Pastor David W. Schweppe -

THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF THE CHURCH
By David W. Schweppe
Revised 1-17-2015

A Time of Transition

As I sit down to write the following, we have entered the month of January. January is named for a Roman god, Janus. The Romans believed Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions. He was usually depicted as having two faces – one looking to the past and one to the future. Perhaps the point the Romans were making is this: We need to learn from the past and yet stay focused on the goal. Or maybe that we need to put the past behind us, so that we can grasp the future. As we enter the new year, the Church (large “C” indicates the Church as a whole) needs to reflect on the past and then focus on the future, God’s future… for us as individuals, our faith communities, and for the future of humanity.

The truth is that we are living in a time of transition, especially for the Church in the United States. The time has come for those who claim to be Christian to face this reality and make a personal decision either to ignore what’s happening or to take a stand. The Church in the United States is under assault. And the goal of those who oppose the Church is simply this: the death of the Church. What’s terrifying to me, something I never would have thought of in my youth or even when I went to seminary in my mid-twenties, is that the opposition seems to be growing and seriously attempting to reach their goal.

Maybe you are thinking right now, “Ah, no; that’s taking an extreme view.” But let’s look at some of the facts and then decide whether or not what I believe is hype or reality.

The Church I Knew

When I grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, the churches were filled on Holy Thursday and Good Friday as well as Easter and Christmas Eve. We had well-attended Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day services. Sunday school rooms were filled to capacity and then some, and much of the time there were two Sunday school classes for each grade. Annual Meeting Day started with the worship service and followed by a congregational potluck and then a meeting that lasted well into the afternoon. There were always two and three more people willing to fill the empty council positions than were necessary. Youth groups and adult groups were well-attended. Youth group met on a weekly basis, especially through the summer. And even though the Couple’s Club stayed out late on Saturday night, nearly every one of those adults were at church the next morning (my parents included).

When I was growing up, there were sports activities sponsored by the community and the school; but Sunday was left alone for the churches; Sundays and churches were respected. Most stores were also closed on Sunday mornings out of respect for God. Real Christmas carols (you know, the ones that mention Jesus) were sung at schools, and Christmas Vacation was Christmas Vacation and nearly everyone (my guess 90% or more) knew why. Being religious was not some weird, quirky thing to do but rather something expected and respected.

Back then, some forty years ago, it seemed American Society and the Church were partners. Society as a whole respected the Church. And the Church acted as Society’s conscience. For example, Society listened and acted when black (and white) preachers and Christians called for a societal change that resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Dying of the Church (as I Knew It)

But those days are gone.

As a pastor for the past twenty-five years, I have witnessed first-hand the dying of the Church of my childhood days. I’ve watched its prestige, its authority, its relevance, wilt away.

Pictures can tell the story. Back in September I went to a funeral luncheon. The luncheon was held at one of those turn-of-the-20 Century church buildings with the steep narrow steps that lead to the basement fellowship hall. In the fellowship hall there was an alcove where pictures were presented of what I assumed to be each year’s Sunday school. As I looked at those pictures, I noticed that the number of students in the black and white photographs far surpassed the number of students in the colored pictures. In general, with each passing year, the number of students decreased. What’s sad is that whatever congregation I visit that displays annual pictures of Sunday schools or confirmation classes, the predominant pattern is the same. The pictures display a decline.

Church attendance patterns also tell the story. Nationally, church attendance has been on the decline for decades. Church affiliation also has dropped significantly. Even those considered “active” attend church services less regularly. Twenty years ago the active member attended church services 3-4 Sundays each month. Now “active” is being considered by some experts to be 1-2 times per month. This brings to mind a question: If the active are not really active, what does that say to the so-called “unchurched”? Unfortunately, it says this: Activity is an option and probably not worth your time. It says, “Church – being the Church – just doesn’t matter; there’s no real need for it.

The plethora of Sunday activities also tell the story. “Sunday’s my only day to rest” is no longer the main excuse for not coming to church. Now with the plethora of sports and other activities that take place on Sunday mornings and Sunday afternoons, it seems society has created new gods to worship and new places to worship – the sport stadium and the shopping malls, for example. Not too long ago the church congregation was where you sought out community; now community is built around other institutions like schools, sports, Facebook, etc. The Church, for many, is a relic of the past, something that is now either taken for granted or something people just don’t really see the need for (see gallup.com and pewforum.org for details and graphs).

It’s as if for many the Church is like that old, favorite toy you used to play with. As you aged, that toy lost its originality, its finesse. It may still hold a hallowed spot somewhere in your house on a shelf, but it stays on that shelf.

Even the best congregations have had to struggle within this new environment. Despite solid efforts to grow the numbers in recent years and being involved in its community, one congregation I know of is still held back by the societal trends. Ten years ago that congregation had an average weekly attendance of 139.  Five years ago, 107. Today? 107. And these are numbers coming from a good, healthy congregation!

This overall situation is not unusual. It crosses denominational lines. Lutheran, Presbyterian, UCC, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, whatever. The majority of congregations, the majority of denominations, are facing what my congregation is facing: contrition in numbers. And for most, some of the consequences of those numbers include crumbling self-esteem, lack of excitement and joy, a growing lack of faith, and a big “Why?”

Disheartening, isn’t it? Added to all this is the growth of the anti-Church crowd in recent years. In just the past two years the number of books that speak about the demise of the Church has grown exponentially. They proudly and at times gleefully come out announcing not only their views but what they see as a victory over the Church and the Christian faith. Think about it: Who would have imagined just five years ago there being billboard ads at Christmas time saying, “Godless? So are we! Come Join Us!” Well, it happened this Christmas throughout the country.

One pastor, in my view a charismatic and Spirit-filled evangelist, has likened the situation to being on the roadside waiting for a car ride from our friends. But instead of stopping to let us join the ride, the car races by leaving us behind. The Church in America thought for the longest time that American Society was its friend. But now it’s as if Society is leaving us behind. In society’s eyes the Church has served its purpose and now is not needed anymore. Society, at least those who seem to be in charge of the influential sections of our society, have in essence “defriended” the Church.

Hard words, but this seems to be the truth. Society’s movers and shakers are saying to the Church, “Move aside. We’ve got this covered.” In their eyes, the Church is dead. Or at least dying.

Past Attempts, Present Struggles

Over the past twenty-five years, I have witnessed a number of fads within the Church that were supposed to increase attendance and membership. Stephen Ministries, small groups, mega-churches, contemporary worship and praise bands, and outright marketing. Being effective, being excellent, being principle-centered, being youth and family oriented. The Church Growth Movement, the Emergent Church, the Missional Church debuted and then seemed to go by the wayside. The overall result has been… no results. And each one ended up being a band aid rather than a cure.

On the congregational level, there is the hope of a congregation that the pastor can reach the inactives and bring them back home: “If you visit them, they will come back.” On the other side of the equation, the pastor is hoping for the congregation to step up and invite their friends, family members, neighbors and strangers. But the truth is most people (including pastors) have a hard time inviting. Why? Some say because it’s out of people’s comfort zones. Perhaps the truth is that most of us don’t want the “no” or the “not interested.” Translate that to… rejection. We’d rather not be rejected. And so we do our best not to “rock the boat.”

The Heart of the Problem?

Which gets me to this point, one that will be hard for most people and congregations to take: Is there anything we can do? Honestly, the more I struggle with that question, the more I’m thinking the answer is “no.” And here’s why. We are dealing with people, and people are by nature sinners. It is the sin that keeps getting in the way. Sin, as I define it, is that which separates people from people and people from our Creator in a negative way. Sin causes conflict, distorts reality and the truth, and reacts rather than responds. It also is paved with all sorts of good intentions, but ultimately the sinner places her/himself first. “If others benefit by what I do, great; but if not, deal with it.” On a societal level, sin takes place when the society decides it can do without the Creator’s assistance, or when that society decides it to become the god of the people.

The Christian Scriptures point to this fact over and over again. Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel. The Flood. The Tower of Babel. The forty years in the wilderness during the Exodus. The time of the Judges. The time of the kings. The Exile. The rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. The martyrs of the early church. The list goes on through church history. The Christians martyred under Stalin, Lenin, Mao and other 20 Century dictators. And even today in “western” and “free” societies where individuals are subjected to a sublime form of persecution as they are told to keep their faith/beliefs to themselves.

Human beings, on our own, cannot make the necessary changes. Because we, on our own, cannot stop sinning. We thus cannot on our own change. We cannot change the current trends facing the Church.

But God can.

And God will.

The Church Ain’t Gonna Die

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it (Matthew 16:8).” Now don’t focus so much on the Peter part of that sentence; focus on the second half: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.”

The Church is God’s church. And God is not going to let it die.

There may be times of pruning, times of difficulty. In fact, I believe the Church in America is experiencing this today. But God keeps his promises. If Jesus says the gates of Hell will not overcome it, then the Church will survive. After all, it is created by God, supported by God, commissioned by God, purposed by God. So the Church will not die; and ultimately, the Church will not fail.

We Are Not Responsible; God Is

Which brings me to a surprising thought with huge ramifications.

We are not responsible for marketing God. God is. Now, that may surprise you as well. But when one examines the scriptures carefully, God is able to take care of himself just fine. And though there will be times when nearly no one “remembers the LORD nor what he has done” (Judges 2:10), God will do what’s necessary to let people know he’s around. God does this by sending His Spirit into the hearts, minds and souls of people at just the right time, just the right moment. God does the work of evangelism and outreach… by first reaching out to us.

Before the Exodus and the giving of the Ten Commandments, it was God reaching out initially to Moses. God prepared him. God gave him the words. God did the signs that led to the Hebrews leaving Egypt. God gave the commandments. God led Israel. And when the people thought they should take matters into their own hands, the result was forty years in the wilderness rather than a much shorter time period God had planned. (See Numbers 13 and 14 for this part of the Exodus story).

God is in control, especially when the situation – from a human point of view – looks very grim. In 586 BC the Babylonians took over Judah. Most of the people were taken in chains from Judah to Babylon. Thus began the Exile. While in Exile, the Jews realized they had sinned and brought about the Exile as a consequence of their sin. A generation later, however, in 538BC, the Jews were granted permission by the new rulers of Babylon – the Persians – to return home. Those who returned saw this as God’s doing. What looked like a hopeless situation, God turned into a time of repentance, teaching and healing. And when the Jews returned, they brought with them their Book, the Torah, God’s Instructions to the people of Israel.

Out of the worse of conditions, God will do the necessary work to bring about light and life. God brings his light into the world through Jesus Christ, according to the Gospel of John (John 1:5). Into the darkness, God speaks, God creates, God is present, God becomes flesh, God dwells among us, God gives eternal life. God makes all the initial moves. And through those actions, brings life. The world rejected Jesus, crucified him. For all intents and purposes, the story should have ended there. But it did not. God raised him from the dead. And with that raising God offers the following promise to those who believe, to the Church, the assembly of believers:

I am the resurrection and the life.
He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;
And whoever lives and believes in me, will never die.
John 11:25

Maybe the best way to sum up this portion is this: “In the beginning God created…” (Genesis 1:1). Out of nothing God created this universe and everything in it. The anti-Church, anti-Christian crowd may well have their moment; but in the end, God is in charge. Despite how the situation looks at this moment, God will not let the Church die. But if it does, then God will raise it from the dead into new life. He promised.

Our Role in All of This

So if God is in charge, does that mean I don’t have to do anything? Do I have any part in getting other people to come to Jesus? What are we responsible for?

First, we are responsible for ourselves. For our growth as Christians.

Jesus once said, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?... First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:4, 5).”

In essence, Jesus is saying that we need to focus on our own growth as Christians rather than worrying about the other person’s growth: “There’s enough for me to work on just dealing with me.” We, as individuals, need to work on loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, Deuteronomy 6:5). And we, as individuals, need to work on loving our neighbor as we’d like them to love us (Matthew 22:39, Leviticus 19:18). Paul offers a variety of ways that can help us fine tune our growth as Christians: Romans 12:9-21, 1 Corinthians 13, Galatians 5:16-23, Philippians 4:4-9, Colossians 3:5-17, 1 Thessalonians 5:8-22. When we begin bringing these Christians virtues into our daily lives, God will begin to use us. Because, ultimately, God reaches others by using us – each of us – as his instruments of grace.

But We Are Not Alone

Simply put, God wants you to work on you and me to work on me. But there is help along the way. That’s where the Church comes in. The “Church” is the assembly of people God has called out for special service. In particular, this special service is the sharing of the good news that God, the creator of the universe, is present and that God does love you, cares about you, wants to play a major role in your life, and desires you to play a major role in the building up of His kingdom here and now. The Assembly, or congregation, is the community in which we learn the Christian faith, practice its virtues, and receive the profound gifts of God that can transform our lives and the lives of those around us. The congregation provides opportunities for studying God’s word, for learning and practicing prayer, for coming together as a community to worship, for learning how to be generous and express that generosity in the world, for practicing being thankful and graceful. Through the Church, God offers all these opportunities. And by doing so, God shapes us into a community for learning and practicing the heart of His message: the forgiveness of sins.

As God Treats Us, We Treat Our Neighbor

But God does not force His will upon the individual; God calls, but God does not force. God initiates, but it’s up to the person to respond. And that’s the way we are to reach out to those who do not know God or who are in a disagreement with God.

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking.
It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

As a member of the Church, the ecklesia, we are the ones “called out” (that’s the literal meaning of the word ecklesia). Through study, prayer, worship, among the other faith-building practices, God prepares us to be witnesses. Ultimately, God tasks us with being missionaries and to testify to his love and presence through our words, our deeds, our attitude toward life and toward others. It’s not a “Have you been saved, if not, why not?” attitude that will draw people into the presence of God; rather, it is by practicing love and grace in our daily lives. A life carried out in genuine Christian love will attract rather than repel.

When I was in Sunday school, we learned a song: “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” This is how we Christians need to address today’s decline in numbers, influence and whatever else. We need to be genuine practitioners of God’s love. We need to live what we say we believe.

Being a Billboard

Remember earlier when I brought up about the billboard ads that the anti-Church people put up throughout the country this past December? Well, Christians don’t need to spend money on billboards. What we do need to do is become the billboard ads that show people what a difference God can make in one individual’s life. How we treat one another, how we treat others, how we practice the forgiveness that we claim, the love that we claim, in those actions lay the changing of the current trend.

In Conclusion

This past November, Grace Lutheran Church, my home church, closed its doors. So for me literally, the congregation I knew as a child is gone. Other congregations are struggling. And the competition is very fierce. But the Church is God’s Church, and “the gates of Hell will not overcome it.” Maybe there is no longer a Grace Lutheran Church, but the Spirit has cast its members into other mission fields, into other congregations, so that new life can take place. God will use the members of Grace as witnesses to testify to the presence, the love, and the endurance of God.

And with us as well. The time will come when God will use each of us to present His message… at home, at work, at school, in the community. And in so doing bring light and life to the world.

In the meantime, open yourself to the Spirit’s work within others and within the Church. Respond to the call of God’s Spirit so that you may have life and have it abundantly. Respond to the call of God’s Spirit so that through you God can change the world.

I will close with one of my favorite Old Testament passages. It is a passage that speaks of light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of doubt. It speaks of God’s promise to his people, and that includes you and me:

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
Behold, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland…
To give drink to my people, my chosen,
The people I formed for myself
That they may proclaim my praise.
Isaiah 43:18-21

 

 


Website Builder provided by  Vistaprint