Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity is coming this April. As of this week it’s available for pre-order at Amazon.com. Order now, and you’ll receive a copy as soon as it’s released:
Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity is coming this April. As of this week it’s available for pre-order at Amazon.com. Order now, and you’ll receive a copy as soon as it’s released:
There once was a young one and an old one. And there once was a house.
The old one was not so old, but the old one seemed old to the young one. And the old one owned the house. And the young one loved the house.
“Some day this house will be yours,” said the old one to the young one.
Through the years the young one watched the old one work. When the house needed repairs, the old one would repair it. When the house needed painting, the old one painted. When the house needed a new roof, the old one would roof it. The old one was constantly building and trying to make the house even better. It was a big job.
“Can I help?”, the young one would ask.
“No…not until you’re older,” said the old one.
The young one grew older. And the young one watched people building other houses. Sometimes they were allowed to even help others build their own houses. And the young one became very good at building other houses.
One day the young one went back to the old one. “Can I help now?”, they asked.
“No…you don’t know how to do this. Wait your turn.”
And so the young one went out again. They loved that house, and they wanted to do a good job one day, so they decided to learn more. They built new walls, laid new foundations, and raised new buildings.
By now the young one wasn’t so young anymore. And soon the young one was about the same age as the old one had been all those years ago.
One day the not-so-young one came home. “I have learned how to build up this house,” said the young one. “And I know it will one day be mine. Now am I allowed to help?”
“No!,” said the old one. “This is not yet your house.”
And so the not-so-young one went off again. But this time they found their own land, and they laid a new foundation. And they built up good walls, and put on a strong roof, and made it big enough for all who wanted to come inside.
One day the old one was older, and came to find the not-so-young one. “Where have you been?”, the old one asked. “It’s your turn to come and take care of the house!”
And the not-so-young one came back to the house they had loved. But now the walls were falling down, the foundation was sinking in, and the roof had collapsed. And they had loved the house so much that they were heartbroken.
“You have to fix it!” said the old one. “You’ve always known that this would be yours someday!”
And the not-so-young one said sadly, “I’m sorry…but I have my own house. A house that I have built. And I belong there. There’s nothing left for me here anymore.”
The not-so-young one went home. And one day a new young one came to door and asked to learn how to build. And the not-so-young one handed them a hammer and said, “This is not my house. This is your house too…come, learn how to build it with me.”
And the house stood there, generation after generation.
It’s been said that the only thing that never changes is change itself. As much as we want things to stay the same, you can’t step in the same river twice, you can’t stop the hands of time, and you can’t guarantee that what is here today will be here tomorrow.
You hear those things and, if you are anything like me, you might feel a little anxious. I think we as humans like routine. We like knowing that everything we expect will be there. And when something changes, even something small, it shakes us up.
Don’t believe me? How many of you have a Facebook account? Facebook is always making changes to its layout and how to use it, and what happens the morning after they make a new change? Every single time, you log on and everyone is complaining about it, often threatening to never use it again.
But of course, everyone does keep using it. They grudgingly adjust. And then another change happens. And the same outcry happens again. It’s like a fascinating little window into how we don’t like change that plays out every few months on the computer screen. But, it’s important to remember, this isn’t a digital age issue. It’s one that I’m betting has been there since the dawn of time.
It was certainly there back in Jesus day. Today’s story tells us that. Jesus walks into the synagogue and starts teaching and he is already under suspicion because he’s challenging and changing what it means to be a religious authority. He is not an insider. He is not a scribe or a pharisee. He has no formal training. But he walks in and talks like he has authority. So, he’s already a threat to the way things have always been.
At that point a man also walks in who has what Scripture calls an “unclean spirit”, or a demon. He’s agitated and yelling and calling out to Jesus, asking if he has come to destroy the demons. And it should be noted that the man does not seem excited about that possibility.
Jesus says to the demons, “be quiet, and come out of him”. And they do.
And that’s when everyone gets really scared. Because not only does Jesus teach like he has authority, but he can do things, he can create change, that no one has ever seen before. And change, real change, is scary. It’s not just the inconvenience of your Facebook being different when you log in in the morning. It’s the kind of change that takes everything you have known about yourself and who you are and shakes it up.
And Jesus was all about change. He was changing everyones’ understanding of what it meant to worship God. He was changing peoples actual lives, like the man he healed in the synagogue. He was changing everything.
But, more than that, Jesus was the change. Everything about him and his life meant that nothing about us or our lives were, or are, safe from change.
And so this is what I want to say today: following Jesus is not safe. It is not comfortable. And it is not something you can do if you really just want everything to be the same as it has always been. Because being a follower of Jesus means that you and your life are going to be changed. And sometimes, that change is not going to be all that convenient.
Scripture doesn’t tell us what happened to that man Jesus healed that day. All we really know is he had been changed in a profound way. And we know it was for the better. But in that moment, and the ones that followed, do you think he was scared? Do you think that for just a moment he wished that he had never met Jesus? Do you think that he almost wished he could go back to the life he knew, the one where he had learned to live with his demons?
I think he probably did. I say that because all of us have had our demons. All of us have had our battles, and our moments of having to fight them. And all of us, if we have made a decision to overcome those demons, have had to say “I’m ready to be changed, not matter the cost.”
And if you’ve ever done that, my guess is you’ve also had a moment where you’ve said, “Is all this really worth it? Were things really all that bad before?” And maybe you’ve wished, for just a second, that you never had believed change was possible.
Because change is hard. And the harder news is that Jesus is all about change. But the good news is that Jesus is also all about new life, and sometimes we need to let Jesus change us in order to get us there.
For the past few weeks we’ve been going through this sermon series and we’ve been asking “Why are WE here?” Or, “Why are we the church together?” The first week we talked about how we’ve been called here by God. Last week we talked about how we are here to be disciples. And this week we are talking about the next step. We’re talking about how we are here to be changed.
That means, first, each of us individually. Because a big part of the Christian life is about being transformed by the fact that you are a follower of Jesus Christ. That word “follower” is more important than it may sound. Because to be a follower of Christ, you have to actually follow. You can’t just stand still. You have to be willing to move with Christ.
And if you are moving with Christ, following him, then you cannot help but be transformed by who he is. You cannot help but be changed. And sometimes that is going to be wonderful. And sometimes it is going to be staggeringly inconvenient and difficult. And it’s going to happen again and again and again.
And even when you think, “I’ve reached the summit…there’s nothing more God can do with me”, you are going to be changed again. It’s just part of what it means to follow Jesus. But the good news, is that it is that if that transformation really is about, and comes from, Jesus, it is always going to be life giving. It can’t help but be.
So, the first big question is this: are you going to go along for the ride? Are you willing to commit to this journey? And the second big question is what happens when a whole church full of people all make the same decision to really follow Jesus, even if it changes everything for them?
Whatever happens, I know it has happened before, and it will happen again, and the church has and will survive. This church has been here 375 years. And as historic as we are, and as much as we rightly value our history, we have also changed mightily during that time. In it’s fundamental form this is the same church that Rev. John Wheelwright founded in 1638. And yet, we have again and again been transformed by the grace of God.
And we have not just survived. We have thrived. Take a walk down Water Street and look at the names of the former tenants set in stone right there on the sidewalk. They came long after this church came to Exeter, and we are here long after. Why? It’s not because we are better people, or better at managing our finances, or better at taking care of our building. It’s because we are following after something greater than ourselves. And because we are willing be be changed by the one we are following.
Because through the centuries, if this church had not been willing to change because that’s what following Jesus demanded of us, then we wouldn’t be here anymore. We’d just be another historic building on Front Street.
But instead, we and all of our ancestors have been transformed. We’ve continually been transformed from what we were, and into something new. And we haven’t just been transformed from, we have been transformed for. We have been transformed for the work that needs to be done in our world. We have been transformed for Exeter. We have been transformed for each new generation that has heard the Gospel in these pews. And we have been transformed for such a time as this.
Today we have our annual congregational meeting once again. It is one of probably hundreds that this church has had. And, as usual, we have some small changes on our agenda. And we have already made some other changes in the past year. And the good news is that things are going very well.
But put it in perspective. Because how many other times has this church met when the change they were being asked to make didn’t feel so easy, or so clear? Like the time they had to decide whether or not to support a young cause for independence in the colonies? Or the time they had to build yet another new building? Or the time they had to deal with the parish splitting in two? Or the time they decided to work to help abolish slavery in this country? Or the time those two parishes decided to come back together? Or the time they voted to become Open and Affirming?
Those are just a few of the transformations this parish has gone through in nearly four centuries. And each one has been a change from something, and a change for something. And there will be many more.
And our only job as a church is to keep moving. Keep following Jesus. Don’t stop. And when we look back, we will see that he has only changed us for the better, and that he has never failed to give us new life once again.
1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
1:16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.
1:17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
1:18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
1:19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.
1:20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Like Cat was just telling the kids during the children’s sermon, one of my favorite hobbies is fly fishing. In the late spring and summer I’m always trying to sneak away for just an hour to fish. And, even when I don’t catch anything, which is most of the time, I just love being there in the stream, casting each fly out like a hope.
So, I like fishing stories in the Bible, and I take special joy in the fact that most of Jesus’ first followers spent their lives fishing. And that still matters to us today because fishing is a big part of the Gospel stories. So much so, that we even talk about how our job as Christians is to be “fishers of people”.
And all those fishing stories start with this one. One day two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, were out on their boat, casting nets out into the sea. And Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and said to them “follow me”. And they did. They left their nets right there, and they followed.
And then they all walked a little further down the shore and they saw two brothers, James and John, and Jesus did the same thing. And they too left everything behind to follow Jesus. And just like that, Jesus had made a few everyday fishermen four of his twelve disciples. And so all these years later we call this passage “the calling of the disciples”.
Last week we started a new sermon series centered around a big question: Why are WE here? That is, why are all of us, you and I, here together. And the quick answer is that we are here to be the church together. But over the next three weeks I’m going to be talking about three specific reasons we are called here together: to learn, to change, and to love.
So we have this story today, about Jesus and some guys who fish, and you might be wondering “What does that have to do with learning anything?”
The answer, sadly, has little to do with fishing, and more to do with what we call the people who followed Jesus during his ministry: disciples. And it’s important to note that in addition to the twelve disciples we often talk about, there were probably many more, all of whom surrounded Christ. And Scripture again and again uses that word, disciples, to describe them.
Take a minute and think how you understand that word “disciple”. When you hear it do you automatically think “followers of Jesus”? That wouldn’t be surprising. The word has certainly come to take on that meaning. But the reality is that the word has been used for so many others too. In Jesus’ time a lot of religious leaders, and others as well, had a group of disciples. John the Baptist, who was loyal to Jesus from the beginning, even had his own, and they followed him just like the disciples we know who followed Jesus.
Each disciple followed someone attentively because being a disciple, to anyone, had to do with one thing in particular: learning. And they thought the person they were following had something to teach. So much so that the actual word the original New Testament texts, written in Greek, use for disciples is “mathetes”. Now, you don’t need to remember that word, but know that the easiest translation of it is simply this: students, or learners.
Now, I know you all enough to know that this is a community that values learning. We have good schools in our community. We are right next door to the Academy. Many of you are teachers or other kinds of educators. You want educated church leaders. And I would guess that if I asked any of you what you wanted for your children or grandchildren or any other young person in your life, one of the things you would say would be “I want them to get a good education.” Or, “I want them to love learning.”
And that’s a good thing. Because you can’t help but grow when you learn. And when you stop learning, you stop growing. And if we stop learning and growing, then we can’t do any of the work of the church. Learning is the way we prepare to be Christians.
Cat was just talking about this in the children’s sermon. We were showing the children the fishing rod and the flies and the reel and everything else, and we were talking about how before you fish you have to have the tools you need, and you have to learn how to use them. And that’s why a community that teaches you those things, and gives you the tools, makes all the difference.
It’s fitting that we are using my fly fishing gear to demonstrate that, because the first time I tried to learn to fly fish, I didn’t do so well. I like trying to figure things out on my own, and I’d known how to fish with bait most of my life and I thought to myself “how hard can this be”? And so I ended up in a river, slipping on the rocks, not knowing how to tie the knots, getting my line tangled in the tree, and never, ever, catching anything. And after a few months I said to myself “this is boring” and I gave up.
But a few years later, I decided to try again. And this time, I decided that maybe things would go a little more smoothly if I asked someone for help. And so I took some free lessons at the local fly fishing shop. And I asked a lot of questions. And I did a lot of watching. And I even stood on the front lawn with a fly rod casting back and forth, back and forth, until I knew what I was doing. And the next time I went out on a river, everything worked. And I realized I loved it.
Being a Christian is not the same as being someone who fly fishes. It’s much more important than that. But the principle is the same. Being a follower of Jesus is not easy. And it’s hard to do on your own. And it can be so frustrating at times that if you have no one in your life that you can learn from, or ask to help you, you might just feel like throwing up your hands and giving up for good.
But if you want to learn, and if someone is willing to teach, that can change everything.
In the church we sometimes use two words interchangeably: disciples and apostles. This is especially true of the twelve we see Jesus call himself. But those two words don’t mean the same thing. Disciple means student, but apostle means “messenger” or one who is “sent out”. And the Bible doesn’t use the word “apostle” for the twelve until later on because before Jesus set his disciples loose on the world to be his messengers, he first had to teach them. They had to follow him, ask questions, and see how he lived. They had to be disciples. They had to be students of Jesus and his life. Only them could they become the teachers themselves.
Jesus didn’t call them out of the boats and say “now you are fishers of people”, after all. He called them and said “I will make you fishers of people”.
A large part of the Christian life, our life, is doing that same thing: learning to follow Jesus. And, like I said, that’s not easy to do alone. And so that’s one of the things that we in the church have to do well together. We have to learn together, and we have to teach one another.
That’s one reason that when we started searching for a new Minister for Christian Growth, the position Cat now fills, we were very careful to say that Christian Growth programming is not just a concern for our children and youth. We have to do those things well, of course, because we are teaching them what it means to follow Christ and to be the church.
But, for those of us who are adults, we can’t stop learning and growing either. We have to keep encouraging one another as we learn how to follow Jesus, whether we are 19 or 99. The task of learning and growing together should never end, because when it does, so does our commitment to the one who calls us to learn, and grow, with him. It’s like we just stop dead on the path and stop following him. And when that journey ends, so does the church, because the church that will not learn, and will not grow spiritually, is not actually being the church at all.
And so here’s the challenge: how do we all keep being learners and teachers together, here in this church? Cat and I, as your pastoral staff, are always going to work hard to teach, and we are also going to work hard to keep learning and growing in Christ. But, this is more than just the job of those of us who work here everyday. This is the job of everyone here. Each of us is called to learn, to grow, and to teach because it’s the best way to be church together, and for each other.
I’ll close with this story. Last Monday, on Martin Luther King day, I went to see the movie “Selma”. And there is a scene early in the film that moved me. (I’m not giving anything away here, so don’t worry.) In it, Martin Luther King is shown in a moment of despair and uncertainty. And he needs encouragement. And we just see him dialing a phone number written down on a scrap of paper.
A moment later the scene cuts away and Mahalia Jackson, the great Gospel singer, is shown waking up in the middle of the night. And she tells her husband it’s Dr. King on the line, and then Dr. King asks her to “sing it”. And so, with this powerful voice, she begins to sing what was Dr. King’s favorite hymn: “Precious Lord take my hand”. And every lines seems to fit: “I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” “Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on.”
What does that have to do with church? What does that have to do with learning or teaching?
In my mind, everything. Because when we are at a place where we need encouragement, when we are uncertain about what to do next, and when we need guidance, that’s when we need one another. That’s when we need someone we can turn to who can teach us, and remind us, what it is to follow Christ. That’s when we need someone who will call us back, and walk a path of discipleship with us. That’s when we need church. If Dr. King, who probably “got it” when it came to following Christ more than most Christians do, knew he needed it, that says something to me.
And it reminds me that at its core church is about learning who Christ is again and again, and church is about growing each day of our journey. Church is about never stopping on the path self-satisfied. It’s about knowing there’s always something new to learn. And the only way to do church well, the only way to do it at all, is to do church together. Amen.
So, I’m going to ask you a question that is going to sound better suited for a college philosophy course than worship: Why are you here?
I don’t mean in the big, existential sense of why are you alive, or here on earth, or why does any of this exist. I mean in a very simply sense: why are you here at church this morning?
After all, you have other options, you know. You could be home, sleeping in right now. You could be out running errands at the grocery store or doing home repairs. You could be at brunch, sipping coffee and eating Eggs Benedict. You could be in so many places right now other than sitting in the pews at church on a three day weekend. And yet, you are here. Why?
Now, don’t get me wrong…I’m glad you are and no one is asking you to leave. Far from it, because I hope you keep coming. But in this season after Epiphany, this time before Lent when we are still remembering the Light that just came into the world at Christmas, it’s as good a time as any to ask yourself that question: Why am I here?
So, unless choice was taken out of the equation, and your parents brought you here today, take a moment to ask yourself that. Because in an age where no one goes to church simply because “everyone does it” anymore, you choose to come anyway. Something has brought you here today, even if you can’t exactly explain it.
And so I’m going to ask you this question about why you are here a few different ways this morning. But before you answer that, let’s start with the Scriptures.
I normally only preach on one text, but this morning we read two. The first is from the first book of Samuel, and it talks about a young prophet of the same name. He’s been taken to the temple and his life has been dedicated to serving there. And one night it’s growing dark, and he can’t see well, and he starts to fall asleep. And then there’s a voice: “Samuel, Samuel.” He runs to Eli, the priest he works for, but Eli tells him “I didn’t call…go back to bed.” Again, he starts to slip into sleep and hears, “Samuel!” He runs to Eli who tells him, “I didn’t call you this time either.” So he goes back. And then a third time, “Samuel, Samuel.” And this time Eli catches on. And he tells him, if you hear it again, say this, “Speak, God…for your servant is listening.” And God does.
So, that’s the first story. The second comes from the New Testament, and the Gospel of John. In it, Jesus begins to call his disciples. He goes to a man named Philip and he calls to him and says, “follow me”. And he does. And then Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel, and he tells him all about Jesus, and even though Nathaniel doesn’t quite believe it, Philip tells him “come and see”. And he does, and he finds out that everything Philip said was true.
Both stories are about calling. They are about God speaking to people who never expect to be spoken to by God. In Samuel’s case he hears God’s voice directly. In Philip’s he is called directly by Jesus. And in Nathaniel’s, it’s Philip that God uses to call to him.
In the United Church of Christ, the wider church we are a part of, we have a saying. We say, “God is still speaking.” That means that God didn’t just speak to people like Samuel or Philip or thousands of years ago. God speaks to us today. And sometimes our job, as God’s people, is to learn to say, “speak God…for your servant is listening.” And, sometimes, our job is to drop everything when we hear Jesus saying “follow me”. And sometimes, it’s just to repeat God’s call and to tell the ones we love the most, “come and see”.
So this leads me back to the question: Why are you here? First, why are YOU here? We each have our own answer to that question, but I believe each of us is here, in Christian community for a reason. Because just like Samuel, and Philip, and Nathaniel, I believe that God called you. I don’t know how God called you, but I believe God called you.
First, God called you to God’s self. This was not a one time thing. God calls us to God over and over again, and even if we get off the path sometimes, God calls us back to God. You might not hear it the way Samuel did, with a literal voice in the night. You might hear it through the voices of friends. You might hear it in community. You might hear it whispered around you, like a gentle nudge. But however you hear the call, it’s real. And it’s valid. And even if you aren’t so sure what it’s saying, something about it was enough to get you out the door today and here this morning.
And so here’s my next question: Why are you HERE? I don’t just mean here at the Congregational Church in Exeter. I mean here at any church. Because this is the era of “spiritual but not religious”. There are plenty of voices out there telling you that you can connect with God on a hike, or over brunch, or at a party with a bunch of friends.
And I’m not saying that any of those things are false. But I am saying that I don’t think they are enough. Because at the end of the day, the solitary spiritual life is just that: solitary. And I don’t think God calls us out only to leave us alone.
When Christ called Philip, he didn’t leave Philip alone for long. Right away Nathaniel was called too. And then more and more disciples. The church is here today because Christ knew we were better together, and for generations we Christians have discovered the same thing. And something about that appeals to you enough that you are here, in a church.
That’s true for each of us here today. Each of us has come here on our journey, our roads converging together here. And now, as members of this community, we walk the road together. That’s why I am here. That’s why you are here. That’s why each of us is here.
And so here’s the next big question: Why are WE here? Why have we been brought together in this place.
Some of you read in my weekly email on Friday that today we are starting a new, month-long sermon series that will lead us right to the start of Lent by that same name: Why are WE here? And here’s the big question we are asking: What does it mean to be church together?
What we are really asking here is “What’s our purpose? What are we all about?” And to answer that question, sometimes it’s easier to ask the opposite question: What isn’t our purpose?
I have a few thoughts. These are reminders I have to give myself from time to time, because they are easy to default into, but I’ll share them with you because maybe they are helpful. First, the church is not a club. We may have members and membership rolls and a building and all of that, but we aren’t a club. This is a place where we each belong, but remember that this is also a place where anyone who wishes can also belong. There is no exclusivity here.
Second, with all due respect to all the great civic organizations out there, we aren’t one of those either. We can do good works continuously, and we should and must, but at the end of the day if that’s all we do we may as well just pack it in and join together with all the great organizations out there who do good works everyday.
And third, we are not just a place where we are fed, or entertained. Don’t get me wrong. I want us to leave church on Sundays filling spiritually renewed. I want the music to be uplifting, and the sermon to be memorable. But, I want those things to happen because we were worshipping God together. And because we are being prepared so that we can go back into a world that needs people who will lead lives that testify to God’s love.
That’s true of everything we do together. We do not exist for ourselves. We exist for glorifying God, and for loving the world. All the things we do together, worship on Sunday, committee meetings on Wednesday, music rehearsals on Thursday, all of that is important because all of that is part of what it means to be the church, the body of Christ.
And we, you and I and everyone else here, are the church together. Church is not a place we go on Sunday morning. Church is who we are. And we don’t have to be church alone. We are really, truly, better together. And our life together, no matter what comes up, can always be deeply joyful because of that fact.
And so, over the next few weeks, in the course of worship, the most meaningful thing we do together, we will be exploring why we are here. We will be looking at three things that Christ calls us to do together: to learn, to change, and to love. I’m not saying that’s the sum of the Christian life, but those are good places to start. And along the way, I hope you will keep asking yourself the question: Why am I here? And I hope you’ll then ask the bigger question: And what does it mean that I am a part of this “WE” called the Congregational Church in Exeter.
They are big questions, but they are worth asking. And more than anything, they are worth asking together. I’m privileged that my road has intersected with yours, and that we have found each other in this place. And I’m looking forward to asking them together. Amen.
“So, now that we have LGBT equality in the progressive mainline church, what are we going to do now? What’s the next big thing?”
I get asked that question from time to time. The tide seems to have turned in many ways when it comes to the inclusion of LGBT people in the church and in our country as a whole. Doors to ordination are opening, marriages are being blessed, and the church is growing more comfortable with talking openly about sexuality and gender. And so, the question is already being asked by some: What shall we work on next? What big issue does the church need to face?
I have a few thoughts. First, I don’t think the church is anywhere near coming to the end of discussions about full inclusion for LGBT people. Yes, we are far better off than we were ten years ago, and even further from where we were before that, but we aren’t close to being completely inclusive yet. (By the way, we’re not quite done with debates over the role of women or confronting our complicity in racism, either.)
But, for purposes of discussion, let’s just say it is time for the mainline church to start looking for the “next big thing” that will unite us in purpose and divide us in debate. What will it be?
I have some ideas. Caring for the environment is on the top of the list. Responding to immigration and other humanitarian crises is too. So is interfaith understanding. And I don’t think it will be too long until the church seriously begins to discuss economic inequalities. There are a lot of possibilities.
I was thinking about that last week. I was sitting in a discussion talking about my views on why it’s important for progressive ministers to be able to talk about our faith, and about what Christ means to us. I was talking about discipleship, and why it matters for our often progressive church. And I was talking about how we’ve lost so much of our theological heritage, and language of faith. And then the question came, part-curious, part-suspect:
“But what about social justice? Does that not matter to you?”
Like I said, the person who asked didn’t know me. They didn’t know that for the past twenty years I have been openly gay. They didn’t know about the times anonymous anti-gay hate letters showed up in my church’s mailbox during my last call, or about how I’d grown up in a place where being gay could literally get you blown up, or about how Heidi and I had needed to file separate federal tax returns even after we got married.
And they didn’t know about the times my faith had compelled me to take action. They didn’t know about how we had stood in the New York State Capitol for the better part of a week as right-wing Christians protesting against equal marriage had yelled at us that we were going to hell. I’ve gone a few rounds in the social justice arena.
But the person who questioned that? They aren’t alone. So many times when I talk about why the church needs to reclaim discipleship, starting with asking ourselves “who do I believe that Jesus is to me” even my progressive Christian friends look at me sideways. Those of us who see ourselves as progressive evangelicals often find ourselves being told that we are too dogmatic, too conservative, or too focused on what doesn’t matter.
Except, I think it does matter. I think it matters more than we know.
I often worry that the progressive church has begun to define itself not by our affirmations, but by our repudiations. When compared with our more conservative brothers and sisters we are so quick to say “we aren’t like that”. We proclaim “not all Christians believe that way” with ease. But when it comes to talking about what we DO believe, we often find we lack the words.
I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.
I am glad that churches stand up against anti-gay measures. I wish more would. But I want us to talk about why our Christian convictions are compelling us to do so.
I give thanks for every church member that stands and protests against the death penalty, but I want us to be able to talk about what the crucified Christ taught us about the value of human life.
I respect every minister who holds a placard in front of the White House and speaks about climate change, but I wish I heard more about how God created the world and called it good, and why that’s why we can’t be silent.
When I walk into a voting booth, I take my faith with me. When I cast my votes, I do so in accordance with what the Gospel has taught me. I cannot separate the two. And I give thanks for that.
But before I got to this place, I first had to become a disciple. I had to read the Gospel for myself. I had to want to follow the Christ they talked about. And only then could I go about the work of living my faith in the public arena, both in the larger church and in the world.
And so when people ask me what the “next big thing” in the church will be, I tell them this: discipleship.
There are a lot of reasons why the church doesn’t wield the influence we once had in the public sphere, but I think the main one is this: we have forgotten our foundation. We have forgotten what it means to be disciples. And people can see through us.
Few people are interested in joining just another public advocacy group. And those who are can find far more effective ones. The progressive church is not the Democratic Party at Prayer, to borrow a phrase. And if we continue to lose our theological literacy, and our ability to talk about our faith, that’s all we will end up being. Without a bedrock of belief, the whole enterprise of church-based social justice will crumble.
But that doesn’t have to happen.
It’s time for progressive Christians to claim discipleship. It’s time to get radical, not about our politics or our policies, but about our faith. It’s time to stop throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water, and start putting the horse before the cart. It’s time to remember what, and who, we worship. It’s time to develop the language of faith. And it’s time to see our social justice work as a natural product of our discipleship, not something that competes with it for the church’s time.
And only then, when we have gone back to the source and found what ultimately binds us together with God and with one another, can we go out and find the next, next big thing. And whenever that happens, we will be better for it. And we just may find that when it comes to changing the world for the better, the Gospel of Why We Are Different Than Other Christians can’t hold a candle to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday in the church. It’s the Sunday when churches everywhere are filled with the color red, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, and we celebrate a story from the church’s earliest days. On Pentecost we remember how the Holy Spirit came to the early disciples like a “mighty wind” and rested on them with “tongues of fire”. Suddenly they were able to speak in the languages they did not know, and all the people gathered around them in Jerusalem, a host of nations, were able to understand what the disciples were saying.
There’s a tendency in the church to think that everyone is supposed to learn our language. But if you look at the Pentecost story, you find the exact opposite is true. The Holy Spirit could have easily touched everyone around the early disciples so that they could understand the language the disciples spoke. But instead, it was the disciples who were transformed. They were the ones who learned new languages, ones they could use to communicate with people using the words they already knew.
So why does the church sometimes miss the point?
We often talk about how our church is very welcoming, but new members are few and far between. And often it’s true…many churches are extremely good at welcoming visitors who walk through the front doors. But the first place we should be meeting people is not inside our buildings. It’s out where they (and we) live.
The Pentecost story reminds us that witnessing to Christ is not about our own convenience. It’s about being radically transformed by the Holy Spirit so that we can speak the language (literally and metaphorically) of those God wants us to love and serve. Pentecost reminds us that we cannot sit ideally back and wait for people to learn our ways. We have to be the ones who learn new ways.
So how do we do that? Here are some suggestions:
1. Check out your social media presence.
If this seems like a strange place to start, that might be part of your church’s issue. I’ve heard countless people in churches deride what they see as an over-dependence on social media in younger generations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and the like are seen as distractions and barriers to community.
But in reality, social media can be a wonderful way to build community. I don’t believe it can ever replace face-to-face interactions, but it can help to spread your message. If you talk to your Generation X and Millennial parishioners, in fact, you might find that a surprising number of them found your church via social media. The days of looking in a phone book for a church, or even just knowing where a church is located, are over. For many a Google search will be their first stop in their search for a new church.
So make it count. If your church doesn’t have a webpage, you need one now. You can get a domain name for $18 a year and build a page on WordPress, so there is no excuse. And, if you do have a webpage, give it an honest assessment. Is it up-to-date? Are your address and service times clearly displayed? Could a visitor determine whether or not they would be welcome at your church? Is there information about programming and what you believe? Is there contact information? Are there pictures of people and not just the building?
And don’t limit yourself to a webpage. A Facebook “like” page is free and a great way to spread the word about your church. Use the page to post updates, photos, reminders, sermon links, and more. Encourage members to “like” and “share” posts on their page. You’ll be surprised how a post can go viral in no time. When the daughter of one of my current church’s members won a silver medal in the Olympics this winter, for instance, we posted a photo congratulating her. That photo was shared by 72 people and reached over 5,500! It was a wonderful way for our church to share our celebration.
Finally, make sure that you have a “like” page and not a Facebook group for your church. A group is fine for discussion purposes, but it will not reach new people. They are not going to join a group of people they do not know. Instead concentrate on putting out clear information, inspiring links, and warm invitations on your “like” page. Make sure that your social media presence exists more for others than yourself.
2. Get out in your community.
Like I said earlier, you might be the warmest church in the world when people step inside of your doors. But for the vast majority of your community, you are just another building that they have never been inside. As untrue as it sounds to those of us who are churchgoers, church buildings are often seen as private clubhouses. Others might be curious about what is going on inside, but it’s going to take more than a little bit of curiosity to go in. This is especially true of the growing number of us who are younger and did not grow up in the church.
So instead of waiting for others to come to you, go to them. Get involved as a church in the community. Host events like concerts and lectures. Make your building as accessible as possible to local non-profit groups needing a space to meet. Host AA meetings. Welcome community groups. Provide hospitality to outside youth events. And don’t just be a landlord. Be a host. Consider sharing your building as a ministry to the community.
But more importantly, go outside of your doors. Get involved in community celebrations. Serve lemonade and cookies on the lawn if the town’s parade is going by your doors. Sponsor a Little League team. Volunteer at youth events. Go into retirement communities. Work with other congregations. Whatever it is, find out what matters in your community and then figure out a way to contribute. You can’t serve a community that you don’t know and love.
3. Enable your pastor to get out in your community.
The work of representing your church in the community is the work of the whole congregation. It is never just the pastor’s job. But, the reality is that the pastor can be a great ambassador. So, as much as possible you want to make sure they have your blessing to be involved in your community. So don’t keep them locked up in their office! Encourage them to go out in the world.
I am finishing my pastorate in a small community right now. During this time the church has nearly doubled in size. This is not due to me, but I believe it does have a lot to do with our church being more visible in our community. And that has happened in part because my congregation has blessed me by encouraging me to be involved in the community.
For me this has meant being the chaplain of our local fire department, as well as working with Habitat for Humanity, writing an occasional column for our local newspaper, and more. It has also meant holding community “office hours” in a local coffee shop. Once a week I stationed myself at a table for a couple of hours and bought the coffee for anyone who dropped by for a chat. People who had never come through the doors of the church before met me for the first time there. Finally, when a natural disaster came to our community in the form of a flood, the congregation didn’t want me in my office. They wanted me out on the streets talking to people and giving out energy bars and water. (They were there too, by the way.)
Not every church understands this, though. Once when I was in a pastoral search process the search committee ran through their list of questions about how I planned to grow the church. When it came time for me to ask my questions, I led off with what I thought was a softball question: “Do you want a pastor who is going to be actively involved in your community?” The response shocked me. Members hedged their answers, telling me they really weren’t sure. To them the pastor was “theirs” and had enough work to do with current members. It was clear for me this was not the right church for me. But what struck me was that due to their inward focus I was sure it was clear to prospective parishioners that it wasn’t the right church for them either.
Your pastor can be a tremendous gift to your community. Don’t keep them all to yourself.
4. Don’t assume everyone knows your insider language.
So let’s say everything is going right and new people have started coming through your doors. What do you do now?
Well, first, keep doing what you are doing in terms of being hospitable. Welcome people when they walk in the doors. Show them the sanctuary. Invite them to coffee hour. Make them feel at home. But, also, watch the “insider language” and help to translate what might be new.
I did not grow up in the church so when I started attending as a young adult I was keenly aware of what I did not know. Every Sunday we would get to a point in the service where everyone recited a prayer together. I didn’t know it, and I felt like everyone was looking at me as I stood there in silence. It was the Lord’s Prayer, and I had no clue what to say.
I learned it quickly by getting a copy and sitting in the privacy my home and repeating it over and over to myself. I didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore. But I remember that feeling. And so years later, when I heard members of a church talking disdainfully about how visiting younger people didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, it hit me hard.
From then on I have always tried to print the words of the Lord’s Prayer in the bulletin for those who do not know it. The same is true of the Gloria Patri, Doxology, and other “well known” pieces. We should not give up these important parts of our liturgy, but we should be aware that as more people grow up as religious “nones” they are no longer a part of the common language.
Likewise, is your bulletin or worship leader clear about when to stand and when to sit? If you are turning to a certain page, do you announce it? Do you clearly state at the communion table that all are welcome, and let people know whether you are using grape juice or wine (an important consideration for many)? Or are your visitors just left on their own?
It’s important to make worship as accessible as possible. No one wants to feel like an outsider. It’s the surest way of making sure that visitors won’t come back.
5. Be willing to keep being transformed.
Here’s the secret no one wants to tell you about bringing new people into the church: they are going to change everything. I actually think more churches realize this than let on, and I believe that, subconciously, a lot of churches have chosen not to grow as a result.
When new people come to a church they bring with them new stories, new gifts, and new energy. They also bring new needs, new ideas, and new perspectives. And your church will be changed by them. Or else it will not be. And they will leave.
We often think of the church as “our church”. But it has never been “our church” It is Christ’s church. We are just the stewards of the church in this time and place. And when new people are brought into the church, they join us in that role. And even though you may have been their thirty years and they’ve been there one, they are equally important. And that can be frustrating.
There is a tendency to fall back on “we’ve always done it this way” in these situations. Resist that temptation. It’s wonderful to know our history (in fact, I think if we all knew more of it we’d find that we haven’t, in fact, always done it “this way”) but we cannot become a history museum. We must be willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, speaking in new ways through new voices. That’s what being the church is all about.
So when the young families arrive with their kids, let them teach you about what will keep their kids engaged. The old Sunday School models might not work anymore. When young adults come, let them shape their own programs. Maybe they want to meet for a “faith on tap” discussion at the local pub on a Wednesday night rather that for Bible study on Sunday mornings. And when someone brings that new idea to deacons that makes everyone tense up and want to say “but we don’t do that here”, give it a minute. Hear them out. And ask whether God is leading you into the future. It’s scary, but it’s also full of promise.
Most of all, this Pentecost Sunday, pray that the Holy Spirit will teach you to be a Pentecost Church. Open your hearts to the ways the Holy Spirit teaches us new languages. And then, let yourself speak them. Meet others where they are, and learn what God is already doing in them. And then, let yourself be transformed. You just may find that you, and the entire church, will be blessed.