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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