Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Challenge of the Future

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of the Future

Several churches ago, I was in the balcony of the sanctuary during Sunday School getting the video and audio equipment prepared. Two women were already seated in the balcony – both were raised in that church – and they were having a very animated conversation. The church was considering whether or not to repaint the sanctuary, and the two ladies were expressing their opinions. I wasn’t eavesdropping on their conversation, but I couldn’t miss it and I think I was meant to hear it so I would report their sentiments to the proper people.

One of them made this comment – the day they paint this sanctuary is the day I’m leaving this church. Well, the comment certainly got my attention, as I’m sure it was meant to, and the other person replied why in the world would you do that? I was already wondering that myself, and the answer was very interesting. Because when they paint this church it won’t be the same church I grew up in and I want it to be just like it has always been.

I was trying not to shake my head and be obvious about how I felt about her comment. To be honest, I thought it was just silly. And then, not long after that conversation, something happened that taught me an important lesson. We were in West Virginia visiting my mom, and she told me my home church had installed new carpet in the sanctuary. We took a trip down to the church to see it the next day. My home church has a very traditional sanctuary and it still looks almost identical as it did the day I was born – except for the carpet. The old carpet – and it was very old and threadbare – was a deep burgundy carpet with a nice, understated design – just what I thought of when I thought about church carpet. The new carpet was a very light peach color, with no pad and it was so thin I thought they had spray-painted the floor with peach-colored paint. I couldn’t believe it. I turned to my mom and asked how could you let this happen? I can’t believe it; this is all wrong, and I began this rant. And in the middle of my rant I suddenly heard the conversation back in the other church’s balcony, and I thought I’m doing the same thing as that person. And at that moment I understood what I had not previously understood – both of us wanted to keep those sanctuaries looking exactly the same so we could walk into them and have an unbroken connection with the past. I had found comfort in walking into a sanctuary that looked the same as it did decades before. The world may experience tremendous change, but I could walk into that sanctuary and be transported back to what seemed a simpler and safer time.

The past has a very powerful hold on our lives, especially when the present and the future are full of anxiety and insecurity. This is why we idealize the past – the so-called good old days. There were some great things about the good old days, but the good old days were not always good. After the ice storm of a year and a half ago I heard someone say that after a week and a half of no electricity and using a wood stove for heat and cooking they were reevaluating ever talking again about the good old days.

I believe we should honor and respect the past; we should learn from the past; we should never cut ourselves off from the past. We must honor and remember those who got us to where we are in life. But the future is moving to us and we also have to think about the future and what it means to us.

Last week I began a series of messages based on our theme of Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way. Last week we began with The Necessity of A Challenge and this week we are looking at The Challenge of the Future.

Our text for this morning comes from the book of Exodus, just after the Hebrew people leave captivity in Egypt. They have set off on their journey to the Promised Land and they are suddenly faced with the first of the many challenges that will mark their journey. As they faced the challenge of Pharaoh’s army they immediately began to look to an idealized version of the past and desired to go back – back to captivity in Egypt. They turn to Moses and say was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us into the desert to die…didn’t we say to you in Egypt, “leave us alone, let us serve the Egyptians?” (verse 11). At that moment, and many more times yet to come, the Hebrew people were so afraid of their future they preferred to go back to captivity and slavery.

The future is challenging. The future is scary. The future is difficult. But the future is upon us and it challenges us. I want to consider a few of the challenges the future will bring to us. There are so many challenges we could make an entire series just on this one point, but I selected just a few, which we must look at very briefly. You could make your own list as well.

1. The challenge of a changing culture.

I think most everyone can look around at our culture and ask, what in the world is going on? In some way, we are in uncharted territory. The things we used to see as certain no longer seem certain. The things that were familiar to us are disappearing. We live in a postmodern, postChristian, post-everything age where very few things seem certain any longer.

And into this uncertainty and unraveling step a lot of voices. Much of what we see playing out in politics and the so-called culture wars are a reflection of the uncertainty of our time. There is no shortage of voices stepping into and seeking to fill this void of uncertainty in our culture.

As a church we must bring the voice of God and the spirit to this uncertainty. As the Hebrew people faced a future that frightened them, as they were removed from all that was familiar, God spoke to them and sought to bring them a sense of assurance.

We are called to speak to fear, not to use and manipulate the fears of others. What troubles me so much in our culture today is how many opportunists – religious and political – are seeking to use and manipulate the fears of people. Moses brought an almost singular message to the Hebrew – God will be with us and God will provide. This is why the Exodus is the singular event of the Old Testament and was always remembered – because it was a reminder that God delivered on his promise.

2. The challenge of perspective – having a hospital mentality rather than a fortress mentality.

Some churches see themselves as fortresses against all the terrible things happening in the world. People come to the church to hide behind the walls and to escape all the things they see wrong with our country and our world, and they preach about how the terrible people in our society – the godless politicians, the godless people in the entertainment industry, and all the other kinds of people they invoke in an effort to frighten us. The preaching in those churches is of a style that talks about the sinful people out there, but in here, well in here we’re all righteous.

Other churches understand they are called to be a hospital – to say we are all hurting and we are all in this life together and yes there are terrible things going on in our world and in our country but they don’t try to demonize people and they don’t have an us versus them mentality.

Jesus constantly ran into people who had the fortress mentality. The Pharisees were so offended that Jesus associated with those people outside of the fortress. Why was Jesus associating with those kinds of people? Even the disciples reflected that mentality at times. When Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well the disciples were scandalized – what was Jesus doing talking to someone like that? We’ve got to stay away from those kinds of people, we’ve got to withdraw behind our walls of safety and lob judgments and criticisms as those people.

3. The challenge of engaging a new generation.

The church, it has been said, is always one generation away from extinction.

One of our four core values as a church centers on youth and children. Any church that does not focus on youth and children is signing off on its on death warrant. That doesn’t mean that we ignore other age groups, but we are charged with passing on our faith.

A recent study, called the National Study of Youth and Religion, found, interestingly, that parents and churches are unwittingly one of the reasons why many younger people either leave church or fail to learn how to express their faith in a meaningful way. One of the reasons is what the authors of the study call "moralistic therapeutic deism." Translation: It's a watered-down faith that portrays God as a "divine therapist" whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem. Youth want to be given something they can be passionate about, something that calls out to a greater purpose in life, something that engages their hearts, minds, and souls. Something like spending a week at All Peoples Christian Center.

4. The challenge of being missional.

The challenge of the future is to become a missional church. The questions are not how many people do we attract, how much money is being given, how many programs happen here, but how many people are we sending out, how much money is given away, how many of our efforts go beyond the walls of the building.

We were in Washington, DC a little over a year ago, and one morning we were in line to visit one of the museums and a church group from Mississippi was in line in front of us. They all had on T-shirts with the name of their church on the front and on the back each shirt said the church has left the building. I thought that was a great saying.

We are so blessed to have this beautiful facility, but it’s more of a launching pad than an ending point.

5. The challenge of fear.

There are certain themes I return to in my messages from time to time and fear is one of those themes, and I made a very brief reference to it last week.

Love is the most powerful force in our world, but fear comes in a close second. Fear keeps us in its terrible grip and keeps us from being who we were created to be; fear keeps us from experiencing so many of the joys in life; and fear seeks to control us.

It’s interesting how we respond to words. Some words draw from us a very visceral response. When you hear the word love, you just feel good. When you hear the word fear, you can feel the response in your stomach. It’s hard to say the word love in any way that invokes a negative response, and it’s hard to say the word fear in any positive way.

On Friday evening I had the opportunity to worship with the Disciples church at Luther Luckett prison in LaGrange. It’s the only Disciples church in the nation that is located in a prison, although there will soon be a second located in Utah. It was so interesting to talk to the men at the service. There were 63 residents at the worship service, out of about 1,000 in the entire facility. I wondered what it was like for them to come to worship in that environment. The first one I met said I am the longest serving medium-security prisoner in the state of Kentucky – I have been here for 30 years. But his next statement was to say God has given me a life since I came here. The stories were amazing to hear. This was a group of men who had lost everything, but one told me that even though he was behind those walls he had experienced a freedom many people don’t have outside of prison.

Fear is a prison that grips so many people. Fear has built walls around the lives of far too many people.

The future is here, and these are but a few of the challenges that face us, but just as God was with the Hebrew people as they ventured into the wilderness he is with us as well. May we pray.

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