This is a sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church on Ascension Sunday (1 June 2003). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Acts 1: 1 – 11, Ephesians 1: 15 – 23, and Luke 24: 44 -53.
Traveling around the country has given me opportunities to see many things, among them churches. Over the years I have played a game guessing the denomination of the various churches that I drive by. Though it is not a perfect technique, it is getting so that I can spot a Methodist Church from 500 feet away.
Another thing that I have observed is that as you go from the countryside into the city, the nature of the architecture of the church changes. For the most part, this new architecture is not bad. Churches need to show in some way that they are a part of the society in which they exist and that they are in touch with the people of the community.
We certainly have come a long way from the days of churches like the Methodist Church in Cades Cove, NC (part of the Smoky Mountain National Park). There you have a church where the men came in through one door and the women and children through another.
But when churches take on the look of businesses or other buildings and you have to guess what it is, then you are getting away from the concept of what a church should look like. There is a church in Springfield, MO, that, were it not for the windows in the shape of cross built into the front of the building, you would think is nothing more than one of the many businesses along Battlefield Road.
The church has always had a problem being a part of society. By its very nature, it must be separate from the society in which it resides if its message is to have any meaning. But at the same time, as the church stays outside of society, it risks losing touch with those in society who need what only the church and its mission can provide.
You would be surprised how many churches insist on reading the scriptures from the King James Version and not some of the more modern translations. Some even say that the King James Version of the Bible is the only true translation. But a translation written in the essentially archaic language of 17th century England, with “thee”, “thou”, and “thy” is most certainly going to turn away people seeking a message which speaks to them today.
During the 1980’s, there was a movement in self-help philosophy, commonly called “new-age.” It emphasized the self as the solution to the problems around you. Many churches decried this approach because it quite rightly took God out of the picture. But I think that many of the solutions that churches came up with in response were as equally bad and merely designed to package the church in such a way to get people to come to church.
And that is what bothers me about the new churches in this country. What I have seen more and more is that what are clearly churches no longer include “church” in their name. Instead of churches, we see “worship centers” or “life centers”. Many don’t even advertise their denomination.
When you come into the auditorium where the services are held, you see theater type seats rather than the traditional wooden, straight-back pews of the old church. Now I can appreciate the replacement of pews with soft, comfortable seats, having endured my fair share of the hard benches, but the purpose of church is to make you think, not necessarily to make you comfortable.
Instead of an altar, many of these new modern churches have broad stages designed to put on musical productions and utilize other forms of worship. But in creating these new forms of worship, they have thrown out the Gospel music of old and replaced it with “scripture songs” and “praise songs”. Some of this new music is good and should be included but I, like others, find this new music merely repeats the same words and melodies over and over again. Nothing in these new songs shows the beauty and depth of God’s nature in life and again does nothing to challenge the listener or cause them to think about who they are. (From Connections, February, 2002)
Similarly, many of the pastors in these “new-age” style churches present a message that very rarely speaks of the issues of today or how God can show us love and promote justice. And the more I hear some of these preachers, the more I have to wonder if they have forgotten that there is a New Testament in the Bible. They preach a message that brings back the wrath of God and speaks of a way of life that abuses people rather than makes them equal in the ways of the life. If what drove people away was a lack of receptivity to the needs of the world, I do not see how preaching a message that does not include the love of God found in the New Testament will actually bring them back.
But what may bother me the most is that these modern churches, with their emphasis on reaching out to the younger population and encouraging them to come back is that nowhere on the stage in which the worship is held is there a cross. It is the cross that is central to the Gospel message and it is the cross that offers us a visual image of the hope and promise of tomorrow.
But since the purpose of the modern worship service is to help the worshipper feel comfortable, to put a reminder that we are sinners and that Jesus died for us because we are sinners can only make the observer uncomfortable. What we have to realize is that many of those who are not attending church today were turned off to the archaic nature of the worship service of their childhood and the lack of receptivity of the church to modern problems. But simply modernizing the service and making the people comfortable in their worship does not help them answer the question of how to find peace and comfort in a time of stress and turmoil.
People come to the church to find Jesus, the promise of hope and peace. But they do not find him in these modern churches, where style matters more than substance, where the wrapping about the package matters more than what is in the package.
The early Christians didn’t have any of these problems. Meeting in a public place was cause for concern since, especially in the early days following the resurrection, there was fear that the authorities would arrest them for being followers of Jesus. And finding Jesus was not a problem, for He was right there with them, proof that the resurrection was not a rumor and that the promise of the Gospel was true. Their problem was that Jesus was going away and they did not know where He was going or what they were going to do with Him gone.
And that is why we have today. Today is the fulfillment of the resurrection and God’s plan. The suffering of Christ on the cross and the resurrection from the dead are only two parts of the whole story. Christ’s ascension into heaven completes the plan as it was outlined in the Law of Moses and told through the Prophets and the Psalms. His ascension shows that He, Jesus, was truly the Son of God and the fulfillment of all that was foretold. Now the disciples can carry out the mission of preaching repentance and calling for the people to turn from their own selfish ways to follow Christ. From this day forward, the disciples’ preaching would center on God’s gracious offer of forgiveness to all would believe.
The message of the disciples carries through to today. The building in which a congregation meets does not carry the message of hope, promise, and salvation; it is the people in the building that make up the congregation. That is what Paul was telling the Ephesians. The message of faith that was not told by the building in which they met but rather by how they, the members of the church demonstrated the faith that they held.
The challenge before us is to find ways to let people know that the church is here and that there are things being done in which they can participate. There is nothing wrong with a non-church organization holding its meeting or event at a church, just as long as that organization’s goals and objectives are not in conflict with the basic goals and objectives of the church. And there is nothing wrong with a church holding an activity in the church or on the church grounds that is purely social and not overly religious in nature.
For the church, we must understand that such activities are an important part of the church life and that to turn them into worship experiences will turn people away from the church. And those who come to the church for the social activities must also understand that such activities are in no way a replacement for the central activity of the church, worship.
As we go across this country, we are going to see many different churches, each unique in some way. But if the congregation which meets in that church does not exhibit the love and carrying for the people of the community in which they live, the uniqueness of the building is not going to be of any consequence.
We are called, through our faith, to meet the needs of the world by practicing the radical love and seeking the justice that Jesus taught and lived. People are seeking comfort and peace in this world. They will come to the church once in order to find that comfort and peace. The age of a church and its architectural style are not what is important; if there is no promise of hope and peace, then the people will not come again. They will leave still looking for Jesus and wonder where he went.
But, if the people who make up the church are active in seeking the way of Christ in this world, of seeking justice and righteousness for all, and practicing the love that is what the Gospel message about then they will know where He went and where to find what they are looking for.