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Is the Church in America in Decline or Is It Being Winnowed?
Preparing for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Three Days before Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 85
Old Testament: Hosea 4:1-19
Epistle: Acts 1:15-22
Psalter: Psalm 138
Old Testament: Esther 2:19—3:6
Epistle: Acts 1:15-22
God of justice, your word is light and truth. Let your face shine on us to restore us, that we may walk in your way, seeking justice and doing good. Amen.
Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel,
for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or loyalty
and no knowledge of God in the land.
Swearing, lying, and murder,
and stealing and adultery break out;
bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
and all who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals
and the birds of the air,
even the fish of the sea are perishing (Hosea 4:1-3).
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16).
I recently retired after 38 years of pastoral ministry. I am long past enamored with strategies for church growth and books on developing leadership skills when it comes to being an effective pastor or a faithful church. It’s not that such strategies and books are entirely wrong. Indeed, every one has something of value to offer. But I think the last thing the church in the West needs is another sloganeering program and flow chart with steps toward effective ministry all put in the context of the unchurched as consumers and Christianity as a commodity.
The problem the church confronts in the West has been the same for every church in every part of the world since the beginnings of the Christian faith—are its members completely committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and therefore his Body, or are they attempting to serve two (or more) masters, which Jesus says is impossible to do? There is much discussion about the decline of the church in Europe and North America. But I have been wondering of late if decline is not the right description of the church’s situation. Perhaps the church is not so much in decline as it is being winnowed. Are we witnessing the chaff simply being blown away by the fashionable winds of the culture, leaving the vital and fertile grain? Just maybe the church’s loss of members in many quarters is the result of the deadwood just drifting away because some folks never really made the commitment to be a vital part of the faith structure of the church?
St. Paul wanders into the town of Athens in Acts chapter 17, and Luke tells us that he is distressed by the presence of all the idols displayed in the city. Good Jew that he is, Paul knows that Jesus as the image of the invisible God cannot be just one more statue on display in the pantheon of empire deities. Jesus’ Lordship by necessity excludes all who would make claim to that title. The problem that Christians face in the twenty-first century is what distressed Paul so many centuries ago—we in the Christendom church have attempted to put Jesus Christ in place as one more deity in the pantheon of all of the other gods we worship. Of course, we have not explicitly said as much, but we have subtly and not-so-subtly elevated the pagan deities we worship to the same status as Jesus and even above Jesus. I speak of the gods of greed and materialism which prevent us from tithing. I have in mind the gods of hobbies and extracurricular activities that keep us and our children away from the worship and involvement in the faith community. I think about the god of civil religion that would take away the scandal of the cross. I speak of the gods of the politically religious right and the politically religious left that replace the church with the state. I write about the god known as “I” who believes that one’s Christian faith can be real and vital apart from the Christian community that the one true God has brought into existence through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The church does not need faddish worship; it needs Christians who know that the reason they were created was “to love God and enjoy God forever.” The church does not need another growth strategy; it needs Christians who proclaim the gospel in word and in deed without compromise. The church does not need another in-house self-serving event; it needs Bible studies, prayer groups, and caring ministry. The church does not need to be aligned with the coercive politics of the nation state; its very existence is a political statement, a witness that God and not the nations rules the world. The church does not need to be self-focused only within its walls; it needs to be other-focused in mission utilizing most of its time and resources in order to make disciples of all nations. The church cannot effectively make disciples if it is not entirely sold out to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
And in the midst of it all, I wonder where I have entertained, in my own life, the gods of the Western pantheon? Maybe what is happening to the church in the West is that something is dying so that something new might be born? Perhaps what we are witnessing is the chaff being blown away and the vine being pruned? Is a smaller, more vital, and more faithful church emerging from the smoldering ruins of Christendom? Are those who remain the remnant who have rejected the gods of the Western pantheon of greed and leisure? Are these the ones who have chosen the corporate worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob over the god of the links? Are these the individuals who have discovered that God’s politics are focused in the ministry and mission of the church, and not in the lobbying halls of Washington DC? Are these the ones who have decided that a Bible study is more significant than the editorial page of the New York Times? Are these the ones who find great joy in serving others over themselves? Are we witnessing, not the decline of the church in the West, but the emergence of a smaller, more faithful church, which is positioning itself to grow once again? One can only hope.
PRAYER: We praise your abiding guidance, O God, for you sent us Jesus, our Teacher and Messiah, to model for us the way of love for the whole universe. We offer these prayers of love on behalf of ourselves and our neighbors, on behalf of your creation and our fellow creatures.
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