Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
After wandering in our desert for nigh unto a decade, my understanding of the challenge we face has distilled in the heat of our sun. It has been a purgation as all sorts of ideas, feelings, and attitudes have been burned away.
The question I ask now may not be of immediate or obvious interest to you. I tie my mind in knots over how to be the Church. You are struggling with your daily lives of family, work, relationships, finances, and all the stuff that makes up a life. What I am struggling with matters to you only if two things are true:
1 1. The key to living any aspect of our life is the Christian faith that defines the meaning of everything we do. Religion is not a category apart from our other activities. It is the core of all of them.
2. 2. Christianity is a team sport. We are shaped Christoform through our participation in the Body of Christ, the Church. Individualistic me-&-Jesus spirituality is a modern – mostly American – invention. It is not the faith of the New Testament or centuries of Christian tradition. To Jesus and the apostles, this faith can only be practiced together.
If either of those points is false, there is no need to read further. But, if they both might be true, then this could be important.
I have prayed for the Diocese of Nevada daily for so many years now. At first I prayed for specific things until I came to believe we needed absolutely everything. So, I prayed “God we need it all. We need more people, more leadership, more vision, more passion, more money, more buildings. We need it all. We’ll take anything you’ve got to offer.” And I prayed it with a desperation worthy of the psalmist.
While I prayed, I offered and promoted programs and assistance in various kinds of ministry. Most failed. Occasionally, some met with moderate success. One of them has made significant in-roads for some congregations. But we still live on the edge, just getting by. Why is that?
Two things have slapped me awake this year. They have been happening all along. But they finally came together to bring me to the ground zero of being the Church in Nevada. They have brought me on my knees to Mark 10: 17-21 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+10%3A17-21&version=NIV and Luke 10: 38-42 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10%3A+38-42&version=NIV. You may do well to read those texts before going on so you’ll know where we’re headed.
The first wake up point was seeing how we treat each other in our congregations. In those congregations that are declining, the reason is plain as the nose on one’s face: People behave deplorably toward one another. Insults fly. Plots thicken. Ultimatums are thrown down. “If you don’t do x, I’m leaving.” The issues are usually of near comic insignificance, but the passion invested is over “getting my way.”
But if you bite and devour one another, watch out or you will be destroyed by one another. – Galatians 5: 15
It is no wonder contentious groups do not attract or retain people. Self-preservation dictates keeping our distance.
Such conduct is human nature as far as group behavior is concerned. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion wrote about it in Experiences In Groups. We use fight-flight to self-sabotage and defeat our real mission, the actual point that brought us together. I do not judge or condemn. It is merely human behavior. But that doesn’t make it Christian. The entire thrust of the New Testament is that we are not bound to merely human behavior. For those of us who are “in Christ,” it is possible to be an entirely different kind of community -- a community that heals, empowers, and sanctifies us, transforming us from glory unto glory into the likeness of Our Savior.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5: 17
We are “in Christ” if we are in the Body of Christ, the Church, if we are baptized. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live in the way prescribed by the New Testament and not remain enslaved to the world’s ways so well analyzed by Wilfred Bion. The Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+13&version=NIV is not about marriage but how to be the Church. The Epistles are all about the art of community.
Yet even our congregations that are doing well on the institutional vitality scale are riven by people treating each other in sub-Christian ways. Nor is this limited to congregations. I sometimes see our Diocese acting hurtfully, judgmentally, unkindly, shackled by pharisaic law rather than flying free in the Spirit of love with joyful expectation for the Kingdom Mission.
In a word, we are not behaving like Christians. Naturally, we welcome people who are not spiritually mature so there are bound to be incidents we regret. But I am saying something more fundamental. Our norms of behavior are not Christian. Why would that be? That question leads to the second wake up call.
I have heard from several of our leaders and leadership groups, sometimes reporting what they hear from congregations, about what we as a Diocese care about, what deep down matters to us. I hear that our congregations just want a building and a priest. Some value the camp’s enjoyment of wholesome outdoor activities. Some value charitable activities which could well be tied to the gospel, but I have not heard them tied to the gospel and they are the same charitable activities secular groups offer.
What I hear about our mission is not at all bad. It sounds as if we are lonely and want to connect with each other as friends. Some of us want to do a bit of worthy community service. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, it is good. If a secular service club named these priorities, I’d say that’s just fine. But what rocks me is that I have heard literally nothing – not virtually nothing, literally nothing -- about the Christian faith. I get the sense that we are serving a secular cake with Christian sprinkles. If that’s all we’re doing, I would still vote for it but I wouldn’t campaign for it or contribute to support the cause. When I notice that about myself, the reason most of our congregations cannot mount stewardship campaigns or engage in evangelism suddenly becomes obvious.
I feel that all the technical fixes for the Church have finally been distilled away. We need one thing – except it is not a thing – it is a person: Jesus.
When the rich young man came to Jesus seeking eternal life, Jesus gave him the to-do list of his time and place. We have our to-do list of Church projects and some of us do them. But when the young man said he had checked all the boxes, Jesus replied, “You lack one thing.” He told him to sell all he had. But that is not the “one thing.” That is just clearing the path of his many things so he can choose the one thing. “Come, follow me.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o469PRLdbHU
Martha of Bethany had her to-do list. She was bustling about the house like priest and altar guild on Sunday morning while Mary sat at the feet of the Master. When Martha demanded that Jesus shoo Mary away, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are . . . upset about many things. Few things are needed – indeed, only one. Mary has chosen the better part.” Mary chose a relationship with Jesus.
Here’s what I believe. There are scores of congregational development programs that would, in principle, help us do a better job of Church. There are behavioral covenant models that, in principle, would lead to us treating each other more civilly. There are stewardship methods that would raise more money and evangelism programs that would swell our ranks – all in principle. But there’s a problem. They are like a manual on better farming practices. Back in the 40s, a young man was trying to sell an old farmer a manual on farming but the old farmer replied, “Son, I’m not farming half as good as I know how, as it is.”
Our challenge isn’t knowing churchmanship. It’s knowing Jesus. It’s deciding to follow him heart and soul, not just as individuals but as a community. It would mean living for the Kingdom Mission because that’s the only thing that makes our lives count. If we fall in love with Our Savior and follow where he leads we will, as the song says, “never be the same.” Then and only then will all the programs make a whit of difference.