We live in a post-Christian world now. It is a strange new reality for many of us. We have two options for response. We can choose to deny the obvious and continue to "do church" like we always have or we can re-think church to become relevant and effective in the new reality. If like ostriches we bury our heads in the dust of what used-to-be, we will fail our Lord Jesus Christ in making the gospel real for the world. On the other hand, if we are bold enough and selfless enough to do new things in new ways we might just be able to be more effective for Christ and his Kingdom than we have ever been since the first century.
I grew up in a Christian world. I suspect the majority of you did as well.
- Everyone I knew went to church on Sunday. Cars would be lined up turning into the parking lots of every church in town. I would see my Catholic friends on the way to mass, looking just like my family. My Dad had on a suit, my mother wore a hat and gloves, my sister had on a dress poofed up by petticoats. As for me, my wet hair was slicked down, my shoes were shined, and my clip-on tie perfectly matched my sport coat.
- No stores were open on Sunday. We didn't have convenience stores on the corner in those days, and shopping centers were just beginning to cut in on the sales of stores in town. But on Sunday, everything was closed up tight, so you had better had purchased your weekend snacks by Saturday evening.
- In elementary schoolâ€”a public school!--our days began with "The Lord's Prayer," led over the intercom by the Principal, and followed by another prayer by the classroom teacher. We paused for bowed heads and blessings before lunch.
- Later on in Junior High and High School we all headed to church on Wednesdays after school for Youth Club.
- Everybody I knew believed in God, and having never met a Jewish kid at that point in my life, I assumed everybody believed in Jesus, especially those Catholic kids who were the reason we always had baked fish or tuna salad sandwiches in the cafeteria on Friday.
That's what my Christian world looked like. And it extended well into the 1970's. In fact, when Jim Harnish came to be the founding pastor of St. Luke's 30 years ago, he used to say that St. Luke's followed a church growth ministry plan called "Open Door Evangelism." He said, "We open the door and there they are!"
Well, in case you haven't noticed, things have changed. St. Luke's continues to grow, but not at the accelerated rate we knew in the 80's and 90's. People no longer attend church every Sunday. I saw a poll last year that stated that people who consider themselves to be "good Christians" attend church on the average about once every six weeks. You have heard us say that as many as 66% of your local neighbors, friends, and relatives have no active faith affiliation.
What does a post-Christian world look like today in America?
- More people are walking outside to get their Sunday paper in their pajamas than are walking out to get into their car to go to worship on a Sunday.
- Kid's birthday parties are planned for Sunday, and coaches for kids' sports schedule required practices for Sunday morning.
- Every store, restaurant, and mall is open on Sunday.
- No one would dare think of leading a prayer at school over the loudspeaker.
- There are not too many cars on the road filled with folks heading to church.
- There is a rapidly increasing number of people who have never seen the inside of a church, except on TV or in the movies. Weddings take place in hotels and parks, and more and more people are opting for direct cremation so their family members can scatter their remains (without a funeral service) in the ocean, a lake, or a favorite hole on a golf course.
When people are asked about God, faith, and the church, especially younger people, the responses are often surprising to the folks whose lives are lived within the "bubble" of the church. Take a look...
[Video of on-the-street interviews]
Now my question is, "Do you think the church has anything to offer a world like this? Do you think the Gospel of God's love, healing and hope in Jesus would make a difference in the lives of people like this?"
I do. I believe it with all my heart. And these people, whose faces are unfamiliar to me, are just like so many people I know whose faces I do recognize: my neighbors, my friends, even my own relatives. The best quote I heard just now was from the guy in the cowboy hat who responded to the question, "What could the church do differently?" He said, "...they could get out of the church and walk down here and be Jesus for people."
Our post-Christian world is a whole lot like the pre-Christian world, and as such the strategies for being the church in the first century are the same strategies needed to be the church in the twenty-first century. Church is not something we attend; it is something we do; it is not a noun, it is a verb. It is just what the guy said; it is getting out of the seats and into the streets "being Jesus for people."
Today's two mini-parables remind us that the Kingdom of God is amazing powerful and productive. I want to take them in reverse order. First the parable of the yeast (or leaven).
Typical of Jesus, he uses the most mundane examples to illustrate eternal truth. Everyone knows you need yeast in order to make bread rise. In fact, the lack of yeast, brought on by the hurried middle of the night escape of the Jews from the Egyptians at Passover, made unleavened bread emblematic of that deliverance. Whenever I have made bread, I have used those little packets of Fleishmann's Yeast, sprinkled carefully on 110 degree water. But the Jewish homemaker would have needed a bit of active yeast dough, taken from the last baking batch to make the next loaf rise.
The only time I have seen that used was back in the 80's when so many refrigerators had jars of dough for "Friendship Bread." It took ten days in the refrigerator before you could bake with it, and you had to "feed" it and stir with a wooden spoon every couple of days. If you didn't use the starter after 10 days you had to divide it and keep it alive. Once everybody started making it there was no one to send the starter to and the stuff began to take over the refrigerator and threaten to explode on you.
In the parable Jesus says that the woman mixed the yeast into the flour, but the better Greek translation is that she tried to "hide" it there. The parable would have been met with laughter, especially among the women, because "three measures" of flour would have equated to 50 pounds! Enough bread for 150 people! So imagine the scene. A woman puts yeast into 50 pounds of dough, hoping to keep it a secret. Give that yeast a little time and there is a huge dough blob bubbling through the house! The point of the parable is not the blob, but the incredible power in just a little bit of leaven. A little can produce an amazing change.
And then with the story of the mustard seed, 750 of which are needed to even weigh one gram, the point obviously is that the tiniest seed, when cultivated, can produce a large plant, in this case something that could grow to 8 or 9 feet. We miss the real point of the parable, however, if we ignore the part about the birds of the air finding shade and a place to make their nests. The point is that the fully grown plant exists not for itself, but for the birds, for others; for those who had nothing to do with its planting. A similar point could be made for the yeast. The overwhelming yield of bread, when baked, could not have been consumed by the family of the woman baking. It would have had to have been shared with people who had had no part in the kneading or baking.
So what is Jesus saying? The Kingdom of God has its beginning in very small ways, but the power of it is such that its ultimate gifts and blessings unbelievably huge. And those gifts and blessings are given for the world. ReThinking Church is rethinking Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is simply God's will claimed and lived out on earth by the children of God. God's will is grace, love, hope, healing, justice and righteousness, person to person, heart to heart. The embodiment of that will is the bread of life, Jesus, who was raised on a tree, the cross, with arms outstretched for the world.
In a post-Christian world, the church finds its relevance not by opening its doors for the world to come in, but by walking through its doors to go out to the world.
People today don't want to hear about church, they want to see church.
People today don't want to hear about Jesus, they want to see Jesus.
People today don't want to hear about love and service; they want to see love and service.
So beginning next Sunday at HopeSpring and soon after the first of the year here on the Central Campus, we are going to get serious about re-doing church, not just re-thinking it. You can find the full schedule for our HopeSpring ministry online or in the brochure racks beginning today. We will be embracing all of our life as worship, spending time building relationships in small groups, like the first disciples did, serving in the community during the traditional times that churches usually gather for Sunday morning "inside" services, and celebrating once a month in full worship what God is doing.
We will literally be leaving our buildings in the months to come to unmistakably be the church of Jesus Christ, serving in the world. HopeSpring will take the lead in showing us how this can be done. I need you to be thinking about whether God is calling you to this new kind of post-Christian world Christianity. We need central campus believers to join the HopeSpring believers in living into the new reality. You can make a commitment for a month, a quarter, a year, or for the long term. But Jesus needs you. The world needs you.
You can be the seed. You can be the yeast. What you give of yourself in the name of Jesus Christ will be empowered and enlarged by the Holy Spirit.