Perspective makes all the difference in the world. Last night I awoke several times and enjoyed listening to the rain. I listened to the soothing sound of the rain falling against the window and was grateful for a warm, dry house. When I awoke one minute before my alarm went off and heard the rain still falling my perspective had changed. Instead of enjoying the sound of the rain, I began to worry about getting out in it to come to church and thought about how it might depress the crowd this morning.
As I said, perspective makes all the difference in the world. I was in a meeting in Lexington last Saturday and had a moment where my perspective on a passage of Scripture was suddenly changed. I’ve read Luke 10:1-9 numerous times over the years, but as I heard those words read at the meeting, something changed in my perspective.
Luke 10:1-9 is a well-known passage about Jesus sending out his followers, and it is often used to remind us that our calling is to reach out to others by going to the people. As I sat in that meeting, it suddenly occurred to me they have been basically irrelevant to us. They’ve been irrelevant because in our lifetimes we’ve not found it necessary to go out and recruit people, because people have always come to us in sufficient numbers. For decades, most churches grew simply because people continued to show up. Church growth programs weren’t really needed, impressive events didn’t need to be scheduled, and engaging worship wasn’t a necessity. People simply showed up. Why would churches go out and recruit when plenty of people just showed up when the doors opened?
Life is much different now. Whereas people used to come to church out of obligation, few do so today for that reason. Whereas people used to come to church because it was the right thing to do, that is not a motivating factor for most people today. Whereas people once came to church because they wanted their kids to have a foundation in the church, that is much less true today (although it is still a strong factor for some, just not among as many people as in previous years).
As more and more churches find their attendance on the decline, they are awakening to the reality that their survival depends upon their willingness to go beyond their walls and attract new people. Simply put, congregations who want to survive and thrive in the coming decades will have to become much more missional in their orientation, which means to go to the people rather than waiting on people to come to them.
Last week I began the message The Church in the Modern Age, but didn’t get finished, so today is Part Two.
I left off last week after beginning to list changes that I believe are important for churches to consider as they move into the future. These are changes of a general type more than they are specifics.
My first point last week was to affirm that The church is not going anywhere. I was struck by how many people mentioned that point to me after both services. I think there is a lot of anxiety about the future of the church. I really believe the church has a very bright future, but in the future the church may look much different. In fact, I believe churches such as ours face some of the greatest struggles in the decades to come. I believe the small, family-oriented churches and the megachurches will find the future to be easier than the mid-size churches such as ours. The difficulty we will face in the future is that we will be too large for some and too small for others. There will be a shrinking number of people who find our size church to be just the right size.
3. What are the changes?
We need to listen to the critics of 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.
People are looking for the church to practice what it preaches. 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?
Everybody has to be defined by a label these days – Republican, Democrat, Independent, rich, poor, southern, northern, liberal, conservative, believer, unbeliever, environmentalist, free-market, straight, gay, and on and on.
Imagine no lines of division, no us versus them – what if there were one label – child of God. That’s God’s kingdom. It’s where every person is recognized as a child of God above and beyond every other label. 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.
Worship ought to be joyous.
I can understand why some people are turned off to church. Church can be boring and tedious.
I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I’m here. I really am. I’ve looked forward to church all week.
It’s not that I think we overlook the challenges of the gospel – and there are some very great challenges – but how is it that some churches can suck the life out of faith? How do you miss the life-changing, world-transforming power of faith?
There have been a few times in my life when I wondered if it was time to give up on the church, but I couldn’t do it. In spite of the shortcomings of the church, despite my own disappointments in the church, I can’t imagine giving up. The church is one of God’s greatest gifts, I believe, and I am in it until my final breath.