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Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  It’s the sixth in  the series, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.”  I hope your day is wonderful!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces
#6 — Criticism: Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore?

Matthew 10:5-16
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[b]drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. 9Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.

11“Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. 12As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. 16I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

The End of The World As We Know It

I grew up during the golden age of Southern Baptist life.  I was five when the Southern Baptist Convention launched the ambitious outreach and evangelism program called “A Million More in ’54.”  Although we didn’t add 1-million new members that year, Southern Baptists added almost three-quarters of a million, the highest number of new members our denomination had added to that point.

But Southern Baptists weren’t the only ones benefitting from the post-war baby boom.  Just about every major denomination started new churches in the new suburban communities springing up across our nation.  As America fell in love with the automobile, families could drive to the church of their choice, not just their local neighborhood church within walking distance.

Robert Schuller saw the mobility the automobile created and opened his drive-in church in at the Orange Drive-in Theater in Garden Grove, California in 1955.  America was a nation on the move, and on Sundays the nation piled in the family station wagon for the trip to church.  Church nurseries overflowed with baby boomer kids, and churches quickly added lots of programs for children.

I’m a good example.  Before I was born, Cradle Roll workers from First Baptist Church in Griffin, Georgia had enrolled me in the Cradle Roll.  Upon my arrival, I started going to church in the Nursery Department, then moved up to the Beginner Department during my preschool years.

I went to Sunbeams, a mission organization for kids that met on Wednesday afternoons at our church.  I sang in the children’s choir, went to the Junior Department in Sunday School as I got older, and then when I became a teenager, graduated into the Young People’s department, the youth choir, and all the other activities there were for teens at that time.

But something changed beginning in the 1960s.  Perhaps it was the Civil Rights struggle, or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, or the Viet Nam war in the decades of the 1960s and 70s.  Perhaps the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy contributed to the loss of innocence in America.  The resignation of President Richard Nixon for the crimes of Watergate seemed to seal20-years of disappointments and loss of confidence in America’s institutions.

Church wasn’t immune to that loss of confidence.  In 1961, theologian Gabriel Vahanian published his book, The Death of God.  In it, Vahanian argued that “modern secular culture had lost all sense of the sacred, lacking any sacramental meaning, no transcendental purpose or sense of providence. He concluded that for the modern mind “God is dead”. — Wikipedia, “Death of God theological movement”

The April 8, 1966 cover of Time magazine picked up on the “God is Dead” theme, and suddenly all of America realized that everything we had taken for granted about church and faith in the 1950s no longer worked in the 1960s. And no institution was spared critical review, including marriage and the family.  The women’s movement that had emerged in the early part of the 20th century which secured women the right to vote, reinvented itself in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s.

Then along came the hippies, and the youth culture of Haight Asbury, Woodstock, the anti-Viet Nam war protests, civil disobedience in the streets, and a nation divided over the trustworthiness of its core institutions — government, education, business, home, and church.

The Results We Live With

After the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s, America turned in new directions.  In government we turned from the big government programs of FDR, to the conservatism of Ronald Reagan.  In education, we turned from liberal arts to computer science because that’s where the jobs were.  In business, we turned from staid blue chip companies to the risk-taking financiers of Wall Street. In home life we became a nation of two-paycheck families. And at church, we slowly discontinued the programs of the 1950s, and began a soul-searching quest for a more authentic relationship with God.

The most popular Christian book of the 1970s was a little paperback titled, How To Be A Christian Without Being Religious.  While well-intentioned, the author, Fritz Ridenour, inadvertently gave readers permission to seek fulfillment of their spiritual lives outside the institution of the church. And thus began the noticeable decline in church membership and attendance.

Church attendance, down from a reported high of 40% of the population in the 1950s, now struggles to reach 17%.  According to David T. Olson’s book, The American Church In Crisis, church attendance will continue to decline until U. S. church attendance approximates that of Europe — about 7% of the population.

What happened?  How did church fall out of favor with the American public?  Why did a generation of kids who grew up singing “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam” fail to pass on those happy childhood memories to their children and their grandchildren?  How did we, in less than 50 years, change from being a nation where almost everybody went to church, to becoming a nation where less than 1-in-5 darkens the church house door today?

In other words, why don’t they like us anymore?

What “They” Are Saying About The Church

Church is no longer the place to be, or the organization to belong to.  Young people especially see little need for church.  Jeffrey Arnett, professor at Clark University, studies “emerging adults” — adults 18-29.  While “a strong majority of emerging adults believes that God or some higher power watches over them and guides their lives,”….”participating in a religious institution is unimportant to most of them.”  Emerging Adulthood, p. 167

Several books in the past 4 years have addressed the problem of what people don’t like about the church.

George Barna’s book, Revolution, is subtitled “Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond The Walls of the Sanctuary.”  The book documents the amazing rise of house churches, and other informal networks of Christians who have abandoned the institutional church for a freer, more personal faith community.

Dan Kimball’s book, They Like Jesus But Not The Church, is a case-study of several young adults Kimball interviewed.  Basically, they consider themselves to be spiritual, but not religious — just like our famous book from the 1970s.  But here’s what they don’t like about the church.  These are the actual chapter titles in Kimball’s book  —

  • The church is an organized religion with a political agenda.
  • The church is judgmental and negative.
  • The church is dominated by males and oppresses females.
  • The church is homophobic (meaning, the church fears and/or hates homosexuals)
  • The church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.
  • The church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.

Quite an indictment, but we have to plead guilty to much of what these young adults say about us and those like us.

In the same year that Kimball’s book came out in 2007, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published their book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…And Why It Matters. Listen to the chapter titles in unChristian.  Have you heard this before?

  • Hypocritical
  • Get Saved!
  • Antihomosexual
  • Sheltered
  • Too Political
  • Judgmental

Sounds pretty much like Kimball’s book, doesn’t it.  Yet unChristian was compiled from surveys of hundreds of young adults, not just interviews with a handful.  As they say at NASA, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

What We’ve Done Wrong and How We Can Fix It

If the church is to reach this new generation, we must listen to their perceptions of what we have done, and fix what is wrong.  Rather than seeking the halls of power, we need to serve the “least of these.”

Rather than being judgmental and negative, we need to get back to telling the “good news.”  The reason it’s called the good news is because it’s…well, good news.  Not judgmental news, not critical news, not “I’m going to tell you what you’re doing wrong news.”  It’s called the good news — the euangelion — because it is a good message from God to God’s creation.

Rather than being a “good ole boy” fraternity, the church must embrace the words of the Apostle Paul, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  And, rather than have individual churches where everyone looks alike, we need to seek diversity in our community not only of gender, but of class, and ethnicity.

In other words, we need to live into the promise of Revelation — “And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

In this process, the church, and I’m including our church here, will have to deal with difficult issues.  Young people today see nothing wrong with those who are homosexual, those who engage in intimate relationships before marriage, or those who live alternative lifestyles.  While the church must remain “a contrast community” in an unbelieving world, our attitudes towards others who are different in lifestyle, ethnicity, cultural background, economics, education, and class must first of all reflect God’s love, not our own bias.

When Jesus sent the disciples on their first solo journey, he did so with careful instruction.  One of his comments to them was, “Be as wise as serpents, but as harmless as doves.”  That’s our task today, to be wise in how we deal with those who do not know Christ, and harmless in our encounters with them.

Like The Man Who Planted Trees

I ran across a wonderful animated film this week based on the short story by Jean Giono titled, The Man Who Planted Trees. Giono tells the story of a young man in 1913, who while on an extended hike through desolate countryside, becomes desparate to find water.  Passing an abandoned village, he finds the well there dry.  He continues to walk until he sees figure in the distance.  Hoping for help and water, the young man approaches this figure, a shepherd with his flock high in the hills of this scruffy, hilly terrain.

The shepherd offers him water, invites him to his home for supper.  There the young man learns that the shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier, has lost both his only son and his wife.  He has taken to this remote, barren wilderness for solitude and peace.

After dinner, the young man notices Elzeard take a bag of acorns, empty them out on the table, and begin to examine each one carefully.  He discards some, but then groups the rest into groups of 10, until he has 100 acorns.  These he places back in the bag, and then places the bag in a pot of water to soak overnight.

The next day, our young man follows Elzeard as he leads his herd back up into the hills.  But, leaving the flock to the guidance of his dog, Elzeard takes his iron walking stick, and begins to poke holes in the ground in regular intervals.  Into each hole, he places one acorn.  Elzeard explains to the young man, who has now joined him in his work, that since he lost his wife and son, he has devoted himself to restoring the land.  The problem, he says, is a lack of trees.

Elzeard says he has planted 100,000 acorns in the past 3 years.  Of those, most did not make it.  Of the approximately 20,000 that did, disease, drought, and animals took half.  So, 10,000 trees have begun to spring up through the soil as tender oak saplings.

The young man leaves the region, spends 5 years in the infantry in World War I, but then returns to see how Elzeard has survived the war.   Amazed at the green mist that appears to float over the hillsides, the young man realizes as he approaches that these are the trees Elzear planted, now larger than he is.

The young man commented, “I never saw him waver or doubt, though God alone can tell when God’s own hand is in a thing.”

For the sake of time, I’ll skip forward to 1933, when a government forestry man happens upon this valley of forest, now about 7-miles long and 3-miles wide.  Astounded at the “spontaneous growth” of the forest where previously there had been nothing, the forestry man cautions Elzeard not to build any open fires because they might endanger “the natural forest.”

In 1935, a delegation of government officials arrives to see the first-known example of a forest spontaneously replanting itself.  Now, not only are the trees towering 20-30 feet in the air, smaller plants have filled in the forest floor, wild life has returned, the winds have scattered seeds into new meadows that are blooming with wild flowers.  Even the politicians are amazed.  Speeches are made, and the speech-makers talk of all that needs to be done.

Fortunately, nothing is done except the government decree that declares the forest a protected reserve, and bans charcoal-making from its wood.

More time passes, and our young man, now in his 50s, finds Elzeard for the last time in 1945.  Another war has come and gone, but Elzeard, now 87, sees the fruit of his labors of the past 30-plus years.  A bus now makes regular trips to the valley, bringing visitors and new residents to the once-abandoned village of Vergons.

The village fountain is flowing again, and young families with small children have torn down the old houses and built new sturdy houses with brightly-colored gardens.  Groups of villagers walk the forest paths, greeting each other as their children run circles around their parents.  Farmhouses dot the countryside where farmers raise livestock, grown lush fields of vegetables, and live quiet and peaceful lives.

All because one man decided to plant some trees.  The story goes that Elzeard Bouffier died in 1947, content that he had done what his heart led him to do.

We who are followers of Christ need to be like people who plant trees, not people who seek power.  Because it is in our work with God, not our work for God, that we will win the hearts of those who may not even know that there used to be a desert where now the tall trees grow.