August 23, 2015
When Tanya and I were traveling through parts of Europe during my sabbatical we visited a lot of churches, and I was very curious about the churches in Europe. Would we find church attendance to be as poor as is often claimed?
This is the first church we visited, St. Pancras Church in London, where we worshipped the morning we arrived. I think I mentioned this a couple of weeks ago but I don’t think I showed a picture. It’s a beautiful church, but was not very well attended the day we were there. The attendance was fairly sparse, but there was a variety of ages there, and more young people than I would have anticipated.
It’s often overlooked that cities such as London, which is often viewed as not being very church-going, does have megachurches, and there are churches that have very good attendance, although in Europe, church attendance is not what is was just a generation or two ago, and there are people who would ask if that is the direction our society is headed. One encouragement to me, while on sabbatical, was to find so many churches doing very well, in attendance, ministry, and outreach.
This morning’s message is The Church Has Left the Building, and our Scripture text is Luke 5:27-39.
27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
33 They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.”
34 Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?
35 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.”
36 He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.
38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.
39 And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”
There is a dual meaning to the title of this message –
1. People have left churches.
While many churches are doing well, it is obvious there are many people who are no longer active participants in the life of a local church.
Why have people left the building? If so many people continue to believe in God – and the overwhelming majority of people do continue to believe in God – why do so many people not connect that belief in God to participation in a church?
Well, there are probably as many answers as there are people, but I believe we can trace it to a couple of primary reasons.
One, unfortunately, is that people sometimes get hurt or are disappointed by the church. The church alumni society has quite a few members, and almost all of the members of the church alumni society retain their faith and their belief in God. But our communities and neighborhoods have a lot of people who had a hurtful experience in a church and they gave up. A few people abandon or lose their faith, but that’s a very small number.
But perhaps the larger reason is in what I would call the delivery system of faith, or of God. Just as you no longer have to go to a physical store to purchase products, you also no longer have to go to a church building to receive a connection or maintain a connection with God. For much of history, people depended upon churches and members of the clergy as the dispensers of God. People don’t believe that way any longer, as evidenced by the large numbers of the spiritual but not religious.
In our society, where people overwhelmingly believe in God people are, generally speaking, very spiritual and interested in spiritual matters, but they think differently about the delivery system of spirituality. Think about what is happening in our society and all around the world, in terms of how things are changing. There is not one area of life that is not experiencing profound change. This little device (hold up cell phone) has revolutionized life – or cursed it, depending upon your perspective.
What is also changing is the sense of obligation and social expectations that used to bring people to church. This often puzzles ministers, unfortunately. Ministers will often say, people put too many other things ahead of the church these days. They don’t treat Sunday with the respect that it used to receive. People used to come out of obligation or expectation, or a combination of both, but now people feel much freer to choose what they will do and what they won’t do.
How many of you still have a landline telephone? Have you cut the cable or satellite cord? All the traditional structures are changing. It’s not just the church that faces the struggle of change; change is affecting everything, and those who fail to adapt will not survive. I don’t believe the church is going anywhere, but it must recognize that the world has changed tremendously. For many people, the church is no longer seen as the default place to connect to God. But faith remains with us. How many of you traveled to church today by horse and buggy? No one. We no longer travel by horse and buggy, but transportation is always with us; it’s just that the mode changes, and the same is true of faith.
Even if they don’t attend, people support belief, they support faith, and they support the idea of the church, and that is no small matter. This is what we could call vicarious faith, and it is a very important and powerful dynamic. Vicarious faith is when those who are involved in church provide a vicarious experience for those who aren’t connected to a church, and it shows how much people outside of the church depend upon what those of us in the church do.
For example, I was not a faithful attender of class when I was in college. What would be the educational equivalent of spiritual but not religious? I believed in education, but I didn’t think it necessary to go to class to be educated. Because I didn’t go to class, I depended, vicariously, upon my friends who did. I needed their notes and other information when it was time to show up for a test or exam.
We see the need for vicarious faith when it comes to those who set a public example of faith, and we need those examples. This past week former President Jimmy Carter held a very powerful press conference, talking about his cancer, sharing that it had spread to four spots in his brain. He went from the press conference to his first radiation treatment, and he was expecting to be at his church this morning to teach Sunday School. Jimmy Carter is undoubtedly a much more popular public figure post-presidency, and it is because of the way in which his faith moves him out into the world to work for Habitat for Humanity, to advocate for peace, and other areas. Pope Francis is another very popular religious figure, even among the non-religious. People love that he is not an ivory tower leader, that he is accessible, and obviously very concerned about people who are poor and suffering. Jimmy Carter, the pope, and others appeal to the better angels of ourselves. They serve as examples of how we might live, how we should live, and conversely, what happens when we do not serve as a good example. This is demonstrated in the sad story of Josh Duggar, if you have followed the news about his latest revelation of misbehavior.
We don’t just expect our leaders to be examples, we need them to be examples. People do expect a difference, don’t they? That’s why the general public can be so quick to criticize religious figures who experience public failings – because they expect to see, and need to see, a difference. They know that following Jesus means we are held to – and that we must hold ourselves to – a higher standard.
Just because people do not attend church doesn’t mean they don’t need it and don’t benefit from it. Our church provides ministry to large numbers of people in our community, even though they might never attend a worship service or join our congregation. They receive counseling, they receive food, they receive educational help, they received spiritual encouragement, they receive medical help, and many, many other important types of ministry.
What was one of the things people did after 9/11? They went to church? Why? Because it’s what they knew they should do. We opened our church that evening and had a gathering and the sanctuary was packed. Did you have a service here, or somewhere in Shelbyville? We saw an uptick in attendance for a while, and then as it dissipated over time, what did some people do? They were judgmental about those who did not continue to attend. What they didn’t do was appreciate the fact that people knew that in times of great difficulty there was a place to go and be together as a community and that place is the church! In times of such difficulty, where else is there for people to go, but the church?
When Tanya and I attended a service at Westminster Abby in London we sat just feet away from where Princess Diana’s casket was placed at her funeral. And I thought about how interesting that was, in a country that – on the surface at least – seems so much less religious than just a generation ago, they knew that’s where the funeral needed to be, in a church. And the Abby knew not to say something such as, well, she’s divorced, she’s been living with someone and that person is of another religion, and there are all these other issues. No! They did no such thing, because the hearts of the people were turning to God and to the church.
There are empty churches all over Europe, but does that mean people are not connected to God? In Europe, if you ask people whether or not they believe in God, about 70% would answer yes, which is much higher than the way in which Europe is generally characterized. But worship attendance in much different. The average, across Western Europe, would be about 10%; higher in some countries and lower in others.
In Switzerland, people pay a tax to support the church, and it is a couple of percent, so it’s not a small amount. People can opt out of the tax if they choose, but they do not do so. Isn’t that interesting? So many people don’t attend church regularly but they continue to pay a tax to support the churches, even when they could opt out. Obviously, people are supportive in some way of the church. In the Scandinavian countries, where church attendance is on the average very low, almost every child is baptized.
If the church doesn’t have some kind of institutional structure much of that can and will disappear. But if the institutional structure doesn’t get outside of its walls and provide those ministries it will cease to become relevant to its community and enter into a death spiral. Which leads us to my next point.
2. The church is called to go from the building to minister in the name of Christ.
I want to borrow an analogy from something I read. The church is like the tip of an iceberg, but the whole of belief is like the entire iceberg, and we don’t think enough about the entire iceberg; mostly we think about the part that sticks out of the water.
One of the most obvious lessons in this passage is the absolute insistence on the part of Jesus to be loving and accepting of people regardless of who they are or their station in life.
There is a lot of sociology driving churches, and some of it is the simple fact that we are uncomfortable with people not like us. A great sign of life and health in a church is the presence of many different types of people. When the uniformity of a congregation rises, it’s time to ask some questions about why that is. We are a very diverse country, and if we only accept and embrace people who look like us, dress like us, talk like us, and think like us, we’ll soon be in trouble.
When my family and I visited in Washington, DC, some years back, we were standing in line outside one of the buildings, and there was a church group from Mississippi who were in the city on a mission trip. They were in line in front of us and I liked their shirts, because on the back was printed the phrase the church has left the building.
I like that phrase, the church has left the building, and that is the title of my message this morning. I like that phrase because it reminds us that so much of the work and the ministry of a church takes place not within the walls of a building, but rather outside of the walls. And when we read through the stories of Jesus in the gospels, we find that the context of the far majority of those stories is outside the walls of a religious institution, such as the Temple and the synagogue.
Where was Jesus generally found? He was found wherever you would find people – in the marketplace, in the bustle of the crowds that traveled, along the shores of lakes and seas, and, of course, in the Temple or synagogues.
We are out there in many ways. Can we get out there in more ways? Can we leave the building?