As our text indicates, even when the church is doing something right, it can be seen as something else—and thus it suffers.
A priest and a pastor were standing by the side of the road holding up a sign for passing cars that read, “The End Is Near! Turn yourself around before it’s too late!”
The first driver sped by and yelled, “Leave me alone you religious nuts!”
From around the curve they heard screeching tires and a big splash. One clergyman said to the other “Do you think we should change the sign to just say, ‘Bridge Out Ahead’?”
Today we celebrate the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the church. And on the day of Pentecost, the church began to share a message—a message, in a sense, about the old bridge being out, but pointing the way to a glorious new bridge in Jesus Christ.
The familiar Acts 2 Pentecost story tells us how the apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” And using a variety of tongues, the Apostles started to talk publicly about “God’s deeds of power.” And Peter, who had denied Jesus just a few weeks earlier, raised his voice and boldly proclaimed “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
On Pentecost, through the Holy Spirit, the church changed its sign to speak of God’s deeds of power and about the salvation offered by Jesus. Then, as now, such a message has the power to change lives for the better. But it appears we are losing our voice.
New York Times religion writer Jonathan Merritt reports that it’s getting harder and harder to talk about God. Although more than 70 percent of the United States identify as Christian, most don’t speak about faith.
According to a recent Barna survey, more than three-quarters of Americans do not often have spiritual or religious conversations. A meager 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly. Seven percent. What if only 7 percent of the apostles had spoken up? The day of Pentecost might have been a dud.
Researchers are not surprised at these findings, noting the survey included a cross-section of both churchgoers and others. But here’s the real shocker: Practicing Christians who attend church regularly don’t do much better than the general population. Only 13 percent of these people have a spiritual conversation about once a week.
Why do we struggle so badly with these kind of conversations?
Jonathan Merritt has a theory, saying, “Work often takes precedence over worship, social lives are prioritized over spiritual disciplines, and most people save their Sunday-best clothing for Monday through Friday.”
The Barna survey reveals many people believe spiritual conversations create tension or arguments, and some are concerned by the trend to politicize religion. Some people of faith don’t initiate conversation because they don’t want to “appear religious, sound weird, or seem extremist.”
Now granted, it can be tricky to have conversations of faith and religion in our society today. But if our faith is important to us, we should find a way to do it.
The Apostle Paul knew spiritual conversations could create tensions and arguments, and he was aware Christians could come across as weird and extremist. So the language he uses is very carefully chosen. And today we can get guidance from Paul as to how we can have faith-filled conversations.
Pastor J.R. Briggs says, “If you ask someone with no church experience what it means to ‘feel called’ they might think you’re referring to the phone vibrating in their pocket.”
Briggs admits that though he has been a pastor for more than 15 years, he still doesn’t know what people mean when they say goodbye with the words, “Be blessed.” He is also aware that phrases from Scripture can be confusing, such as being healed “by the blood of the Lamb” and giving your “tithes and offerings.”
Briggs says, “These are religious jargon that can be mystifying to people outside the church. This might simply be a matter of knowing our audience. Its fine to talk about being washed ‘in the blood of the Lamb’ with someone who knows the Bible, but try explaining our sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus to a neighbor who hasn’t been to church in decades. Maybe not a good idea.”
Fortunately, Paul doesn’t make such mistakes in his God talk to the Romans. Not only is he careful with the language he uses, but he intentionally talks about values, rather than dogma. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” writes Paul, meaning, we are actively engaging our children of God status when we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit of God.
The Spirit leads us away from self-centered living and toward God-centered living. We want God to shape our actions, attitudes and values.
Later in Romans, Paul says, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:9-13).
Love, mutual affection, honor, zeal, hope, perseverance and hospitality— these words are not confusing jargon, and all are the kind of God talk that can be spoken and understood by anyone, inside or outside the church. All are marks of a true Christian, seen in the life of a person who is led by the Spirit of God.
Most people are open to, and willing to share what they value and what they deem important in life. Dogma can come later.
“Polls Indicate Church Membership in U.S. plummets over past 20 years.”
This was a recent headline for an article by AP National Writer David Crary. I didn’t want to read it, because it was just going to be one more in a long string of similar articles about church membership I have read over the years, but I clicked anyway. And I was right. Just more bad news.
“The percentage of U.S. adults who belong to a church or other religious institutions has plunged by 20 percentage points over the past decades, hitting a low of 50% last year, according to a new Gallup poll.”
The article went on with more dismal statistics, but then upped its game and shared yet another dismal perspective: “The overall decline in church membership is driven by cultural and generational factors, said Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University. Culturally, we are seeing significant erosion in the trust people have for institutions in general and churches in particular,’ said Ammerman. ‘We are also seeing a generational shift as the ‘joiner’ older generation dies off and a generation of non-joiners comes on the scene.”
So…basically…the church is dying.
Like I said, bad news. But hang with me.
Gallop poll analyst Jeffery Jones is quoted saying, “The challenge is clear for churches, which depend on loyal and active members to keep them open and thriving. How do they find ways to convince some of the unaffiliated religious adults in society to make a commitment to a particular house of worship of their chosen faith?”
How, indeed. It’s a fair question. But, I think, it’s the wrong question—at least for the church. The challenge for us a church, and us the church, is clear. But it’s not the “clear challenge” Jones states.
Our challenge is not to “convince” anyone to make any kind of “commitment” to a “particular house of worship of their chosen faith.” Our challenge, rather, is to invite everyone to have an encounter with the Creator of the universe and the Savior of us all.
That’s it. That’s how.
And sure, that can happen at a house of worship. But it can happen in the grocery store, at work, school—literally anywhere.
After that, like the Apostles at the first Pentecost, we let the Holy Spirit do its work.
We can literally say, “Hey, do you want to come check out my church? The preaching is mediocre, but we have a lot of great stuff going on.” And then you can share with them the great stuff happening, like our children’s ministries, our outreach ministries, our vision to become a 21st century church even though we are in an 19th century building!
Another way is to aim to rebuild the trust of the people who have lost trust because they see the church as only a narrow-minded, judgmental institution. And we rebuild that trust by showing we are not narrow-minded, nor judgmental, by being an inviting, welcoming, compassionate, and loving church that is fully aware we all are sinners in need of a Savior, and we are all struggling in this thing called life and we are in need of community—and all of those needs can be tended to by the church and the Holy Spirit.
But to do this we must invite people to it.
As I said, there are countless articles, studies, and polls that are bad news for the church. Like Paul says, we are groaning.
But like Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
And it’s our job, as a church and as the Church, to invite people in so they too can experience that glory too.
We are to invite everyone to have an encounter with the Creator of the universe and the Savior of us all. That’s it. After that, we let the Holy Spirit do its work.
So let us remember… even in the midst of all the bad news, there is still Good News. And we must, we must, we must invite people to it.
Not because polls say we have to or we’ll die.
We must invite people to it because it’s what turns bad news good. And we all need the Good News. Amen.