This is my regular post for the 6th Sunday of Easter. Next weekend I will be in Corpus Christi, Texas, for my annual trip to the USBC Open tournament. Hopefully, I will able to post something related to the history of bowling and the church. But for now, here are my thoughts for today.
I have a friend who I am concerned about; he has said some things that are very questionable, at least in terms of where he said them and his current position. What he said was not derogatory or anything of that nature but it brings to question his value system and how it has changed over the almost forty years that I have known him. I suppose what bothers me more than anything else is that he is probably going to ignore my comments and keep moving in the direction that he has been headed for some time. It is as if he drew a circle around himself in order to shut out others. His actions remind me of a poem that has lurked in the back of my mind for many years:
He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in! (1)
I always thought that this was a Robert Frost poem but I discovered that it was by Edwin Markham, an American poet who died in 1940. From the cursory information that I found on him, it seems that he was considered a poet of consciousness’ and social justice. Perhaps his words about the drawing of circles and the consideration of social justice should be considered more today. It seems that the church is drawing a circle around itself and not letting others in.
How do you see the church today? Is it open to all who seek to find Christ? Or is it closed, both in spirit and in mind, to those whose lives or attitudes are different from ours? Is the church capable of absorbing the trials of society and still remaining the source of hope, justice, and righteousness that were the promise of the Gospel message some two thousand years ago? Or is the church a rigid and inflexible relic that refuses change and challenges any threats to its existence?
As I am writing this, the DaVinci Code is opening across the United States. Much has been said and written about the book and, now, the movie. I have read the book and found it to be fascinating; it was a good novel. But too many people see it as real and it doesn’t help that churches, both Catholic and Protestant, see it as a threat to their existence. Just as I have written and said in the past with regards to the teaching of evolution and the battle to include intelligent design in the science curriculum, if your faith cannot stand scrutiny under pressure, then perhaps you need to look at your faith before you make changes in the system. This is exactly what is happening with the DaVinci Code and the assorted other books that have come out lately, all with the notion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had a child, and lived happily ever after. Some people cannot accept the Crucifixion for what it is and what it means; they have to have a conspiracy theory to explain the unexplainable. You believe in the resurrection of Christ or you do not; there is no middle ground. If your faith is strong, you will be able to withstand the pressure put on you by those whose faith is weak. It seems to me that those whose faith is weak often times try to keep others from questioning faith and belief so as to avoid the testing and questioning of faith.
The church today must be open; it cannot close the circle and not let others in. This is not to say that our basic beliefs and the foundation of our faith changes with the whims of society. It does say that we are open to all whose expression of love for each other expresses the meaning of the Gospel. This was the dilemma of the early church as expressed in the reading from Acts for this morning. (2)
The context for this reading is the question as to whether early Christians had to first be Jewish. Did a Gentile have to first convert to or accept the notion of Judaism before he or she could become a Christian? One of the things that came out of the Book of Acts was that it was not necessary; our reading for today shows us that anyone who accepts the Holy Spirit in their life is welcome in the church.
This merely reinforces what Jesus told the disciples in the Gospel reading for today. (3) When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, our relationship with Him changes. We change from servants, tied to the world, into friends. And just as Jesus laid down His life for us, so too must we also act towards our friends and neighbors.
How we act towards each other, as friends and neighbors in the community of God, or individuals gathered together for one brief moment every Sunday morning, will determine the growth of the church. There are present three current models for church growth; one based on the megachurches like Willow Creek and Resurrection UMC, one based on a conservative, “evangelistic” approach, and one more “diagnostic” in nature.
The megachurch approach minimizes distinctiveness and gives those seeking a church home an anonymous, symbolically neutral, user-friendly church. But how can you be friends in a place where you are one of thousands and there is no immediate evidence of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?
The “evangelistic” approach is based on a conservative theology. Even though evangelism implies taking the Gospel out into the world, most people today equate evangelism and its accompanying approach as closed to the world and exclusive in nature. If you are different from the others in the congregation, it will be very difficult to be a part of the congregation.
The third approach starts off with the assumption that there are systematic problems within the body of the church. Neither the traditions of the church or the theology that the church embraces hinder the growth of the church; rather, the institution itself is broken. It must be fixed or repaired before the church can grow.
There is, fortunately, a fourth style slowly appearing in churches today. It is characterized by a blend of local vision, denominational identity, and Christian practice. Congregations that choose this style embrace or recreate practices that bind them together and connect them with older patterns of living as was to relate to each other in today’s society.
This is a style developed by choice and through reflective engagement, both individually and communally. It is not based on some business model or with a political agenda in mind. It is a style that uses the traditions of the Christian church to move forward. It does require a commitment, it requires nurturing and a willingness to change as God’s spirit directs. (4)
One way is to pay attention to what visitors to this or any church experience on Sunday morning. Will they experience warm hospitality? Will they get a palpable sense of the presence of God? Christopher Schwartz has stated that this is the single most powerful evangelistic outreach possible and through it church growth is possible without the presence or plan of an evangelism program. He concluded his discussion about church growth by noting that all growing congregations have eight traits in common:
Leaders who empower others to do ministry;
Ministry tasks distributed according to the gifts of the members;
A passionate spirituality marked by prayer and putting faith into practice;
Organizational structures that promote ministry;
Inspiring worship services;
Small groups in which the loving and healing power of fellowship is experienced;
Need-oriented evangelism that meets the needs of the people the church is trying to reach;
And loving relationships among the members of the church.
Schwartz maintains that if all eight of these characteristics are present, congregations will grow naturally and organically, without the need for an evangelist program.
This can be quite a challenge for many people. Some people think that the task of sharing the Gospel is harder than it actually is. It would seem that, as the humorist Dave Barry once wrote, the people who are the most interested in telling you about their religion don’t want to hear about yours.
Ben Campbell Johnson, of Columbia Theological Seminary, suggests that you ask people outside church “When has God seemed near to you?” There is nothing judgmental about this approach; it starts with where people are and it takes their experience seriously.
If you cannot or will not share your faith with others, it may be that you are in the midst of a crisis of your own. Often times, people use aggressive tactics because they themselves are insecure about their own faith and are anxious for others to believe and behave in the manner that they do so as to make their own faith more plausible.
There are people who will use whatever means possible to draw a circle around them and shut others out. But it is the church which must draw a circle around all the people and bring them in. We often think that this is either impossible to do or at least rather difficult. We make it seem that God’s commandments are burdensome and difficult; but John, in his letter to the congregation (5) pointed out that it was just the opposite. God’s commandments are not burdensome and those who chose to follow God through Christ will find such commandments easier to hold and follow.
We are told by Jesus that we have been called, not as servants but as friends. We are called together by the love that God has for each of us and we are commanded to follow Christ with the love of God in our hearts, our minds, and our souls. We are not to close the circle of love to keep people out but rather open the circle and draw everyone in. Let us leave this place today with the plan on drawing a big circle around those we met so that they are here in the company of friends and neighbors. Let us leave this place opening the circle of fellowship so that all can be a part.
(1) “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham
(2) Acts 10: 44 – 48
(3) John 15: 9 – 17
(4) Adapted from “The road to vital churches is paved with good intentions”, printed in Context (January 2004, part B; volume 36, number 1).
(5) 1 John 5: 1 – 6