Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Faith in the Modern Age: Why Go to Church in the Modern Age?

I Corinthians 12:12-14

One of my predecessors here at First Christian – Jim Collins – was here to speak a few years ago.  You may remember that he had copies of his book, Always A Wedding.  Jim had, at that time, officiated at about 2,500 weddings over the course of his ministry.  That’s an incredible number of weddings.

I think I will call my book Always A Meeting.  I spend a lot of times in meetings.  A meeting I attended a while back was interesting for a question that arose.  It was a meeting of some clergy, and as we talked about church and the challenges facing churches today, one person said do we give people a compelling reason to come to church?  Do we tell them why it’s important, or do we just assume they’ll continue to show up even as they wonder why it’s important to do so?

Those are interesting questions.  And they are important questions.  Do we give people a compelling reason to come to church?  Do we simply assume they will continue to show up in worship without being given a reason to do so?  Perhaps there are people who come to church looking for a reason why they should attend.

Earlier in this series (which I will complete at the end of this month) I offered a two-part message about The Church in the Modern Age.  That message was mostly about changes needed in churches; this message is about the important, foundational question of why should we attend church?

When I am thinking about my message, it’s always interesting how certain things capture my attention.  I guess because a certain topic is on my mind I will notice something I might not otherwise notice.  As an example, as I was thinking about this message I happened to notice a copy of the Atlantic magazine.  I noticed it because of an article written by Larry Taunton.  The title of the article is Listening to Young Atheists:  Lessons for A Stronger Christianity (you can read the article here - http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger-christianity/276584/). 

To be honest, I’m kind of tired of reading articles about the rise of unbelief, but this one was really fascinating.  What Larry and his organization – the Fixed Point Foundation – did was talk to college age atheists from around the country.  They simply wanted to hear their stories to see what moved people to give up their faith.  While almost all of them referred to the process of making a decision based on rationality and reason, Taunton and his group found there was almost always a deeper, more emotional reason for their choice.  Sadly, the choice was often related to the churches in which they were raised.  Some of them were not given a compelling reason to be a part of the church, or they never saw a good reason.

I begin with the assumption that a person who is a follower of Jesus is a part of the church.  I know that not all are active or attend, and I don’t condemn them when they are not.  I understand why people give up on the church, because there have been times when I’ve considered it myself.  There have been a few times when I really thought about it (does it surprise you to hear a minister say such a thing?)  I got a pretty good lesson in the kinds of things that can go on with churches as I was growing up.  I listened as my mom and dad complained and would practically grind their teeth after a difficult board meeting or contentious gathering at church.  I saw how people could act in very non-Christ like ways.  I’ve been in churches where there seemed to be little connection to the ministry of Jesus.  I’ve been in churches that seemed to be on their deathbed.

But in spite of all the negatives I’ve seen and experienced, and despite the fact that some people see today’s church as outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant, I’m not going anywhere, and I’d like to give you a few reasons why –

1.  I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and the church is his body to which I am called.
I received a call recently from a friend who was looking for a church recommendation.  They knew someone new to Shelby County and told me the family’s denominational background and asked for suggestions.  I naturally thought, how about ours?  My friend said, well, do you think your church would be too liberal for them?  Is your church liberal or conservative?  Is it formal or informal?  Is it traditional worship or contemporary?  Are we expressive or reserved?  I said yes.

Are we liberal?  Yes.  Are we conservative?  Yes.  Are we in the middle?  Yes.  Are we outgoing?  Yes.  Are we restrained?  Yes.  We’re all these things, and more, because we are a combination of all those things, and that, I believe is a good thing.  You see, church is not about finding a group of people who represent the same exact slice of society with whom you relate, but being a part of the body of Christ, which reflects all the facets of humanity, and we wrap it all under the banner of the great confession of faith made by Peter when Jesus asked who do you say that I am? 

As Disciples, we are very familiar with Peter’s great confession of faith – You are the Christ, the son of the living God (Matthew 16:13, Mark 8:27 and Luke 9:18).

Paul, in today’s Scripture reading, writes about the body of Christ, to which we are called.  To me, there is something greatly compelling about being part of something that is eternal, something that is beyond our own lives, something that existed long before us, and will long outlive us.

There is nothing else like the church, and for all its faults and shortcomings, I believe we are called to be part of this great, universal, and timeless body because means we are part of Jesus, and that really, really does mean something.

2.  Faith is not practiced in isolation.
We live in a highly individualistic society, but faith is not something that works in isolation.  By its very nature, faith compels us to be involved in the lives of other people, both in offering support and receiving support.  The foundation of the Christian faith – love – is not something that can be practiced apart from other people.  Jesus commands that we are not only to love God, but that we are to love others as well (Matthew 22:37-40).  Such a command is a reminder that we are created to be in community with others.

You can, certainly, find community elsewhere, but not like the church, I believe, because in the church you get the next reason –

3.  Where else do you hear the message of the Gospel?
Well, you can hear it on the radio, TV, and the internet, but that’s not quite the same as experiencing it in person.  Simply put, where else are you going to hear the message of loving your enemies?  I don’t hear that message outside of church.  Do you?  The gospel challenges me in ways that no other person, organization, or place will challenge me, and that tells me something very important about the church – I need to be here for that challenge.

The truth is that the church has a very unique message, and we are in need of hearing it on a regular basis.

C. S. Lewis wrote, When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit. (http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=02-04-019-f#ixzz2VRsTsWTo)
That reminds me that –

4.  I can’t do faith on my own.
I’ve spent some time on golf courses and lakes and have felt close to God there.  Well, perhaps on the lake but not on the golf course; God seems to abandon me there.  What I mostly feel in those places is an appreciation for God and his creation, which is important, but not the same as worship.  It’s also not likely that anyone at the lake or the golf course will tell you what you need to hear, except that maybe you should give up golf.

In the summer of 1978 my older brother was in Israel on an archeological dig.  At the time he owned an MG convertible.  Since he was gone the entire summer he left it in my care.  I was living in northeast Tennessee that summer, near the campus of the college I was attending.  It was a great car to drive in the summer.  A little convertible with a stick shift on the floor, it was a lot of fun.

The gas gauge on the car did not work, but I would set the odometer and watch it closely.  Most of the time.  A friend and I, on a great summer day, were riding in the car up a mountain road when I suddenly heard a loud ticking.  I remembered my brother telling me that just before the car ran out of gas the fuel pump would tick loudly.  We quickly sputtered to a halt.

Fortunately, the car did not have power steering or power brakes, so we could coast.  It was very easy to turn the car around and start coasting back down the mountain.  We coasted a long way, and with the top down and the breeze blowing it was a good ride.

As we coasted to the bottom of the mountain there was a little gas station at the bottom.  We coasted into the gravel parking lot and right up to the gas pumps.  I hopped out of the car and went in to pay for some gas.  Sitting outside the door was one of the locals, leaning back in a chair with his hat pulled down low.  As I walked by he looked up and said, I believe that’s the quietest running car I’ve ever heard.  I didn’t want to admit to running out of gas so I said, yes sir, she sure does run quiet!  

The reality is that it’s easy to coast through life.  We want to minimize our stressors, our expectations, our responsibilities – church is one place where you cannot cruise, because the Spirit of God will move in us and push us beyond our own comfort.  If I try to do faith on my own I always run out of gas, so to speak.

I have to admit there are times when I wish I could just live in my own little world and worry only about myself, but that is not an option when we are followers of Jesus.  There is no cruise control.  There is no “my own world.”

And that is why I go to church.

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