The future of the church

In August I started seminary working toward a Masters of Divinity at Bethany Theological Seminary. It’s a big and exciting step. As a part of this journey I was licensed as a minister in the Church of the Brethren, a small denomination with simplicity, peace and the radical teachings of Jesus at its core. During the licensing service I had an opportunity to preach. Here is the text from that sermon. 

Lacey Community Church
November 15, 2015
Romans 12:9-18

Some think that I and my generation are the future of the church. We are also blamed for the decline in mainline Christian church practice. It is an interesting intersection to be at, the future and the failure of church.

The Pew Research Center recently released a study done in 2014 showing what many already knew, there is a continued and steady decline in religious practice among adults in the United States. 77% of adults say they are religiously affiliated, compared to 23% who say they do not have any religious affiliation, a group that is affectionately being called the “nones”. The problem with that label is that is assumes that those who identify as “none” have no faith, religious practice or beliefs at all. Yet, the study also found that nearly 90% of adults, religiously affiliated or not, believe in God or a higher power and the number of people who said they regularly experienced a sense of spiritual peace or wonder is on the rise. And over 50% of all the adults polled say they pray everyday. They pause and center in conversation with God, everyday. I am in seminary and work in a church so you would think that I would pray a lot. “Pray without ceasing”, right? But if we’re being honest, I don’t stop and pray as regularly as I should or as often as I would like.

So while clergy and theologians across the country are busy dissecting the results of this study, I find myself thinking that it really doesn’t matter. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t tell us anything. I don’t find God to be speaking in or through the data. Those of us who are active in church communities know that attendance is down, as are financial contributions, and the faces in the pew next to us have more wrinkles and whiter hair. And the “nones”, those of us who have been hurt by the Church, who have been told we’re not good enough, or who have asked questions that made the other people in the pew uncomfortable and so we stopped asking questions. Believing that what we yearn for cannot found inside stained glass windows on Sunday mornings.

Phyllis Tickle was a brilliant theologian and writer. She died recently after a lifetime of traveling around the country talking and writing about church, religion, and theology. By the way, if I somehow inspire you to pick up one of her books, read the footnotes, her books have the best footnotes of any writer I’ve ever read, they are hilarious and wicked smart! In her book Emergence Christianity, she talks about the arc of Christianity, beginning with the early Christians, like the Romans in the scripture we read about this morning who were doing a whole new thing, today we might think of them more like church plant, they were rag-tag groups of people who were creating a faith practice as they went along. Paul, one of the original followers of Jesus, would visit and write to them offering advice and perspective, but they were doing a completely new thing. We then move to Constantine, who institutionalized Christian practice, it became a national religion and was given a hierarchy. At that time most people were illiterate and so biblical interpretation was done by a select few educated leaders. But, with the invention of the printing press around 1440, the general population began to learn to read and to have access to the Bible. For the first time in the history of Christianity the general population could read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Which was huge! Phyllis Tickle makes the connection that without the invention of the printing press, Martin Luther would never have posted his thesis on the doors of the church and we would have never had the Protestant reformation, which is considered to be the biggest upheaval Christianity has ever seen. Until now. She thinks that we are in currently in the midst of the greatest shift in Christianity since the reformation because of the invention and accessibility of the internet. The Internet has made information endless accessible and it has changed how a generation builds and engages in relationship. Now this is probably the fastest and most inaccurate Christian history lesson ever, but what I find most important is all of this is that Christianity did not die when Jesus died on the cross, and it didn’t die because of the Reformation, and it isn’t going to die now, no matter what the polls say.

I love the kind of church I grew up with, I love the choir and hymns, I love the liturgy and the four-part harmony, I love church people, casseroles and sherbet punch. But at its worst church has been instrument of exclusion and a rational for violence, both physical and spiritual. I have experienced that church too, I’m sure some of you have also. Sometimes the Church feels fake and superficial. Like when we are arguing whether the red Starbucks coffee cup is a threat Christmas. The church isn’t perfect, and I’m not going to sugar coat the fact that many people have walked out of churches across the country because they have been deeply hurt, or ignored, or silenced. When I am asked “why I stay”, I’m never sure how to respond. I think part of why I have stayed is because of a call to ministry. But I also believe that we can do church better than we have been. I know there is another way to be in community, to be disciples, and to offer grace and love. To be followers of Christ. Jesus set forth an example of another way of life, another way of responding, another way of loving. Jesus is the best example of how to show up in relationship, how to be vulnerable, how to love unconditionally. The future of the church, this church, any church,  isn’t going to look the same as it did when you were a kid or even when I was a kid. But let me be perfectly clear, it is not dying. Church isn’t about a denomination, bylaws or a building. It’s about the mission of God. It isn’t even OUR mission, and it isn’t some program that we do,  it’s God’s mission in the world that we get to be a part of. So what is the future of the church? I don’t know. But I think it will probably be a people who:

Love from the center of who we are and not fake it. I think we will run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. We will be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

We will try not to get burn out; we will seek to keep each other fueled and aflame. We will be alert servants of God, cheerfully expectant. We wont quit in hard times; and we will pray all the harder. We will help those in need and be inventive in hospitality. 

We will bless our enemies and not curse under our breath. We will laugh with our friends when theyre happy and share tears when theyre down. We will strive to get along with each other; and not be stuck-up. We will make friends with nobodies and we will stop trying to be the great somebody.

We wont hit back, we will discover beauty in everyone. If possible, so far as it depends on me, I will live peaceable with all.

                                                                                               – Adapted from The Message

May it be so.

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