This is the second talk I gave to the MACC as the guest speaker for the Spring Rally in May 2010. My first address can be read here.
“Where Does the Church Go From Here?”
Alright, here it comes. Are you ready for it?
I don’t care if the United Church dies.
There I said it. It may not come as a big surprise to you after what I said last night, but it’s something I feel. I mean, what is the United Church anyway? It’s a man-made institution, a representation of a faith in God. A God who works far beyond the reaches of one single denomination.
If the United Church of Canada disappears tomorrow, will God stop working in the world? Of course not. Many people around the world do the work of God, serving the people of God. It won’t change if one denomination disappears.
Our denomination is struggling. 50% of our clergy will reach the normal retirement age in the next 10 years. That’s 1,100 ministers. In ten years!
According to Canadian census data, between 1991 and 2001 over a quarter million fewer Canadians identified the United Church of Canada as their religious affiliation. In the same period, a half million more Canadians identified themselves as having “No religious affiliation”. There is no doubt in my mind next year’s census will reflect similar numbers. It’s shown in how our General Council Executive meets this weekend to explore ways in which it can reduce it’s budget by $3 million a year over the next 3 to 6 years.
The numbers look bad. There’s nothing you can do with them to make the future of the church look bright. Our congregations are in decline. We have no ministers to fill the empty pulpits, and that’s an issue we see even today. The examples of churches I mentioned last night. Two of them are examples of churches that grabbed the nearest warm body because they needed someone. It ended up with the ministers jumping ship leaving the churches tilting badly in the waters.
Other denominations are struggling too of course. But we are the ones who are struggling most. We were once the most powerful Protestant denomination in the country. We had the ears of parliament and had influence on national affairs. We are still the largest Protestant denomination, but we have been caught by those who have “no religious affiliation”. They now make up 16% of the population according to 2001 statistics, while the United Church comes in at just under 10%.
When I look at my friends, the one’s I grew up with, most do not attend church in any shape or form. Unless you include Keith’s or Budweiser as religions. Their parents don’t go to church, their children don’t go to church. We are entering our third generation on unchurched Canadians.
Our churches are crying out for new leaders, more people, more money, more energy and more youth. But what are we doing about it? How are we responding to the coming crisis? One thing we’re trying to do to fix the problem is relax the rules for becoming a minister. Make the process a little easier, make it so candidates don’t need to move around so much because of their family needs.
I don’t like that idea. It’s the wrong approach.
If we want to know how to grow a church, how to create a movement of people coming to our denomination, if we want to renew our renewal groups, we need to look at a little book called the Acts of the Apostles.
What did the Apostles do after Jesus ascended into heaven? They went back to their upper room and waited. There’s nothing wrong with them doing this, it’s what Jesus told them to do. But a few weeks later came the day of Pentecost. We all know what happened that day. The Holy Spirit filled the room and filled everyone who was there. They ran out into the streets and began to preach about Jesus Christ.
Peter’s first sermon led to 3000 people being baptized and coming to the Lord.
For about 5 weeks they sat in the safety of the house and not one person came to join them. But when they take the Holy Spirit out into the streets, people came from all over to hear the Word of God and the promise of new life in Jesus Christ. And they responded to the call.
The church exploded. And every day after that the church attracted more people.
Our denomination has changed its focus from being an agent of the Spirit to being an agent of “maintaining what we have left”.
We are cutting ministries, we are closing churches, we are bringing people back home from overseas missions, all in an effort to save money. This is all we hear from our “Mother House” in Toronto. Send more money, spend less money, we can’t maintain so many buildings and ministries. Chop, chop, cut, cut, save, save.
We are being told we need to be faithful stewards of what we have left.
Useless advice at a time when we need true leadership.
Yes we are going to have to close churches, demographics tells us this. Each of our rural communities can no longer support their own church, amalgamation and closure is an ugly truth we must face. But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.
The book of Acts shows us it doesn’t need to be this way. It doesn’t have to be “chop, chop, save, save”.
I just finished reading a book the other night called It. No it’s not a Stephen King novel, it’s a book by Craig Groeschel. You’ve never heard of him, I know. He is the leader of a multi-campus, ground-breaking, edge-pushing church that meets in thirteen locations. (http://lifechurch.tv)
In his book It, which is subtitled “How Churches and Leaders Can Get it And Keep it”, he talks about things I see in the book of Acts. First of all, he describes ‘it’ as the thing which drives your church. ‘It’ is something different for every congregation. ‘It’ can be many things to many different people. What ‘it’ is, is something that gets people excited about serving God. A thing that fills people with the Holy Spirit and moves them to a committed relationship with our living God through the risen Christ Jesus. ‘It’ brings about passion for God.
On Pentecost when Peter and the other apostles ran out into the street to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. They had ‘it’. People saw they had ‘it’ and wanted ‘it’ too.
Our church today has tried to create ‘it’. In recent years we have had the Emerging Spirit campaign, trying to connect with young adults of my generation. There’s the wondercafe website with it’s silly ads and videos in an attempt to get people to ask questions and discuss. All designed to encourage people get into our buildings and help us grow.
Good idea in theory. But in practice, I do not believe it has gone well at all. If people are actually trying out our churches based on our ads and what they see on our hip, new, expensive website, they must be awfully disappointed. Our churches are the same old buildings they have been for the last 50 years, with the same old message of “How are we going to keep all this running?”
This is not ‘it’. ‘It’ cannot be created at a national level with the expectation all churches will buy into the programme when most congregations have no idea what they are being asked to do.
‘It’ is a grassroots movement. ‘It’ is finding what works for your church today, which may not be the same thing as yesterday, or tomorrow, or next week, month or year. ‘It’ is what God is calling us to do right now.
Getting to this point is a scary journey. Why? Because ‘it’ requires drastic changes in the way we have always done things. We need to be flexible, we need to be agile, and we need to be willing to risk everything to get ‘it’.
Let’s face it. We are pretty comfortable where we are. The status quo, while not very productive is a nice play to be. We’re happy, we’re used to this, why go through all the trouble for something that might not work?
This is why we’re in the on the doorstep of a huge crisis in our church. In fact, we already have one foot inside the door, or maybe in the grave would be more accurate.
We have neglected the Gospel message. I said last night we have watered down our approach to preaching and scripture by not dealing with the difficult and challenging messages in the Bible. As a result we are seeing fewer and fewer people moved to follow Christ in any meaningful way. We have abandoned the Holy Spirit in search of our own approach to the Bible and thus our ministries.
If we want to save this church, we need to be Spirit-led people. We need to engage God and let Him transform us and move us into new directions. And each church needs to make that move on its own.
In Acts 6, it seems as though the apostles recognize they are losing ‘it’. (Just because you have ‘it’ doesn’t mean you get to keep it forever. You need to continually evaluate your position and your ministries, that’s how you keep ‘it’) The apostles seem to recognize their ministry has become stale and they’ve stopped paying close attention to God and what they have been called to do. They say to one another, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”
The apostles catch that they are so caught up in service and the work of the church, they realize they are missing further opportunities to grow and serve in new ways. So they get more helpers. They find some people who are gifted and assign them to the tasks of serving, and the apostles go back to focusing on what God is wanting them to do next. This leads Philip to go to Samaria and start a church and to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch to open up more of Africa to the Gospel message.
It allows the church to be ready to receive their greatest opponent into their midst as they meet Saul who will become Paul after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.
It allows Peter to go off and heal Aeneas, to bring Tabitha back from the dead and to convert Cornelius, a Roman centurion.
Each act bringing more and more people into the church as they see the Spirit of God moving through all their actions.
Imagine the opportunities they would have missed if they simply kept their heads down serving tables. If they simply said, “Well, we’re doing good work here, God must be pleased with us!” Don’t get me wrong, they did important work, absolutely. But by finding people who had gifts to offer in that ministry, it opened up doors which launched new ministries and churches all over the region.
Each and every step of the ministry of the first apostles was a step where they risked everything they had. The church was being persecuted, they were in and out of jail all the time, their lives were threatened, at any moment I’m sure they thought it could be over.
But they kept going. They kept risking their lives for the sake of the Gospel. And because they were willing to do these things, the church kept exploding with new members from all backgrounds.
Tomorrow churches across the world will read from Acts chapter 11. It’s Peter defending his trip to evangelize to the Gentiles. Many churches will no doubt focus of the vision he had where God declares food to be clean. It would be my hope that instead they focus on verses 15-17 where Peter says, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
Peter spoke the truth of Jesus Christ to the gentiles, and they got ‘it’. They felt the Spirit of God come upon them and they opened their lives to the power of God to lead and guide them. There he baptized the Roman leader and all who were with him when they heard Peter speak. A new church was planted and he stayed there for several days, teaching them and leading them to God’s ways.
This is the hope for our renewal groups in the United Church. I am very excited to know they have begun discussions to find ways in which they can come together and share in this valuable ministry. To find common ground and ways in which to share resources.
I have an interest in each group. I believe each group has gifts to offer to the church as they seek to be obedient to God’s plan for them. But, from what I can see on the sidelines, none of them have ‘it’. None have the drive and passion to get out and speak the truth and bring about change. There’s just not enough people and resources it seems. Their energy levels have waned in recent years.
Which means we need to work together. To be perfectly honest, it’s the only way I’ll get involved with any of them. One group, one voice, one passion. Small yet strong with the Spirit of God to bring about change in our denomination. To fight for what we feel is important to the Christian faith and not what is important to the organization.
It’s time for a new thing. It’s time to take a risk and move forward, to step out boldly to say we are one body as we bring our parts together with Christ as our head.
What have we got to lose? The numbers don’t lie about the future of the denomination as we know it. If we don’t make a change, if we don’t seek God to work within us in the deepest, darkest part of our souls, what do we have left?
Craig Groeshel shares in his book how his church began in 1996 in the unheated garage of a home with a couple chairs and an old overhead projector. From there they kept risking everything to do what God was asking them to do. And now thousands of people worship in the network of churches they have built. All because they took chances when God asked them to.
The first church, the church in the book of Acts exploded from a room full of people into thousands of people in a matter of days, because they risked what they had to do what God wanted them to do, share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world.
Our churches future is bleak. We’re are going to continue to get smaller and smaller. We’ll have fewer and fewer leaders and churches.
We need it. Believe it or not, we need it. We have too much. We’re too comfortable. We’re too set in our ways. We’re so big we can’t change. We need to be in a position where we are willing to risk our future for the sake of doing God’ work in our communities. We need to equip ourselves to be able to serve our communities. We need to realize each of our communities are different, they have different needs. We need to listen to what God is calling us to do in our own neighbourhoods.
Proverbs chapter 1 says, “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.’”
This is God at work in the world. God in not in our buildings, He’s not in our organizations. God is in our streets, in the people who travel them, the people who work along them, the people who live on them, this is where God is. And God is crying out to us to join Him. His Spirit is making known to us what the needs of our communities are. We need to stop and listen. We need to get out of our buildings and join in the work God wants us to do.
God wants us to have ‘it’. He wants us to have His life giving Spirit within us. He wants us to respond just as the first apostles responded by rushing out into the streets and making Him known to all people.
This isn’t going to happen in our churches overnight. It’s going to take time, but there’s a way we can start. There’s a way in which we can begin to welcome ‘it’ back into our churches.
At AST, in your final year you have to do some original research and present it. You have to go out and interview people and learn about a topic that interests you. I chose to go out and talk to people my age who are already in the church to learn about what they want to see.
Every one of them mentioned they want to be able to wrestle with the Word. They want their preachers to challenge them in their faith and show them how God is at work in the world. They don’t want the message to be watered down, they want, no they crave the meat of the message so they can respond faithfully to what God is asking us to do in the world.
They want ‘it’.
They want God to speak to them, they want to know how they can become more like Jesus. More Spirit filled, more receptive to God’s call in their lives.
We need to help them get there. We need to let our preachers know we don’t want the same old message which keeps falling on deaf ears. We want the Truth of the Gospel. We want to hear how God changes people’s lives. We want God to change our lives. Why else go to church? We don’t believe God can change things, then why bother at all?
In Craig Groeshel’s book, he closes by offering us three prayer to use in our daily prayer life.
The first prayer is to ask God to stretch us. Ask God to take us into new experiences, new directions, new ministries. To try new things, maybe places where people say it can’t be done. He says we have more in us than we may realize, so let God stretch us to see how much He has blessed us with. It will be more than we know.
The second prayer is to ask God to ruin us. Yes ruin us. He’s not talking about sinful acts which destroy us. He’s talking about letting God break us for His glory. To let God show us something that just breaks our heart. To let God expose us to some of the greatest injustices in the world, and have it ruin us so much all we can do is want to make it right.
Look at Job. If anyone was ever ruined, it was Job. Everything he ever had, anything he ever loved was taken away from him. In the end he learned what really mattered. What mattered was what God wanted him to do. When Job finally figured this out, he was blessed more abundantly than ever before and he grew in his faith.
We need to let God ruin us so we can see the greatest need in the world. To let God expose us to something we know will tear us apart at the seams because God wants us to know the world suffers, and He suffers because of it.
And finally, Craig wants to pray for healing. Our own healing. Not of our sicknesses, but of our wounds which keep us from entering into a deep, committed relationship with God.
Maybe it’s our pride. Maybe it’s an addiction we have to attention, or email, or Facebook, or TV, or whatever. We need God to point out to us we are broken in some way, and to ask Him to heal us.
Is it a relationship, our marriage, a past hurt in our lives? We need to be whole in order to fully understand what God is calling us to do as Christians and as churches. We need to be healed.
Stretch me. Ruin me. Heal me.
Our prayers to God.
Stretch us into new directions. Places we’ve never been before. Ruin us. Break our hearts for the broken people in the world. And heal us. Take away the things which keep us from You. Make us whole so we can follow You, God most Holy. Now and Forever.