Thursday, May 04, 2006

Enter the wild

What will the future of the church in North America be? Will we follow the path so sadly blazed by the church in Europe? Will we become only a footnote in the history that is yet to be written?
How long will it be until local municipalities will be taxing church buildings, and ministry facilities. Consider health care costs that increase and school boards struggling to find additional revenue sources without raising taxes, what will happen to churches in this case. How long until churches no longer have non-profit status? While many of these scenarios may seem off in the distant future, they are not so far off to think we can ignore them. As the church continues to be pushed to the side of the public square, we will have fewer and fewer ways to help shape the cultural conversation of our time. The pressures on the church are not only external, but also internal.
The pressures stressing the church abound. We are increasingly assailed by busy schedules, and demands on our time. We are connected all the time via the web, mobile phones and wireless devices, and yet people are lonely and our communities are increasingly disconnected. I am convinced that in the Body of Christ we have some answers for these pressures on our lives, but do we want to hear what the spirit has to say? In this time of excess activity, the church seems to be offering only more and more activity for an already complex and busy schedule. In many churches activities are divided into age brackets and families are scattered for purpose of ministry. Is the answer to waning church attendance more activity? Do people of faith need more to do? Will increasing our schedules fill the void that is there in our hearts, that whisper that says, “There is more to life than this!”
Yet, many followers of Jesus seem to posses a shallow faith. Walk through just about any store selling Christian books and see how much is, for lack of a better term fluff, more activity and less deepening of our relationship with Christ Jesus. We can observe, in those same stores, the marketing of the faith, copywrited and protected intellectual property of individual members of the Body of Christ, but not the collective property of the body of Christ. Does something seem amiss? What if Matthew, Mark, Luke John or Paul would have protected their intellectual property?
If there is no more than just a quick baptism after a sinners prayer, I do not want to have part of such a faith. I want more, I want the life of the spirit, I want the deep connection with my God, I want the tongues, the flames and full life in Christ. If you are honest with yourself, don’t you want more than just a superficial faith? Don’t you want to be enlivened by the Holy Spirit of God, don’t you want to live that life of faith that burns so brightly that nothing else can stand in its presence. Don’t you want the courage of the martyrs of the early church who faced death and sang to the Lord God praises for being counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. Doesn’t your heart yearn for that wild, uncivilized, undomesticated bliss of a deep and powerful relationship with the Living God?
My heart, that deepest part of me, tells me there is more, that there is something beyond what I have found, that if I am willing to take the next step of faith that God will open to me even more. I suppose that this is the point where I have to be willing to allow the Spirit of God to continue my own transformation, my life being reformed by the hand of God to reflect the life of Jesus. It is also this point where I want to cling to my own agenda, to change the things about me that I want changed, and to keep those things that I like. It is the time when I must cast down more idols, more of my selfish pagan tendencies, like gluttony, lust, avarice, selfishness, pride, vainglory and the rest of those personal idols that keep us from growing into a deeper relationship with the Almighty. There is no real mystery about how to grow in faith. We like to cloak it in mystery because if we don’t know, how can we be responsible for the that transformation that never happened? So, we can contend with God that it was beyond us to understand. God will not allow such a ruse to stop our growth, he calls us to account and will not allow us to hide behind professed ignorance.
The truth is we all know the next step, we are just fearful of what we may have to let go. The next step for each of us is different because we are all in different stages of our growth in faith, however, the primary block to growth is always our own selfishness. This is what I want! Is our creed, but the question we need to be asking is, “What does God want?” “When what does God want?” becomes our creed, our lives will change. And the remarkable thing is that those longings of our hearts will be answered, the desires of our hearts will be achieved not by what we do, but by what God does in us.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

As I reflect on the recent immigration issues facing the United States I realize that there are other immigration issues that are even more pressing. People are leaving the church at a great rate, in my denomination we have lost over thirty percent of our membership in the last thirty years. If you project that kind of loss the denomination is in trouble. Where are these people immigrating to, where are they keeping their citizenship?
One must at some point consider their allegiance, is it to a specific denomination or is it to Christ Jesus and his Kingdom? I realize in my life that I am an Anabaptist with strong Pietistic leanings, while that may not be true for much of my denomination any longer, from my experience many of us have left the Pietism generations ago. Yet, while reading Protestant Spiritual Traditions by Frank Senn I realized just how strongly those pietistic stands of spirituality wound through my life. One of the troubling elements in Pietistic spirituality is for isolation and a distrust of any human institution. This is often balanced by the Anabaptist concern for community. Oddly, I find both of this conflict in much of my private spiritual life. It would be nice if I could blame the drop in denominational membership on a resurgence of pietistic spirituality in my denomination, but is most surely not the case. So, I still need to ask the question, where are those who used to be in church?
An even more pressing question arises as we consider the future. We, as a denomination and a congregation, are unable to rely on biological evangelism (members having children) because the birth rate in North America has dropped, this is true in the church and outside the church. This leaves us with a few options, we wait for new people to just show up at our church doors, which does happen from time to time, or we go and seek out people to be part of our fellowship. However, Evangelism has been a difficult idea for my denomination. At points we suffer from a lack of knowledge, just simply knowing how to go about introducing people to Christ Jesus and his Church. At some points we are fearful, fearful of rejection and the loss of control that can happen when new people come into the mix.
I am increasingly convinced that the greatest problem is shallow faith. We have not been formed by Christ. In this case we are much like illegal immigrants, we have found our way into the Kingdom of God, but we have never become citizens. I do not mean to suggest that people have not had genuine conversion experiences, nor do I doubt that people are committed to what they understand to be Christ and his Church. Admittedly, many people know of Jesus, the scriptures and his church, and we know the word and the motions to the songs, but we don’t really understand the meaning. We are like people reading a language we don’t speak, we can pronounce the words, but we don’t really know what they mean. Thus we have found our way into the kingdom, and we have had some assimilation, but we have missed the meaning.
We have found our way in the door, but still have not been fully integrated into the whole, or better yet, we have not ourselves adjusted to the culture of Christ Jesus and his Kingdom. To put this in other language, we are lacking good Spiritual formation in our churches. Spiritual formation begins before conversion and continues until death, sadly many people look at conversion as the goal, but it is really only the starting point, the point of embarkation for a life changing journey that takes us ultimately to the New Jerusalem. There was a sense that something good was happening with the emphases on discipleship and spiritual disciplines in recent decades. Sadly, much of the focus of the discipleship was really on learning ones way around a particular church of theological system. At the same time there was the renewal of the practice of spiritual disciplines, but sadly, and even from my own experience much of the work went into the disciplines themselves and there was little work toward putting it all together. The disciplines became a an end in and of itself, a skill or behavior to master and then to move on to something else. There seemed to be little work being done to connect the discipline to the goal of being transformed to reflect the image of Christ Jesus. If good spiritual formation does not become part of the life of the modern North American church we will see the church continue to be moved to the side the public square. And this is as it should be, if we have nothing more to offer than superficial Christianity and tepid followers of Jesus, we should be excluded from the conversation because at this point we will only become a tool for whoever is in political power and we will be used by those who can draw us into their camp. Rather than being a source for change and growth in our culture we will be a small party who tags along trying to force our understanding on the nation and the world.
I for one would much rather see us transforming the nation and the world, not through legislation but through spiritual formation. At the end of the day, the best meaning theocratic approach to government will become oppressive and focused on the particulars a few people. I want to see communities transformed, lives changed, families strengthened and hearts drawn to Christ Jesus, but that will only happen if we who are left in the church will be transformed ourselves, and become full citizens of the Kingdom of God, rather than illegal sneaking in to enjoy the benefits of citizenship without going through the process of become men and women of God.