I’ve been asked before whether I hate Christians, which is kind of a funny question to be asked when you’re a pastor. Digging deeper down, I think the genesis of the question was because I have a tendency to speak my mind with a combination of my New York and New England roots.
Growing up in the church, I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of the local church. I’ve seen people who claim the love of Christ but rarely show it. I’ve seen people who have been forgiven for much be stingy in offering forgiveness to others. I’ve seen the hypocrisy that flows freely behind closed doors, a stark contrast from the public face that some wear. And, if I’m totally honest, I’ve probably seen all of these and more in the mirror as much as I’ve seen it in other people.
The place of the local church in society has changed dramatically over the last fifty or sixty years. Once upon a time, the local church, regardless of denomination, was afforded a place of respect within our culture, but things have changed. People have run from God. They generally want him to care when their lives are a mess, even criticizing him and asking where he is in the midst of trials and difficulties. At the same time, when things are going well, they have no issue taking credit for how they’ve made themselves who they are and how far they’ve advance their own causes, giving no credit to God for the blessings they’ve received.
Within the church, it seems that many of us have been licking our wounds and lamenting this fall from grace for the church. How did we get here? Why did we get here? Why can’t things be the way that they used to be? Instead of adapting to this new normal, we’ve allowed panic and fear to drive us to find ways to regain the church’s place in society, mostly by thinking (like Israel) that politics is the way to make that happen, especially if we can just get the “king” (or president) to lead us to glory.
But the place of Christians in our society is not much different than the place of Christians in many of the societies where Paul planted churches in the first century. Corinth. Ephesus. Rome. Colossae. The Roman empire was not a “Christian” culture. Regardless of Constantine’s move centuries later (which I believe instilled a false sense of security into the Church universal), Roman culture was pagan.
Fifty years ago, the place that the church occupied within culture and society in America fostered an “if you build it, they will come” mentality. I call it the “Field of Dreams” mentality. People respected the church and pastors enough that just being there and offering opportunities was enough. You could draw people in with your programs if you made them attractive enough. Even if you made no concerted efforts to reach out to your community, people would inevitably find their way back to the church, right?
But those days are gone, and I can’t say that I lament them at all. As difficult as life can become without certain things at times, using crutches can give us a false sense of security that also removes our reliance on the muscles that we were supposed to be leaning on. But now that the crutches of false security have been removed, we need some major physical therapy in the church to begin to strengthen those muscles that we haven’t been using for so long.
Primarily, those are the muscles of outreach and evangelism. Because those things were so programmatic back in the day, we are dumbfounded in the church to realize that there is no magic formula or secret sauce that allows us to bring people into the church in droves.
Instead, it takes one conversation at a time, one relationship at a time, over a long period of time. It take intentional investment, not a one-time event that we can throw money at in hopes that it will somehow translate into a growth boom in the local church.
But, we just ain’t going out like that. Churches continue to struggle to do this.
I think there are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is our diminished ability to connect and relate well to other people. Our culture will generally respond to crisis, but when the crisis is gone, where do we go? Where do the relationships go?
I’ve seen some messy situations both inside and outside of the church. I’ve only seen few of those engaged by some very brave people who understand the messiness into which they are venturing. It’s not easy. There will be hurt. There will be pain. There will be joy. There will be celebration. There will be life.
Somehow, the Church needs to figure out a way to relate well to the world once again. It’s not done with picket signs and boycotts, it’s done through relationships, especially relationships with those we would consider to be the “other,” people who don’t look like us, act like us, or even think like us. Jesus’ instructions about the greatest commandment were twofold: love God, love your neighbor.
Unfortunately, we’ve diminished our definition of the word “neighbor.” Instead of defining the word from Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, anyone who comes across our path, those who are like us or not, we’ve limited it to those who we enjoy spending time with or who we can tolerate. I can tell you, Samaritans and Jews weren’t particularly chummy back in the day, yet that was the definition that Jesus gave of showing love to a neighbor.
This is a big ship to turn, one that takes time and patience. I’m running out of both. I’ve never been a patient person and when I feel urgency, my patience becomes even more limited.
Ultimately, reaching out to a world in need of hope and in need of a Savior can’t be about building a Christian empire or nation, it needs to be about building a kingdom. But this kingdom isn’t of this world and it certainly doesn’t have values that look like the values of this world either. When we lose sight of what we’re building, we become like those inhabitants of Babel, building a tower for our own glory rather than the glory of God.
I’m on this journey, learning more every day, becoming a little bit more willing to take risks every day. I want to see the Church succeed in her mission, but it’s going to take some momentum and synergy to move things forward. I’m hoping I find some others who are willing to take this ride with me, not for our sake or even the sake of our local church, but for the sake of a King and Kingdom that will reign forever.