Saturday, October 14, 2017
“Envisioning a Faithful Future for the Church”
This Sunday, October 15th, we continue our series exploring the future of the Christian Church in general and the future of Christ United Methodist Church in particular.
In my initial post on this topic last week, I focused on the crisis facing American Christianity. Over the past 50 years, the major statistical measures of membership, financial giving, and average weekly attendance have all been in decline for Christian churches. For instance, over the past 30 years, membership in The United Methodist Church has declined by approximately 2 million people, from 9 million to 7 million. During this same period of time, there were similar declines at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, the congregation where I serve as Senior Pastor.
This statistical decline is matched by a decline in the social and moral influence of the Church in society. As its relevance to society has declined, the Church has been increasingly marginalized. We can say with confidence that the Church is in crisis.
Yet, with crisis comes opportunity. Based upon history and my experiences in life, I believe that frequently an individual or organization must suffer a catastrophic failure before gaining the vision and drive to achieve phenomenal results in the future. It is easy to slip into the complacency of the routine; to follow the same patterns again and again because they have always worked in the past and, as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” When we slip into the complacency of the routine, we no longer see new and different possibilities. Further the complacency of the routine provides security and assurance. As a result, we become resistant to change; we find ourselves saying, “But, we’ve never done it that way before.”
A crisis can jerk us out of the complacency of the routine. Although it hurts and is uncomfortable, a crisis open us to envisioning a new and better future. With crisis comes opportunity. So, despite the staggering statistical decline of the Church, I am extremely optimistic about its future. I believe that the Church will shrug off its complacency of the routine and experience a renewal that is not only statistical and social, but also spiritual. This renewal must begin by trying to envision a new future for the Church that is faithful to God.
How do we envision a faithful future for the Church?
To envision a faithful future, I believe that we must begin with the fundamental structure and pattern of the early Church, as summarized in Acts 2: 42-47:
"They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2: 42-47)
In this description, I discern four distinct requirements for envisioning a faithful future for the future Church:
1. A Community of Faith. The early church was a community of the faithful. In Acts’ summary of the early church, it says that the first Christians devoted themselves to fellowship; that they broke bread together in their homes and shared their food with glad and generous hearts. Most importantly, these early community of faith were growing “day by day.” While contemporary churches frequently cultivate community among their members, these communities are not growing “day by day.” Instead, many communities of faith are stagnant or declining. In addition, most communities of faith are very homogeneous, in terms of race, economic class, and social perspective. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that the most segregated hour in America was the Sunday hour of Christian worship. A faithful vision of the future of the Church must include building communities of faith, which are “diversity oriented” and radically inclusive.
2. Committed to Spiritual Growth. In the early church, the first Christians were constantly listening to the apostle’s teachings. The apostles were the living eyewitnesses to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of course, the contemporary situation is different, but spiritual growth remains an important component of the church. Much spiritual growth occurs through Bible studies. Other types of studies are important, as well, such as studies of spiritual practices or of special topics. We also grow spiritually by learning from different perspectives.
3. Committed to Mercy, Justice, and Love. The first Christians shared their possessions in common with one another and distributed goods to everyone as they had need. Essentially, the first Christians lived in a religious commune, sharing with one another. Our context in the twenty-first century is radically different. Yet, a commitment to mercy, justice, and love remains. By mercy, I mean the care of those who have severe needs. Mercy ministries include feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and welcoming the stranger or refugee. Mercy ministries may also include visiting those in prison, sitting with those who are lonely, or comforting those who are grieving. Sometimes, it is unfair political structures or an economic system, which has been rigged so that it deprives persons of the resources which they need to care for themselves. So, out of love for all human persons, Christ’s disciples must work for justice, so that everyone may have the basic necessities needed in order to care for themselves and thrive.
4. Worship Together. Finally, the early Christians prayed together, spent time in the Temple together, and praised God together. In other words, the first Christians worshipped together. For most of church history, Christians have worshiped in the similar manner and time, without much diversity. However, in the twenty-first century, churches developed several different styles of worship, as well as diversifying the times and places in which we worship. This is an important development because Christians have different tastes and preferences for worship. One of the challenges for envisioning a faithful future for the Church is to expand the scope of worship, so that it is more inclusive of different people and circumstances.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, October 15th, as we continue this very important series of reflections on “”A Vision for the Church.” This Sunday, I will discuss these four criteria for envisioning a faithful future, as they may apply to Christ United Methodist Church. Christ United is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come and join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.