See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s, in a small rural community in East Tennessee. Sunday mornings for my family always included three things: Sunday dinner, Sunday school, and church. Back in the day, there was no alternative to Sunday school and church on Sunday mornings. Being at church as a family was expected, required, demanded, and just something we did without question. That seems so long ago, and so much has changed since then.
For instance, Church attendance on Sunday is not as common for a growing percentage of our population here in the U.S. as it was 20 or 30 years ago. Religious affiliation is quickly becoming something of a bygone age. As a matter of fact, we are facing a new reality, which is our place of significant influence and relevance in the life of the average American is diminishing at an increasing rate.
Several weeks ago, Pew Research published a new report on religion in the United States and some of the facts are startling.
- Adults who claimed affiliation with Christian groups dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2015. (1) 8% in eight years.
- Adults affiliated with Protestant mainline groups dropped from 18.1% in 2007 to 14% in 2015. 4% in eight years.
- Religious “Nones” rose from 16.1% in 2007 to 22.8% in 2015. (1) 6.7% in eight years.
- 35% of millennials are not religiously affiliated. (1)
These statistics can make us feel anxious, frustrated, and fearful, and some folks are saying the church is dying. I for one, still believe there is great hope for the church, even in the midst of this storm we face today. I DO NOT believe the church is dying. As a matter of fact, there is evidence that a movement of the Spirit is and has been emerging, and new life is being breathed into our faith communities as we speak. I believe we can trust God, and we can have faith that the church will continue God’s mission in the millennia to come that is, if we are able to adapt and move forward in faith and not become frozen by fear.
There is a very thin line between living in “Fear,” and living in “Faith.”
Jesus rebuked the winds that day in the boat, and encouraged the terror-filled disciples to move from fear to faith. Jesus said, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Webster’s dictionary defines fear as “an emotion induced by a threat perceived by living entities, which causes a change in brain and organ function and ultimately a change in behavior, such as running away, hiding or freezing from traumatic events. (2)
Webster defines faith as, “A strong belief or trust in someone or something.” (3) Think about these two words for a moment. Fear is an emotion, a reaction to something. Faith is trust, in action. We move from a state of fear, to a state of faith when we allow God’s Spirit to move us. The Spirit is always nudging and encouraging us to move, and to adapt to our circumstances. Just like the disciples in the storm, who faced uncertainty and the threat of death, the church must, in the midst of a changing culture, be willing take a risk in faith, and adapt to those changes so that the gospel will continue to be heard. Jesus reminds us, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there.’
Jesus always calls us to take risks, so that we might move to where the spirit leads.
Living by faith requires us to adapt. In other words, we must be nimble, remain flexible, take risks, and most certainly, trust God, and step out of our comfort zones. We, like those first disciples, must learn to trust what Jesus says, “In the world, you shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer—I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33).
The church stands in the middle of a storm today. We are being called to spread the gospel within a rapidly changing culture for which, we may not be fully equipped or for which, we may not be ready. In some ways, we may still be outfitted for a culture of bygone years. Today, our society is reliant on technology like never before, information of every kind is available at our fingertips, and religion is no longer at the center of the lives of a growing number of our neighbors. If we are not positioned for this change, then we must adapt.
We must relearn how to communicate the gospel in this emerging culture, to folks who may have never even stepped inside a church.
To be effective in our mission today, we do NOT have to throw away our tradition and scrap the liturgy, we do NOT have to succumb to reactivity, and believe that to be relevant, we must become hip and happening, and equip all our churches with screens, electric guitars, and drums. What we MUST do is listen intently to those to whom God is calling us to love and then, begin communicating in the local vernacular, so that those on the periphery of church can hear and understand God’s good news.
Let me give you an example. Do you remember the Sears catalog? The catalog business was successful back in the day because rural consumers needed to purchase products that their local country merchants could not stock. Back in the day, there were no malls, there were no strip centers, and there were no outlets where people could buy the things they needed. For years, people acquired their necessities , by ordering it from the catalog, and this system worked very well, at least for a time. In the mid-to-late 1990’s society had changed as it always does, and Sears had to make the very difficult decision to exit their catalog business. Why? Malls were springing up throughout the suburbs. Wal-Marts were being built in rural areas, and the products people needed were no longer miles and miles away, but just around the corner. An icon of American life, the Sears catalog, which had been around from the late 1800’s to the mid 20th century was no more.
Adaptation is key, but we do not have to abandon tradition and the ancient practices of the church. How many of you have ever purchased something from a little company called Amazon? How many of you have used your tablet to explore their plethora of books, clothes, electronics, and so much more ? How many of you have ever placed an online order with Amazon using PayPal or Bitcoin. How many of you have experienced the excitement of receiving that Amazon box from UPS or FEDEX, delivered to your front door. What an innovative business model you may say, but if you really think about it, at its core, Amazon is not offering anything that the Sears catalog was not offering a few years ago.
Back before its demise, consumers could page through the catalog, place an order from their home, and in a week or so, receive their package at their front door. Shopping from the convenience of our homes, whether from a catalog or website has not changed that much. The difference today is the medium by which people review the products, the mode of transaction and payment, and the means of delivery. Amazon’s success today, is based on their ability to adapt to the culture. People still want to sit at home, order the stuff they NEED, and have it delivered to their home. Adapting to the environment is the key.
So, what does this have to do with the church you may ask?
Despite the statistics about declining religiosity today, we must realize that God’s creatures all have an innate desire for connection with God and with each other. The spiritual need we people have is not going away, but how we communicate, how we connect with each other, and how community is formed is changing. You see, we Episcopalians have this treasure that we need to share. The liturgy still speaks to a deep spiritual need in our culture. Our traditions still touch a deep desire to connect with God in a real and tangible way. Just like Amazon, we can take what has been a tried and true way of doing things, and adapt it for a changing culture.
I have a colleague who serves as Missioner in the Diocese of Southern Ohio and she has been about the work of Adaptation for several years now. My friend has multiple community development projects going throughout her diocese. She is working on Pub Theology groups, where people gather in a safe space to discuss spiritual matters. She is exploring art to create a nurturing environment, and provide tools to foster connections to God, self and others through the creative process. Finally, she is adapting small group gatherings and creating “Moveable Feasts” where groups of young adults gather to create a community of practice and a place for imagining a new way to be church. Believe it or not, we are trying some of these experiments right here in Southwest Florida too.
Adaptation to changing culture is key. The church must once again listen to the people around us, then we must be willing to change how we invite people into the community, how we help them grow spiritually, and how we form community for folks who, in some cases, have found that their primary social connections begin and end in the world of social media.
The church must refocus today more than ever, on her mission of love to a changing world.
Maggie Nancarrow, Director of Youth and Families at an Episcopal church in the Twin Cities, recently wrote in her blog these words, “If we can’t give people a space to meet the God that wants to meet them, than we have failed in our mission.”(4) How do we do that today, you may ask. Nancarrow suggests, “We actually have to–authentically–feed people spiritually, emotionally, and physically to earn our keep in our society. Just like everyone else, we have to justify our existence. We can’t expect to hold a position in society if we don’t actually do what we say we’re about.” (4)
We can no longer merely sit behind our walls and wait for the masses to arrive. We have to get out into our neighborhoods, re-discover people’s spiritual needs that are not being met, and then we must be Christ among them. We can no longer accept our mission as pew sitters, we must listen, and then adapt. We must once again become once again; the church which is being SENT OUT!
We Episcopalians, as fear inducing as it may sound, really must re-claim our gift of evangelism. I know it is uncomfortable, but we Christians are the ONLY enfleshed witnesses of the transforming love of Christ in the world today. Do we go out and knock on doors or preach from street corners? I sure hope not because I believe that approach will not work. What we can do is become loud voices for justice, active advocates for the oppressed, crazy caretakers of the least, lost, and lonely, and we must do it all in the name of Christ. We can follow the lead of young leaders like my friend in Ohio and try some experimentation with Christian formation.
The statistics about the state of religion in America seem ominous, the pews seem a little lighter these days than back in the 60’s and 70’s, and many of us are left asking, “where are all those young people on Sunday morning?” Fear enters in and we begin to say, “there lies Jesus in the bow of the ship on a pillow, sleeping away as the boat rocks, the oars are no longer effective, and the waves are crashing over the bow.” How many of us just want to throw up our hands as say to Our Lord, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
The truth is, we can be at peace because the future of the church is really in God’s hands, but honestly, God depends on us to get moving in order for the mission to be incarnated in us. We have a choice. We can remain fearfully frozen, or we can move forward in faith. We can remain fearfully frozen or we can recognize that the Master navigator Jesus really is the one guiding us on this little excursion. We can remain fearfully frozen, or we can trust the God who through unpolished, ill equipped, and uneducated fisherman, changed the world. Remember, Jesus entrusted his mission of love and sent out the most unlikely folks to share good news, and sent them out into a world that was much less Christian than we are today.
The church must adapt and move out there, where God is calling us to go, to move once again by faith. It is time for us to change, because the alternative to change is to remain in the storm of crashing waves, tumultuous sea, and fear. Jesus says to us, which is what he always says to his followers when we are frustrated, uncertain, and afraid, “Peace, be still.” We must move out in faith because you “see, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”