Tag: change

Ascension Sunday Sermon: Changed Hearts and Changed Lives

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow on Ascension Sunday. Unless we understand the Ascension of Christ, we cannot understand the Great Commission.

Changed Hearts, Changed Lives

Luke 24:44-53
44 Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48  You are witnesses of these things. 49 Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”

50 He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. 53 And they were continuously in the temple praising God.

This is Ascension Sunday. There is probably no Sunday among the significant Sundays of the Christian year that is more misunderstood than this Sunday. The reason for that misunderstanding is a failure to appreciate the significance of the Ascension for our lives and for the lives of those in the first century.

For many, the Ascension seems less real, less credible than the miracles of Jesus. We can understand the miracles of healing, feeding, and even raising the dead as indications of Jesus’ compassion. People were sick, so he healed them. People were hungry, so he fed them. People were grieving, so he raised their loved ones back to life.

Or we can understand the miracles of Jesus as indicators of what the kingdom of God is truly like. Jesus says that there is coming a day when there will be no more sickness, crying, or death. When everyone will have everything they need. And so the miracles are previews of the kingdom of God.

But when it comes to the Ascension, we don’t seem to be able to make sense out of it. The story of Jesus being taken up to heaven in a cloud seems a little like something out of Star Trek: “Beam me up, Scotty,” as Captain Kirk used to say.  It seems like a science fiction fantasy, ripped right from Ray Bradbury’s screenplay. Except of course that the Ascension predates Star Trek by 20 centuries.

So, what do we make of this strange event where Jesus floats up to heaven on a cloud, or surrounded by clouds, in plain sight of his disciples numbering maybe as many as 500 people? Baptists, in our typical pragmatic fashion, latched on to the final words of Jesus, which are similar in this passage and in Matthew:

Matthew 28:18-20New International Version (NIV)

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Of course, since we could not explain the Ascension, we focused on the Great Commission, as the Matthew passage is called. But, usually we leave out verse 18, and usually on quote Matthew 28:19-20, the part about us going and making disciples, etc, etc.

But verse 18 is so intimately connected both to the Great Commission and to the Ascension, we cannot understand either without it. Jesus claim to have “all authority in heaven and on earth” is an amazing claim. But that is what both the Ascension and the Great Commission are about.

Let me explain. And for an explanation we have to turn back to the Hebrew Bible, Daniel 7:13-14:

13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man,[a] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

In this brief text, we have the account of a dream that Daniel himself had. In the dream, Daniel dreams of four kingdoms. Most scholars believe that these four kingdoms represent Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Here’s what happens after Daniel sees these four kingdoms:

9 “As I looked,

“thrones were set in place,

   and the Ancient of Days took his seat.

His clothing was as white as snow;

   the hair of his head was white like wool.

His throne was flaming with fire,

   and its wheels were all ablaze.

10 A river of fire was flowing,

   coming out from before him.

Thousands upon thousands attended him;

   ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.

The court was seated,

   and the books were opened.

11 “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)

So the Ancient of Days is clearly God. And once God has dispatched the rebellious kingdoms of this world, then “one like a son of man” (a human being, in other words) comes on the clouds of heaven TOWARD the Ancient of Days. He is led into God’s presence and there he receives AUTHORITY, GLORY, AND SOVEREIGN POWER! And, people from all peoples, nations and languages (which is another way of saying “the ends of the earth”) worship him.

Okay, so get ready for this. Imagine that you’re making a movie and you are filming the final scene in the life of Jesus. You need two cameras for this scene. One camera is shooting the  disciples’ eyeview from the earth. That camera records Jesus ascending from earth into heaven. And he ascends on the clouds of heaven up and up until the camera cannot see him any longer.

Then, imagine that the scene shifts. Camera number two is positioned in the throne room of heaven. You’re no longer standing on earth looking up, but you are standing in the throne room of heaven looking “down” toward the earth. (Down, of course, is a nod to our notion that heaven in up and earth is down, but you would not really be looking down.)

As you look through the viewfinder of the camera, you see in the distance a very small figure, seemingly surrounded by clouds, approaching the throne room of God. As the figure grows larger and closer, you see it is Jesus — one like a son of man, a real human being. You continue to film.

Then, Jesus is in the presence of God. And God, the Ancient of Days, confers upon Jesus authority, glory, and the power of God (sovereign means ruling, kingly, none other like it).

So, two perspectives are captured by the two cameras. First, there is the disciples’ perspective as they watch Jesus ascend into heaven. Second, there is the perspective of the hosts of heaven as Jesus enters the presence of God and receives all authority, glory, and sovereign power that is rightfully his. God gives this authority, glory and power to Jesus because of his willingness to be born as a human being, live, die, and rise again. All because God so loved the world.

That’s what the Ascension means. And if you need further proof, Paul picks up this same theme in Philippians 2:5-11:

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

7 rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

8 And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Okay, so what does that have to do with changed hearts and lives? Just this: The One, and the only one, who is worthy is Jesus.

John records this scene in heaven when he is searching for someone worthy to open the seals of the 7 scrolls. John says:

4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 9 And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll

and to open its seals,

because you were slain,

and with your blood you purchased for God

persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,

and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,

to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength

and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb

be praise and honor and glory and power,

for ever and ever!”

14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

-Rev 5:4-14 NIV

Back to our passage from Luke 24:

46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48  You are witnesses of these things.

“A change of heart and life” is usually translated “repentance.” But repentance is a word we hardly ever use now. And, repentance too often is shorthand for “accepting Jesus.” Which is fine if in accepting Jesus there is a change of heart and life.

The followers of Jesus in the New Testament had their hearts and lives changed because they realized who Jesus was, is, and will always be — the One to whom God has given all authority. The King of kings. The Lord of lords. The only One worthy of praise, glory and honor.

That’s why their hearts and lives were changed. Because they realized that the Ascension of Jesus was really his return to his rightful place at the right hand of God. That Jesus had done all the Father had asked him to, and had done it willingly. And that Jesus was now the One on whom God had bestowed a name above every name.

The Ascension was the final vindication and recognition of the faithfulness of Christ to the love of God for all the world. It was the moment in which Christ returned to God the Father, victor and victorious.

Leading Your Church To Change

“How can I get them to change?”  As a small church pastor, I think I’ve asked myself that question at least once a day in every church I have pastored.  Wanting the churches we pastor to change is part of our DNA.  We see opportunities for improvement, expansion, growth, outreach, and progress, and we think everyone should see things the same way we do.

Of course, it doesn’t take long to realize everyone doesn’t see things the way we do, and that our members like things just like they are.  How does a pastor, whose heart beats to the sound of change, lead his congregation to make the changes necessary for the future of that church?

Here are five keys to leading change in the small church that I’ve learned, mostly the hard way:

1.  Listen to the stories of the past. Our church is 153 years old.  Three years ago we celebrated our 150th anniversary in a 7-month long sesquicentennial emphasis.  During that time I got to hear the stories of our past.  Leaders, traditions, memories, and accomplishments were highlighted each month.  I developed a new appreciation for the 150 years our church had existed before I arrived on the scene.  Your church has a history B.Y. — before you.  Listen to and celebrate the stories of the past with your people — that will go a long way toward leading them to change in the future.

2.  Link the past to the future. The theme for our 150th anniversary was “Praise for the Past, Faith for the Future.” The steering committee came up with that theme, and I thought it was great.  They sensed that the past was important, not just because it was history, but because it was a link to our future.  Mark Lau Branson of Fuller Seminary has written a helpful book, Memories, Hopes and Conversations, about how his church built on the traditions of their past to find a way forward for the future.

3.  Learn what type of church you have. By church type, I don’t mean “Baptist” or “cantankerous.”  Israel Galindo’s book, The Hidden Lives of Congregations offers several clues to learning about church types.  After reading Galindo’s book, I learned where our church was in the typical life cycle of churches, and I understood the particular challenges we faced more clearly.  There are other church characteristics that Galindo covers that can be helpful in learning how to lead you particular type and style of church.

4.  Love your people. This is advice everybody gives, but too few pastors follow.  Loving people means spending time with them, getting to know their stories, learning what’s important to them, and genuinely caring about them.  The old saying, “People don’t care what you know until they know you care” is still true.  If you care, and your members know it, they’ll respond to your leadership enthusiastically.

5. Lead with patience. Change takes time in a small church.  Actually, I think changing small churches is more difficult than changing large churches.  Traditions and memories are the stuff of small churches, and change threatens both.   I wrote a chapter in the LifeWay book, Deacons As Leaders, that tells the story of how one church I pastored changed our deacon structure to a more positive, servant ministry.  Pastors that lead with gentle patience can look back years later to see progress that is steady and sustainable.

Change comes in fits and starts in small congregations.  But it can come.  In churches I’ve pastored, we built buildings, bought property, revised our by-laws, hired staff, altered schedules, moved classes, created new programs, and started new groups.  Your leadership as pastor is the key to transformative change in your church.  Take the time to listen, link, learn, love, and lead, and you’ll reap the rewards of positive changes in your church.

Paying Attention to the Outrageous

Hitler_w_youngmenSomebody did it again.  They compared one of our political leaders to Hitler.  It really doesn’t matter who did it because this is becoming a regular tactic for the extremists.  The frustrating thing is they get what they want — publicity.

The media pounce on their pronouncements as though the words they uttered were the first like them.  Bloggers and political sites pick up the refrain — “How dare they invoke the name of Hitler!” The outrage is palpable, and then the next day it starts all over again.

Frankly, I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of pop media personalities cheapening the tragedy of the Holocaust with their self-serving tirades.  If this is what passes for discourse and dialogue in America, we are at a new low.

But I also tell myself we must be on the cusp of change because so many are so afraid right now.  In times of turbulent change, the dividers voices are often the loudest.  It was that way during the Civil Rights struggle, it was that way during the Viet Nam war protests, and it’s that way again.

But I also know that the nascent signs of change in churches are encouraging.   Multi-ethnic congregations are blossoming, and new expressions of church are springing up in unlikely places.  Multi-culturalism is becoming almost as popular a topic among church conference planners as multi-site strategies.  More and more congregations are moving out into their communities, connecting with new groups of people who are helped, and who in turn change the helpers. Just as some courageous churches led the way in seeking justice for African-Americans, and later in seeking peace, these churches are the bellwether for change in our society.

That’s what we should be paying attention to — this new consciousness that I have not seen before in so many churches.  A consciousness of need, but of more than need.  An awareness of our responsibility as followers of Jesus to make a difference in the lives of people around us.  Next week I’m speaking to Duke Divinity School students about rural church ministry.  I’m going to talk about this new thing I see happening because it is unprecedented.

Examples emerge in unlikely places.  A church heals its community by planting a community garden in the wake of a local murder.  Another church reaches out to bikers and blue collar workers, not just for worship, but to help create jobs for them.  Churches feed people now in towns where before that need went unmet.  Kids are given school supplies, and encouraged to come after school for tutoring to an urban church that provides a safe haven until their working-class parents get home.

Change must be on the way because the voices of fear are growing louder and more shrill each day.  That’s the reason I pay attention to the outrageous statements of those publicity seekers.  I pay attention because I believe their outrageous statements carry with them a harbinger of hope, an indicator of impending change.   Let’s hope so, and let’s find a place to bring about that change.

Sermon: The Future of Our Faith

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow, August 16, 2009.  The Future of Our Faith concludes this 8-part series titled, Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.  The preceding seven sermons are:

Here’s the concluding message.  I hope you have a wonderful Lord’s Day tomorrow.

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces: The Future of Our Faith

Revelation 3:7-8
7“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Reviewing the Seven Cultural Challenges

The passage we have just read was penned during a time of extreme challenge to the church of Jesus Christ.  The emperor Domitian persecuted the church more fiercely and relentlessly that previous Roman emperors.  Yet John’s words to the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2 and 3, contain words of encouragement.  Some contain words of rebuke, but as Jesus speaks to the church in Philadelphia, he offers words of hope for their future —

“See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” That is very much the position that the church of the 21st century faces — an open door, but with great challenges.

Over the past weeks, we have examined Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.

  • When we discussed secularism, we asked the question, Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
  • On the Sunday we looked at pluralism, we asked,  Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?
  • Thinking about nominalism, we did some self-reflection around the question, Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?
  • Looking at our consumeristic lifestyle and materialism, we wondered, Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
  • Taking a cue from pop culture and post-modernism, we wrestled with Why Is Truth No Longer True?
  • We wondered Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore? when we thought about criticism of the church and Christianity.
  • And finally, we talked about atheism, and asked the question, Why Don’t They Believe in God?

All seven of these cultural challenges are converging in unique ways, especially in regard to the community of faith we call the church.  David T. Olson in his book, The American Church in Crisis, states —

“In America our world is also changing.  The ongoing downturn in church attendance this millenium is partially related to external cultural changes.  Christian ministry faces more challenges today than it did 20 years ago….Largely unaware of these changes, many churches continue to operate in modes and mentalities that no longer resonate with our culture.”  Olson, p. 161.

With the exception of nominalism, which means that Christians don’t walk like we talk, the remaining six cultural challenges are all external to the church.  In other words, these are forces and challenges that lie outside our control.

— We cannot stop the rising tide of secularism as a greater percentage of our population concludes that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not necessary for a full and happy life.

— We are witness to our changing communities and the vast multicultural tsunami that is sweeping over America and the globe.  With easy access to international transportation, millions of new cultures have migrated to our shores, just as our forefathers brought the cultures of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Europe to American soil in the 18th and 19th centuries. With that multicultural flood also have come the faith traditions of Africans, Asians, Hispanics, and Middle Easterners — Buddhism, shamanism, Islam, and other non-Christian traditions.

— We are, and have been, participants in the mentality of a growth economy, relying on consumerism to fuel the economic engines of our nation, cities and states.  As a result, we find ourselves — Christians and non-Christians alike — suffering through the inevitable consequences of of the meltdown of materialism.  Churches and denominations have reduced budgets, laid off workers, downsized programs, and sold property in order to survive the economic downturn.

— While post-modernism defies a common description, the loss of confidence in the stories that to this point had sustained our nation and churches is being felt in lower church attendance, and the questioning of any claims to absolute truth.  The internet, for all its good, has also leveled the playing field between truth and falsehood, or truth and personal opinion, by creating space for all ideas, regardless of their credibility.

— And finally, we are seeing the church and Christianity attacked boldly and without hestitation by movements like the new atheism, or simply by individuals for whom church is not a necessary part of their lives.

The doom-and-gloom recital of decline and demise could go on for the rest of this sermon, but I think you get the picture.  We are facing some unique challenges.  The question is — what about the future of our faith?  Will the church survive?  Will Christianity disappear?  Will our grandchildren and great grandchildren find the same faith we did, or will church buildings become museums and art galleries as many have in Europe?

The Church Has Always Faced Challenges

Before we despair too much about the current set of challenges we face, we need to remind ourselves that the Church of Jesus Christ has always faced challenges.

At her birth on the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 may have been saved, but immediately the apostles were challenged, persecuted, and imprisoned.  As the church grew, new challenges emerged with each succeeding year.

At first the Roman empire believed that Christianity was merely a branch of Judaism.  As much as possible, the Roman empire allowed its conquered states to keep their traditional religions, as long as they posed no threat to the Pax Romana, and the goals of the empire.

But as Christianity grew in numbers, and Jews like Saul of Tarsus began persecuting Christians, the empire itself began to see the Christian church as a threat.  And even though the story of Saul who became Paul, turned out to be one of the great stories of the church, the empire increased its scrutiny of those who were called “christiani” or the little Christs.

By Nero’s reign, Christians were being made the scapegoats for everything wrong in the empire, much as Jews were vilified in Nazi Germany.  Persecution rose to such a crescendo by the reign of Domitian (81 AD to 96 AD), that John the Revelator was given the vision that became the Book of Revelation.  John’s message was one of encouragement in the midst of persecution to Christians facing martyrdom in the first century.

Persecution continued however, until the reign of Constantine who in 313 AD issued the Edict of Milan, which returned the property of Christians back to them.  In essence, Constantine’s decree legitimized Christianity and brought the Church into a partnership with the state.

In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle writes that the church goes through a major transformation every half-millennia.  She quotes Anglican bishop, Mark Dyer, who quips that every 500 years or so, “the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”  We’re in one of those times, according to Tickle.  And at least three other of these theological rummage sales preceded this one.

In the first 500 years of the church, the monastic movement took hold.  The Desert Fathers and Mothers, predecessors to the later monastic movement, fled the corruption of the church in the cities in order to live ascetic lives devoted to God.  The challenges the church faced then were both external and internal.  External persecution came from a hostile regime, until Constantine; but then internal pressure came from the church’s shifting partnership with the state after Constantine.  Those who fled to the desert also fled the corruption of the church herself.  Clergy under Constantine had become extensions of the empire’s bureaucracy.  Clerical appointments became political favors often handed out to completely unqualified and unsavory churchmen.

Gregory the Great took the monastic tradition to a new level, and sheltered the great traditons of the faith — theology, liturgy, daily prayers, personal devotion — during a time when the Roman empire was collapsing and the Dark Ages were upon Europe.  Monasteries became the keepers of the flame, the repositories of faith and practice in a world that seemed to be losing its way.

The second great event came about 500 years later.  The Great Schism — the separation of the Eastern Church from the Western Church — divided a previously united, if fractious, Church into its two predominant cultures.  The Eastern or Orthodox church went its way with its icons and liturgy, while the Western church became consolidated in Rome.

The third great transformation was the Great Reformation of 1517.  We know the event that sparked the split.  A Catholic priest named Martin Luther posed his 95 theses — topics meant for discussion — on the front door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.  Challenging both the theology and the corruption of the church, Luther sparked a firestorm of religious fervor that brought new thinking and new theology to the western world.

Tickle believes we in the 21st century are experiencing another one of those “great” moments in the church, which she calls the Great Emergence.  Personally, I don’t think Tickle fully captures what is happening in the global church, but she at least gets credit for naming this fourth ecclesiastical rummage sale.

My point in all of this is that the church has always faced challenges — some external, some internal.  But, as the church has come through those challenges, she has been changed dramatically.

New groups, new liturgies, new theologies, new mission, and new believers came out of each of these great transformations.  Unfortunately, not all the tactics were peaceful, not all the arguments civil, and many died defending their version of the faith rather than the faith itself.

What Does The Church of The Future Look Like?

But, even though the church has faced and survived challenges in the past, what does that mean for us today?  With annual declines in church attendance, one wonders.  Examples are not hard to come by.  The Episcopal Church had set a goal of increasing attendance by 20% by 2020; instead, their attendance has declined by 7%. Southern Baptists have little room to brag either.  Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, has pointed out that the SBC has been in decline for the past 50 years, and the indicators for the future do not bode well for us either.

Lyle Schaller, renown church consultant, published his book, The Ice Cube is Melting, as a wakeup call to his own United Methodist denomination.  The Presbyterian Church USA launched a major effort to include more minorities in its congregations, only to discover that after an immense effort, their denomination still remained 97% white.

Churches of all flavors are facing tremendous challenges, and the methods of the past are no longer working.  In light of that, what does the church of the future look like?

First, to understand the church of the future, you have to look at the world of the world of the future.  According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2009 report, the world population will hit 7-billion by 2011.  The climb from 6-billion to 7-billion took only 12 years, and according to the same report, by 2050 the world’s population will stand at 10-billion.  That’s almost a 50% increase in people on this planet from where we are today.

Secondly, 90% of world population growth in the 20th century took place in less-developed countries.  In the 21st century, virtually all of the world’s population growth will take place in less-developed countries.  Africa and Asia will lead the way.  India will emerge by 2050 as the most populous country in the world with almost 2-billion inhabitants.  China will be second with 1.4-billion.

The US will rank third with 439-million by 2050, up from our present population of 307-million, another almost 50% growth.  But, in the US, most of the population growth will come from newcomers to our country, primarily those of Hispanic descent.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’ll be dead by 2050, so it won’t affect me.”

Well, you might be right, but most of the shift in demographics will occur within the next 20-years.  By 2020, whites will no longer be the majority race in the US, and in fact, there may be no majority race.

But, even if you think 2020 is a long way off, we’re already seeing significant signs of demographic shifts in our country, and in our region as well.

An example is the church I pastored in Stone Mountain, Georgia from 1980-1984.  I was called to Pine Lake Baptist Church when I graduated from seminary.  At that time the community was a suburb in the greater Atlanta area.  Middle to uppper-middle class subdivisions dotted the landscape, and our members reflected the white, middle class world of suburban Atlanta in the 1980s.

The year I came to Chatham, 2004, Pine Lake invited me to come back to preach their annual homecoming service.  We walked into a much different church than the one we left.

The platform had been reworked, and the organ replaced with a place for their new 4-piece band.  A couple of guitars, a drum set, and a keyboard stood to one side of the platform.  The choir director was from Jamaica, and the song selection was upbeat and happy.  The choir was made up mostly of west Africans, Jamaicans, and some long-term white members of the church.  Black and white deacons served together.  A Laotian church meets there each Sunday, conducting their worship in their native language.  The community around the church has changed from white suburban, to urban and ethnic.  Many are students at Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory University, or one of the other colleges and universities in the Atlanta area.  The church had lots of kids, young people and families.  It truly was an amazing experience, reflecting the trends that are changing the ways we live our lives, including the way we worship.

So, first the church of the future is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic.  Sunday morning will no longer be the most segregated hour of the week in our communities.

But, wait, that’s not all, as the TV commercial says.

The rising generation, called Millennials, will change our own country in ways we are just now beginning to see.  Millennials are young people born after 1980 or so.  As a generation, they are larger than my generation, the Baby Boomers.  We thought we would dominate society until we passed off the scene, but the Millennials are already upstaging and displacing Boomers in number and influence.

The good news is that Millennials are optimistic, and eager to make this world a better place.  They volunteer to help in soup kitchens, to build Habitat houses, to become Big Brothers or Big Sisters.  They work well in groups, are open to all ethnicities, and are generally accepting of others.

Millennials have been compared to the World War II generation, which Tom Brokaw labeled The Greatest Generation.  They are builders and world-changers, just like the World War II GIs.   They never have known life without a TV, a computer, a car, or a cellphone.  They are technology natives, ready to harness the power of the internet to do good and connect with friends.

And, they are staying away from the traditional church in droves.  Their criticisms of the traditional church sting, but must be heard.  They are also not interested in the issues that have driven evangelicals in the past 30 years.  Millennials see the culture wars of the 1980s as a remnant of a dying movement.

In addition to the world population, and the Millennial generation, the shift from rural to urban will increase.  Today about half of Americans live in small towns or rural settings, and about half live in large urban centers.  By 2050, 90% of Americans will be living in densely populated urban areas, reflecting the sprawl of cities that are already evident in places like Mexico City, Shanghai, and Mumbai, India.

In short, the world as we know it is changing rapidly.

An Open Door That No One Can Close

The church will have to change.  And it will change because there are increasing voices calling for the church on earth to reflect the diversity of the church in heaven — with people from every tribe, tongue and nation.  Although change will come more slowly to us here in Chatham, we are not immune to the challenges of our culture.  We must change.

And the question we must ask ourselves is not ‘Who is here?’, but rather, ‘Who is not here?’ And the answer to that question will reflect the changes in our culture for we are not reaching those of other ethnicities, the young, and those not like us.

We need to open our eyes to those around us like one of the rural Methodist churches whose pastor I met this past week.  They have a ministry to bikers — not motorcycle riders, but bikers. One of the men who works in that ministry, a biker himself, was asked to tell about what they were doing.  He stood before the assembly of 100 United Methodist pastors, plus Debbie and me, and with his scraggly beard, long hair, bandana on his head, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and he told about the biker ministry and said, “When you’re working with God, nothing’s impossible.”

Nothing is impossible for those who are faithful to Christ.  In the face of overwhelming challenge, there was one church, the church in the original Philadelphia.  Jesus told them, “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”

We can also be that church, the church of brotherly love, the church of the open door.  For it is Christ himself who has opened that door.  A door to the masses on earth today and the increasing populations in the years to come.  It is a door of opportunity that Christ alone can open, and no one else can close.

And, Jesus recognizes our limitations.  We may appear to have little strength.  We may appear to be unequal to the task.  But strength is not as important as faithfulness.  Jesus told the Philadelphian church — “You have kept my word, and not denied my name.”  To keep the word of Christ is to be faithful to Christ asserting in the face of changing cultures that Jesus is still the savior of the world.

What is the future of our faith?  Our future is not restricted by the changes in the world around us.  Our future is bound up with the purposes of God.  Our future is God’s future.  The door is open, the world is waiting, the Gospel still is good news.  We must walk through the open door, change our methods but not our message, and present the unchanging good news to an ever-changing world.

Jesus concluded his message to the church in Philadelphia with these words —

11I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. 13He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Our prayer is that we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to this church.

What Would Google Do? author quotes me

Jeff JarvisJeff Jarvis, journalism guru and author of What Would Google Do? quoted from my post The Future of Churches: A Network of Niches.  Needless to say, I’m honored and thrilled.

Jarvis is one of the prophetic voices who warned of the decline of newspapers when everyone else was in denial.  His book, WWGD?, looks at culture through the best practices of “the google,” as one former president used to say.

Jarvis is primarily interested in how the new economy (read: digital age) is changing journalism, but extends his argument into the business world, and even the church world in this post, What Would God Do? Makes for interesting reading and translation of one concept into the domain of faith, which I think is valid.  After all, churches are part of the culture, too.

The future of churches: A network of niches

In the on-going debate “will digital replace books?” the conclusion of many media watchers is an unequivocal Yes and No. Amazon’s Kindle has really become a game-changer, delivering books within seconds of purchase via Sprint’s wireless network.  Problems do exist, as Jeff Jarvis points out, because if you do not have good Sprint coverage in your area, books take hours to download, not seconds.  In other words, it’s not perfect.

So, will digital replace books? Yes, ebooks will replace printed books for many, maybe even most.  But, printed books will still survive in print-on-demand processes that print each copy as ordered.  Books will also survive in niche groups like “Save the Real Books” (which I just made up, but you get the idea).  After all, there are groups for vintage cars, vintage wine, vintage clothing, vintage furniture, so why not vintage book printing?  Digital won’t eliminate printed books, but digital will be another means to acquire and read books.  In other words, rather than one model (printed books), we’ll have a network of niche models from which to choose, including print, digital, audio, digital audio (the new Kindle can read your book to you), digital mobile, and so on.

Which brings us to churches, again.

Using the ebook versus printed book model, what does that say about churches?  I have been saying that we’re counting the wrong things in church (attendance) when we should be counting community engagement.  I’ve also said that church attendance will decrease (this is not an original thought), and we’re moving rapidly toward a post-Christendom era like Europe.

That said, I don’t think all existing churches will die.  For instance, the megachurches spawned by baby boomers will not go away.  I think their influence will diminish and some will go downsize.  But churches will always exist, some will always have buildings and property, and most will always be trying to attract people to them.

But, what I think will happen is new forms of church will emerge from the next generation of church leaders.  These forms are not even thought of yet.  Example: A few years ago who would have thought of LifeChurch.tv with an internet campus, and a bunch of satellite sites?

Lyle Schaller came close in the 1980s when he advocated that small churches use video sermons from outstanding preachers, but Schaller did not imagine that video sermons would be simulcast to remote satellite locations where a live band would lead worshippers in person, cutting to the remote video of Craig Groeschel (or Andy Stanley) in time for the message.

To get back to our question, Will churches of today disappear? Yes and no.

We can be certain of this — we live in an age of discontinuous change and unexpected consequences.  Nobody knows exactly what church will look like in the future because we’re not there yet.  But I have  a feeling it will be multiple models, not one predominant model like we had from WWII until about 1985. That’s about the time the church growth movement popularized church planting by anybody, not just denominations.  That shift resulted in hundreds of new churches, led by entrepreneurial church planters who created different models. That is what I think will happen, again, but this time the new models will be even more innovative than those of the last 25 years.

We’ll still have bricks-and-mortar churches, but also house churches, coffee shop churches, outdoor churches, churches that meet once a month, churches that meet online, churches that consists of groups which interact frequently, and churches that we can’t even imagine yet.  We will also see ‘single market’ churches that focus on the homeless or the physically handicapped or the poor or any niche group you can think of.

In other words, the same thing that is happening in the broader culture will happen in churches, too — more options, more models, a network of niches, rather than a predominant church form.

I am also certain that whatever emerges, church will not ever be the same again. By extension, neither will denominations, cross-cultural missions programs, or Christian education programs be the same again.  These will all change radically, because the current models are unsustainable in today’s culture.

Those are my thoughts, what are yours?

Sermon: Everything Is Changing!

Everything Is Changing!

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
29What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Waking Up To a New World

One of my favorite short stories is The Metamorphosis  by Franz Kafka.  It is the story of Gregor Samsa, a young traveling salesman who lives with his parents and his sister.  A rather non-descript life, except that one morning Gregor awakens to find that sometime in the night he has changed into a large cockroach.  Or as Kafka puts it, “a monstrous verminous bug.”  A cockroach.  

Here’s how Kafka begins the story:

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes.

“What’s happened to me,” he thought. It was no dream. 

The story goes on about the difficulty Gregor faces as he comes to grips with his new form, the struggle simply to roll over from his back, and the reaction of family and his employer.  It is a great understatement to say that Gregor Samsa went to sleep in one world, and woke up in another world entirely.

The Situation in Corinth

In the brief passage we read today, Paul is writing to tell the believers in Corinth that “the world in its present form is passing away.”

The city of Corinth that Paul visited had been rebuilt less than a 100 years before, after its destruction in 146 BC.  Paul arrives there about 50 AD, and finds a thriving, prosperous cosmopolitan city.  Jews are among the inhabitants of Corinth because all the Jews have been made to leave Rome, and many resettled themselves in Corinth.  

The Corinthian church is composed of many faithful members — Aquila and Priscilla perhaps form the core leadership there. Acts 18:1-11 provides the historical background for us:

1After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 

4Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.[a] 6But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”

7Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.9One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

The church in Corinth was also home to many new believers and we get an insight into the struggles of new Christians who are seeking to live life differently than they did as former pagans.  Paul writes to the church in Corinth about:

  • Divisions in the church.
  • Immorality among the membership.
  • Lawsuits among believers.
  • Sexual immorality.
  • Marriage
  • Food sacrificed to idols.
  • The difference between the feasts of idols and the Lord’s supper
  • Order in worship
  • The proper preparation and observance of the Lord’s Supper
  • Spiritual gifts — prophesying, speaking in tongues, knowledge, miracles
  • The body of Christ in the church
  • The resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead
  • Offerings
So, they had lots of problems, but were well on their way to being a viable church made up of both Jews and Gentiles.
It’s A New World
But in the passage we read today, Paul’s instruction for them is “the time is short — the world in its present form is passing away.”  In other words, everything is changing!
Now, we’re no stranger to change ourselves.  In the last 100 years we have seen amazing changes:
  • Invention of the automobile
  • Invention of the airplane and manned flight
  • Invention of the telephone
  • Invention of electrical distribution systems and the light bulb
  • Discovery and harnessing of atomic energy
  • Space flight
  • Man walking on the moon
  • Discovery of antibiotics
  • Cure for diseases that have plagued mankind for centuries
  • Invention of the computer, the internet, and all electronic devices
  • Life that gets cheaper, easier, and busier
As a matter of fact, social scientists tell us that we encounter so much change that the only thing we are certain that will not change is change.  And, change is not what it used to be.  During much of the 20th century, we lived in an era of continuous change — by that I mean that one change led to another.  The invention of the internal combustion engine led to its use in the horseless carriage — the automobile.  One invention led logically to the next.
But now sociologists tell us, we live in an era of discontinous change.  Change no longer takes place in an linear motion.  Change is all around us, popping up in places we never imagined from our cars to our computers to our economy to our politics and even to our religion.
Everything is changing!  We can learn something about how we cope with change from Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians.
The Church’s History of Dealing with Change
Now, the Christian church has not always dealt very well with change.  Let me give you a quick run-down to illustrate my point here:
  • Less than 200 years after Jesus, the church in the 3rd century has already become corrupt.  So, a group that came to be known as The Desert Fathers (although there were women, too) left the cities and moved to live an ascetic life in the barren deserts.
  • In 313 AD when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan and returned property back to Christians, the church entered a new era, the era of politics.  Constantine saw the rising population of Christians as a powerful force in his empire.  Whether his conversion was genuine or not, Constantine managed to bring the church under the political umbrella of the Roman empire, leading to her further corruption.
  • About 300-years after that, others decided that the way to preserve the church was to form bands of the highly dedicated.  The monastic movement gathered devotees who would dedicate themselves to work and prayer.  No longer would they live alone as hermits, but would band together into communities to work together, to share the gospel, to bring salvation to new lands.  
  • Around 1000 AD the church dealt with the rising Muslim world by engaging in military campaigns to drive the “infidels” from the holy city of Jerusalem, to eradicate entire populations of unbelievers, and to impose Christian rule on the entire civilized world.  Not our best moment, and we still reap the whirlwind today.
  • In the 1500s, many in the church saw its corruption, and armed with the emergence of rational thought of the Enlightenment combined with the invention of moveable type, the Protestant Reformation set about to reform the church, and then, when that failed, to reinvent the church.
  • About 200 years after that, Christians rallied to the cry from freedom, and Christians from around the globe sought countries in which they could worship freely.  Our own nation became a refuge for a wide variety of religious expressions — as long as they were Christian — as we developed freedom of religious practice and expression led by Christians, and Baptists in particular.
  • The darkside of those colonial years was the affirmation of slavery by many Christians, including those who would later become the founders of The Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.
I could go on and on, but what picture do you see emerging here?  It is the story of a church which is reacting to the changes it sees around it — changes in politics, money, and power.  
That is not what Paul is suggesting to the Corinthians.  
Not The End, But the Beginning
It is not the end of the world that Paul warns them against.  It is not his advice to gather all the believers on an high mountain top and wait for the second coming of Christ.  No, the change Paul speaks of is not the change of a church reacting to the world.  It is not the change of a church adapting to the world around it to become more powerful, more wealthy, more worldly.  Paul says, “The world as we know it is passing away.”
Why?  Not because God is destroying it, but because Christians are remaking it.  Paul’s instruction to the church in Corinth about marriage, money, and worship matters because Christians are different — we live in such as way that we reflect the coming kingdom, not the current kingdom.
That’s why Christians should not live their lives like everyone else — we serve a different king, a new world order, a coming regime, that is present and will one day be pervasive.  Until then, things are changing. The world is being transformed, Christians are empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit to bring life, not death, to this world that is God’s creation.
The world as we know it is passing away, but it is because we live our lives differently than others.  We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, love is our language, hope is our watchword.  We are changing the world by our lives.  
A Story of Change
In David Augsburger’s book, Helping People Forgive, he tells this story:
During the 1915 massacre of more than a million Armenians by the Turks, a military unit attacked a village, killing all the adults and children and taking the young women as hostages.  An officer led a raid into a home in which he shot the parents, gave the younger daughters to his men, but kept the oldest daughter for himself.
After months of captivity and unspeakable abuse and servitude, she escaped.  Over the years she rebuilt her life, and took training as a nurse.
One night while on duty in a Turkish hospital, she recognized the face of a desparately ill, comatose patient in intensive care.  It was her captor and abuser, the murderer of her parents.  He was unconscious and required constant care to survive.  A long and difficult convalescence followed, with the man too ill to recognize his surroundings.
One day as he was much improved, the doctor said to him, “You are a very fortunate man.  Had it not been for the devotion of this nurse, you would never have made it, you certainly would be dead.”  
The officer looked at the nurse a long time.  ”I’ve wanted to ask for days — we have met before, have we not?”
“Yes,” she replied, “we have met before.”
The officer knew instantly who she was and what she meant. “Why did you kill me when you had the opportunity? Or why didn’t you just let me die?”
“Because,” the nurse replied, “I am a follower of one who taught, love your enemies.”
That is why the world as we know it is changing.  It is changing because we are changed.  It is changing because we as followers of Christ live by new rules.  It is changing because God’s kingdom is finding a home in hearts and minds.  It is changing because we follow the one who said, ‘Love your enemies.’”