“The Church needs to be more relevant!” ”If you want to attract a new generation, you’ve got to be relevant!” “The Church has lost touch with people, it needs to be more relevant!”
These are some of the generic statements one might hear at most any leadership training, group forum, or casual conversation among clergy. The consensus seems to be that church decline is largely due to an “out of touchness” that marks the Church these days. And the solution seems to be that if we have any hope of be in ministry with those currently outside of church, then we’d better get cracking on finding ways to be more relevant.
If the church is going to survive, then we better stop looking so much like church, and start being something more relevant.
So what are some possible solutions?
What about music? Yes, we need more relevant music. People don’t want to hear boring hymns played on pipe organs anymore. And make it happy music. No depressing stuff. That’s a good place to start!
What about church structure? Yes, we need a church structure that understands people lead very busy and mobile lives. You can’t expect people to be at worship every Sunday anymore. We need services on days other than Sundays. And we need to be able to reach people where they are even if that’s not in person on a Sunday morning. Good idea!
What about trying to meet the needs of modern people? Yes, we need to give people biblical principles for the issues they face everyday. Tell them what the Bible says about a topic. We don’t need to worry with teaching people how to read the Bible in such a way that might change them — no time for that; too many other tasks to accomplish. Excellent idea!
Now I’m writing a little tongue-in-cheek here. Believe me, on our very best days we can be the Church in very relevant ways for all people — those inside and outside of our walls. But some days it’s a good thing to be the Church in such a ways that appear odd.
Yesterday we celebrated All Saints Day. It’s an annual occasion for the Church that is observed on the 1st Sunday in November. And maybe it was somewhere between the singing of For All the Saints and the reading of the names of those in our congregation who died this past year that it occurred to me just how odd our worship service was. For church people it might have felt normal. But for those worried about being “relevant,” it was very strange.
You see, the “relevant” thing to do is live for today. It’s relevant to live by the motto Carpe Diem (“Seize the Day”). We’re not guaranteed tomorrow so today is all we have. It’s also relevant to put the past behind us. No one likes to live in the past. It’s good to move on with life. Remembering the past has a way of sucking the fun out of the present. It’s also relevant to think we can avoid death at any cost. Surely there’s a pill we can take, a diet we can try, a deal we can make to ensure we’ll live forever. Death is definitely not a relevant topic.
And yet on this day every year the Church gathers to be as irrelevant as we can be. We claim that remembering the past is a major part of what it means to be Christian. We talk about today, but only in terms of how our past and futures informs it. No one is “seizing the day” because Christ did that in his death and resurrection. On All Saints Day we remember we are powerless in the face of death but for the grace and resurrection power of God. And we sing sad songs that remind us of our loss but also affirm us of a hope that’s greater than our loss. Once a year we gather as a community, open old wounds, remember the past, and sing about a triumphant future when God will wipe away all tears and we feast at heavenly banquets together. Surely none of these would be classified as “relevant.”
To be this irrelevant, you have to get up early on Sunday mornings, get dressed, and go find a place that dares to occasionally be irrelevant by singing strange songs, doing weird actions like sitting and standing and bowing, and hear strange messages about death and life that you can’t find anywhere else in the “relevant” world.
To be this irrelevant, you’ve got to go find, well, a church.
For All the Saints
- For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
- Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
- Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
- Alleluia, Alleluia!
- Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
- Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
- Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
- Alleluia, Alleluia!
- O blest communion, fellowship divine!
- We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
- All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
- Alleluia, Alleluia!
- O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
- Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
- And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
- Alleluia, Alleluia!
- And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
- Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
- And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
- Alleluia, Alleluia!
- The golden evening brightens in the west;
- Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
- Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
- Alleluia, Alleluia!
- But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
- The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
- The King of glory passes on His way.
- Alleluia, Alleluia!
- From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
- Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
- And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
- Alleluia, Alleluia!
This is the “meat” of a column published in The Macon Telegraph this past Saturday. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a response to a column in the Saturday paper in 2 years of writing for the publication. I’ve gathered a few of these from other lists like this outstanding list published in Relevant Magazine. I’ve also added some of my own. If you can think of more, feel free to add some of your own. If you want to critique any of these, feel free to voice your opinion — just know that I reserve the right to delete comments that become un-Christian.
Ten Things Christians Need to Remember About This Election Season
1. People in both political parties go to church. God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. No political party has a monopoly on the will of God and there are good, Christian people who affiliate with both parties.
2. Talk radio and cable “news” only want ratings — it’s about the money. Remember, we live in a time where news stations would rather incite than inform the electorate if it means better ratings.
3. Those who argue about politics don’t love their country more than others. Our passion for issues comes out of a deep and abiding love for country. Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they somehow hate the country.
4. Thinking a party’s platform is not flawed is a mistake. A lot of wheeling and dealing goes into forming a party’s platform. Compromises are made and it quickly becomes a document for a large group of constituents. This means it attempts to please everyone in one way or another. Think of it as more of a work-in progress.
5. Scripture tells us to pray for governing leaders (2 Timothy 2: 1-4) and to respect those in authority (Romans 13: 1-7) — whether we voted for them or not. When we mock or denigrate current or future leaders, the Holy Spirit is grieved. Christians are called to offer a witness to the world that rises above name-calling and insults. Period.
6. Don’t be paranoid. America has functioned and even thrived under both Democrat and Republican leadership. God is the only one truly in charge. Great leaders come in all shapes and sizes. We will not fall apart as a nation as a result of a single election.
7. Stop saying, “This is the most important election in our history.” We’re not nearly as unique as we might want to think we are. There will be another election and another one after that. We’re all striving to grow and become a better nation with every election.
8. Don’t spread those toxic political e-mails. Be the one to stop the circulation of propaganda-driven materials. Lovingly ask friends to stop sending them to you and be a witness for civility.
9. Don’t circulate partisan materials at your church. Encouraging people to vote is good. Telling them who to vote for from the pulpit or any other sacred space is not why the church exists.
10. Hold a prayer service the day after Election Day. With Election Day on a Tuesday, this could be a great way to use your weekly Wednesday time at church. Hold a service of prayer. Open your church all day for people to drop in and pray. Distribute liturgy and prayers for our nation and encourage people to make that a part of their day. We are the church, and that means we’re a people called to prayer.
I guess I can’t really help it, but every four years I follow political races like they’re sporting events. Now you must know that my interest comes from the fact that my background was in political science. Before I was called into the ministry, I majored in political science in undergrad and planned to go to law school. My great hope was to work in politics or cover politics as a journalist. So I admit that I can be a bit of a political junkie at times.
There is, however, a darker side to the sport of politics. We’ve all seen it at some time or another. Political elections just have a special way of bringing out the absolute worst in us. The commercials invade our televisions and over time whip us up into a frenzy. Cable news networks are counting on the fact that we’re looking to raise our blood pressure a few ticks so they specialize in offering heated debate – sometimes based in facts and other times not so much. Social media doesn’t help either. Friends can share articles and commentary from all sorts of hateful sources. It’s hard to get away from the constant barrage of political noise.
Before long we can’t help but reflect this negative spirit. Christians can probably tell horror stories of Bible studies and small group meetings that run amok whenever a political discussion begins. Before you know it, the lesson gets dissolved into a full blown argument.
As much as I enjoy the strategy of politics, I’m reminded that it’s also the source of terrible division among folks who are supposed to be brothers and sisters in Christ. When you find yourself in the throws of the political season, it can be hard to remember that Christ calls us to love each other – even those who vote differently than we do. As the church, we must try to find ways to be witnesses of this love and grace. The church’s job is to pray for the world and work to transform it as we ourselves are transformed into the very likeness of Christ. This can be really tough when we’re passionate about politics at the same time. But it’s possible.
Here are a few simple (and profound) ways to embody the love of Christ during these final two months of the campaign season:
Be an ambassador for peace and reconciliation. Cable news networks will only try to raise our blood pressure between now and November. Remember that folks will need to hear a healing word of hope – a reminder that no matter who is elected to office, God is still God and the hope of Jesus Christ is eternal. Most importantly, remember that after Election Day, we will still be the church. Whether you have political allies or enemies on the other side of the pew on Sundays should not matter in the light of the fact that we remain brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you stop by this blog often, you’ll remember that I wrote a post last week advocating the idea that in order to form a culture of discipleship in the local church, we should preach and teach our baptismal vows instead of relying solely on our membership vows to the job. I got a lot of great feedback through a number of forums including the comment section on this blog, Facebook, and Twitter. In fact, there was so much mixed feedback I feel the need to come back with a follow up post on the topic.
Baptismal Vows and Membership Vows: A Review
Our Baptismal Vows are as follows:
1. Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
2. Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
3. Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
**According to the grace given you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world? [More on this one later...]
And our Membership Vows:
As members of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries? [Membership Vows for the UMC]
Will you participate in the ministries of this church with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness? [Membership Vows for the local congregation]
Addressing the Criticism
I had a number of people question the necessity of rooting a ministry of discipleship in our baptismal vows. One of the common responses went something like this: “If people actually their vows of membership seriously, then we wouldn’t have a discipleship problem.”
I’d like to address that comment with some follow up thoughts…
First, I should remind readers that in order to make the case for the importance of baptismal vows I had to argue they were at least as important if not more important than our membership vows. By no means do I think we should do away with the vows of membership to the local church. This is not an either/or sort of thing. I’m simply saying that our current culture has not done an adequate job of forming disciples when we’re talking only about what it means to be a member in a local church. Doubling down on a system that’s already proven to yield a low capacity for discipleship doesn’t make sense. Adding an emphasis on baptismal vows as the basis for discipleship only enhances one’s life as a church member.
Secondly, membership vows alone are not enough to form Wesleyan disciples. If we’re honest with ourselves we know that we can be 100% active in our local church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness and remain nominally Christian. “Participating in the ministries of the church” is a far cry from the language of Wesleyan holiness. Agreeing to pray, be actively engaged in a local church, give of our financial gifts, and encouraging others to do likewise is not on the same level as renouncing and repenting of sin, accepting the grace to reject evil and injustice, and confessing Jesus as Lord. That doesn’t make membership vows something to scoff at. But it does remind us that are active members of a local church because we are first baptized into God’s mighty acts of salvation. The accountability we hold one another to should include whether or not we participate in the transformative ministries of our local church but it should not end there. Accountable discipleship asks whether or not we’re growing in grace, moving on towards perfection, and becoming more and more holy. Wesleyan disciples are active church members as a result of this journey towards entire sanctification.
This is precisely what it means to ”remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”
A (Short) Personal Testimony
My daughter was baptized today during our 11:00 worship service. I had the great pleasure of not robing up as a preacher because it was more important I be a dad today. As my wife and I stood next to the font holding our daughter, I thought about the water inside and the precious life in my arms. Our senior pastor asked us — in front of about 350+ members of our local church family — the questions of baptism I wrote above. It occurred to me this was probably the first time since my confirmation that I had renewed my baptismal vows. So there I stood, before God and a full congregation as both pastor and dad, and I tried to answer each question in as best as I could — slowly and intentionally because I was not only answering for myself but also as a promise to raise my daughter likewise.
For me, discipleship must include a continual reminder of these vows of baptism because I refuse to set the bar so low as to let my daughter think that as long as she’s active in a local church everything is okay. I answered those questions knowing that one day she’ll answer them for herself. When that day comes I hope she knows that should not be the last time she hears those questions. Through the ups and downs of her life, I hope those questions echo in her ears just like I hope the waters of her baptism keep her feet a little damp no matter where she goes. If her baptism is to mean anything, it ought to mean that by God’s unfailing grace she’ll live into a life that seeks to model these vows. And in doing so, I hope she knows that also means she must be active and faithful to a local church. But that faithfulness comes out of the fact that on a day she can’t personally remember, her mom and dad stood before a group of folks and declared that, by grace, she would raised as a disciple of Jesus Christ come hell or high water. If even and ounce of that comes true two things will happen: First, she’ll know that grace alone is responsible; and secondly, there will be no question at all over if she’ll be active in a local church — by grace, that will come as a natural result.
This will be the final piece in my series on Kenda Creasy Dean’s fantastic book, Almost Christian. I cannot say enough that all church people — clergy and lay people alike — need to read this book. Suggest it as a small group or Sunday School study. But read this book and talk about it together!
Let’s begin with a sobering quote:
“Since the 17th Century more and more people havediscovered, originally to their surprise, they could ignore God and the church and yet be none the worse for it.”
– David Bosch
The simple truth of our struggle in the church is that we do not teach and model for people how faith is a matter of life and death. I know how extreme that reads, so let me explain myself a bit. The life and death I’m talking about is not necessarily heaven and hell (although it could apply as well). I’m discussing the potential for life we have right now and the fact that we’re all guilty of choosing the comfort and security of things to the contrary. As Americans, we’re consumed with the narrative of success. We’re taught (as Dean notes we then teach our youth) that faith is vital insofar as it helps them get further in life. Faith and church become utilitarian tools to give you a good life. God helps you when you are in need. Church makes you a better person. Attending youth group will look good on a college resume. Come on down! Dean reminds those of us in the church when it comes to thin and immature Christianity, teenagers are not the problem — the church is the problem. And more importantly, the church also has the solution.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is in the DNA of our congregations. We have to admit it and confess it as sin. And yet, as Dean confesses, I too have a certain sympathy for Christians who default to MTD as a way of faith. Somehow it’s become less combative than the religious bigotry that can make the gospel seem like anything but good news. I confess it’s easier to turn to this way of being a Christian whenever I turn on the news and they choose to profile Christianity through the close-minded, hateful, and bigoted voices disguising themselves as Christian pastors and leaders. I don’t blame folks for not wanting any part of that ballgame.
Making Faith Too Easy
So many of our churches set the bar low for faith commitment. When someone joins our church we ask them to affirm vows of membership to the local congregation — “Will you be loyal to this community?” But how often do we ask members, new or veteran, to reaffirm their baptismal vows — “Will you be loyal to Christ and affirm your willingness to die to self?” There’s a lot of baggage attached to the later option so we stick with the former in an effort not to not scare people off. Yet in an age of church shopping, we tend to encourage the heart of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism when we simply ask someone to be loyal to the local church. That “heart” is thinking faith is about us and not God or God’s continuing work of salvation for the world.
Are Young Folks Really Religious Relativists?
Dean makes an interesting point towards the end of her book:
“It may be that young people are not the religious relativists we make them out to be (i.e. you can believe what you want because everything is equal in the end). It may simply be that Christianity — or what passes for Christianity, as teenagers practice it — does not merit a primary commitment.” [p. 193]
Dean reminds us that teenagers are correct to give little priority to the gospel if it means some people are more welcome before God than others. If that’s the case, this fake-gospel should be rejected. The uniqueness of Jesus is precisely why the church cannot be an exclusive club. And the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is precisely the act of God that allows for every human being to equally stand before God.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
Kenda Creasy Dean wraps her book up with 5 major points to take away:
To a large extent, we in the church can affect the degree to which our congregations choose to imitate Christ. It’s up to us to be Christ’s witnesses of generosity, hospitality, and sacrifice. It’s also our choice when we practice a self-centered version of faith that avoids risks in favor of self-fulfillment. There are, in fact, traditions (like the Mormons for example) succeeding in forming youth in meaningful ways to that tradition.
Faith formation for young people is a part of the legacy of communities that invest time, energy, and love into their youth. And it’s a sign of the religious faith of the adults present insofar as it inspires the children being formed. The culture of our churches should be geared towards one of formation, first and foremost.
Every faith community should have in its DNA a particular vision of God expressed in word and deed through the life of the community. The life of the community should speak to the personal and powerful nature of God, the significance of the faith community for formation, the centrality of Christian calling and service, and the hope that the life of the community is a part of the larger story of God’s salvation for the world.
Quite simply, any Christian community that doesn’t teach the love of Christ is a love worthy dying for isn’t teaching about Christ. As the church, we don’t have to be narrow-minded religious zealots intent on brain-washing young prototypes of ourselves. We also don’t have to teach kids that it’s okay to “live and let live” when it comes to choosing their faith. Children and youth are formed in the very image of those teaching and leading them. Faith is vital to life itself and we can model and teach a faith that both forms and allows youth to hear their own unique calling of discipleship.
This is a big one for United Methodist congregations. A God-shaped mission is bent on the redemption of the world and not just the church. Don’t be mislead into thinking that once we redeem the church the world will magically follow. While church renewal is important we need to hear the temptation that a mission of church renewal can quickly become a mission of serving ourselves and our own ideals. This is a symptom of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The single most important task of the church to cultivate a missional imagination in our children and adults is to reclaim our call to follow Christ into the world as witnesses of God’s self-giving love.
I wanted Kenda Creasy Dean to have the final words on this series because her work has been so influential on me through this book. Besides that, she’s a fantastic writer and she can end this series better than I could:
My role in the faith journeys of young people is embarrassingly small: naming a God-sighting here, inviting them to pray or serve there. Mostly what I do is show up, and get to know them, and respond to them as the incredibly creatures God made them to be, while trying to be a faithful Christian adult alongside them.
…teenagers are still discovering that every one of them are an amazing child of God. Their humanity is embedded in their souls as well as their DNA. Their family is the church, their vocation is a grateful response for the chance to participate int he divine plan of salvation, their hope lies in the fact Christ has claimed them, and secured a future for them. If we, the church, lived alongside young people as though this were true — if we lived alongside anybody as though this were true — we would be the community Christ calls us to be. That would be more than enough. [p. 197]
“A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save” – C.S. Lewis [quoted on p. 25]
Trying to Be Relevant in a Culture of “Whatever-ism”
Dean reports an interesting indictment of the Church when she quotes the NSYR study where it says, “Most religious communities’ central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers’ benign ‘whatever-ism’” (p.28). It seems as though a good number of American teenagers will attend church, participate in youth ministries, and maybe even go to Sunday School. What teenagers lack, this report shows, is a depth of knowledge of orthodox Christian doctrine and how that doctrine translates into religious practices. Further, teenagers by and large lack a basic working Christian language. It seems as though we’re doing a decent job of putting our kids into formative classes and activities but we’re not teaching them the faith language that would form them into new people.
Maybe problem comes from a compulsion the Church seems to have in striving to be relevant? We spend so much time wanting to relate to others in terms of the language of the larger culture (a good thing at times) that we forget our own unique language in the process. Transformation cannot happen unless new language is taught and learned. Otherwise the church remains little more than just another extension of the larger culture.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a specific divine mission in the world. This false Christianity seeks to give us good self-esteem and solve all of our temporal problems. As Dean notes,
“It is a self-emolliating spirituality; its thrust is personal happiness and helping people treat each other nicely.” [p. 29]
Why is it that many teenagers practice such a watered-down form of spirituality? Frankly, they do it because this is what we’ve taught them in church. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes no claim to change lives. It’s built on a low commitment system where the highest ideals are to “make me happy” or “meet my needs.” This is very different from a faith that seeks to bend people’s lives into patterns of love and obedience to God through formative teaching and practice.
Relevance is an unattainable goal. It’s a goal concerned with the church accommodating society in order to keep a foothold in the culture. We should always be skeptical and question those who would push us to “be more relevant.” More times than not, it’s a quest that’s more misguided than we might think. As Dean observes,
“The church’s accommodating impulse does not stem from God’s call to us to share our lives with the stranger or to share God’s love with others. Instead, it grows our of our need as a church to be liked and approved.” [p. 34]
The Difference Between Nice and Holy
I’m not here to say that we shouldn’t teach our kids to be nice. In fact, we adults could use refresher courses on being nice. But I am saying as strongly as I can that “being nice” is not the ultimate purpose of being a follower of Jesus Christ. Religion has become the great umbrella we go to hide from the world under. Religion in America is built much more on a sense of loyalty and allegiance through personal choice than it is on identity and relationship. If our culture is built on a consumer mindset that we can get what we want through personal choice in the marketplace, then it’s no wonder that a growing number of people are finding religion to be unimportant. Religion built on a sense of identity doesn’t care much for personal choice — mainly because God chose us before we choose God. My favorite brand cannot claim my life at this level because I can always shop for a new brand. But a faith built on the idea that we know ourselves to belong to the One who made us and who loves us too much to lose us claims our lives in ways Apple or Nike never will.
Let’s consult our author one more time:
“Perhaps young people lack robust Christian identities because churches offer such a stripped-down version of Christianity that it no longer poses a viable alternative to imposter spiritualities like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. If teenagers lack an articulate faith, maybe it is because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation. Maybe teenagers’ inability to talk about religion is not because the church inspires a faith too deep for words, but because the God-story that we tell is too vapid to merit more than a superficial vocabulary.” [p. 36]
I believe the great sin we need to identify and confess is that we as a Church have lost a sense of missional imagination. We’ve grown accustomed to believing that we’re here for ourselves. This in turn causes self-centered spirituality to grow and spread like a weed in a garden. We confuse Christianity with self-preservation — a sense of building ourselves and our buildings and our institutions up. And we forget that the witness of Jesus was one of self-giving — the call of disciples to lay down their lives, take up a cross, and follow the self-giving One wherever he may go.
Holiness is a word that implies justice, kindness, and humility before God (Micah 6:8). Dean reminds us this is what we mean when we say sanctification – a life conformed to the self-giving love of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who came into the world to save (and not condemn) it. A call to holiness is much deeper than a call to just be nice. Holiness requires everything we are and it forces us to live in a community where the common pursuit is how to be holy in such a complex world.
The good news is not all teenagers belong to this cult of benign niceness. Many are committed Christians actively living our their faith daily. But these are set apart from their contemporaries by 4 main religious characteristics: a creed to believe, a community to belong to, a call to live out, and a hope to hold onto.
So ask yourself this simple question: When was the last time you heard these four things together at church?
When was the last time you heard of a real hope — one that’s more concerned with transformative faith than trying to simply put “biblical principles” on life’s problems? When was the last time you were invited into a community that breaks line of family, gender, or maybe even race in order to form the Body of Christ? When was the last time you were told you had a specific call on your life from the very One who created you? And when was the last time you heard words of hope that defies the logic of our self-centered worldviews?
Needless to say, this book is amazing!…