“How Will They Know?”

I am at Rowe United Methodist Church (Milan, NY) this morning and next Sunday. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday of Easter are Acts 4: 32 – 35, 1 John 1: 1 – 2:2, and John 20: 19 – 31. I will have my notes for the 2nd Sunday of Easter posted later tonight.

I cannot tell you the numbers but I know that the Bible is one of the most published books in the world. Undoubtedly it is printed in every language spoken or read on this planet. And because of a thought that I want to explore this morning, I did a quick search through the vastness of the Internet and discovered that there is an effort in place to translate the Bible into Klingon, the language of the warrior race on the planet Klingon in Star Trek (Klingon Bible Translation Project – this link as a 2010 date – and “Why a Klingon Bible?”).

Now, clearly, translating the Bible into the language of a race that only exists in terms of a fictional television and movie series is limited but it does show us and gives us hints as to what we need to be doing with the Bible.

And it is how you see the Bible and what you do with it that goes a long way in defining how you see the church, both in general, denominational and local terms, in today’s society.

Some see the Bible as a fixed and unchanging document that presents the Word of God written some two thousand years ago. And as I have written before, when it is presented that way, it is very difficult to relate what is in the Bible to what is transpiring today. There are inconsistencies and contradictions that one has to work around in order to accept what is written as the absolute truth. And when you present such a view, you limit what can be done; you don’t allow the freedom to question and doubt, to explore and see what can be done.

Seen as a fixed and unchanging document, it quickly becomes a dead book. And if we are basing our hopes and dreams, the very essence perhaps of Christianity, on something dead, then we don’t have much hope and it is impossible to dream. And as it was written in the Bible, without a vision, without a dream, the people die.

On the other hand, if we understand that the Bible is a story of relationships, relationships between people and relationships between people and God, it can become alive and viable even in today’s technological society. It does not matter if it was written with quill and ink on papyrus scrolls or typed on a keyboard on a laptop computer, alive it carries meaning.

Yes, it is far more difficult to read when something has a deeper meaning than simply the words put down. It opens challenges that must be faced; questions that must be answered. Sometimes we can meet the challenge; sometimes we can answer the questions.

The greatest challenge facing the church today is the exodus of individuals leaving the church. Interestingly enough, they are not leaving God, just the church. And they are leaving the church, in part because they see it dying. It is dying because it holds on to a view that is fixed and unchanging. They see a church that holds onto rigid doctrinal views and rigid organization structures. It is not just the young who are leaving the church but all age groups. But they are not leaving God, just the church.

Seventy-five percent (75%) of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 no consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Study after study has shown this same essential statistic. The people know who Jesus was and what he did; they just don’t see such words and actions represented in the church of today (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-clayton-emergingchurch-20120325,0,3793097.story)

They want the opportunity to doubt and question, an action that has been repressed, resisted or absent in the church for almost 300 years. They want a church that is responsive to the public; that has an improved scientific understanding and recognition of changing social norms. They do not want a church that tells them how to live; they want a church that can give them ideas about what to do with their lives.

The two greatest comments I have heard in the past few months are that 1) the major Christian denominations, including the United Methodist church, may very well be dead within the next twenty-five years and 2) there is no need for organized religion anymore anyway. I am not so certain. There will always be a need for a gathering of the believers on a regular basis. But if it is a gathering meant to maintain that which has been done time and time again, then the predicated outcome will not change.

If we stop and think about what it is that we are doing and what it is that we should be doing, perhaps we can change that outcome. It starts by understanding the questions that are being asked today about the church.

Diana Butler Bass (Notes from “A Resurrected Christianity” – Diana Butler Bass with a HT to Becca Clark – “Now What?”) noted that we used to ask three questions:

  1. What do I believe? But this was more what does the church say I should think about God?
  2. How should I behave? What are the rules my church asks me to follow?
  3. Who am I? What does it meant to be a faithful church member?

But now the questions have changed and I would think rightly so; it is no longer a matter of what to believe but how to believe. It is no longer a question of rules for living but what do I do with my life. And it is quite apparent that it is no longer about church membership but rather in whose company I find myself. The questions have become:

  1. How do I believe? How do I understand a faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?
  2. What should I do? How do my actions make a difference in this world?
  3. Whose am I? How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?

Andrew Conrad is part of the pastoral team at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection and soon to be the pastor of the 1st United Methodist Church in El Dorado, Kansas. As he prepares to leave the one church and begin at his new church, he posted some questions about what was happening at 1st UMC, El Dorado.

Not all the questions are pertinent but some are questions that ever church, no matter where they are located, no matter how big or small the church may be (Resurrection is a mega-church and 1st UMC is decidedly smaller), needs to be asking. And it goes back to the question of how will people know about Jesus Christ?

Reverend Conrad asks:

  1. What is the vision and purpose of the church?
  2. In what ways do the vision and purpose guide what the church does?
  3. How is church engaging the community?
  4. What is the church’s favorite way of learning? Is through teaching, book study, etc.?
  5. What efforts are made to close the back door? How do you keep those who might otherwise leave engaged?
  6. What are the biggest barriers to people coming in the door?

There are other questions but they were more related, in my mind, to the role of the pastor. Interestingly enough, Reverend Conrad did ask, “what die-hard principle or practice that I might change would get me tarred and feathered?

If we (and I speak in the broadest sense of Christianity and the narrowest sense of any particular church) are to reverse the trend and bring people back into the fold, we obviously have to do something different. Simply offering a stricter adherence to creeds or demanding a return to an Old Testament style of living or even just better marketing plans will note work. Why should it? We have been trying that for some time now and it is not only not working, it is probably causing to stay away or leave in the first place! Rather, we need to focus on that which represents the church.

In his first letter, John speaks of how the followers had experienced the love of Christ. He also wrote about how they in turn told others about what they had experienced. But he also wrote that if someone claimed to have shared the experience but did not live that life, then they were lying.

There are too many people today who lead such a life; they claim to be followers of Christ but they will not share with others, as members of the early church described in Acts did. The problem facing the church today, be it Christianity in general, the United Methodist Church or any other denomination, or an individual church in particular is that there is a proclamation of following Christ but it is not backed up by the thoughts, words, deeds, or actions of those who make the proclamation. And they are the ones who cause individuals to leave the church; that is not a blanket statement on my part.

I have experienced the hypocrisy that John refers to, both in the past and even now in today’s society. My commitment to Christ through my work in the United Methodist Church keeps me in the church. You cannot change something from the outside; you must be in place to affect change.

The dilemma that we are faced with today, the challenge that we are given today is the very dilemma that Jesus presented to Thomas that day in the locked and protected room. Thomas would only believe that Jesus Christ had arisen from the dead when he, Thomas, could place his hands in the wounds of Christ and feel the body. But Jesus pointed out that there would be many others who would believe based on faith alone and not on the physical evidence.

If others are to believe without the physical evidence of the Risen Christ, how will they come to believe? As I stated in the title of my message, “how will they know?”

They will know because we will tell them. We may not necessarily tell me with our words but we will tell them through our actions, our thoughts, and our deeds. It is how we respond to others that will tell them about our relationship with Christ.

If you will allow me a moment of personal privilege, this past week my wife’s oldest niece became critically ill. She had not been well for the past year but it was one of those illnesses that seem to baffle modern medicine. This past week her condition became critical and required hospitalization and surgery. In the way of the world, this came at a time of great personal stress for her mother, my wife’s youngest sister. There was no question that Ann needed to be in Chicago with her sister and her niece.

Now, the dilemma for Ann and I was what to do about Grannie Annie’s Kitchen? You have heard me speak of this ministry before. This is Ann’s ministry and I am there to help. But I focus on the dining room and not the kitchen. So, with Ann’s absence, do we shut down the kitchen for the one or two weekends that she might be in Chicago? Or do we find a way to make it work and make it work at the level at which it has been done in the past? As I lifted up in thanksgiving during our prayers this morning, we have had some individuals helping us and Mo, Marisa, Hannah, and Amiel were able to be there yesterday to help with the cooking and the ministry. They, along with Tom and Jackie, our regular helpers, understood what Ann was doing with this kitchen/feeding ministry and were able to help me feed the 45 individuals who came yesterday without missing a beat. It was because they not only cared about Ann but the ministry (or perhaps the ministry and then Ann) that this was a positive day. It also allows the ministry to grow because we now have a team that can do the work.

There was a third possibility but it would have been a temporary solution and temporary solutions tend to not work against future plans.

My premise when I began this message was the Bible challenges us in so many ways but, as people of the New Testament as well as of the Old Testament, our challenge is find ways to tell people about Jesus Christ. And that makes us evangelicals. Now, I have to admit that I have been an evangelical all my life. I was baptized as an evangelical, I was confirmed as an evangelical and as a Methodist, I have accepted that idea that evangelism is part of the mission I undertook when I joined the church.

But evangelism is not browbeating someone into accepting Christ; that is an individual decision and one that can only be made if they truly understand what it means. It is not about offering someone a meal in return for them professing Christ. The doors to Grannie Annie’s Kitchen are open to all, no matter if they are believers or not.

As an evangelical, I am not interested in the creation of some sort of Christian-based theocracy nor am I interested in the imposition of some moral code on the lives of others. What I am interested in doing is making sure that the mission of Christ, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to clothe the naked, give comfort to those in need, and to free the oppressed. I see evangelism in an entirely different light than many but in the same way early disciples were empowered and John Wesley and those who joined him in the Methodist Revival of the 18th century saw evangelism. (http://www.religiondispatches.org/books/rd10q/5800/evangelicals_struggle_with_the_role_of_churches_in_society)

The challenge of the Bible, in fact, the challenge of Christianity today is for each one of us to understand what our relationship with others and what our relationship with God is. When we understand those relationships, which in turn will make the Bible alive, then we will be able to help others find Christ.

How will others find Christ? By our thoughts, words, deeds and actions, we will tell them! It is what we as the church have done in the past and it is what we will do to insure that there is a future.

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