Sunday, March 08, 2009

Lent 2 - Year B

I had a professor in seminary who said that if your church is growing the first question you need to ask is “What are we doing wrong?”

He’s not alone. I’ve noticed that, within Lutheranism, growing churches are met with suspicion, envy, or outright hostility.

“They must be soft peddling Jesus’ hard message,” they would say. “Any church that’s growing must be catering to peoples’ selfish, consumer demands rather than calling them to the hard road that Jesus walked.”

Pope Benedict would agree. He predicts that the worldwide Catholic population will be significantly smaller in the next century than it is today. He says that the Catholic Church will be smaller, but stronger. The deadwood will be discarded, spiritual tourists will be ushered off the bus. Only the committed core will remain.

Hypocrisy alert! I’ve made that same argument myself, many times, but for different reasons. I think, as the Christian church becomes less and less cozy with our culture, fewer and fewer people will naturally gravitate to churches on Sundays, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. And also folks will stop looking to churches for wedding and funerals. And I’ve noticed that I don’t get as many cold calls as I once did from non-church people asking for baptisms for their children.

And that’s okay. I think that’s a good thing. I think the Christian church will grow stronger once the cultural props are taken away. Instead of relying on peoples’ cultural memory, churches, Christians - US! - will have to actually do the work of sharing Jesus’ message of new life with those who only know the name Jesus as a curse word.

So, on one level, my professor was bang on the nail. Perhaps some churches are too cozy with the culture and are growing because they re-affirm what people already believed when they walked through the door.

Of course, that assumes that churches that aren’t growing are somehow more faithful to Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness. It assumes that Jesus is more offensive than life-giving. It assumes a gospel much like we’ve heard this morning.

“Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says. “That’s what it means to be my follower. Deadwood will be cleared. No tourists allowed.” You can hear the crowd leaving and the disciples gasping for air. This is no kind of talk if you want to draw a crowd. “If you want to be my follower, you need to come and die.”

Doesn’t exactly warm the heart, does it? But then again it’s not supposed to. This wasn’t the gentle Jesus meek and mild. This was Jesus trying to birth a new world.

We read this story and it’s then easy to look down our collective noses at churches we feel are taking the edge off of Jesus’ cutting message.

We can make fun of the food courts in their main lobbies. We can mock the self-help preaching that has little or nothing to do with Jesus, just, good, ol’ fashioned self-esteem affirmations dressed in religious garb.

We can laugh at the yoga classes, the building that resembles a suburban mall rather than a traditional church, and the Krispy Kreme donuts served after worship (one church I know of budgets more money on those little round heart attacks than we do on our worship, ChristCare, Stephen Ministry, and Christian Education combined!).

It’s easy to laugh. But I wonder if our chuckles really mask our envy. Why are they so big and we so small?

When we worry about worship attendance we look at these churches and ask what they’re doing that we’re not doing.

When our Sunday school widdles down to only a handful of bright, shiny faces, we look over to others and ask how we can increase the numbers.

When we look around and see more grey and white hair than not, we ask what we’re doing wrong.

And those, of course, are not bad concerns. Matthew 28, the so-called Great Commission calls us to make disciples of Jesus and baptize folks. So, clearly Jesus is worried about who shows up for church.

But often what passes for good theology is really convenient theology. Preachers can say that God doesn’t care about numbers, it’s faithfulness that counts. And they’d be right. As far as that goes.

But when you’re staring down the barrel of deficits, presiding at more funerals than baptisms, and a quick calculation tells you that you’re maybe 10 years away from closing your doors, I wonder if it’s a good time to re-think what it means to be faithful.

Of course, Good Shepherd isn’t at that place...yet. That’s why the temptation is so great, the temptation to grow for growth sake. We tempted with the basic human instinct to survive merely to survive.

We see our Christian influence dwindling in society, and we confuse the trappings of the world’s success - numbers, money, the size of our building - with faithfulness, and we begin to maybe feel like we’ve failed, that we’ve squandered our inheritance, that we’ll be the last generation to see Christians meeting together in any meaningful way.

When the church baptizes the culture’s notions of success, we start straying from the path Jesus calls us to walk, the path that leads, not to bigger and better things, but to the cross.

Not pain for pain’s sake. But the consequence of believing a different story than the one our cultural tells. The story that we are not in change of the world or our lives, but that God is. The story that says that person’s worth is not decided by how much money he makes or how by how much stuff is in her garage, or by how smart they are, but by how much they loved and served others the way Jesus loved and served.

That’s Jesus’ story, and the story he calls us into.

A baptist church in Atlanta decided that there were going to live that story. The looked around and saw that there were enough generic, megachurches, in the city, and so they were going to be different.

They weren’t going to worry about growing, there wasn’t going to be a high-profile marketing campaign, they weren’t going to pay people $100 to attend church like one of their church neighbours did, they weren’t going to auction off a Porsche on Easter Sunday like another church did, they weren’t going to hire a professional rock band to lead the singing. They were simply going to live as Jesus asked them to live.

They were going to follow the way of the cross. They were going to be servants to the community and tell them Jesus’ story.

They organized a food pantry that grew into a food bank. They handed out sandwiches and coffee to homeless people and prostitutes. They prayed for their neighborhood, not that people would come to church, but that a woman’s cancer would be healed, that the guy next door would find a job, that the boy from down the street would be kept safe while serving in Afghanistan.

They marched against racism and child poverty. They advocated for abused women. They challenged gangs in their neighbourhoods.

And soon folks started coming to their church. They formed membership classes where the faith was explained and expectations were outlined. If you were healthy and in town on Sunday, then you were at church. No exceptions. You had to join a small group. You had to help out in one of the church’s ministries. And you had to tithe 10% of your income. No tourists allowed.

“They crazy thing is,” the pastor said, “people did it- joyfully! We grew despite all the expectations we threw at people. The more expectations, the more we grew. I guess people aren’t just looking for a Sunday morning fix. It looks like folks are hungering for the real thing. ”

Of course, the danger is that Christianity can then be seen and experienced as a bunch of tasks and obligations, do’s and don’ts, rather that living in God’s forgiveness and love. But one thing I found fascinating about that church was that they didn’t specifically worry about growth, they worried about living the way Jesus asked them to live.

But did they invite people to church? Absolutely. Did they work hard at sharing Jesus’ message of new life with their neighbours? Definitely. Did they love their neighbours’ with Jesus’ love? Undoubtedly.

And they did more than that. They called people into a story that wasn’t of their own telling, a story they couldn’t make up for themselves. They called people into a story that went beyond themselves, beyond their consumer needs, beyond their petty hungers and desires. A story that asks them to die, so that they may rise again with new eyes and a new heart. A story that says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

I see this story unfolding here at Good Shepherd. The chili lunch last summer for the neighborhood. The Stephen Ministers who care for people inside and outside the congregation, with no other agenda than to be a listening ear and caring heart. And all the other ways we’re telling a story that’s not about ourselves, but about the one who named and claimed us as God’s own children in the waters of baptism, where we drowned to the old story told by the world, and were reborn in the story that God is telling in Jesus. A story that says “take up your cross and follow me. There, you will find life.”

May this be so among us. Amen.


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