1 Peter 2:4-5, 9
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 28, 2017
Fewer and fewer Americans go to church anymore.
For that matter, fewer and fewer American Christians go to church anymore.
What explains this decline in church participation? Let’s today consider two factors: change in the culture, and failure in the church.
American culture has as a whole grown more secular (or less religious). Perhaps because we Americans have become so rich in things, we often lack that poverty of spirit which makes us feel our need of God and moves us to seek Him.
Furthermore, when we do feel the need of God, we can easily suppress or deny the feeling by the distractions of the 24/7 entertainment we now have at our fingertips. Thanks to our smart phones, thousand-channel televisions and the like, we can with almost no effort preoccupy ourselves with engaging diversions, and so ignore our deepest concerns, concerns about our character and our connection with God.
In an unprecedented way, it is now a breeze to get so caught up in other things that we lose touch with the most significant things. Thus, for many, it’s not so much that they doubt whether God is real, but that they doubt whether God is relevant to what grabs their attention. They don’t see what God has to do with their having fun, meeting basic needs, or becoming rich and famous.
Then there is this: Often even those who do keep in touch with their need of God doubt whether the church is relevant to their connecting with Him. These folks may not have lost interest in interacting with God, but they have lost any sort of appreciation of how the church might help in doing that.
The church has to own up to its failure here, and admit it has contributed mightily to people’s disinterest with organized religion. For sometimes we church people have been selfish in the practice of our faith. Some of us have thought more of how we like to have things than of how things need to be for those God wants us to serve. We have prioritized holding on to our traditions more than helping those who might have no faith, weak faith or misguided faith. We have failed to adjust nearly enough for what would work for them.
Too often, those of us already in church have taken God as our own possession to manage as we wish, and forgotten we are God’s possession to serve Him as He wishes. In particular, we have lost sight of the fact that God blesses us that we might in turn bless others.
Consider this analogy. A group of miners have been trapped underground by a cave-in. An avalanche of rocks blocks their escape but for one narrow passage through which the smallest of them might squeeze through to reach the world above. A few make it out of their underground tomb. But they are so thrilled to be breathing clear, fresh air again, and to be basking in warm, bright sunshine again, that they forget all about those left behind and never get around to running for help and digging the others out.
God saves us, not just for ourselves, but for those we might help get saved.
Selfishness is no more attractive when it is dressed up in religious clothes. Who would want to join a group of people who are more about themselves than anyone else? But who wouldn’t want to join a group of people who are warm and welcoming, loving and inclusive, and who radiate happiness and a desire to share it with everyone else?
Sure we can fuss with how the Bible is preached and taught, and with what music we worship the Lord; but all that is of secondary concern. What really matters is whether the church is built along the lines of love, and inhabited by God’s loving Spirit.
Consider how today’s scripture describes the church. It is “a spiritual house” constructed with Jesus, the Rock of salvation, as its foundation and cornerstone, and with each believer as a “living stone” or its essential building material.
Those “living stones” become, by being part of this spiritual house, much more than lifeless, cold clumps of earth. They become different persons who embody what Jesus once was on earth. They become, the Bible says here, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” – who proclaim God’s “mighty acts” to deliver us all “out of darkness” and bring us all into His “marvelous light”. In the marvelous light of Christ they change into the likeness of Christ and they love others as He loves everyone. They love people just as they are and love them too much to leave them that way.
Of course, it is just at this point that the church becomes for many unattractive again. How often are people put off by the church’s saying that Jesus is wonderful in a way no one else is and that everyone should do what Jesus says! Such absolute, universal claims repel many.
Tim Keller for one is aware of this problem. His response helps us accept it. In an essay in a Dallas Willard book The Place for Truth, Keller invites us to imagine a conversation like one some of us have had many a time.
You’re talking with someone who doesn’t trust Christ or Christians, who says no one has the absolute truth about spiritual reality, and who believes everyone should leave everyone else alone with respect to their fundamental convictions. You’ve been telling this person who you think Christ is and how you wish they knew Him. They say, “Wait a minute! Are you trying to evangelize me?” You reply, “Well, yes, I am. I am trying to get you to adopt a certain view of spiritual reality and be converted.” Scandalized, they spit out, “How narrow! No one should say that their take on spiritual truth is better than anyone else’s and try to convert them.” You reply, “Wait a minute! You are doing exactly what you say I shouldn’t. You are saying that your take on spiritual truth is better than mine, and you are trying to convert me to your viewpoint. We’re doing the same thing. You’re trying to evangelize me, and I am trying to evangelize you. You are evangelizing against absolute truth claims and against evangelizing, and I am evangelizing for what I believe is the absolute truth about God. We’re both evangelizing. That’s no problem. The only problem is that either I am wrong or you are.”
Do you believe that Jesus is what He claimed to be: the way, the truth and the life? Are you willing to evangelize for Him, to be built into a spiritual house in which He lives and by which He draws all kinds of people to Himself, to love people just as they are and to love them too much to leave them that way, and to make a church that even more people would want to come to? Let us pray.