Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Challenge of the Future - September 12, 2010

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Change

Some years ago I was listening to one of my old vinyl albums. As I lifted it off the turntable Tyler walked into the room. Looking quizzically at the album he asked, Dad, what is that? It hadn’t occurred to me that he had never seen a vinyl album before. Tyler has grown up as a member of the iPod generation, and is unfamiliar with vinyl albums, 8 track tapes, and cassette tapes. The changes in how we receive our music is but one facet of the rapid change we face every day of our lives.

The speed of change in our world has reached a mind-boggling rate. Before we have time to adapt to one change the world has moved on to several more changes.

I was at the Regional Assembly in Lexington this past week, and there was a lot of talk about change. The Region, you may or may not know, has been going through a process of reinvention called Surfing the Edge. There was a great deal of talk about change, reinvention, and reinvigoration.

A lot of churches yearn for the “good old days,” when all you had to do was open the door and get out of the way. The conversation goes remember when Reverend so-and-so was here? He really used to pack them in.

The golden age of the church was the 1950s. It coincided with the Baby Boom. It wasn’t that churches were always doing things right; it’s that social forces and the culture in general favored church attendance. Just as social forces and the culture helped to pack the pews a generation ago, there are social forces in our culture now that help to empty those same pews.

Some churches, with less attendance than during their golden age, may actually be doing church better and possess a greater sense of mission, but they are seeing less results in terms of attendance.

It seems as if everything is changing, and not for the better, and we just want to cry out stop the change! Can’t things stay the same?

They can’t. We are living in an era of change that is happening at unprecedented speed, and the forces that bring about the change are beyond our control and they sweep us along as though we are caught in a raging river and we are captured in the current.

These few sentences spoken by Jesus in our Scripture reading remind us that change has always been a constant, and sometimes change is bad, sometimes good, but almost always uncomfortable.

I don’t think the desire for or interest in faith has changed much in our society, but the delivery system has. People no longer feel they have to turn to a church for their spiritual needs to be met. Flipping around the radio recently the topic for discussion was this – is it necessary to attend church to be a Christian? Many of the callers said absolutely not. To many, the church seems like an 8 track tape in an iPod world.

The discussion about change going on in many congregations is not really about change; it is about several questions. Is church still relevant? Why do churches decline? What can be done to turn around the decline? How do we recapture what we were ten, twenty, thirty, forty or more years ago?

As Jesus talked about change, he was talking about a few specific matters –

We are called to build the kingdom of God, first and foremost.

Jesus never preached a sermon, as far as we know, about 8 Ways to Grow a Synagogue or 10 Outreach Ideas for the Temple. It was always about the kingdom of God.

When we talk about struggling with change we are almost always talking about the impact of a changing world on the institutional church. Will we continue to grow, will we receive enough money to pay our bills, and those kinds of questions.

When Jesus spoke the words we read a few minutes ago, he was talking about something larger than just institutional expressions of faith; he was talking about the kingdom of God. He was faced with an institutional approach to faith that had, in many ways, become aloof and out of touch with people. That’s not unlike much of what we see in institutional faith today.

I believe in the institutional church, and it’s not just because that’s what pays my salary. I believe the local church provides a much-needed community of faith that nourishes us and supports us and challenges us and provides us with an outlet for our spiritual gifts.

But in some places, the kingdom is over here and the church is over here. What Jesus was talking about was a change that was more than just cosmetic, it was a radically different way of understanding not only that God was at work in the wider world but how people could connect with what God was doing.

Churches must become kingdom outposts.

Does anybody want to guess what is the most successful church outreach ministry in recent years? Most people probably don’t know it’s a church outreach ministry. Habitat for Humanity.

The success of Habitat for Humanity is in doing something for others. Remember last week when I was talking about experiential faith? That’s exactly what Habitat does. There are thousands of people doing work for the kingdom of God through Habitat and they probably don’t even know it!

This is where the church can do so much to connect with people. People are tired of seeing churches as little more than agents of moralizing. They just think well, I’m a good person, at least as good as most of those people, so why do I need them?

We can’t get ahead on moralizing; there are too many shortcomings among us to win at that game. But we can call people to something, just as Jesus did.

We have arrived at a point in human history where we cannot afford to disappear into our own lives. It is an abdication of responsibility, I think, for anyone to decide they are going to live their life without thought to the lives of others. There is simply too much at stake. There is too much brokenness, too much violence, too much hunger – both spiritually and physically – to much fear, too much poverty – both spiritually and physically – for anyone to be indifferent.

The key to our future – and the future of any church – is to be an outpost for the kingdom of God.

The Church in the Emerging Culture (interview with Frederica Mathewes-Green, pp. 178-179)

What of others who are outside, in the secular culture?

There is no outside. There is no place where God is not, even now. Even those who do not know the truth of Christ are also created, beloved, and known by him. He is closer to them than their own breath, though they do not know him. We work together with God so that every person can come to saving knowledge of Christ and be healed and transformed alongside us.

What has the culture to do with this?

Christ has compassion on those who are harassed and helpless because they do not know their shepherd. The culture is ever-changing weather conditions that these sheep must endure, which they try to respond to as best they can, though they are confused and wounded. Protection and rescue of individual sheep is our primary goal. It is less worthwhile to try to change the weather. We may occasionally have isolated success, but it appears that every weather pattern will have both good and bad elements, and weather itself is bound to be a perennial phenomenon.

How can we convert the culture?

A culture cannot be converted. Only individuals can be converted. God knows how to reach each individual; every conversion is an inside job. We cooperate by listening attentively for God’s directions and speaking the right words at the right moment, doing a kind deed, bearing Christ’s light and being his fragrance in the lies of people we know. This is the level where things change, one individual at a time, as one coal gives light to another. When enough people change, the culture follows – though, again, the hope of ever having a perfect culture is futile. Our effectiveness as witnesses is tested not on the public stage but by our private daily conduct. If we are not being healed at those levels all we do for public display will be garbage.

What a powerful line that is – there is no outside. In a day and age when there are so many who think in terms of us versus them, it is important that we demonstrate that we do not think in such terms. May we be instruments of change, of breaking down walls, of removing barriers. Let us pray.

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