I understand the purpose of [D]mergent to be a place where people can think creatively together about the intersection of faith and culture with the hope that we might help the church find an authentic faith for this day and age. One of the more common topics on [D]mergent, and presently in many places where faith is part of the conversation, is the numerical decline of the church in America and specifically why the Millennials are leaving the church. There is a constant stream of opinion about why young people aren’t sticking around and no shortage of articles, here and in other places, where the topic is addressed. The majority of these articles speak, I think correctly, to the idea that the church needs to do some deep reflection and soul-searching about the current state of its life and witness and its relationship to younger generations. I think it is fairly evident that much of the church is stuck in old structures and ways of thinking and being that are not necessarily vital to the Christian faith. But we have done church this way for so long we don’t know how to do church much of any other way. I do think this current situation should indeed cause the church to do some powerful self-reflection about our practice of faith.
One of the things I think we need to avoid in this time of reflection, however, is allowing it to be turned into a conversation of “How do we get them here?” If we do that, then the old ways of thinking and being and doing take hold and before long we are talking about programs and marketing strategies and meeting felt-needs. At that point we are no longer thinking about an authentic Christian witness for this day and age, but simply filling the pews.
The heart of the Christian faith is to be found in the life of Christ and the work of the church is to call people to be fully alive in Christ. That is to see the world with his eyes and to respond to the world with his love. I read this in a sermon recently:
People mattered to Jesus. He did not let social propriety stand between him and them. He trampled social and religious barriers to get to people. A strange company traveled with Jesus, among them tax-collectors, sinners and prostitutes.
He saw worth and beauty in riff-raff, the social outcasts, and those who had been rejected by the strict religionists, and those who had been thrown on the junk heap of the world. There was something to be reclaimed in the most depraved. He loved those the world did not love, and those who did not love themselves. *
Our witness is to help people find their full humanity by helping them to see the humanity of all others. So how do we do that with folks who aren’t in the pews with us?
Well, first, we who still occupy the pews have to believe that this is what the witness of the church is, to live in the manner of Christ and then we have to act upon that belief and indeed live in that manner. Whenever and however possible, we need to be engaged in relationships and ministries and service opportunities that benefit the well-being and humanity of others. I have heard it said recently that the most important reformation that needs to take place in the church today is not a reformation of creed, but a reformation of deed. I think there is great truth in this idea.
Not long ago, I was in a conversation with someone who has told me several times he doesn’t know what he believes about God and is not real certain about Jesus being divine and so he isn’t certain he would fit in at church. Our conversation on this day was about the Invest in Youth program at our local YMCA which provides scholarships for area youth who would not be able to participate in Y programs without some financial assistance. I have given a lot of time to this Invest in Youth program and this person was someone I had asked to partner with me on one of the efforts. He asked me, “Mark, why do you spend so much time on this?” I answered, “Well, I understand this to be an extension of my faith. I believe that God calls me to work toward a world where everyone gets to participate and is given the opportunity to be the best they can be.” He said, “That’s the kind of faith that makes sense to me. Who knows, you might see me at church some Sunday.”
I do hope I see my friend in church some Sunday, but the truth is, when we were working together toward helping the youth of our area and talking about what is really important to us, I think we already were in church together.
*Best Sermons 4, edited by James Cox, “He is Going Before You,” a sermon by Chevis F. Horne.