It is clearly an understatement to say that the public role of religion is changing, not only in our society, but throughout the entire world as well. Thinking about that change was the impetus for this series of messages. It was also from thinking about faith in general. The older I get the more convinced I become of the centrality of faith to life. But not religion. I don’t know how you define religion, but I define religion as the manmade aspects of faith. To me, faith is the love, trust, and love that defines our relationship with God. Religion is the collection of rules, regulations, and dogmas that humanity constructs, and that can get in the way of faith, if that makes sense. I think it is religion, not faith, that people reject most of the time.
As we continue that series, which I’ll complete next week, this morning we are studying Faith in the Public Square. If you read the study guide, much of that material had to do with the relationship between church and state, which is the way we often think about how faith works in the public square. This morning, though, I want to talk about the topic in a much broader sense.
First, I want to talk about a few of the methods by which faith is not working in the public square, and then talk about a few ways in which I believe that we, as followers of Jesus, must begin to engage the public square.
What is not working –
1. Politicized/partisan faith.
My dad and I didn’t have many disagreements, but we had a pretty big difference of opinion on a particular political candidate. My dad really liked this person but I was very suspicious. My dad liked him because of the way the person used the language of faith, which is the reason why I was suspicious. I was uncomfortable with the way the person mixed faith and politics. While I did not doubt the sincerity of their faith, it was far too partisan for me, and struck me as someone who sought to use the political system to push their particular view of faith on others.
I believe faith has a lot to say about the politics of our world, and should have something to say about the politics of our world, but it is not effective when it seeks to impose a particular view of faith upon people. Faith ought to serve as a conscience to our political system. Faith ought to remind the powerful that they cannot forget the poor and the weak. Faith ought to remind the powerful that they cannot build a structure that favors one group of people over other groups. Faith ought to remind the powerful that everyone should be treated with fairness, justice, and equality.
For many centuries the church was very powerful politically and even militarily. That power caused the church to lose a great sense of its call to love, its call to service, and its call to humility, I believe.
People have, by and large, rejected religion that wields power over people.
2. Condemning, judgmental religion.
I cringe whenever I hear three words – Westboro Baptist Church. I wish that small group of people did not receive so much attention. I think they are a black eye on the church and what the church is called to be.
They are certainly an aberration, I believe, but there are still churches that seem to make it their mission to tell others how bad they are. They love to sit in judgment of others. They specialize in telling others what terrible sinners they are.
That’s not going to get much of an audience these days, and it shouldn’t, because that is not the message of Jesus. Jesus could be harsh in what he had to say, but we must remember it was always in dealing with the powers of his day – both political and religious – that Jesus was critical. Jesus was not judgmental in his dealings with every day people, and especially not when dealing with the so-called “sinners” of the day.
3. Dysfunctional churches.
If you have been around churches for very long you’ve probably encountered dysfunctional faith. There are churches so absorbed in drama and dysfunction that it is unlikely they will ever develop a sense of mission and purpose.
I visited a church while on vacation five or six years ago and you could feel the dysfunction. From the time I got out of my car to the time I got back in my car no one could be bothered to speak to me. I stood and waited for a greeter to hand me a program but they were too absorbed in a conversation about the problems of the church. I finally found a program, found a seat, and noticed that every staff member listed on the program was an interim. The interim pastor was giving his final message that day. It was really uncomfortable, listening to him tell the church that he believed they were so dysfunctional there was no way forward for them.
Who wants to go somewhere like that?
How do we function like Paul did, as he found common ground in his day and age?
1. By helping people to connect with God.
I haven’t been to camp in a few years, and I’ll be at Wakon’Da Ho next week. I’m looking forward to it, because I love being eaten alive by mosquitoes and getting very little sleep.
Actually, I love it because of what it does – it connects people to God in a very powerful way. People desire to be connected to God, not to a program, not to an institution, not to a belief system, not to a doctrine or a dogma, but to God.
Sometimes churches forget that calling. It’s great to connect people with one another, and it’s great to have programs and activities and that is part of our task as well, but we are called to connect people to God. I certainly want to affirm my love for, and support of the church. I feel as though I have been hard on churches in the course of this series. It’s not that I enjoy finding fault with the church; it’s because of my love of the church that I feel the need to point out some areas where churches need to make some changes, and one of those is to remember that our calling is not simply to connect people to an institution, but to the living God.
2. By talking with people.
I like the way Paul approached the people in Athens. He didn’t go in with verbal guns blazing and telling them how wrong they were. He didn’t organize a protest. He didn’t yell at them. He didn’t point his finger at them and launch into a judgmental tirade. He didn’t insult them. Instead, he found some common ground so he could strike up a dialogue. He said, I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To An Unknown God. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
Paul could have strolled in there and said you bunch of pagans. You are so ignorant in the way you worship. Did you know you’re wrong? But he didn’t. Paul found a place of common ground and he talked to them.
We are losing the ability to talk to one another in world. We are so dug into our positions, and our sides, and our views that we have developed parallel universes where we can all tune into what we want to hear and most of the dialogue taking place is little more than preaching to the choir and criticizing people on the other side.
3. Through service.
Faith is not about power. Faith is not about lining everyone up with the exact same belief and Biblical interpretation. Faith is about love, and the visible sign of that love is service.
Ironically, as our society has become so much more oriented toward the importance of service many churches have moved away from serving others, but it has been the influence of the gospel that has instilled in Americans the importance of service. If you have a child, or grandchild, applying to college you have most likely learned that those schools are looking for more than good grades and good test scores. Those schools want to see that prospective students have engaged in service work.
The February after Hurricane Katrina I was in Waveland, Mississippi doing recovery work. We stayed at a mission center established by a church in Mobile. The church had been raising money to build a new sanctuary, and after the hurricane they made an amazing decision – they gave away the money. They used the money to establish the mission station and to purchase supplies for people rebuilding their homes and businesses. I don’t know how much money they gave away, but it was a significant amount. Perhaps they needed to build an even bigger sanctuary, as a result of this great act of service.
As I have said before, I am very excited about the future of church. I know that many people are anxious about the role of churches in our society, now and in the future, but I think we are in the beginning of a great work of God. May it be so.