Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent. The scriptures for today are Ezekiel 37: 1 – 44, Romans 8: 6 – 11, and John 11: 1 – 45.
The past few months have given me the opportunity to ponder the nature of the church and what has happened over the past two thousand years. The recent study by the Pew Foundation on the religious make up of this country (“U. S. Religious Landscape”) hasn’t exactly helped in that contemplation.
As noted in “Pew study raises questions for Methodist leaders”, this study points out that the United Methodist Church is and has been losing members over the past few years. One could plot a trend line and statistically predict when the membership of the denomination will reach zero and thus the death of the United Methodist Church. Of course, such a statistical prediction would have a limited applicability and is still hopefully well off in the future. But if the trend is downward, it means that we are a dying church and not a living one. If the upcoming General Conference reaches the emotional levels that the past two General Conferences have reached, the stress of those emotions may very well hasten the decline and death of the United Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Church is becoming older. Young people are leaving or not even joining. Some churches still cling to the idea that they can “grow” the church from their Sunday school but when the high school kids leave the high school class for whatever reason, they don’t come back. The last two reports on churches (the Pew Study mentioned above and the Barna study that I mentioned in “The Lost Generation”) have shown that the youth of this country are losing interest in organized religion. They may believe but they do not join.
Shall we then just write off the older members of the denomination and the churches to which they belong? Shall we take Jesus’ admonition that you cannot put new wine in old wineskins and just concentrate on new churches and the young? Shall we let the older bones of the churches just lie in the desert to dry out and become part of the desert?
Shall we adapt our worship services to favor the technological approach that so dominates our lives today? Perhaps we can somehow transform our messages from regular English to something more suitable for text and instant messaging. Such a translation would clearly show the younger members of society that the church is “with it”. But are such substitutions of “u r” for “you are” an effective presentation of meaning? How do you translate the care of the less fortunate, the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the housing of the homeless, or the freeing of the oppressed into text messaging?
As society has been transformed by the technology (how many things can your cell phone do beside make phone calls?), we have let technology become our master. Rather than using technology to provide the means for outreach to a spiritually hungry world, we let technology dictate how the message is presented.
It would appear that simply transforming our churches from staid, old fashioned buildings to technologically updated centers is not having the results that many expected. While more churches are using technology in many forms, the contemporary styles of worship that accompany the adaptations of technology are not have the results people expect (see the Music and Worship Study conducted by the General Board of Discipleship and United Methodist Publishing House or the study summary (UM Nexus for 03/05/08).
The problem is not one of new wine in old wineskins but rather what the message really is. It also doesn’t address the issue of who is worshipping. It is not a question of those who are old and who is young in age but rather whether everyone is old or young in spirit. It is entirely possible that someone is old in years but young in spirit or young in age but old in spirit. Yes, there are those who are both old in age and old in spirit and they perhaps dominate the nature of the church too much. Those who hold onto the past can never embrace the future. They are not looking to the future nor are they willing to do so
But that does not mean that the days of the calendar should drive our thinking. Rather, we must focus on the spirit, not the age of the worshipper. We must focus on bringing the enthusiasm of the early church back into the process.
It is noted in the Pew survey that the United Methodist Church is considered traditional and main-line and not evangelical. But evangelism was the hallmark of the early Methodist movement; our growth in America came during the major revival periods of this country’s history (and those same revival periods were driven in part by the evangelical fervor of Methodists). But we are no longer considered an evangelical church. What happened to the band of believers that was the hallmark of the early church? What happened to the enthusiasm that marked the development of Methodism?
In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote
There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably linked to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners for the struggle for freedom.
I hope that the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.
The conversion of George Whitfield, Charles and John Wesley led to the outbreak of a religious revival which impacted the Anglican Church and indeed the social structure of England. In an age of social decay the message of transformation preached brought hope to the masses and every level of English society. Some scholars, such as the French historian M. Taine, even suggested that the revival saved England from the social and political upheavals which engulfed France and led to the French Revolution. The religious revival changed course when on the urging of Whitfield, John Wesley took to the open air. The populace was hungry to hear the word of God. They responded en masse to the message of the revival.
It was a revival that focused on the spirit of the person. Wesley understood that people who were starving, cold, or homeless were not going to readily accept a Gospel message that said that wealth was the sign of a righteous life or that poverty and sickness were the signs of sinning. But somewhere along the path of history, we have lost that focus. We have become more concerned about the nature of the people in our churches than we are in working against sin.
We would much rather hear messages that tell us how to get rich or whom to blame for the ills of society. We would much rather hear sermons that tell us how to feel good rather than being called to sacrifice so that others may share in God’s glory. We would much rather wait for the anticipated Second Coming of Christ at Armageddon than work to help everyone enter into the Kingdom of God.
There are people in the church who today who say that the church and the people in it are dead. They are just waiting for the funeral. Perhaps today is the day that we hear God’s commandment to Ezekiel to prophesy to the dry bones in the valley and command them to come alive. Perhaps today is the day that we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, stand before the door of the church and command the dead to arise. (In the commentary that I use, there is a note that suggests that if Jesus had not specifically named Lazarus in today’s Gospel reading, then all the dead that were buried in his tomb would have responded to His command to come out of the tomb.)
The revival of the church today will not come from technological applications to improve the worship or make it more like other forms of entertainment. The revival of the church today will not come from rephrasing the Gospel to make it less demanding on the listener or to change the focus from God to one’s self. The revival of the church when we focus on Christ and the message that He gave us two thousand years ago.
As Paul wrote to the Romans,
“For they who are man-centered think along human lines, and they who are Spirit-centered think in terms of the Spirit. For man-centered reasoning dead ends in destruction, but Spirit-centered reasoning leads to life and space. Man-centered reasoning is hostile to God, because it does not subordinate itself to God’s plan nor indeed can it do so. People who are man-centered just can’t get along with God. But you all, you are not man-centered but Spirit-centered — provided, of course, that God’s Spirit permeates you. If one doesn’t have Christ’s Spirit, he isn’t Christ’s man. But if Christ is in you, the self, because of its sin, is stone dead; but the Spirit, because it is good, is throbbing with life. And if the Spirit of the God who made Jesus to live again permeates you, then this same God will give life to your hell-bent egos by means of his Spirit that permeates you.” (from Clarence Jordan’s translation of Romans 8: 6 – 11 in ‘The Letter to the Christians in Washington’).
Next week Jesus will enter into Jerusalem and the people will be cheering. But they will be cheering for all the wrong reasons and by the end of the week they will be calling for his execution as an enemy of the state.
We have a choice. We can continue to live the way that we live and our bones, no matter how old the calendar says they are, will dry out and we will become part of the dry bones in the valley that Ezekiel found. We will see Jesus but we will see him as those in the plaza calling for his execution, a threat to the establishment and to the status quo.
Or we can hear his call, the call that has echoed through these past five weeks of Lent and repent. We can change the course of our lives and bring these dry bones back to life. In doing so, we become the agents of change that are so desperately needed in this time and place.
Shall our bones lie drying in the sun, waiting for the wind to blow the dust to the four corners of the world? Or shall we bring these dry bones back to life?