Summary: God changes us so that the church can awe and bless the world.
Driving home Thursday a provocative announcement on National Public Radio caught my attention. The Templeton Foundation was promoting a discussion of: “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” Such a question would not have been asked 50 or 100 years ago; we all expect it today. And if our society considers God obsolete, what must they think of the church?
I have titled this sermon: “Is The Church Archaic and Obsolete?” — also intending to be provocative. My answer is, “Yes, the church is,” but before you string me up, let’s look at Acts 2 and see if God would challenge our comfort and ease. [Read Acts 2.37-47. Pray.]
In 1924, Robert and Helen Lynd, studied a place they called Middletown (later revealed as Muncie, Indiana). Praise for their work was extravagant. The New York World said: “No one who wishes a full understanding of American life today can afford to neglect this impartial, sincerely scientific effort to place it under the microscope slide.” The Nation agreed: “Nothing like it has ever before been attempted; no such knowledge of how the average American community works and plays has ever been packed between the covers of one book…. This book touches the heart of America.”
These sociologists asked mothers, (housewives as they were called back then): “What are the traits — the character qualities — you want to instill in your children? What kind of kids do you hope to raise?” The top three traits listed were:
1) A commitment to God and the Church;
2) Strict obedience to authority; and
3) Good manners.
Here are the last three on the list:
2) Tolerance; and
3) Social mindedness.
Those answers indicate a desire to conform to standards and to fit into larger social groups. They did not want kids to be autonomous and self-fulfilled; they wanted to raise children who loved authority and thought much of pleasing others.
Sixty years later, sociologist returned to “Middletown” to follow up with the granddaughters of those same women, asking similar questions. The top three answers in the 80’s for what you hope will be the character of your children were:
1) Independence from any and all authority;
2) Tolerance for all other belief systems; and
3) Social mindedness (how you are keeping up with others).
Dead last, least important to mothers in Muncie: commitment to God and his church. In two generations the tables have completely turned, the attitudes and motivations of the populace are flipped over, the world in which the church lives and witnesses is different.
If you look on Amazon.com, you can find a coffee mug that says, “42.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.” Samuel Clemons (Mark Twain) said, “There are three types of lies: Lies, **** Lies, and Statistics!” Those are clever reminders that we do not base our lives on polls, or the analysis of sociologists. Yet, this intriguing statement appears in the Bible: ESV 1Chronicles 12.32: “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do….”
That text (and others in the Bible) tells us that if we are to be faithful to God and his Word, we must know our times — the heart and soul of the people we live among — before we can rightly say what ought to be done.
Martin Luther once said something to preachers that reminds me of how prayerfully and carefully I must understand people in order to apply the Bible. He said that if he preached ten thousand truths, but failed to preach on the sin which the people struggled with, he had failed to preach the gospel.
The church frequently does something similar. We have answers, but it feels as though no one is listening. Often we respond by increasing the volume, being more shrill in our criticisms, denouncing with more vehemence. True to Solomon’s counsel, however, we find that our harsh words stir up anger, and we are tuned out. So what shall we do? how shall we live?
Dr. Ed Stetzer directs church planting for the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest denominations in the country. In an article called, “Finding New Life for Struggling Churches,” (SBC LIFE, the Journal of the Southern Baptist Convention), Stetzer writes: “Harold stood up, paused for a moment, and began to speak softly, ‘We don’t want our church to die. We’ll do what it takes.’ That was when I first knew the church could make it. The well-respected deacon and pillar of the church spoke from his heart. He really meant it — and he spoke for the church…. Like many Southern Baptist [congregations], they had their heyday in the 50s and 60s…. But a church that once served hundreds (and had the building to prove it) now averaged thirty-five on a Sunday morning…. Over time, most churches plateau and most eventually decline. Typically they start strong or experience periods of growth, but then stagnate. Patterns and traditions that once seemed special eventually lose their meaning. Churches that were once outwardly-focused eventually become worried about the wrong things.”