A TIME TO RECONSIDER
The Church in Crisis
We used to show the 'end time' movies to open up new pioneer churches. If you recall there were always scenes where the mainline churches were closed down and boarded up. We are in a time when there are restrictions about gatherings, all gatherings, including church gatherings.
Now would be a great time to think about the church—its purpose and what is supposed to happen both in the church and through the church.
We have come to a time when church attendance is down. This is especially the case in older and mainline denominational churches. We have experienced a time of mega-church growth and expansion that is now on the wane or decrease in numbers. It seems that part of the decline is due to a failure of the church to grasp its identity and purpose. Leading with the Sermon, by Willimon (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2020) sheds some light on the church service and preaching.
Christianity is a revealed religion. That is, God has to reveal himself to a person by the Holy Spirit. Mere words do not accomplish that necessity. The primary means of revelation is certainly words, words that come by the foolishness of preaching. The Christian life is one of hearing and responding to the words, “and God said.”
Jesus chose twelve to be with him and follow him even into the synagogue where he performed a number of miracles. But they were, as far as we know, never set up in a “church service” as we know it. Jesus primary ministry was in his leading them and sending them out to cities and villages of Palestine to preach, heal the sick and cast out demons. Today, convening together is when the church comes together to hear a sermon preached.
Preaching establishes the dynamic we call church. In church we are confronted with the who and to whom that separates us from the world.
"And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons." Mark 3:14-15
Willimon notes that there are three things involved to establish the church today.
First we are convened (come together) to hear from God (Jesus) and be commissioned for service.
Second, we are “sent” to confront the world. We are not sent to be merely participants in the world and its worldview. And we are not convened to hear merely excellent discourses on the world situation or the condition of the church and say an appreciative word about the information.
Third, we are sent to be witnesses throughout the week in the everyday affairs of life.
In the western world we have come to the place where the convening of the church is disconnected from the necessary life of mission during the week. Churches languish when they turn inward upon themselves and make their primary responsibility to love one another. Indeed, we are called to love one another but not morbidly to the exclusion of the people who need Christ. Honey and Help is the order of the day and not the need of the world which is Salt and Light.
It is unlikely that the commission of the church will be heard by any means other than preaching. It is unlikely that the church can find its true identity by any means others than—as Paul says—when we come together as the church. The problem is that much preaching is not leading the congregation to the task of witness. Many, if not most churches have ministers that are good at what they enjoy and what the church enjoys—that is, delivering wonderfully organized and delivered religious discourses. But the task of preaching is for a response that requires courage and commitment. Preaching is to challenge the church to do what it is called to and what must be done to win the world to Christ. Preaching is so the church can hear “the will of God” and be challenged to do it.
Servile Service and Unchecked Empathy
When I was in seminary—rather late in life and ministry—the rage became the idea of the “Servant Leader.” The service a leader is supposed to give is providing direction, encouragement and rebuke, if necessary, until the church becomes the light and witness she is supposed to be in a darkened generation.
Servant leadership was quickly warped to being “servile (from the words meaning a slave)” leadership. That is, the pastor is supposed to cover all the basis and provide all the needs of the congregation. Rather than being a pastor and lead to a courageous life, the idea of a “Servant Leader” became that of pastor was washing all the feet, waxing the cars, fueling the vans, cutting the grass, cleaning the foyer and meeting all the needs and imagined needs of people unwilling to do things they were ought to do.
Everyone is wounded and comes from or lives in dysfunctional relationships and/or circumstances. The exercise of empathy (the practice of identifying emotionally with those in distress—not generally helping them) is supposedly the way to establish a church. Our modern idea is that our wounds are to draw empathy and care to the self. The poor wounded self is to be served by the church.
So lets take a look at what that means:
There is no way for this beloved, caring, internally empathetic organization [the church] to survive if it cannot lay aside its empathy and truthfully to face painful realities, to ask wounded people to step up and join in the mission of the church, and move forward with a purpose larger than mutual care. Churches must go beyond caring empathy to engagement in risky mission. (41)
Empathy fits our idea of who we are (we are just so loving and dripping with the sweetness of honey). It is startlingly easier to empathize than it is to witness to the sinful neighbor and co-worker. That empathy is easier is a no-brainer. It requires no courageous effort or the setting aside of fear. Fear must be set aside to witness of a Nazarene of Middle Eastern origin that was brutally killed at a young age, wrote nothing, built nothing, had an unceremonious burial and unexpectedly rose from the dead nearly 2000 years ago.
Anyone who preaches on the real issues of sin, adultery, perversion, abuse, racism and the need for sanctification understand the fear of being accused that we are being insensitive and a bore. Nonetheless, David and Bathsheba—and the consequences—are in the Bible along with a number of other sordid stories. One preacher hesitatingly preached on the subject of abuse out of the David/Bathsheba text. He was surprised when in the next week four women made appointments to see him. They wanted to tell their story of abuse and pain. One of them made the comment that after being abused and mishandled by men she spent years in therapy. She said, “To have those words bounce off the walls of this church, to have this subject laid upon the altar, has been most therapeutically helpful.”
Jesus, it is likely, cares more about serving the truth than being a servile (a domestic servant or slave) 'do-gooder' trying to win the affection and adoration of a congregation. Some years ago my wife did a “Changing Seasons Seminar” for women along with a doctor friend. The doctor laid out the truth about abortion in the medical terms and my wife the issues of personal spirituality. Out of that, several women, from various congregations, came to realize a truth about their circumstance and came to an altar for God’s grace.
The church is not a self-serving entity. Nor is it confined to a building. It is God’s gift to the world. We are in a crisis and unable to have church as we desire. The churches mission, however, remains the same. It is in crisis that testimony becomes powerful as a tool to get the gospel—the good news—to the hearts and minds of the world.