having grown weary of the commentary on why the church is dying, and what it’s doing wrong, i revisited the question of “who” is the church in a sermon preached at grace university lutheran church on october 21. please read the text for the day from Mark to ground this reflection, and be generous with the reality that a sermon always preaches different than it reads.
For any of you who are on Facebook, you know what happens when something controversial, and public – say like a presidential debate – takes place. Your feed blows up with comments, quotes, people posting links to pictures or pundits that help us laugh, process, and in many cases feel better about our own side.
Now imagine my feed after a recently released study by the Pew Forum on Religious Life. It’s blowing up!
Here’s what it said: The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.
In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).
And so my facebook feed, for the last two weeks, has been blowing up with commentary, mostly from “experts,” who work with young adults or who have successful young adult ministries, telling the church what it is doing wrong. And for some reason, it’s driving me batty. I’ve reached my saturation point, I fear, with all the talk of how the church is dying. It feels a little bit like the Children’s story about Chicken Little, who gets hit on the head with an acorn and pronounces to every animal he meets, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.”
When this band of animals finally reaches the king, the king picks the acorn out of chicken little’s tuft of hair, and says, “You see, Chicken Little, it was only an acorn and not a piece of the sky. The sky could never fall. Only rain falls from the sky.”
The ones fretting about and foaming about and furiously fixing the state of the church might learn a little bit from this whole exchange. I don’t think the sky is falling. Our God is not a God who would set about killing something that has been so instrumental in doing God’s work in this world. The church is God’s hands and feet and beating heart – the church is god’s body in this world – we are what God has – so let’s start acting like it.
Our god is a God of new things. This is the God that told the Israelites, when they wanted to make him a temple, that “I don’t need a place. I understand that’s what you’re used to, but I am with you everywhere.” This is a god that is found in his people. And when Christ came, he expanded that definition even more, saying that God’s people aren’t limited to a race or to a tribe, but instead that God’s promises exist for all people, and in that promise all are made one. And the early church called this new gathering of God’s people the church.
Every 500 years or so, the church goes through a tremendous upheaval. Cultures collide, and it really might feel like the sky is falling, like the church is in danger of extinction – but it’s not. I have a friend who, in response to this cacophony of commentary, wrote that the church isn’t dying, it’s pregnant. We’re about to give birth to something new, with all of the discomfort and anxiety and expectation and fear and hope that accompanies pregnancy. And I think that’s so exciting…
Because what this newness means is a whole lot of letting go. It means for sure that we have to let go of re-creating the church of the 1950’s, or the 1960’s, when buildings were popping up everywhere and the suburbs were growing and highways were connecting our country and our churches were exploding with people. We have to let go of church as the place where you go because you’re supposed to, and because that’s what people expect of you. We have to let go of church as the place that grants you power in a political, or social, or cultural way. That version of the church, for all of its good, bad and ugly, is passing away.
And together, with God, we are giving birth to something new. I think our scripture today might have something to say to that.
Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
The images of Christian life that we receive from scripture, the instructions Jesus gives to his disciples, over and over and over again – especially in Mark – is that we are called to the margins of our culture, where people are isolated, lost, alone. We are called to the mourning, the sick, the poor. We are called into service and sacrifice. And when we move into Acts, we find that the church isn’t located in buildings made for thousands of people. The church is comprised of small gatherings, meeting in homes, to be in community with one another, breaking bread, reading scripture, praising God, collecting offerings for the orphan and widow, and then going out to be in relationship with, to serve, the orphan and widow.
This is the church, and this is our call. This is our opportunity to be god’s hands and feet and beating heart. Now I’m not arguing for some throwback to the first century – I honestly think that’s a little naïve. Instead I think we’re being called by God, and led by the Holy Spirit, into something new, messy as it may be. And I think this break from cultural familiarity, this break from social expectation, this emerging counter-cultural nature of Christianity gives us a new and incredible freedom.
We gather to worship, pray, eat and serve. We gather to learn from scripture what it means to be disciples, to support one another as we shed cultural notions of what success looks like, and practice living lives of service, sacrifice and commitment to something beyond ourselves. We gather to know and to be known, to love and be loved; by God, yes, but also by the community that Christ calls together. And as we share in Holy Communion, we are gathered together, and then sent out to be God’s hands and feet and beating heart in this world. That’s not death friends, that’s abundant life.
So whether you’re a proud card carrying lifer in the Lutheran church, or whether you’re just checking out this church thing for the first time; know that there change a foot. But also know that this change doesn’t mean death. God loves God’s people. God loves each one of you so much, and in Christ promises that you are forgiven, healed, and then set free to live abundantly, to seek out community, to extend the reach of this church beyond the boundaries of our culture and tribe, beyond numbers in Pew Research forum surveys, beyond any limitations we might put on God or the church. You are set free to be midwives, with God, in the birthing of this new chapter of what it means to God’s people.