1.19.2014 Preaching Text: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6b)
As promised, I have assembled (and will soon meet with) a new study group whose purpose is to assess the state of the church in contemporary society.
In order to do this effectively, we first must look to the past, to how we got where we are today, to the kinds of changes that, in particular, have affected the Mainline Protestant church. Only then can we hope to determine how best to face the future.
Just this past week, while on vacation, I got into a conversation with our son-in-law, Kevin, about, of all things, preaching. I told him that, in terms of preaching, one of my main tasks throughout my ordained ministry is to address what I consider a major problem.
And it has to do with the church’s relationship with American culture. Like most of you, I grew up, at least during my earlier years, in an American culture that worked hand-in-glove with the (mostly) Mainline Protestant churches. We were part of the Establishment, and the wider culture by and large reflected positively the church’s influence. We were, as someone once put it, the conscience of the nation.
Then things changed. Tony Robinson, U.C.C. pastor, author, and consultant, published a long overdue and highly perceptive book a few years back entitled, Transforming Congregational Culture. It had an immediate impact on our denomination, a denomination struggling for years with, among other things, a significant loss of membership.
In the book Robinson cites the 60’s as the crucible through which society and the church passed, effecting considerable change in both.
He offers this list of factors that changed society forever: “The assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War, a new drug culture, Watergate, etc., tore holes in the sacred canopy of American society and its civil religion.”
“Social trust and confidence were shattered…, and authority in many forms was, if not ridiculed and rejected outright, then simply dismissed.”
“The divorce rate was rising toward fifty percent; legalized abortion became for many another form of birth control; people felt less safe as drug use, crime, and violence became endemic; and once-reliable authority figures – from presidents to pastors – seemed to be missing in action.”
“The problems were deep,” he continues, “deeper than those that could be addressed or touched by a civic faith that had been persuasive and even powerful in an era when the sacred canopy was whole, when social norms had greater power, and when institutions and authority figures were trusted and respected.”
Getting back to my conversation with Kevin, one of the most essential tasks of preaching in the contemporary context, as I see it, is to convince a once-trusting church to rethink its loyalty to that which the Bible time and again refers to as “the world.”
Back when I was a child, the world seemed, generally speaking, a winsome place. The sacrifices of war had defeated the powers of fascism that had threatened all peace-loving peoples. The country was experiencing a new burst of optimism and success after years of war as well as the economic hardship wrought by the Great Depression. The economy was booming and hopes soared.
We trusted our institutions, and, as a result, the church largely ceded much of its authority to them, content to sit back and contemplate a job otherwise well done.
Earlier, at the beginning of the 20th century, as you’ll recall, Mainline Protestantism embarked on a project to Christianize American society. In significant ways, this effort succeeded. Yet at that time, some prescient observers warned that this admittedly noble project to remake American society to more accord with biblical values might very well lead the church to lose its spiritual bearings, as it focused more on secular policy.
The “civic faith” of which Robinson speaks is precisely what these early dissenters feared, a church which had relinquished its authority to secular entities. Since the culture was now thought to be “Christian,” the church could lay back, content in the knowledge that its work was mostly done.
But then, alas, the world reared its ugly head…once again. It reasserted itself precisely because it is, after all, at least biblically speaking, the world!
Throughout my ministry, as I say, I’ve tried to convince the churches I’ve served to rethink their comfortable loyalty to the secular world, and to refocus attention on the gospel.
Two weeks ago, I talked about receiving an e-mail message from an online vendor announcing a “Winter Blues Sale.” My intent at the time was to highlight how the world subtly, or not so subtly, convinces us that the spiritual, transcendent miracles and wonders of Christmastime, along with its aspirations toward peace on earth and good will to all, are, at best, a momentary escape from our otherwise mundane, everyday existence.
If we trust in the world around us, in other words, in the culture that surrounds us, this sad mindset is almost inevitable, in effect robbing us of the God-infused truths Christmas beckons us to experience every day and always.
And what is it we’re led to experience instead of God’s peace? Chronic rising anxiety, both free-floating and institutional, instilled in us, as Eugene Buie recently put it, “by mass media, wide-scale cultural and social change, the entertainment industry, informational overload, war and terrorism, economic uncertainty, underemployment, unemployment, drugs and alcohol, the failure of social and religious institutions, secularized public education as well as higher education, and health care, to name but a few.”
In reading this over I thought of the political humorist, Dave Barry, who every December pens a satirical retrospective of the passing year in politics. Published by the Washington Post a few weeks ago, Berry offers a brief, month by month synopsis of 2013’s political events.
January 2013, he begins, starts “with a crisis in Washington, a city that — despite having no industries and a workforce consisting almost entirely of former student council presidents — manages to produce 93 percent of the nation’s crises.”
This is the recurring theme throughout his comically ironic essay – manufactured crises. Now there are, to be sure, real crises, but so much of our world, we must admit, is all but manufactured.
So as the world replaces the church as that center of meaning, we are increasingly vulnerable to our culture’s artifice and drama. The beautiful world God has created gets lost in the shuffle as we are drawn ever-more fully into the world’s orbit.
The hope of this season of Epiphany is born in the renewed recognition of God in our midst, active, alive, and powerful. As we see Jesus engaging in this world, we see a whole new perspective and a whole new reason to live.
The power of the church in our day has been diminished. Yet it stands as one of the few places of refuge, a place for discerning and living out God’s meaning and purpose. It offers us, in short, a different vision from that of the world around us, a transcendent vision that has the power to lift the unnecessary burdens the world has consigned us to experience and to replace them with the steady confidences born of the abundant goodness of a God-filled universe.
Biblical faith may seem paranoid about the world, but I think it realistic instead. Then again, our biblical faith does not leave us merely with a critique of the world, but presents positive and life-affirming alternative, that we might reject darkness and embrace the light, that we might know and live life abundantly. Amen.