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.