Spoiler Alert! If you attend my church you may not have heard all of this message. The early worship service heard most of it, but the 11:00 service only heard the first portion. I'll finish it on Sunday, but if you want to read what is coming, please feel free. Then you can sleep through church.
I brought a chalkboard with me this morning. You’ll notice I don’t have any chalk with me. I brought the chalkboard to do this (scrape fingernails across the chalkboard). That’s really irritating, isn’t it? Shall I do it again?
This is what the church sounds like to many people today. The message of the church is, to some people, about as pleasant and welcome as the dragging of my fingernails across this chalkboard.
How is it that a message based upon love, grace, forgiveness, and welcoming of all people can be turned into a message that is as unpleasant as the scraping of fingernails on a chalkboard? That really takes some doing, in my opinion.
How does it happen? It happens for several reasons. It happens because almost every time there is a disaster some preacher steps in front of a TV camera and blames some group for causing God to bring that disaster upon us.
9/11? Must have been the fault of this group or that group. Hurricane Katrina? Must have been the fault of this group or that group. Hurricane Sandy? Must have been the fault of this group or that group. When one of those preachers gets on TV and starts blaming certain groups of people I just want to call out will you please stop talking and just go away? Don’t you feel that way? It doesn’t do anyone any good, does it? And I can’t imagine God wants to be represented in such a way.
But the message is also turned negative when church people lob grenades of judgment over their walls at the people outside of the church. Standing in judgment of others some want to tell others what they are doing wrong, how they are living wrong, how they are thinking wrong, and criticize, criticize, criticize. It turns negative when churches fail to own up to the scandals in their midst, turning a blind eye to the way people have been used and abused.
But my point this morning is not to list the negatives of churches. We are continuing are series of messages Life in the Modern Age, and today we come to The Church in the Modern Age. We’ve all heard the statistics about declining church attendance, the rise in the group of people called the nones (n-o-n-e-s, not n-u-n-s) – those with no religious affiliation, and the increasing challenge of unbelief to belief.
The church in the modern age certainly faces a lot of challenges, and, unfortunately, some of them are self-inflicted.
I certainly do not have the ability to peer into a crystal ball and make confident predictions about the future of the church, but I won’t let that stop me from trying. We don’t know what the future will be, but we can hinder or help that future. I’m going to quickly go through what I believe are important considerations for the church (and when I say church I mean the church universal).
1. The church is not going anywhere.
Out of curiosity I googled big companies that no longer exist. Do you remember any of these companies – E.F. Hutton? General Foods? TWA? Compaq? PaineWebber? MCI? Eastern Airlines? Enron? Pan Am? Woolworth’s? Standard Oil? Arthur Andersen? DeLorean? Bear Stearns? Borders? Circuit City? Montgomery Ward? Hostess?
Seen any evidence of these great empires lately – Alexander the Great’s Greek Empire? The Egyptian Empire? The Roman Empire? The British Empire? The Ottoman Empire? The Persian Empire? The Byzantine Empire? The Soviet Union? The Assyrian Empire? The Babylonian Empire? Everyone of those empires are gone.
But the church is still here.
The demise of the church has been greatly, greatly exaggerated. That doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t face challenges. In fact, I believe that churches the size of ours will face some of the greatest challenges. I believe there will always be a place for the small, family-oriented church and the megachurch. But for churches in that midlevel, such as ours, we will either be too large for some people, where they cannot get to know everyone, or too small to offer the variety of programs and ministries people can find in a megachurch.
The church is entering a time unprecedented in our lifetimes, but it is not going anywhere.
2. As the world changes, so must the church.
Anybody been to Detroit lately? I’ve never been to Detroit. Not very interested in going there, actually. There was a time in our history when it was absolutely inconceivable that Detroit and its auto industry would enter a period of such great decline. But things were changing, and very few people paid attention to the changes, until it was almost too late.
Jesus gave a very stark warning, I believe, when he spoke the words in this morning’s Scripture reading. Jesus was saying change is coming. Now, there are two things churches dislike. You know one of them – change. The other thing churches dislike is when things stay the same. I know that sounds contradictory, but we have an instinctual grasp on the fact that church has to change and transform as it moves through history, but we don’t like to face the change.
There are some churches that will be happy to sink to the bottom rather than change. Some churches will happily sing along with the instrumentalists on the deck of the Titanic as it slowly sinks all the way to the bottom. But the world is changing, and we must come to grips with those changes if we are to survive and thrive.
3. What are the changes?
We need to listen to the critics the church.
Some critics of the church do have some legitimate points to make. Sometimes, as churches, we can become too insular. We can become too self-absorbed. We can become too cold and callous. We can be too exclusive. We can be too judgmental. We can be unfriendly. We can be too removed from our communities. We can be irrelevant. We can be hypocritical. We can be too concerned with money and power. We can be too quick to tell people what to do. We can be too political. We can fail to be political enough.
There are many criticisms we receive, and I don’t like when people criticize churches, but the reality is, sometimes they are right, and we need to take those criticisms to heart.
We have to learn to separate the important and the inconsequential matters.
When I was an associate in Anderson County back in the 80s a group of us were playing Rook in the Fellowship Hall. We were having a grand old time, and I thought they would be interested to know that about fifty years earlier that same church kicked people out of the church for playing cards in their homes. Isn’t that unbelievable? Totally silly. I remember the day in my home church when about half the congregation walked out because of the presence of an acoustic guitar in the sanctuary. Now they have country line dancing classes in the Fellowship Hall (that really may be going too far!) If you think I need to loosen up when I play during Singspiration now you know why I look uptight. The memory of all those people stomping out of the sanctuary is still fresh in my mind, even all these years later. Again, totally silly.
Churches can get sidetracked on some of the silliest, most inconsequential matters.
We have to practice what we preach.
If we say we love all people, we’ve got to love all people. No conditions, no ifs, ands, or buts. People can sniff out insincerity pretty quickly. That whole love the sinner, hate the sin routine – people aren’t buying it, because they don’t believe the sinner is really loved.
I was told there were certain people I should avoid. I was told certain types of people weren’t “good” people. We live in a world that loves to draw its lines and create divisions. We have the good and bad and saints and sinners. I can’t even watch the news without being placed in a particular category. Do you watch Fox or MSNBC? Can’t I just watch the news?
Imagine no lines of division, no us versus them – that’s God’s kingdom. But churches haven’t always been good at building God’s kingdom, because in too many instances churches have contributed to the lines of division.
We have to be more ecumenical.
This is central to who we are as Disciples, but we have to push this more and more. I have to admit that I haven’t been very successful in something I mentioned last year. I’m the head of the Ministerial Alliance, and my goal was to increase participation in that group. Wow, has that been a flop. I don’t know how many churches there are in Shelby County but it’s a pretty good meeting when we have nine or ten churches represented. Nine or ten! That’s terrible! We have to work with one another, because we need to pool our resources and work together to meet the physical and spiritual needs of our community. No single church among us is equipped to do that on our own.
We have to develop more resources for the physical and spiritual needs in our communities.
I’ve been in ministry a long time now, and I’ve never seen anything like what people are experiencing in recent years. The stresses facing people are enormous, and those stresses are really taking a toll. People are stretched to the limits and beyond financially, spiritually, relationally – in every possible way, and the stresses and strain that accompany those stresses are wearing people out.
We must become less institutional in our ministries.
Simply put, we have to get out of our buildings more. The days of people coming to us are, for the most part, over. And that’s okay, because from the beginning our calling has been to go to the people.
I believe we are in the midst not of a religious decline, but a significant religious awakening. The question is whether or not the church will be a part of that awakening. I know that sounds very strange to say, but the church is no longer seen as the dispenser of faith, and that’s a good thing. In the time of Jesus, the religious leaders believed they were the ones controlling access to God. They believed they were the ones who dispensed God’s grace. But they were wrong, and that is why people flocked to Jesus. He freed God from the constrictiveness of dying institutional religion.
When my mother-in-law lived on Tybee Island we would often do what people always do at the beach – we would build sand castles with our kids. You know what always happens. You get a nice sand castle constructed and then the tide starts coming in, and your kids want to try and save the sand castle. You dig a trench, hoping that will stem the tide for a bit, but eventually the tide overtakes the sand castle and washes it away.
Maybe some washing away is exactly what we need. Maybe we are fighting to save some things that don’t need saving. Maybe some of the things we continue to try and prop up just need to die. Maybe God is instituting much of the change that we so fear, and try to keep at bay, when we should embrace what is coming and thank God for the change he is brining.
Christianity is in the midst of a great revolution. It is becoming something different from what it has been in recent generations, and because I believe there are many things that need to change, I say thank God. It’s about time.