Tag: Community

Sermon: Knocking Down Barriers To the Presence of God

Tomorrow, Sunday, June 2, 2013, our church will dedicate a new handicapped lift that we recently installed. The lift eliminates the need to climb 7 steps to get into our sanctuary from the educational building. Although we have a wheelchair ramp at the front doors of the church, those 7 stairs were the last barrier to making our church completely handicapped accessible. It’s interesting to me that the lectionary reading for today involves Solomon’s prayer that when “foreigners” come to the Temple, Solomon prays that God will hear them. Israel’s mission and ours is to make the presence of God accessible to everyone. I hope your Sunday is a wonderful! 

Knocking Down Barriers To the Presence of God

I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 NIV

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in front of the whole assembly of Israel, spread out his hands toward heaven 23 and said:

“Lord, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below—you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way.

41 “As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your name— 42 for they will hear of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, 43 then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.”

Solomon’s Prayer For The Temple

To say that this was a special day would have been a huge understatement. Solomon, king of Israel, stood in the most unique and exquisite building in his kingdom. It was a project that his father David had wanted to undertake. But despite the fact that David was a man after God’s own heart, God reserved the building of the Temple for David’s son, Solomon.

After years of planning and gathering materials — cedar from Lebanon, cypress, stone quarried and cut off site so the sound of iron tools would not be heard in the Temple area — and after seven years’ of actual construction, Solomon now stood before the house of God and before God’s people, Israel.

Facing the massive outdoor altar on which Solomon will later sacrifice 120,000 sheep and 22,000 oxen, Solomon offers a prayer for this building that he has built as God’s dwelling place on earth.

Acknowledging that no earthly building can contain all of God’s presence, Solomon nevertheless connects the earthly Temple to the heavenly throne of God. Solomon asks that when Israelites gather to pray there, that God will hear from his throne in heaven.

But then Solomon asks God for something unusual. After asking for God to hear the Israelites whenever they call on him in the Temple, Solomon then asks the same privilege for non-Israelites — for foreigners.

Solomon says that foreigners will hear of God’s great name — and they will he states — then Solomon asks God to hear the prayers of foreigners, too, and to whatever the foreigner asks so that all people will know that God is the one true God, and that they will also know that this Temple contains the very presence of that God.

In other words, this magnificent temple made of the best materials by the best artisans available, this temple that is overlaid with gold throughout, that gleams in the sunshine, that gives glory to the God of Israel — this temple is to be accessible to everyone, even foreigners.

Solomon’s prayer is a radical departure for his day and for national places of worship. Of course, it wasn’t unusual for nations to have their own gods, and most had several. What was unique about Israel though was that Israel only had one god. Usually nations were very protective of their gods. As nations went to battle, the nation who prevailed in battle was believed to have the stronger, more effective god. We see some of this reflected even in the Old Testament, where victories in battle are attributed to God, and defeats in battle are seen to be God’s punishment for an unfaithful people.

What we might expect Solomon to say is something like this — “Lord, you are our god. We serve you and we built this house for you. Now pay special attention to us, your special people. Favor us over everyone else. And, don’t pay any attention to the prayers of other people who aren’t like us.”

Instead, Solomon says just the opposite. Oh, of course, he does invoke God’s presence, blessing, and favor on Israel. But then he adds, “Lord, others will hear about you, and they’ll come to this place. When they do, and they pray to you, hear them, too.”

This is what made Israel different from all the nations around them. Not only did Israel have a god, but from the beginning when God called Abraham and promised to make him the father of a great nation, part of the promise was that Israel was going to be blessed to be a blessing to all the nations.

Unfortunately, by the first century when Jesus is announcing the kingdom of God, Israel has forgotten that their temple is to be open to all people. Of course, the Court of the Gentiles was still in the Temple, but this is where the money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice had set up shop. By taking up so much space for their commercial enterprise, the Gentiles were being excluded from their space in the presence of God.

That’s why when Jesus drives the money changers and merchants from the temple, he quotes the Old Testament by saying that his Father’s house was to be called a house of prayer for all nations, but they had made it a den of thieves. Not only were the merchants stealing from their own people, they were denying access to the presence of God to all the foreigners, all the other nations.

Another House of Worship, But The Same Prayer

Nineteen hundred years after Jesus, on April 8, 1906, the Los Angeles Times, then called the Los Angeles Daily Times, carried an article describing a new church in an industrial section of Los Angeles. But this wasn’t the standard Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian church.

The report in the paper that day said “a new sect of fanatics was breaking loose.” This bizarre new religious sect had started with people “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.” Furthermore, “Devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories, and work themselves into a state of mad excitement.”

“If that didn’t grab the reader’s attention, the article continued by saying that, ‘Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying forth and back in a nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication.’ To top it all off, they claimed to have received the “gift of tongues,” and what’s more, “comprehend the babel.”’ (Courtesy: http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/199904/026_azusa.cfm)

For three years the Asuza Street congregation held on as a mixed congregation of blacks and whites, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. But the persistent negative press, and the suspicions and prejudice of the citizens of Los Angeles eventually drove them to disband. Laws were enacted to prohibit mixed race worship, and blacks were excluded from white services not only in California but elsewhere as Jim Crow laws governed social interactions.

What Keeps People from the Presence of God?

Now over 3,000 years since Solomon prayed his prayer, we have to ask ourselves “Are we as committed to opening our houses of worship to the “foreigners” in our society? And who are the foreigners, anyway?

Of course, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Protestants were grappling with the issue of sending missionaries to take the Gospel to foreigners. William Carey, the shoe cobbler-turned-preacher became the father of the modern missions movement as Carey argued passionately that the Gospel should be taken to those in foreign lands.

Our own Southern Baptist Convention split over the oddly-paired issues of slavery and missions. And, when the SBC was formed, one of the first acts of business was to establish the Foreign Mission Board for the sending of missionaries to India, China, Africa, and other foreign lands.

But if we look at the story of Solomon and the Temple again, Solomon is praying that when foreigners hear about God, and when they come to the Temple itself, he prays that God would hear them, just as God does Israel.

In other words, Solomon’s prayer isn’t a prayer about sending missionaries, it’s a prayer about opening the presence of God to everyone. But, unfortunately, as we said earlier, Israel forgets this prayer.

But God doesn’t. And so when the birth of the Messiah is announced, it isn’t announced by angels to the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, or even the chief priest. The religious leaders who guard access to the Temple and whose actions and public displays discourage others from the presence of God are not the ones to hear the announcement of the Messiah’s birth. Instead, angels appear to shepherds who are living in the fields with their flocks. Shepherds are not permitted into the Temple because they are ceremonially unclean. So, God shows up where they are.

When John the Baptist preaches and baptizes for repentance, John doesn’t preach in the court of the Temple, nor baptize in the numerous baptismal pools adjacent to it. No, John withdraws to the desert, to the Jordan River, which is rich in symbolism of the Exodus crossing into the land of promise under the leadership of Joshua, or Yeshua, which is what the new Messiah’s name is, too.

In the history of God’s people, when access to the presence of God has been denied to any and to all, then God moves out of the structures of religious buildings and ceremony, and meets people where they are with good news.

Breaking Down Barriers to the Presence of God

But what about us today? There is no more Temple. It was destroyed in 70 AD by the Roman army intent on stopping the persistent efforts of the Jews to break free from Rome. All that remains is the foundation, the Western Wall of Herod’s Temple. But did you see the other day that numbers of Orthodox Jewish men turned out to protest the presence of women in an area of the Wailing Wall that previously had been reserved for men? Even today, there are those who will intentionally keep others — because of their gender, their race, their belief, their dress, their nationality, and so on — from the presence of God.

Now we know that sounds terrible. We cannot justify those who prevent others from coming into the presence of God for whatever reason.

But we have to ask ourselves “Who are the foreigners in our midst, and what can we do to open our church and faith community to them?”

Recently an editor from a well-know Christian publication asked me to write a short article about how small churches can attract and minister to single adults. But here’s the thing: most people think of single adults as young, twenty-somethings who are trendy and cool. And every church wants to attract that group.

But single adults are also those who are older. Some are 70-somethings who are single because their mate of 40 or 50 years has died. Other single adults are intellectually or physically disabled, and need facilities that accommodate their disabilities. Some single adults are single parents, raising one or more children on their own, and they need a church that can provide nurture for their children.

That’s what I’m going to say in my article. Single adults come in more life situations than just young, 20-something, and trendy. If we open our eyes to the reasons people are single, and begin to make church a welcoming place for even one of those previously-excluded groups, then we are praying the prayer Solomon prayed at the Temple.

Our History of Breaking Down Barriers

In writing my dissertation, I discovered some interesting things about our church. We’ve been breaking down barriers to the presence of God here for a long time. Not that we’ve always gotten it completely right, or done everything we could, but we have done some things. Like Israel, we have a history, a heritage of breaking down barriers to the presence of God.

That history includes being instrumental in founding Hargrave Military Academy at a time in the life of this county and commonwealth when rural education was not readily available, and Christian education was even less so.

Our history includes starting Samuel Harris Memorial Baptist Church. While it’s only two miles or so from our church, apparently in the 1950s those two miles might as well have been 200. To plant a church in a community that for whatever reasons was not going to come to Chatham Baptist Church was a part of our making the presence of God accessible to all.

When we started the bus ministry, our church reached out to our entire community, to include members of other churches, and perhaps no church, in our fellowship circle.

When we built the new fellowship hall over 15 years ago, you decided to open its use to the community, to welcome others into this building and to open our doors to civic clubs, and other worthwhile organizations who shared our values, and contributed to the well-being of this community.

When we opened our doors to the Boys and Girls Club, and to the Chatham Arts Community Music School, we were inviting others into our space, and by extension into the presence of God.

When we built the playground, we were inviting families with children to come and join with us. We were sending the message that here your children are loved, valued, and protected. Here is a safe place for them to play and learn about God’s presence in their lives.

And, when we installed the lift several months ago, we were inviting all of those who had mobility issues, who could not readily climb stairs, to join us in this sanctuary for worship. Of course, most of us thought that we would have to get older before we needed it, but I was one of the first who got to use the lift when I came to church on that Easter Sunday after my hospital stay.

Our Challenge for the Future

But as much as we have done, we must continue to pray the prayer of Solomon for this place. We have to think about who else we might need to reach out to, and what other groups might feel that they do not have access to the presence of God here.

Over fifty-three years ago, the Cradock Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, founded what they call the Robin Class “as a special ministry to serve mentally-challenged young people and adults.  The Robins have their own Sunday School and church program on Sundays from 10 a.m. until Noon.  Their dedicated teachers provide an environment where the Robins can experience spiritual growth and Christian fellowship.  Transportation is provided for the class by a van purchased by donations from members and friends.  The Robins attend a special session of camp at Eagle Eyrie each fall.” (http://www.cradockbaptist.org/about-us/)

Other churches have done and are doing similar things. Opening the presence of God to others who may seem like “foreigners” to us is not easy. That’s why Israel so quickly and often forgot that was their mission. But it is also our mission. And with each step we take, with each door we open, with each barrier we break down, we come a little closer to making God’s presence accessible to all. That was Solomon’s prayer, and it should be ours as well.

Sermon: The Reconciling Community

The Reconciling Community

Matthew 18:15-20 NIV’84

15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.

19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

The Practical Side of the Kingdom of Heaven

Has anyone in church ever offended you?  Or have you ever made a fellow church member mad?  Or hurt their feelings?  Or said something unkind?  Or have you ever done something that could have reflected poorly on the congregation of which you were a member if that deed were known?

Probably the answer to most of those questions is at least a qualified, “Yes.”  After all, the most effective program Baptists have for starting new churches is a church split.  We are not called “the battling Baptists” for nothing.  As a matter of fact, disagreement to the point of separation is in our DNA as a denomination.  Southern Baptists got their start by disagreeing with their Northern counterparts of the unlikely issue of slavery and missions.

Northern Baptists would not appoint Southern slaveholders as missionaries, and so in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, splitting the ranks of Baptists in the United States over the issue of slavery.

So, we know a little about church fights, and we know at least one way to settle them.  But in our look at the Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has repeatedly told us that life is different in the Kingdom of Heaven.  The conventional wisdom and common practice by which most people lead their lives — including both Jews in the first century, and Christians in the 21st century – gets stood on its head as Jesus reinterprets the Law, and illuminates what life in God’s Kingdom should be like.

So today we come to a very practical bit of instruction from Jesus about divisions within those who are seeking the Kingdom.

An Unfortunate Translation 

Let me first deal with an issue here that creates a problem for some people.  In the text we read today, Jesus uses the term “church.”  Of course, the “church” as we know it today did not exist at this point in Jesus’ ministry.  The “church” as we know her would not be born until the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost.  As we know from our own observance of Pentecost (we all wear something red, which is the liturgical color for Pentecost Sunday), Pentecost is referred to as the birthday of the church.

Because English versions of the Bible have used the word “church,” some have questioned whether this is an authentic saying of Jesus, or whether it was inserted later after the birth of the church during the apostolic age.

Let’s have a quick and simple lesson in New Testament Greek.  The word translated “church” is the Greek word ekklesia.  This word is compiled from two words:  ek meaning out of, and klesis meaning called.  In other words, an ekklesia is an assembly of the “called out ones.”

The original ekklesia, about 500 years before Christ, was an assembly of all male citizens to conduct the affairs of the city.  And, attendance at the ekklesia was expected.  Slaves were dispatched throughout the city carrying a rope soaked with a red dye or stain.  When they say an eligible male who obviously had not taken time or interest in attending the ekklesia, the slave struck the male citizen, staining his garment with red dye.  Those so identified and marked were forbidden from conducting business while the ekklesia was in session.

Later in the first century, the word ekklesia is used specifically to refer to the church.  Here, however, I think a better translation would be “the assembly.”  Because in the first century a gathering of the nation of Israel, or a representative gathering was called an ekklesia.

So, what is my point in telling you all of this?  First, I think the translation of ekklesia into church is probably unfortunate here.  Clearly, there is no New Testament church yet.  The disciples would have had no idea what Jesus was talking about because Pentecost had not come, the Spirit had not come upon each believer, and the apostles had not been empowered yet.

But, the disciples would have understood that Jesus was talking about “the assembly of Israel.”  They would have understood that Jesus was speaking of those who were following Jesus, listening to Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, and who gathered with Jesus and the disciples on several occasions.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes that Jesus appeared to over 500 after his resurrection.  After Jesus ascension into heaven, 120 were in the upper room with the apostles.  So the number of those who followed Jesus was larger than the 12 disciples, and on many occasions ran into the hundreds.

Jesus would have considered these followers an assembly of the new Israel.  After all, his ministry symbolically reconstituted the 12 tribes of Israel in the 12 disciples, reinterpreted the Law of Israel, satisfied the requirements of Temple sacrifice, and inaugurated the Kingdom of God with Jesus as the Messiah of God.

So, we can easily imagine Jesus saying to his disciples, “17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly; and if he refuses to listen even to the assembly, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Okay, now that we have that behind us, let’s look at what Jesus said about this business of division and reconciliation.

Sin In The Camp

In the Old Testament book of Joshua, there is a strange story of  “sin in the camp.”  Joshua had been leading Israel from victory to victory as they conquered the Land of Promise, but when they attempted to take the city of Ai, they were defeated.  To make a long story short, it was discovered that one man, Achan, had disobeyed God and had kept some of the spoils of previous battles for himself.  This one man’s sin affected the entire nation, and until that sin was dealt with and made right, the nation was under God’s judgment.

Now bring that same story forward about 1200 years or so.  Jesus had come proclaiming a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  Many have begun to follow Jesus, with the 12 disciples forming the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.

The disciples have increasing responsibility for the newer followers.  You may remember that we looked at the feeding of the 5,000, which demonstrated that in the Kingdom of God there was always an abundance.  Before Jesus fed the crowd that day with a little boy’s lunch, he told the disciples to feed the crowd.  That was Jesus’ way of saying that the disciples had an increasing responsibility for caring for Jesus’ followers.

So, 18 chapters into Matthew’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus, Jesus gives the disciples instruction for what to do when there is a problem of sin within the assembly of those who are following Jesus.

Jesus has just finished telling the story of the shepherd who has 100 sheep.  When the shepherd discovers just one missing, he searches diligently until he finds the lost sheep and returns it to the flock within the fold.  The lesson there is that everyone one of God’s sheep, those whom God has created, are valuable to God and God’s Kingdom.  None should be written off as lost and without hope of redemption.

Then Jesus says the same thing in a slightly different way:  15 “If your brother sins [against you], go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

This saying takes the search for a lost sheep, and makes it a quest for a restored relationship.  In both cases something fundamentally wrong has happened to disrupt the way things should be.  In the case of the lost sheep, he is separated from the flock and the shepherd.  In the case of a member of the assembly of Jesus’ followers who sins, they have separated themselves from the followers of Jesus by their actions.

It is interesting to note that although the NIV translation from 1984 has the phrase “If your brother sins against you…” – the 2010 NIV translation drops the two words “against you.”  The reason is that the words “against you” are not found in the oldest manuscripts, and also Luke’s account of this same teaching of Jesus does not use that phrase either.

But any sin of one within the assembly is a sin against all members of the assembly, and a sin against God as well.

The very word “sin” brings us to another tricky question – What sins qualify for someone in the assembly to go to someone else and point out the mistake they have made?

This is exactly where church discipline in the past has focused.  Obviously some sins were more public, and more serious, than other sins.  I think I have told you about Zion Hope Baptist Church in Tifton, Georgia where I was pastor long years ago.  For the church’s centennial celebration, we brought out the old church minutes from the late 1800s.  It was not unusual for the congregation to “church” someone for the sin of dancing.  Nor was it unusual for them to reinstate that same individual the next Sunday after they had made an appropriate act of repentance.

That’s how the church historically has treated this passage.  Christians have focused on the “sin” part of Jesus’ teaching.  The Roman Catholic Church has categorized sin into either “venial” or “mortal” sins.  Venial sins are slight sins that can be corrected or rectified by applying love and loving action, such as an apology, restitution, or other act of contrition and correction.  Mortal sins are serious, have a total disregard for love of self, others, or God, and lead to spiritual death if not dealt with, and repented of.

But, focusing on how big the sin has to be before someone seeks to correct another is to miss the point.  Jesus could very well have focused on various sins.  He could have said, “If someone sins by committing adultery…”  and so on.  But, he didn’t.  The reason Jesus didn’t focus on the sin is because he was focused on the relationship.

That’s the same reason the shepherd goes after the lost sheep.  The shepherd isn’t concerned how the sheep got lost. He doesn’t blame the sheep for being stupid, careless, or willful.  No, the shepherd goes after the sheep as soon as he realizes that the sheep is missing.  And he does so because the main point is that the sheep has strayed, it is no longer in the fold, it needs finding and it needs finding quickly.

That’s why most attempts at church discipline have failed.  Either the church has narrowly defined what it considers sin – such as wearing jewelry, cutting your hair if you are a woman, or wearing pants instead of a skirt or dress, again, if you are a woman.  (Note that a lot of church discipline applies to women, not so much to men.)  I actually had a revival preacher I invited to preach at our church in Lilburn, Georgia spend an entire sermon on women wearing pants to church.  He thought he was doing me a favor.  I think Debbie had on pants that night.  But, you get my point.

Church discipline has largely failed because we have singled out individuals to straighten them out, but usually based on our ideas, not theirs.

No, Jesus didn’t focus on the sin here.  He just focused on the fact that a member of the assembly, a person who at one time had embraced the Kingdom of God, had turned aside, had gone astray, had offended either God or a brother or sister in the faith, or both.

In other words, the relationship within the community had been damaged.  Jesus concern is not just that one person has gone astray.  His concern is that a member of the community, the assembly, has gone astray.  And if one is missing, either physically or spiritually, then their life affects the entire community.

The Process for Reconciliation

The process for reconciliation is pretty simple.  First, the person who is aware of this person’s mistake goes to him or her privately.  If the sin was against the individual, then there’s no reason to involve others at this point.  And, Jesus says, if they listen to you, you have won your brother.  Case closed.  Things are again as they should be.  One person reaches out in love, the other listens, and takes appropriate action.  Relationships are healed, wrongs are made right, things are as they should be again.

Unfortunately, many cases do not resolved themselves so easily.  If the person refuses to listen, Jesus instructs the disciples to take one or two others with you to again seek to win this wayward brother over.  Why?  Because in Deuteronomy 19:15, the Law says –

15 “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

 Jesus is following the Law, while at the same time involving others in seeking to reclaim this lost brother or sister.  Hopefully, that step works, and the party who has sinned, when confronted in love by 2 or 3 people about their conduct, will see the error of their ways.

But if not, Jesus has a step three.  “Tell it to the church.”  Or, to use our word, “tell it to the assembly.”  Get more folks involved.  Maybe someone else can help.  Things are now serious.  The assembly, the community of Jesus’ followers, is at risk for losing one of their own.  Everyone needs to know about this serious situation.  Everyone needs to pray, to express their love to the estranged member, and to reach out to them with grace and care.

What definitely is not happening is that the church gets told so that it can expel the member.  That is not the desired result.  The member is already estranged.  They are already out of the fold of fellowship.  No, the idea is that the entire community will now reach out to reclaim this one who has been lost temporarily.

Failing those three steps, Jesus says something very strange – “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Of course, this is where many church bodies have gotten their doctrine of expulsion, or shunning, or excommunication, or withdrawal of fellowship.  All of those practices have the same end result:  the offending member is cut off, either permanently or temporarily, from the community.

But, that’s not what Jesus means, I am convinced.  Because if we are to take Jesus’ words both seriously and literally, we have to ask ourselves “How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?”

The tax collector question is easy to answer.  All we have to do is remember a little man named Zacchaeus, himself a tax collector.  You know the story, and maybe the song.

“Zacchaeus was a wee-little man, and a wee-little man was he.  He climbed us in a sycamore tree, the Lord he wanted to see.  And when the Lord came passing by, He looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, come down, for I’m going to your house today!”

That’s pretty much the story.  Except Zacchaeus realizes the error of his ways, confesses, makes restitution, and rejoins the family of God and the nation of God.  Jesus says of Zacchaeus after Zacchaeus’ confession and offer of restitution – “Today salvation has come to this house.”

That’s how Jesus treats tax collectors.  With redemptive love.  And so, the point of this whole passage is to redeem, reclaim, and seek reconciliation with those who started for the Kingdom, but somehow lost their way.

The Importance of the Assembly

But, that’s not all.  Jesus has involved the assembly in reclaiming the life of one who has gone the wrong way.  But, the assembly, no matter how small, has other important functions.  Jesus continues —

18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.

   19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 

It is the assembly of God’s people, now called the church, that demonstrates that what is done in heaven, can be done on earth.  The binding and loosing was an old rabbinical phrase that indicated which obligations the local synagogue was to be bound by, and which they were free to be released from.

The one thing that bound the followers of Jesus most closely, and to which they themselves were bound, was reconciliation.  The unrelenting pursuit of those whose lives have gone off-track, who have abandoned their place in the assembly of the Kingdom, so that they can then be reconciled to God and to the other members of the community.

But it doesn’t end there.  The reconciling community is also a praying community.  Jesus says —  19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

In other words, the power of our praying is directly related to our participation in the community of faith.  When we join with others, agreeing in our hearts and minds that God has this plan for us, then Jesus says, “…it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”

Of course, that is not to dimish the idea of individual prayer.  But Jesus is reiterating the importance, the centrality of the community as it relates to the Kingdom of God.

This community of followers of Jesus, this assembly, is the new Israel.  Not that the old Israel, the Jews, are excluded.  By no means.  Paul makes that abundantly clear in Romans 9-11.  But, this new community lives differently.  This new community follows the Messiah of God.  This new community recognizes that God has raised Jesus from the dead, making both Lord and Christ.  This new community is the expression of the Kingdom of God here in this place, until Christ comes again, and all things are made new.

And the reason for the importance of this new community?  Because Jesus says that wherever  2 or 3 of them are gathered, he’s there in their midst.  Jesus is not waiting for the crowd to grow, or the followers to increase.  Two or three folks is enough for him.  Two or three constitute a community gathered around Jesus for the express purpose of being a community of reconciliation.

Paul says in II Corinthians 5:18-20 –

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Jesus has called us to reconciliation.  Whether between ourselves and someone who has offended us; or someone who has left the community of faith; or whether in prayer; or simply in gathering in his name, we are ambassadors for Christ, and the credentials we present as representatives of the King and Kingdom are credentials that seek to unite rather than divide, that seek to save rather than condemn, that seek to win rather than to lose a brother or sister.

This is the community of reconciliation gathered here today.  We have that ministry according to Paul.  We have the instruction given by Jesus.  We have the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We are on a mission to invite all who will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.  The only question is, “Will we rise to the challenge?”  Will we reach out to others?  Will we be a force for reconciliation in our church, our community, and our world?

We have, we can, and we must continue as God’s agents of reconciliation.  We are the assembly, the church, the called out ones.  May we live up to that for which God has called us out of this world, and into to the Kingdom.

Gather Your Online Congregation Now

Today I was talking to a friend, Jim Stovall, who teaches journalism at the University of Tennessee, and is a pioneer in developing and teaching web journalism.

In our conversation about how the internet is changing newspapers and journalism, Jim said, “I tell my students to start now, to become entrepreneur journalists, by using the internet to build an audience. Then, when they graduate, they’ll carry that audience with them wherever they work.”

Jim’s statement got me to thinking about churches and what seminary does to prepare you for ministry. While seminary does give students the opportunity to “try out” ministry through internships and “field work,” it usually ends there.

But, if Jim is right (and I know he is about journalism), why shouldn’t ministerial students begin to gather their congregations now, online?

Here’s what I believe an internet presence does for those preparing for vocational ministry:

  1. Provides valuable experience in writing, editing, and communicating. Pastors are primarily in the communication business. Okay, business may not be a good description, but what we do is communicate — well or poorly — the Gospel. We preach, teach, counsel, pray, encourage, and lead — all of those actions are types of communication. Maintaining a consistent, quality web presence is good training for anyone, but especially for communicators.
  2. Creates opportunities for handling both criticism and praise. Many of my conversations with pastors deal with pastors who have handled either criticism or praise inappropriately. Consistent bloggers learn to tone down the temptation to “flame” their critics, and also receive praise with humble restraint. Learning to handle both in real-life ministry situations is invaluable to successful ministry.
  3. Helps sharpen your message. Jim also said that people go to specific websites to find information they cannot find anywhere else. When you’re thinking about your online message, ask yourself, “What am I trying to convey to my audience, and how is that different from what’s out there now?” Obviously, my niche is small churches and small church leaders. Narrowing your focus to families, singles, parents, youth, music, and so on, and becoming an authority in your field will help sharpen your ministry, and focus your energy.
  4. Gathers your community. The big point is that now, before you graduate from seminary, take a church staff position, become a pastor, or plant a church, you can gather an online community. That community can help shape your ministry, and even lead to opportunities for ministry itself, such as a conference speaker, author, spiritual director, or consultant.

Of course, even those of us who are serving churches can enjoy the same benefits, and I have in the six years I have been writing Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor.

Both ministry and journalism are changing, and the internet is disrupting our notions of what a newspaper is, and what constitutes a congregation. We have never before lived in an age where anyone can have access to everyone. Not even Billy Graham, who has preached to more people in more countries than anyone in history had the opportunity for communication that we do today. Whether newspapers and ministers will seize this opportunity remains to be seen.

What do you think? Have you begun or expanded your ministry on the internet? And, if so, what does that look like? What are the criteria for an effective web ministry, in your opinion? Fire away in the comments. Thanks.

Sermon: The Only Prayer We Can Pray

Jesus reminds us that there is one prayer we can and must pray.  It is a prayer that reflects our understanding of who we are in our relationship to God and others.

The Only Prayer We Can Pray

Luke 18:9-14

9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

One of the things I like about scripture, particularly passages like this, is they tell us exactly what to look for.  By this time in his ministry, Jesus has become somewhat famous for telling parables.  The word parable comes from the Greek word parabole’ which means to “throw alongside.”  Parables were stories tossed to the hearers to make a point.

But sometimes the parables were enigmatic and mysterious.  In Mark’s Gospel Jesus has to explain some of his parables to the disciples, who seem as mystified as the crowds about the point Jesus is trying to make.

But here, in this parable, Luke tells us several things. First, Luke tells us about whom Jesus was speaking —

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable…

Now that’s pretty clear.  There is no doubt to whom Jesus is speaking and what problem he’s addressing.  So, this parable is going to be one of the easy ones, one of those that is blatantly apparent when it gets told.

And, it is.  Jesus then tells the story of two men who went up to the Temple to pray.  So, this is not just an ordinary day, or an ordinary time of prayer.  Going up to the Temple to pray usually involved some special occasion, a feast day, or some event in the life of the worshipper that brought them to the Temple.  Going to the Temple wasn’t like our going to church on Sundays.  A Temple visit was a special occasion which required ritual preparation, the exchange of Roman coinage for Temple currency, and the purchase of a sacrifice if one was going to be offered.

The righteous Jewish man would make his way up through the winding streets of Jerusalem, assiduously avoiding anything that might make him ceremonially unfit for Temple worship.  As he ascended the Temple entrance, he entered the Court of the Gentiles.

This large portico, the outer court of the Temple, most of which was out in the open except for the colonnades, was the place for God-fearers to gather to pay homage to the one true God, the God of Israel.  This was the court from which Jesus ran the money-changers.  His words were, “My father’s house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”  What sometimes gets lost in the account of the cleansing of the Temple was that when Jesus said, “My father’s house is a house of prayer” everyone who heard him would have filled in the rest of the scripture, which read, “…a house of prayer for all nations.”

In other words, the moneychangers and the merchants were taking up space allotted for non-Jews.  The Gentiles couldn’t go any further into the Temple upon penalty of death, so disregarding the purpose of the Court of the Gentiles in order to exchange money and sell sacrificial animals deprived the non-Jews of their place in God’s house.

Okay, enough of that, but I wanted you to get the picture.  But back to our two Jewish friends, two men going up to pray.  So, they pass through the Court of the Gentiles, and then bypass the Court of the Women.  Remember that this is a paternalistic society, and Jewish women could come past the Court of the Gentiles, but no further than the next courtyard, the Court of the Women.  The Court of the Women was an enclosed area, unlike the Court of the Gentiles which was an enormous open space.

I’m not sure why our church has two front doors, but many old churches have two front doors because the women entered in one door, and the men entered the other, and they sat separately during worship.  The Old German Baptist Brethren still practice this to some extent.  Men sit on one side of the church, women on the other, but they do have families seated together in the middle.

Once they are past the Court of the Women, our two friends enter the Court of Israel.  This is where Jewish men can gather, offer prayers, give their sacrifice to the priest, and worship God.

So, it is in this part of the Temple, most likely, that this parable takes place.  Perhaps it is a high holy day, or a day of festival.  Or perhaps one of our worshippers has experienced the blessing of God in an extraordinary way.  We don’t know what brings our two friends to the Temple, but we do know who they are.

One is a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.  Which is very much like Jesus saying, “Have you heard the one about the Pharisee and the tax collector?”  By putting these two types of men in the same sentence, Jesus has already crossed the line of propriety.  You literally didn’t mention “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same breath.

So, immediately Jesus has the attention of everyone standing around, some of whom are — you guessed it — Pharisees.  Oh, and there’s at least one tax collector, or former tax collector named Matthew in the crowd, too.  Not sure where Zacchaeus is on this particular day, but Jesus already had the reputation of eating with “tax collectors and sinners.”  The phrase itself was redundant in first century Jewish society.

Let me tell you about the tax collector first.  Tax collectors were a hated bunch of guys in Jesus’ day.  They were hated because, first, they collected taxes and for thousands of years people of every cultural stripe have hated paying taxes.  And, Roman taxes were high, and systematically collected.  You remember that Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus to be counted, and the counting was so that the Roman government could know from whom to collect its taxes.  Unlike my grandfather who told my grandmother that the IRS didn’t know he existed.  He found out differently.

But, if that weren’t enough, tax collectors could also collect whatever amount they wanted to.  You might have owed the Roman governor 15 denarii, or fifteen days wages, but the tax collector could tell you that your bill was 20 denarii, or 25, or 50, depending on how much money he wanted to make, and his ability to enforce his demands.

Not only was the Roman system of taxation spread widely, but it also dug deeply into the coin purses of every household.  And paying through tax collectors was the only way to get your taxes paid, and your name duly checked off.  So, you paid extra because that was the way the system worked.

But you didn’t have to like it.  And you didn’t have to be kind to the tax man, or speak nicely to him, or befriend him, or even act in a civil manner.  You could show your complete disdain for him and his dirty business.  Tax collectors, needless to say, were never invited to the best parties, or asked to lead civic events, or held up as model citizens.  They were Jews stealing from their fellows Jews, and so in this way, they were worse than the Romans.

But, let’s turn to the Pharisee.  Everything the tax collector was, the Pharisee was his exact opposite.  Pharisees have a bad reputation today because we know they were always on the wrong side of whatever it was that Jesus was doing, until finally they orchestrated Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution.

But, if we lived in Jesus’ day, we’d like the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were the keepers of the Law, the defenders of the Torah.  In our 21st century language, Pharisees loved Scripture, studied it endlessly, memorized it faithfully, and practiced it publicly.

Pharisees were conservative in their views of religious life.  They weren’t for changing things.  They had made an uneasy peace with the Roman government, and as long as the Romans let them worship and practice their faith, the Pharisees were fine with Rome.

The Pharisees were also good men. I say “men” because a woman might be married to a Pharisee, but women were not called Pharisees as such.  But Pharisees were good men.  They gave generously and sometimes flambuoyantly of their income.  In the Temple were great receptacles for monetary offerings shaped like the open end of a trumpet.  A Pharisee could make a great show of rolling coins around the horn of the offering trumpets, making sure all around both heard and saw his generosity.

Pharisees observed the dietary laws, the sabbath laws, the laws of ceremonial cleanliness, and on and on.  They were the good, solid citizens of Jewish society, and they even believed in the resurrection of the righteous, which their counterparts the Sadducees, did not.

If our church were situated in the first century, instead of being called Chatham Baptist Church, I am sure we would be called Chatham Church of the Pharisees, and we would be proud of it!  To call someone a Pharisee in Jesus’ day was to pay them respect and honor them for their faithfulness to God.  Or so everyone thought.

And this is where Jesus really gets under their skin.  He says, “A Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the Temple to pray.”

But then he goes on, “And the Pharisee prays about himself.”  Actually, this could also be translated, “The Pharisee prays to himself.”  That’s right, either way, Jesus is letting his hearers know that the Pharisee is either praying about himself and not God, or to himself and not God.

And here’s what he says:  “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  Actually, that’s not exactly what he says, but it means the same thing.  “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men — murderers, thieves, adulterers, even this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

We’re glad today, 2,000 years later, that we are not like murderers, thieves, and adulterers, or even dishonest tax collectors.  I mean, none of us wants to labeled among the vilest of society, like people who break the Ten Commandments two at a time.

If we were in this story that Jesus tells, we’d all be Pharisees.  And I think that was kind of the point.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

But now look at the tax collector.  Jesus says, “He doesn’t even lift his head.”  That doesn’t seem strange to us, because we bow our heads when we pray, but the practice of prayer in the Temple was to look up, hold out your arms, bellow your prayers so that others could hear.  (Which is why Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “Don’t pray like the Pharisees, standing on the street corner, saying a lot of pious sounding words.”)

All the tax collector says is, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Okay, you get to pick.  Which one of these guys gets a gold star today?  Is it the upstanding, well-mannered, scripture-quoting, tithing, fasting, praying Pharisee?  Or is it snivelling, dishonest, disgraced, traitorous tax collector?  I’ll give you minute to think it over.

Okay, time is up.  Of course, you know this story so you know that Jesus says of the tax collector, “I tell you this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”

Bang!  the Pharisees get hit right between the eyes.  “How could this happen?” I am sure they asked.  “How could a tax collector be justified before God over a devout Pharisee?”

Now, remember, Jesus doesn’t say, “A former tax collector.”  Or, “an ex-tax collector.”  Or even, “a repentant tax collector.”  No, this is a real, honest-to-goodness, tax collector who is still collecting taxes, still cheating people because that’s how he makes his money.  But, and here’s the important point, something is stirring in our tax collector’s heart.

This tax collector knows he’s a sinner.  He knows his life is not pleasing to God, and is not helping his community.  This tax collector has taken the first step toward God.  He hasn’t repented yet, but he has recognized his sin.  He now knows that he is a thief, a liar, a cheat, a betrayer of his own people.  He sees himself for what he is.  He sees himself as others see him.  He sees himself as God sees him.  And he is cut to the heart, stricken by what he sees.  Heartbroken by his own sin.

And so his only prayer is a prayer for mercy.  What else can he say?  “Lord, this is the only job I could find.”  Or, “Lord, somebody has to do it, and there are worse people than me.”?  No, he says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Sin as a word and an idea has really fallen out of favor in our society.  About the only place we talk about sin is in church, so we get the impression that sin isn’t a real problem in society anymore.  Several years ago, the psychiatrist, Karl Menninger wrote a popular book titled, “Whatever Became of Sin?”  Well, sin isn’t fashionable anymore.  But it’s still around.  And the tax collector knew he had committed sins, and that made him a sinner.

But back to our friend the Pharisee.  What’s wrong with the Pharisee?  Luke sums it up for us:  they were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.

Why is that such a problem.  The Pharisee was a better man than the tax collector by all outward appearances.  He tithed, the tax collector did not.  He fasted, the tax collector probably feasted.  He kept all the holy days at the Temple, but this was probably the first time the tax collector had been in the Temple in a long time.  The Pharisee was by anybody’s account the better man.

Except the Pharisee didn’t think he was a sinner.  He knew the tax collector was, he knew the murderer was, he knew the thief was, and he knew the adulterer was because those people broke commandments, and violated the Law of God.  But not him.  He was righteous.  Upstanding.  A good citizen.  A model religious leader.

But he was also arrogant.  Self-righteous.  Self-centered.  Self-satisfied.  He needed nothing.  Except, of course, for others to know that he was not like the tax collector.

Because the Pharisee’s arrogance doesn’t end there.  Arrogance leads to separating yourself from others.  Arrogance leads to believing that you’re right and everyone else is wrong.  Arrogance leads to thinking that everyone should be like you.  That if everyone in the world were like you, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

Arrogance also damages the community.  Here were two Jews — not a Jew and a Samaritan, not a Jew and a Gentile — but two Jews.  Brothers by ancestry, adherents to the worship of the one true God, the God of Israel. Two men who were both outstanding in their own ways, one famous perhaps, the other infamous no doubt.  But arrogance has separated them.

And not only has arrogance separated them, it has cut off the tax collector and his family and his children from the warm traditions of their faith, and cast them out of the closed society of Judaism to which they rightfully belonged.  Some wonder how the tax collector even got into the Temple, much less was given time to pray.

Normally, we talk about how we shouldn’t look down on others, or think more of ourselves than we ought to think, or we draw other similar lessons from this parable.  Jesus helps us by saying the exalted shall be humbled, and the humble shall be exalted.  So that’s the lesson.  But this story has more than just personal application.

When we put ourselves above others, think of ourselves as different from our fellow human beings, bad and terrible things result.  In our own country, clergymen preached from prestigious pulpits of both the North and South that the Bible affirmed the inferiority of the negro slave, and therefore, the white man had the right, and the duty, to tame the savage and command from him good, honest work.  The fact that slavery served both the economic interests of North and South, of course, was never mentioned.

In Hitler’s rise to power, the Jews were seen as the problem.  They were different, an inferior race, a mischievous group who not only reject Jesus Christ, but who killed him.  They and their nefarious schemes were to blame for the economic woes of pre-war Germany, according to Nazi propaganda.  So, Hitler’s appeal to Germans as the superior race, better than others like Jews, or Gypsies, or homosexuals, led directly to the “final solution” — the extermination of those inferior peoples.  Six million Jews were killed, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Romany (Gypsies), and others who did not fit the Third Reich’s portrait of a superior people.

Religion often contributes to this “I’m glad I’m not like him” syndrome, but not always.  I was gratified to read that an evangelical group, known for its opposition to gays, had suspended a nationwide anti-gay high school program after the suicides of several young gay students, students who took their own lives because they were bullied for being gay.  Cancelling that program was a good thing to do, and showed that some realize that when we position ourselves as superior to others — morally, spiritually, ethically, genetically, or in any other way — the consequences can be deadly.

I have titled this sermon, The Only Prayer We Can Pray.  Perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement.  But the prayer of the tax collector is certainly the first prayer we must pray.  It is the only prayer we can pray in relationship to others.  And when we recognize that we are sinners, despite our appearance of respectability, and that our only real option is to beg for God’s mercy, then we begin to live our lives truthfully before God and each other.

The tax collector’s prayer is the only prayer we can pray if we are honest with ourselves.  It is the only prayer we can pray if we see ourselves as God sees us.  It is the only prayer we can pray if we are interested in reconciling humanity to God, and bringing the shalom of God to earth.  “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Amen.

 

Becoming Peacemakers In An Age of Chaos

This is the meditation I am giving at the Community Prayer Breakfast sponsored by our local hospital, Danville Regional Medical Center.

A Story of Prayer and Community

We have gathered here this morning because we believe in two things — the power of prayer and our responsibility to our community.  So we have come together to pray for our community, that we can find new ways to deal with old problems, that the promise of Jesus is true when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.”  — Matthew 5:9

In a day when violence seems unrelenting, and neighborliness is a quaint sentiment, let me tell you a story in which we might find some hope.

Not far from here, just across the North Carolina line, lies the little community of Cedar Grove, North Carolina.  Cedar Grove is like many of the small rural communities around here.  A changing economy and hard times have reduced the once-thriving crossroads to a couple of churches and a post office.

But Bill King and his wife, Emma, had high hopes for the little bait-and-tackle shop they opened just down the road from the Cedar Grove United Methodist Church.  The Kings had to run the drug dealers out of the cinderblock building they bought.  But gradually business picked up, and families even brought their kids to the little country store for ice cream on hot summer days.

One hot June day in 2004, an intruder walked into Bill’s store and shot him in the back of the head.  Bill died from the gunshot wound, and any sense of security and innocence Cedar Grove might have had disappeared that day.

Outraged, the neighbors demanded that something be done.  One suggested to Grace Hackney, pastor at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, that they offer a reward for the arrest and conviction of the killer.  But Grace had a better idea.  She suggested they gather in front of Bill and Emma’s store in a prayer vigil for their community. Continue reading “Becoming Peacemakers In An Age of Chaos”

Sermon: Secularism – Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
Secularism — Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?

Today I am beginning a new sermon series titled, Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.  During the next two months, we will examine the seven cultural challenges that I believe we must face in order to present the Gospel in new and fresh ways to our world.  These challenges are not new, but they are all converging at a time in our history in which our institutions and societal structures are under increasing pressure.

Institutions and systems that we thought were rock solid, such as our financial and economic sytems and organizations, are proving to be inadequate to the roiling changes of the 21st century.  Who would have thought that two of the “big three” car companies — Chrysler and General Motors — would collapse so quickly and so completely?  Who would have imagined that three dozen banks would fail in the past year; that major retailers such as Circuit City headquartered in Richmond, and other big box retailers would go out of business?  And who would have imagined that the very institutions that guarantee our mortgages and finance the American dream for countless families in the US, would have to be taken over by the federal government?

But, financial institutions and systems are not the only ones under great stress today.  Educational systems, governmental agencies, and last but not least, religious institutions and organizations are also quaking under the seismic shocks of a 21st century that is changing faster than any of us could have imagined.

Change is coming so fast, and in such unpredictable ways, that social scientists now tell us the only thing that we can be certain will not change is change.  That sounds rather like a non-sensical statement, but upon reflection we have to admit that in our lifetimes there have never been the number, scope, or magnitude of changes that we have witnessed since the end of World War II.

Churches also face the daunting challenges confronting our culture.  These challenges include secularism, which we will talk about today.  But other challenges accompany secularism, and they are pluralism, nominalism, materialism, post-modernism, criticism, and atheism.  These are by no means the only challenges we face, but the seven challenges I have identified here are coalescing in a new and unique pattern that we have not seen before, at least in our lifetime.

To help us limit and clarify our discussion, I have also added a question that both explains and probes the meaning of each of these challenges.  Here’s what we’re going to talk about for the next few weeks:

1.  Secularism: Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
2.  Pluralism: Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?
3.  Nominalism: Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?
4.  Materialism: Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
5.  Post-Modernism: Why Is Truth No Longer True?
6.  Criticism: Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore?
7. Atheism: Why Don’t They Believe in God?
And finally we’ll wrap up with a concluding message titled, The Future of Our Faith.

We do not have time in 20 minutes each week to deal exhaustively with each of these topics.  But, the questions I have posed after each of these -isms will help us focus on one particular aspect of that specific cultural challenge.  I hope this series will be both enlightening and thought-provoking as we think about what each of these challenges means to us here at Chatham Baptist Church.  These are the cultural challenges that are rapidly shaping who we are, how we feel, what we believe, and how we live our lives.  Let’s look at the first one today — Secularism: Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?

The Canary in the Coal Mine

As the Industrial Age dawned in England in the 18th century, the demand for coal to fuel huge manufacturing plants increased.  As miners burrowed deeper and deeper into the ground in search of seams of coal, safety procedures failed to catch up with the rising demand for coal and the increasingly dangerous practices of underground mining.

One of the few safety procedures available to miners was the use of canaries in the underground tunnels.  Canaries were very sensitive to the build up of toxic gases like methane and carbon monoxide.  One writer commented that a canary’s life in the mines was “short, but meaningful.”  Short because mines were not vented, and toxic gases built up regularly in the mines; meaningful because canaries were the first and only warning system for the miners.

Miners working a vein of coal would carry a caged canary with them, and check the canary periodically.  The canary was either upright on its perch, or dead on the bottom of the cage.  If the canary died, miners would leave the mine as quickly as possible until the gas abated — which required the services of another canary to determine if that had happened!

Canaries were the early warning sign of coal mining 100 years ago.

Today, our canary in the coal mine for churches is church attendance.  During the post-WWII baby boom generation, churches all over America flourished.  Churches in small communities like Chatham were filled each Sunday morning.  New churches were also being built, along with new schools, in new suburban neighborhoods that were springing up like daisies throughout America.

Automobile sales were booming, and American automakers commanded 100% of the American market.  “See the USA in a Chevrolet” was the theme-song of our society, unless of course, you drove a Ford or Chrysler or an American Motors Nash Rambler or a Studebaker.  But, whatever brand you drove, American society was quickly adapting to the automobile.  We wanted to drive everywhere, even to church, so churches had to plan for parking as well as sanctuary seats.

This boom brought the golden age of most US denominations, Southern Baptists included.  In the mid-1950s, Southern Baptists launched an ambitious campaign called “A Million More in ’54.”  The idea was to reach 1,000,000 people for Christ through Southern Baptist churches.  While the campaign fell short of its goal of 1,000,000, it did bring several hundred thousand new people into Southern Baptist churches.

Church nurseries were full, children’s programs were conducted several times a week.  My own life mirrors these changes both in society and in Baptist churches.  I was listed on the Cradle Roll before I was born.  When I was born, I was in the Nursery, then moved on to the Beginner, then, Primary, and ultimately Junior departments.  I attended children’s choir on Wednesdays, Sunbeams and then Royal Ambassadors on Wednesday nights, and Training Union on Sunday nights in addition to Sunday School on Sunday mornings.

By the time I got to junior high school, every Baptist church had a youth group and youth ministry was the big thing.  We went on retreats, to church camp, did mission projects, attended Ridgecrest together, and generally our lives revolved around church and school.

Southern Baptists were at their peak by the late 1960s, as were most other denominations.  The canary was happy and well.

The Canary Dies

But then something happened in the 1960s, another era of political and social turmoil.  The kids who grew up in the “Placid 50s,” as the Eisenhower years were called, saw a president named John Kennedy elected in 1960.  Kennedy’s youth — he was 43 when elected — his charm and good looks captivated a nation and its young people.  By the scores, young people volunteered for the Peace Corps, eager to make the world a better place.  They were responding to President Kennedy’s  challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”

That shining moment of American optimism was shattered by the assassin’s bullet.  Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.  Oswald was himself gunned down on the Sunday after the president’s assassination by Jack Ruby.  An idealistic generation saw their President killed, and then saw the nation descend into the social turmoil of the civil rights struggle, the war in Viet Nam, and the shifting of moral values.

When I was in elementary school, no businesses were open on Sunday except restaurants.  Local and state laws, called Blue Laws, actually prevented businesses from opening, and when a few began to open on Sundays, those same blue laws restricted the items that could be sold, and the hours in which they could be sold.

By the time I graduated from high school, the local mall was open on Sunday, along with grocery stores, gas stations, movie theaters, entertainment parks, and clothing stores.  In other words, everything changed.  Sundays were no longer reserved for church, and even Wednesday nights were taken over by school and social activities.  The canary had died, but most of us in churches didn’t notice him lying at the bottom of the cage.

The changing Sunday retail scene would seem mild compared to the summer of love in 1968.  The hippie culture, with its protest in music, clothes, lifestyle and personal morality, hit America right in the stomach.  The phrase “long-haired hippies” was uttered millions of times, if it was spoken once.  All of a sudden, everything that we thought America stood for — God, country, morality, hard work, decency, and religion — was being challenged publicly and often.

The proclamation that “God is dead” rattled American religious institutions to the core.  No longer did you have to go to church to be a respectable, upstanding citizen.  Intellectual doubt dominated the conversation, and increasingly Americans stopped going to church.

Church Attendance Today and Into The Future

We don’t have time for an exhaustive review of what all this means, or a look at each decade and the cultural changes they brought.  But close on the heels of the Viet Nam war came Watergate.  America was losing confidence in her institutions, which included the church.  The sex abuse scandal which surfaced first in the Roman Catholic church, but we now know was present in almost every denomination, further eroded confidence in “organized religion.”

In his groundbreaking book, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization 1800-2000, Callum Brown writes “At the start of the third millenium, we in Britain are in the midst of secularisation.”

He goes on to say, “…what is taking place is not merely the continuing decline of organised Christianity, but the death of the culture which formerly conferred Christian identity upon the British people as a whole.”

In other words, England which had formerly seen itself as a Christian nation, now no longer considered itself as such.  Corresponding to that self-perception, church attendance in England runs about 7%, and is still declining.

Here in the United States, we are on a similar path.  Church attendance that had once been generously estimated at 40% of the population each week, now hovers at about 17% and that is declining as well.

David T. Olson, in his book, The American Church in Crisis, cites current church attendance for all churches in the US at about 17%.  But this figure is on a steady decline that will result in church attendance of a little more than 14% by 2020.  Church attendance is falling at a rate of about 1% every 5 years, but seems to be accelerating as population growth outpaces the growth in number of churches.  At the present rate, it is safe to say that by the year 2050, church attendance in the US will be no better than that in England — less than 7% of the population.

What Exactly is Secularism?

So, what is secularism?  Simply put, secularism is replacing God as the center of all things with man.  Let me give you a Biblical example.

In Genesis 11:1-9, we read this story:

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

This story takes place after the great flood.  After Noah and the ark.  These are the descendants of Noah, who all speak one language.  Apparently, their numbers increased rapidly, and they moved east — some scholars believe to what would become Babylon.  With one language, human progress was uninterrupted.  They began to build a city, and in that city they proposed building a tower — a zigurat probably — that would reach to the heavens. That in itself is a theological statement.  Because if you can reach heaven, you can then control your own eternal destiny.  You become lord of the universe, you become the center of creation.  Man replaces God.  Of course, God was having none of this at the time.  He had just destroyed the earth with water, and had promised never to do that, again.  So, God instead confounded communication — creating multiple languages.  Again, this is as much a theological statement as anything because the people who had been so eloquently talking to each other about creating this zigurat, now could not speak to each other with any understanding.  They were “babbling on” as it were, which is exactly where we get that saying.  God would not be displaced, even with man’s best effort.

The word “secular” itself has its origins in the Latin word “saeculum” which means generation or age.  Secular, then is of this age or generation.  As opposed to that which is “sacred” meaning devoted or holy.

How Did We Get Here?

The seeds of secularism were actually planted long before the 1950s.  According to Paul Hiebert in this book, Transforming Worldviews, secularism that would affect Christianity began innocently enough during the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and the emergence of science as the epitome of reason.

Let me give you an example that illustrates the shift that took place in the world during the Enlightenment period.  If you had looked at a map of the world in the 15th century — the 1400s — you would have seen three ovals arranged like the petals on a flower.  One represented Europe, another Asia, and another Africa.  At the center of the map was Jerusalem — the center of the world.

Of course, we know today that the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia are not shaped like ovals, nor are they arranged like petals on a flower with Jerusalem at the center.  But the map of the 15th century was as more of a theological statement than a precise depiction of continents.  Jerusalem was at the center of the world because Jerusalem was home to the three great religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

It would also be 100 years before Copernicus would publish his theory that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system.  Copernicus was persecuted by the Catholic Church, not because he was a bad scientist, but because his science challenged the theology of the day.

In the 17th century, more scientific development, and the writings of thinkers like Rene Descarte’ who said, “I think, therefore I am” prepared the way for the Enlightenment, which dawned in the 18th century.  The 1700s also brought the French Revolution, and the American revolution, both fought for liberty and individual freedom.

But the real significance of the Enlightenment was that it separated the sacred from the secular.  By the end of the 18th century, maps no longer reflected the theological position of their creators, but looked very much like maps we have today.  Of course, that’s a good thing if you’re planning a trip and need a map to guide you to your destination.  A map with Jerusalem as the center of the world might be interesting from a theological point of view, but it was of little practical use.  A real map, showing the real position of the continents was much better for navigating the real world.

And that is precisely how the Enlightenment came to view religion and all things sacred.  If science could help us discover the “facts,” then religion was only about “faith” and could not be proven.  So, Enlightenment thinkers separated the secular — that which human beings could discover and know — from the sacred — that which could not be proven, and therefore was less reliable.

At first, this was not a problem because even the Enlightenment scientists embraced the idea that behind all the stuff we can know — the science — was a God who started it all.  But it wasn’t long before someone said, “Oh really?  Well, if we can’t prove God exists, then we certainly can’t prove God has anything to do with the real world.”

Scientists began to deal in only the “real” world, leaving the world of faith, miracles, and divine intervention to the church.

What really happened in the Enlightenment was a shift in how we as human beings viewed the universe.  Prior to the Enlightenment, God was thought to be at the center of Creation.  God created everything, and God gave life to everything, and God controlled and sustained everything.  God was at the center of the picture.

But, the Enlightenment replaced God with man.  Man is the one who discovers scientific principles that govern the universe.  Man is the one who has power over nature. Man is the one whose intellect will solve the great mysteries of life.  And, man is the one who will create the world that he wants, rather than settle for the world as it is.  Man replaced God at the center of existence.  That is secularism.

Not only did man replace God at the center of existence, but religion itself was relegated to the personal and private arena.  While we could talk about science publicly and without embarassment, religion was too uncertain to discuss in the public square.  After all, each person could believe as he or she wished now.  Freedom of religion became a hallmark of the many freedoms sought in the pursuit of liberty in the 18th century.

And even though our US Constitution includes in its Bill of Rights the freedom of religion, that freedom was also a freedom from religious belief, if one so chose.  Of course, that is not a bad thing, but it did mark a dramatic shift from the days of the state church and the connection of citizenship and church membership.  If you were born in England, you were also baptized into the Anglican church.  If, after the Reformation, you were born in a province under the control of princes sympathetic to Martin Luther, you were baptized into the Lutheran Church.  The Enlightenment eventually changed all of that, at least in America, so that persons were free to believe or not believe as they chose.

Back To Our Original Question — Why Don’t People Go To Church?

Which brings us back to our original question — Why don’t people go to church, at least in the numbers they used to?

Simply put, our society no longer sees church attendance as necessary to live a good life, or be a good citizen.  Add to that fact, the increasing pluralism of our nation — which we’ll deal with next week — and you have recipe for “choose your own spirituality.”

In this new world in which we live, churches face the following challenges:

  • Churches can no longer count on newcomers to a community seeking out a church to join because that is what is expected.
  • Churches can no longer expect special treatment, protected days on the community calendar, or special status in the community.
  • Churches are increasing viewed as bastions of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and racism in an increasingly pluralistic society.

The secular has replaced the sacred at the center of our lives.  It has been noted that Christians are right back where they started — as a minority in a culture hostile to what we believe and the way in which we live.

What’s the Answer to the Challenge of Secularism?

What is the answer to secularism?  First, let’s consider what the answer is not.

  • The answer to secularism is not to wail and complain that we live in a secular world.  We actually have always lived in a secular world — a world where men put themselves at the center and displaced God from his rightful place.  This isn’t right, but it isn’t new either.
  • More church programs are not the answer either.  Neither are more church pastors, missionaries, bigger budgets, and all the other stuff we have tried for at least the past 250 years with little to no success.

The answer to the challenge of secularism is a living community that acts, believes, and practices the presence of God at its center.  Rather than serving ourselves in church, we must serve others.  Rather than endless debates among ourselves about arcane theological points, the church must turn its attention to the vast world of people outside our doors who do not believe God can or will do anything for them, and who have never seen a community of faith live out its commitment to love God and love others.

More importantly, churches will need to rethink their entire mission and reason for being.  We cannot continue to serve ourselves, build buildings exclusively for our own use, and keep most of our resources to ourselves.

God’s answer to secularism was to send Jesus.  If man sought to displace God from the center of society, the center of God’s creation, then God would step into that creation as a man to demonstrate how mankind was intended to live; to give his life in love for mankind; to defeat mankind’s greatest enemies — sin, death, and the grave; and, to rise victorious proving that God both can and will save us physically and spiritually.

Secularism is nothing new.  It has been with us since Adam and Eve decided to replace God with their own judgment.  But, Jesus’ life puts the lie to this “I am the center of the universe” thinking.  Only as we live Jesus’ life before others will they see any reason to join our churches, sing our songs, or follow our Savior.  The challenge of secularism is met by the body of Christ, resolved to live with Christ as its head, with the Spirit giving it life, laying down its own life for the sake of the world.