Updated: Aug 5
I have file folders filled with sermon ideas. The largest of these is, by far, a folder labeled, “The Changing Church.” Because the church has changed – not just the Episcopal Church, but the Christian faith itself. Some people believe that we don’t actually have a lot of choice about it, because the church as we know it is shrinking. In 2015 a Pew Research study on Religion in America suggested that worship attendance across all formalized religions was declining, with greater declines shown among our youngest adults. For many religious leaders, then, the new mandate is “change or die.”
Of course, it’s not completely clear how we should do this. There are definitely lots of suggestions though. Among some of the ones you can find in my changing church folder are the “faith, hops, and love” trend, which includes the story of a new United Church of Christ plant in Chicago which recently launched its “Balm of Gilead” Session IPA, “a craft brew made especially for the church and created right in the neighborhood.” Instead of opening with a big worship service, Gilead Church started with social events, including a garlic-planting party. According to their cool, young pastor, “We want to be church for and with people who’ve been turned out, turned off, or just left cold by church.” Other U.S. churches, including Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, have added physical fitness to their roster of programs. This is not an isolated trend. “The American Council on Exercise named faith-based fitness one of the top trends of 2016.”
Other innovators think it’s as simple as a shift in church music, suggesting that what we sing “in here” is not what is inspiring people “out there.” Christian music, they tell us, is now part of the mainstream. You can find it on You Tube – Kanye West’s 2016 appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” Chance the Rapper’s performance at the Grammys – not to mention Beyoncé’s costume parade of feminine images of divinity, including a golden, halo like crown that looked suspiciously like icons of the Virgin Mary.
But for many regular church-goers, these ideas are simply horrifying. There is a reason for the old joke about how many Episcopalians it takes to change a lightbulb (None – Episcopalians don’t change)! For those of us who were raised in the church and for whom the church has been a major support throughout our lives, the regularity of our liturgy is a consistent balm for our souls. As a military spouse who spent 25 years moving around the country for my husband’s career, one of the first things I always did upon arriving in a new town was to look for the red, white, and blue sign saying, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”
But the Episcopal Church did not always welcome everyone. Far from being focused on the needs of the poor and oppressed as mandated by Jesus, we repeatedly concentrated on protecting the secular power that is part of belonging to a large and influential denomination. Rather than standing against slavery or for civil rights, the Episcopal Church in the United States has almost always sided with the status quo. We were so confident in our “righteousness,” – our “rightness” -that we thought that when the psalmist exulted that “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed,” he meant us.
We know better now. We, like Peter, “truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” In other words, it’s not about what you say you believe, it’s how you act on your beliefs that matters.
Maybe that’s why some people don’t come to church anymore – because they don’t think Christians are practicing what they preach. Perhaps they sense that we are sometimes more concerned with things in our earthly lives than “things that are above.” This passage from Colossians has been much abused, often being interpreted to mean that we are to concentrate on the spiritual instead of the physical – leading some denominations to discount “earthly” matters like poverty and global warning. But that is not what the letter writer is saying – and it is not what the Episcopal Church believes. “Seek[ing] the things that are above…does not mean world-denying asceticism,” but rather working toward a better world- seeking to bring God’s peaceful dominion to the here and now.
The evidence in my “changing church” folder suggests that this is a goal that many people are seeking, even if they don’t know it. Recent surveys of individuals who identify themselves as having no religious identity – the so-called “nones,” indicate that they actually believe in many of the things that the Christian church teaches, including helping those in need and advocating for those on the margins of society. I subscribe to a blog called, “The Daily OM,” which sends out emails focused on well-being. It is decidedly not religious, but in recent months, I have read posts about “finding your calling,” dealing with pain, acknowledging your brokenness, seeking out loving community, and creating ceremonies and rituals that enhance your sense of identity. How very strange, that this wisdom aimed at non-religious spiritual seekers is based on practices that religions have been doing for thousands of years –things we do right here at Grace, all the time.
So what happened? How did the popular understanding of Christianity get so far off track? I would suggest that the actions of some Christians have led people to perceive Christianity as being more about “preening about one’s own virtue or pointing fingers at somebody else’s iniquity [than] tackling human needs.” But that is not who we are. That is not what this community of faith is about. This is an Easter church, a resurrection church. We believe in a God that cared enough about a flawed, selfish humanity to die for it. We believe in a God of sacrifice and thoughtfulness and love. We believe in a faith that strives for “a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion” – and in working to repent and correct the errors of the past church in the name of our inclusive God. That is who we worship. That is why we worship. The reasons we worship haven’t changed; they are the same reasons the women at the tomb had for loving Jesus even in death.
Christianity, then, hasn’t changed. Christianity is simply the way of Jesus, demonstrated by his life, death, and resurrection. And it is still a good way. It is still our way. That’s not what needs to change. What needs to change is the willingness of those of us who are already part of this church community to make that way known – to spread the message of the risen Christ, just as the disciples did. Our task is to drown out the voices of those who have hijacked the word “Christian” for their own purposes and to witness to the true belief of those who follow Jesus. And for those who don’t often attend church, give it a try – or another try, as the case may be. Love, community, service; these are Christian values. These are the Lord. Go then, and do as Mary Magdalene did: Tell your brothers and sisters, “I have seen the Lord”- and the Lord is good.
Jesus lives – and so shall his church. Alleluia. AMEN.
Connie Larkman, (April 7, 2017), “Chicago new church start attracts national attention before first worship service,” http://www.ucc.org/news_chicago_new_church_start_attracts_national_attention_before_first_worship_service_04072017.