"The times, they are a-changing"
September 1, 1996 message
Let me begin with two quotes, from two individuals of whom I've never heard anything except for these tidbits, whose names I cannot pronounce (so I won't even try). From the 17th century comes this wisdom: "Nothing in the world lasts save eternal change"(Honorat de Bueil, Marquis de Racan - from Odes, The Coming of Spring). From the 19th century comes this familiar proverb: "The more things change, the more they remain the same" (Alphose Karr, Les Guepes).
This morning, and for the next 7 Sundays, I'd like us "to reason together" (Is. 1:18) with one another and with God about some major changes that are happening in the church: this congregation, our denomination, and the larger body of Christ. There are major upheavals happening, or soon to happen, in how the church operates in our society. We have felt the rumblings but, perhaps, have not not been able to place our finger on the problem. Like the little dutch boy who plugged up the hole in the dyke - only to watch the ocean trickle through another hole, and then another - we observe symptoms here and there, but have a hard time seeing the larger picture because we're standing so close.
In his recent book, Congregational Megatrends, C. Jeff Woods claims that the church is undergoing what he calls a "paradigm shift." That is, some basic assumptions we have in the past held in common, the rules or patterns we have operated by as congregations in this society, are being altered. Now, first off, we're not talking about the foundations of our faith. As the author of that letter to the Hebrews wrote, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." (Hebrews 13:8). Secondly, we're talking about the church in this society. Christ's church worldwide adapts to operate as it can in whatever society it finds itself, as Jesus leads.
What are some of these changing assumptions? First off, the church no longer holds a prominent place in society. Once upon a time, for instance, clergy were well respected leaders in their communities. That's not as much the case now, and is one of the reasons there is a shortage of ministers. It goes beyond the clergy, though. I don't like bashing Hollywood or the Networks, which is in vogue right now, but how often do you see postive portrayals of church people in movies or on TV, or even any mention of them altogether? Furthermore, the church has enjoyed certain privileges that may not be givens much longer. For instance, tax exemption. How long will it be before the church begins paying property tax, as local communities search for revenue? Things are changing, for a variety of reasons. We are dealing with an indifferent, or even (perhaps), a hostile society.
Now, we respond to that change in different ways. We can fight the "de"-Christianization of America, if indeed that is what's happening. Or we can look to the New Testament and find believers there struggling with some similar circumstances, for the early church grew rapidly in such soil. Today's church is much more like the early church, than the church that has dominated the western world during the last 1,700 years. The Brethren movement began as an alternative to a church where being a citizen was the same as being a church member. The first Brethren sought to live as the early church did. Strangely enough, this yearning may be very helpful for us as we seek to be faithful in this changing society. Unfortunately, during the past century we've been trying to do just the opposite: to become like everyone else. I don't believe the solution lies in returning to all the old Dunker ways, though. However, this "paradigm shift" may hold some good news for our future. What do you think?
Another changing assumption is this: there's a shift happening in how we define success in the church. While we ignore numbers at our own peril, do we only measure achievement in terms of how many people we attract, or how many dollars we bring in? Of course not. When those bottom lines begin bottoming out, though, as they have been for most denominations and a majority of congregations, the answer is not to work harder at the same old things, but to work smarter, envisioning some altogether new possibities. I agree with a statement I heard last week: "The next growth period in our church will not come through another 'program,' but will rather be spiritual in nature." Without a vision, that is: a word from the Lord concerning the road ahead, the people perish.
I mentioned the book, Congregational Megatrends, earlier. In it, the author addresses 7 aspects of the church that are transforming in response to the changes I've just noted. Four relate to some of the fundamental purposes of the church: evangelism, discipleship, mission, and spirituality. Three pertain to methods in the church: leadership, programming, and planning. Over the next seven weeks, I will address each of these individually, and wonder with you where God is leading us as a church. We may not agree on many of the specifics but, as Isaiah prophecied, "Come, let us reason together, thus says the Lord" (1:18)...
"The times, they are a-changing," 60's folk musician Bob Dylan once wrote. I believe the New Testament letter to the Hebrews is an appropriate resource for changing times like these. Though some of its discussion feels a bit distant from our present experience - after all, we don't talk much about high priests and such anymore - still, the letter focuses upon life as a pilgrimmage, a journey. Our life with God is not something that remains the same, forever and ever, Amen. We are following a trailblazing leader. In fact, Jesus is referred to in this letter as the "pioneer of our salvation" (2:10), the "pioneer and perfector of our faith" (12:2).
Surrounded by those who have made the pilgrimmage before us, "a great cloud of witnesses," this letter calls us to "lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race (to journey down the path) that is set before us, looking to Jesus, (12:1-2a)" who is not only walking beside us, but is up ahead of us paving the way.
It's within this context that those memorable words are written, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (13:8). Now, he isn't a cinder-block cemented into the structure of the church, though we do call him our "cornerstone." He is alive and active. This will not change. He doesn't somehow sneak off somewhere along the path, like the rabbit in the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. In Jesus Christ both those proverbs I quoted at the outset are true: "Nothing in the world lasts save eternal change," and "The more things change, the more they remain the same." Because of him, we need not be afraid when "paradigms shift," when some of our basic assumptions transform. Our most basic assumptions remain. The Pioneer "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."
We can count on Christ, no matter what happens. But what is it about Jesus that we can bank on in changing times? As a father, I recognize that my ever-changing children need consistancy in their parents, that we mean what we say and don't keep shifting the rules. I'm not sure how well we do in that department. Is that what we need to count on from Jesus, that his rules remain the same? Or is it his promises, that'll he'll remain faithful to what he's said he would do?
In this scripture from Hebrews, the author connects Christ's reliability to a question concerning worship. The issue was food: what was right to eat, what wasn't. Rules concerning worship. In a Brethren context, the question might be whether lamb or beef was the appropriate meal for Love Feast. Or, in a broader sweep - should the bread be unleavened, or that spongy stuff, or even the tasteless variety? Apparently there were some strong opinions, as there still are.
These are "in-house" questions, the author replies, issues that can easily take our eyes off the essentials, that can cause us to stop following Jesus and instead worry about ourselves, rather than serve others who are outside our little camp. What is the same yesterday, today, and forever about Christ? Well, first of all, Jesus himself is our food for the journey, the lamb who was sacrificed for our sake. Secondly, Jesus' greatest work happened outside the city gates of Jerusalem. Think about it, Jesus didn't die for humanity "in here." He gave his life outside the camp, as Hebrews says.
"Jesus suffered outside the city gates in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then," Hebrews continues, "go to him outside the camp (and bear the abuse he endured). For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come." Those are words for now! Whenever we think about "church," about some of the assumptions we've long held, we need this caution: "here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come." Church is not so much a place, as it is a journey. We live together "going to Jesus outside the camp."
And it's this "outside the camp," pioneering "toward the city that is to come" Jesus who is "the same yesterday, today, and forever."
An appropriate hymn for this topic, as well as for this weekend: "Come, come ye saints, no toil nor labor fear, but with joy wend your way...." With these words, and with our lives, "let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God," no matter what changes happen along the way. (#425)
©1996Peter L. Haynes
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