I went off lectionary for the day, and took a break from my “Love of God” series (all of a week into it!). But lots of good feedback. I wonder if anyone disagrees? I’d like to hear from folks who do.
1 Samuel 3:1-11; Revelation 3:1-22
“The State of the Church”
In the Book of Revelation, John the Seer dictates letters to seven important churches of his day; we heard three of those letters. John shows a distinct attitude in each letter, ranging from encouragement to strong warning. I thought about using these letters to address our church in this way, on this day, as we take stock of where we are and plan for where we want to go. Would we be the church who is “dead,” who are told “to wake up and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death?” Or are we like the faithful church in Philadelphia, who has “but little power, and yet you have kept my word and not denied my name?” They are told “to hold fast to what you have.” Or are we like the church in Laodicea, who is so satisfied with their wealth and success that they are neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm. So God says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” like lukewarm coffee. It’s not my focus today, but we do learn something about God’s love here, when God says, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love.”
But I find these letters by John really off-putting too. They don’t read to me like letters dictated directly from God. John’s biases show through; he seems to think only martyrs are real Christians. Maybe John needs to lighten up.
We should be very wary of claiming to speak directly for God. So I have no letter from God for the church in Granby. And it may be that John himself is dimly aware of the dangers and limits of pronouncing divine judgment. The one constant refrain in his letter is: “Let him who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying…” I’d like to think that’s John’s way of saying, “Judge for yourself; if the Spirit speaks to you through what I say, then use it in good health.” Ultimately, the Spirit of God has to judge us from within, both individually and as a church.
So we must ask ourselves, what does God think about our church? And we must listen to one another. Those with long roots in this church can to share what was so valuable from the past that we need to preserve. Newcomers can add a fresh perspective, seeing the church for how it is today, not through some rose-colored lens that those with long associations might have.
I do have a role in this conversation. I see this church in light of the challenges that the larger church faces, and the resources its leaders have proposed. But ultimately I’m left with my own take on what ails the church today and what fresh ideas might help the church regain the right combination of faithfulness and power. I confess you won’t often find a pastor in a small church who has given so much thought and study to these questions, and believes, hopefully not foolishly, that he has insight to offer.
So what problems is the church facing today, and how can we address these? Let’s focus on churches like ours: mainline churches that are mostly middle class, mostly white, which don’t believe in dramatic spiritual powers and don’t believe the Bible is inerrant. Our kind of church is not doing well. According to the Pew Research Center, the percent of the population affiliated with mainline churches like ours has gone from 18% to under 15% just since 2007. And this is down from around 25% a few decades earlier. These statistics can be analyzed in a variety of ways, but they tell us that all is not well. Still, let’s not obsess about numbers; my first concern is always whether our mainline churches are presenting a compelling and faithful way of life, with God at its center. If we’re not doing that, then even if we were growing, we would not be a true church. And you’ll notice that the Book of Revelation’s letters never once mention whether the churches are growing. Let us be faithful to God, and be not ashamed of what we are but share our faith, and I trust God that all will be well. (Not that we don’t need to prudently manage the business side of things, of course!)
So what does that look like? Whether we are growing or shrinking, whether our budget is balanced or not, church should be a powerful experience. Church should change lives, even if it does so slowly. It should take your breath away. It should open you up to that raw, vulnerable, on-edge side of life, like you get when you’ve had a really intense personal conversation with a good friend, or better still, a stranger. You know what I mean? When your ears are perked up, and you feel you’ve finally let your guard down and exposed yourself to what really matters in life. At the end of such a conversation, I find I feel exhausted but also full of nervous energy. A good conversation, a great novel, even a movie that isn’t an escape but really calls to you—these can make you feel this way, like you are on the edge of a great precipice of life. Why shouldn’t church feel that way too—even more so?
What? You say you’ve never felt that way? Well it’s never too late. Imagine how Moses felt at the burning bush; or how Peter felt when, after pulling in a huge trove of fish, said to Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am an unclean man.” Or how Adim Malek prayed as he fled for his life as a boy solider, and finally found liberation. Or how some of you have faced losing your own children, but God stood by you through it all. I don’t wish these difficult experiences on anyone, but church can really happen when our hearts are at their most vulnerable and exposed. How many of our mainline churches tap into that kind of power? If they did, they wouldn’t be shrinking, I assure you.
Mainline churches should have that power; we’re talking about God, here, and what more than God can lead you to live life on the edge? But mainline churches have too often managed to make God ordinary, commonplace, blandly familiar, even boring. People who are hungry for life on the edge, who really want to feel life, have to flee the church and look to crazy extreme sports, or grizzly horror movies (or death metal). Maybe they fail to appreciate that ordinary life can also be extraordinary, but they are on to something. / Really, it’s shocking. Right where life ought to be most exciting and on the edge, we’ve made church the home for life at its most conventional—plain-vanilla. We should almost be proud of ourselves for such an unlikely achievement. How indeed?
I think what happened is the church went from praying for the Kingdom of God to come and for this age to pass, to recasting itself as a pillar of social order. It became the church’s role to uphold mainstream society. This dramatic shift started long, long ago; with Constantine, played a big part in the fourth century, but there were a lot of smaller compromises along the way. Our Puritan ancestors were remarkably counter-cultural when they lived in England, but when they settled here they became the establishment, and church became the place where rules were enforced and people kept in line. And still today, the small-town New England church might continue to assume that it is our role to be the center of town, the pillar upholding all the values that make a place like Granby what it is.
But exactly what those town-‘n’-chuch values are shifts through time and with location. Once it was important for church to reinforce sexual morality and patriotism, to shun divorce, and make anyone who was different feel judged—maybe they were foreign born, dark skinned, or gay. More recently, churches may reinforce the value of self-fulfillment and individual achievement; we endeavor to promote well-adjusted young people who have “positive values,” like healthy self-esteem. Often the main value we promote towards others is tolerance—“live and let live.” If you are up in Amherst, church might be a place to celebrate progressive political values, with just a touch of self-righteousness. In many rural areas, it’s the opposite—conservative social values reign, to which faith lends the hubris of absolute certainty that everyone else is wrong or degenerate. Now, don’t get me wrong; teaching values is, well, valuable. I do it. We can and should have important discussions about what personal and social values best align with the Gospel. But too often church serves simply to lend a vague divine blessing on whatever conventional values we mostly white, middle class people hold anyway; and predictably our teenagers will either rebel against all this just because it’s conventional, or the more conforming teens will ploddingly go along with it. But you don’t need a church to instill these values; the Bible just seems to get in the way of conventional values anyway—it’s such a strange book. No wonder people have stopped coming to church to imbibe conventional values, whether progressive or “family values.” You can rely on youth sports, Disney movies, and school to instill conventional values like self-esteem, hard work, and tolerance, in your kids.
None of this has anything to do with the real heart of church, as I want to present it to you: standing naked and vulnerable before the absolute God—placing yourself face to face with the God upon whom everything depends. That is what church alone can deliver; no other organization can. Church ought to be where everything superficial, everything fake, everything false is exposed; where we bring before the fire of divine love everything we have substituted in the place of real, unbounded living, to be burned away. Paul tells the Corinthians that they should be speaking with such a prophetic edge in church that when a new visitor comes in for the first time, “the secrets of” that person’s heart will be “disclosed,” and he or she “will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you.’” That’s power, not borne of manipulation and pulling heart-strings, but truth; real truth-power.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am looking for that in a church, but I’ve never been so explicit. Maybe you’re saying, Yes I want that! How do we get it? Good question. It’s nothing you or I can manufacture. At best we can open ourselves to this kind of raw, divine power: The God “who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open.” But we can try to clear out everything we substitute in its place: the god of convention, the god of Granby. We can choose instead to settle for nothing less than the true God who is far beyond our little lives. Maybe we find it hard to believe in this God. We can see convention; the everyday world has an almost oppressive reality to it. What is beyond it can’t easily be seen. Then the place to begin is with honesty. Wherever we are with faith, church has got to be the place where we are at our most raw and honest. You can’t fake it before God. Even if you’re not sure you believe in God, you surely don’t think you can fool God! Whatever God is, he’s nobody’s fool. So if we have intellectual doubts about God or are confused about God, or if we find the Bible strange or silly, we honor God by being honest about it. Nothing so dishonors God as pretending to be a ‘good Christian.’ Then church becomes just a show of piety, where you fake it for the sake of upholding convention; and then we’ve dethroned God. Instead, let’s be honest and vulnerable with our confusion and doubt, and only then are we open to better understanding. And then maybe the God we seek will be gracious and show himself here, will “come in to you and eat with you, and you with him.”
But maybe this isn’t what you come to church for. Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, or you just prefer the God of ordinary life, of convention, who upholds everyday values. Maybe I’m freaking you out! You don’t need to be. I can work with where you’re coming from. God is our creator, the one who created the various orders in which our lives move and have their being. And God’s created goodness is still visible in the bonds of family, in ordinary neighborliness, in loyalty and reciprocity with one’s own people. I don’t think that these values by themselves are enough to make church powerful, and they are not the values we find at the heart of our redemption and calling in Christ. But some of you have helped me see that, seen in retrospect from the vision of that extraordinary calling we have in Christ, with its very unconventional way of being a distinct and holy people before God, the continuing goodness of God in even ordinary things can seem amazing. I continue to journey with you and learn; I hope you will do the same with me.