The church and the gospel are not the same thing. I doubt they ever were, though there may have been times when they were more closely aligned than today. With acknowledgement of its ancient roots, the church that most of us have known and loved in this country was the product of the post‐war “boom” of the 1950s and 60s. I am a relatively early boomer (1947) so my experience of church life was thoroughly steeped in that tradition. The church was often the center of the community, a place where traditional, nuclear family life was idealized, where you went to make significant business contacts and your name known in the neighborhood. Denominations strategized church planting throughout suburbia, “silk‐stocking” downtown churches thrived.
The church my father served from 1945 to 1950 was in a small Kansas railroad town of 14,000 people. First Baptist, Newton, had a thousand members when he left to start one of the American Baptist “Churches for New Frontiers.” The denomination had purchased a large, well‐situated plot of land on which to build. He started out preaching to 13 people in the Borel’s living room, using the top of the TV as his pulpit. When he left that congregation in 1953, it had grown significantly and had built a parsonage on the site that was used as the church building for worship and Sunday School. He lived (1964) long enough to see Prairie Baptist Church, in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas, grow to several hundred members and become the largest American Baptist mission giving church in Kansas.
My point is not to brag, though I hold my father and his ministry in high esteem. The point is to give you a taste of the times, not that many of you don’t have your own stories to tell from that glorious period in the life of the church. None of this is new to you. You’ve heard it all before. Now the church of the 50s and 60s is in rapid decline and I would guess will largely disappear in the next 50 years. Some church people are caught up in mourning what is passing, some are dedicated to moving back to the future, some are in despair of what can be done to save the church. One problem is that all of these folk have taken the burden on themselves. Either they are stuck in grief and guilt, they are busily replicating the methods of 50 years ago, or they are writing blogs, columns (like this one!) or books recounting the downward spiral, the reasons for it and myriad untested ideas about what the church should be and do next.
Our congregation has a mixture of all these, but for now we have voted to work toward renewal. Dan Cudworth has raised a question as to whether or not “renewal” is the right word to describe what some of us are looking toward. Renewal implies a resuscitation of that which is dead or dying. Should we let it go? Should we instead look for God’s new thing, for an outcome that we have yet to image, for transformation in service of the Gospel? You see the church as we know it may be disappearing but there is no reason that God’s good news should disappear with it. The Jesus movement has weathered the coming and going of any number of institutional forms that have attempted to encapsulate it. Still the gospel lives. The promised reign of God still looms on the horizon and trickles down into contemporary culture all the time.
I met today with Eric Swanson, pastor of Westhope Presbyterian Church and director of The Contemplative Center of Silicon Valley. Eric is working to turn around a congregation that was pretty much on its last leg. He has challenged
that community to turn from more traditional church life to a congregational life that is centered in the Spirit. They are not growing by leaps and bounds –not in numbers, that is – but they are clearly growing in the Spirit. One thing they do very deliberately is to ground everything they do in prayer and contemplation. They look to discern rather than dictate God’s will and way for them. Is that something we might explore as means of transformation rather than renewal?
There’s been whole lot of discussion in recent times about the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) and how they have either turned their backs on the church or else have never darkened its doors. Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist
Church in Washington, DC, in her latest blog, writes an open letter to the SBNR. She says to them, somewhat tongue‐in‐cheek, “I want to tell you that despite our collective panic attacks here on the Spiritual And Also Religious side of things, I am increasingly finding myself less and less interested in trying to find just the right song and dance to make you wake up one day and want to be part of a faith community.
It’s not you. It’s me. I just think that finding a way to be popular again may not be the most pressing work of the church these days.” I think she’s on to something. I think there was a time when we were popular and some of us long to be popular again. I think that’s more the name of the game than we’re willing to admit. We want to be popular, well‐liked, influential, just like Jesus was(n’t). Oops! Have we been on the wrong road, barking up the wrong tree, looking for love in all the wrong places? Maybe so. Amy continues writing to the SNBR, “I hear you when you say the church is irrelevant.
I get that you don’t care what we’re doing to catch your attention. If we’re smart, we’ll listen to what you’re saying to us and believe that you mean what you say. And then we’ll stop trying to package the institution to make it palatable and just get busy leading the church to faithfully do its work in the world.” If we’re smart we’ll listen, we’ll pay attention – not only to the witness of the SNBR but also to the witness of the Spirit.
What is the Spirit whispering to us? Where is God leading us? What does Jesus have to offer us today? The Gospel is not the church but the Gospel can and must surely shape any meaningful future we have. Amy concludes with an image of the body of Christ that may not be comfortable but is surely challenging. “I suggest to my angst‐ridden colleagues [SAAR] that your [SNBR] blatant rejection of the church, rather than a challenge to us to scramble for new ideas and back peddle when churches screw up, is actually a glimpse of what the church of the future will be: less attractive, more alternative, kind of edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange.”
Less attractive, more alternative, kind of edgy, largely inconvenient and a little strange! Can you hear God calling us to such a reality? Can you feel the Spirit moving us in that direction? Does it seem like that’s exactly the way Jesus
walked? Uncomfortable, challenging, and still, good news, the Gospel that draws all creation into holy communion with God, leads us in the Jesus Way and empowers us with the Spirit. May we learn to pray, to discern and then say, “yes.”