distance as it creates.
     Todd echoes the refrain that “the church is dying,” and I understand what he’s getting at. He has the stats to back up his point of view: church attendance has steadily declined 38% in America over the last few decades. Of Millennials who grew up going to church, 59% have dropped out. I’d like a little more information about those numbers. I’d like to see a little more explanation of what we’re defining as “church attendance” and what “dropped out” means. But, however you parse it, as he puts it:
     If the Republican or Democratic Party had stats like this, they would be freaking out and dramatically change the way they do things… If the NFL lost 25-50% of their audience, they would completely change the way the sport is run. 
     And yet… for the most part we don’t talk about our dying Church and when we do we are completely off on what is causing the decline of the American Church.
     Clearly, we have a problem. It’s hard to deny that, and I don’t wish to. What I want to suggest is that the church is not dying. I say that not a statistical observation, but as a theological preconception. The church isn’t dying because it’s the life of Jesus that sustains it, not anything we can do or figure out or solve. 
     I think that’s more than semantics. As a matter of faith, I would argue that the church will survive the decaying community of 21st century America for the same reasons it’s survived every other test in every other time and place: the power of God, the sustaining presence and grace of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit. When we act in his name, and in the power of his Spirit, what happens has spiritual import.
     But the church will change. Be sure of that. Some local expressions of the church will note the unique challenges of our time and place and adapt their methodology to meet them. They might grow, or they might shrink, or they might stay the same size. Others will insist on acting as though they live in a bubble in time, and they will eventually probably dry up and disappear. Local churches, like everything else organic, have a life cycle. They’re born, they grow, they reach maturity, and they decline. At some point, perhaps, they are no longer able to be flexible enough to meet the demands of the time and place in which they’re located. But the church as a whole doesn't die. That’s just bad theology. 
     The question to ask, then, is whether or not we will adapt to changing circumstances. I don’t mean by altering our style of music, or hiring a hipper preacher, or using better musicians and flashier video and lighting effects. I mean by actively and intentionally looking to counter the influences in our culture that push against the kingdom of God.  

     In my next post, I want to talk about those changing circumstances. What are they? How should the church change to meet them? Just as importantly, how should we, perhaps, not change? What are we “stuck” with?