11.13.2016 Preaching Text: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth, the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65:17)
If you looked through the bulletin this morning you may have noticed the sermon title: “Regaining Perspective.” And you might have assumed it has to do with reorienting ourselves after the long, punishing presidential campaign that culminated in Tuesday’s election.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about, not exactly, though it is related. As I mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon, though I believe elections matter, as Christians our deepest hopes should be founded on God alone.
During a clergy Bible study years ago, Gordon Scruton, an Episcopal priest (who later became the bishop of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts), offered a startling observation – this after we’d been discussing the weakening interest in Christianity not only here in America but throughout Western Europe.
“God will not be defeated or thwarted,” he announced, “just because we don’t get it!”
The subtext of his comment was the exponential growth of Christianity throughout the non-Western world, in Central and South America, Russia, Asia (especially China), and Africa. It’s still the fastest growing religion in the world.
But his comment also underscores a basic truism of the faith: human action ultimately cannot supersede God’s will. And this includes presidential elections. In the end, God’s will shall be done.
As such, the only way humans can genuinely thrive and find justice and peace is to live to the Lord.
This is, needless to say, easier said than done. And one of the main reasons it’s so difficult is that, as with placing our confidence on election results, we too often apply secular strategies to solve spiritual problems.
Perhaps the best analysis of the contemporary Protestant Mainline church is Tony Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture. Here he highlights the innumerable ways the church unwittingly confounds God’s spirit by adopting secular strategies.
In the chapter entitled, “From Board Culture to Ministry Culture,” he depicts the mainline church most of us grew up in as concerned mostly with those outside the church. The implication was that we, as Americans, were already up-to-speed religion-wise. It wasn’t we who needed the gospel but those in far-off places.
As such, its ministry focused mostly on managing ministry rather than doing it. “The job of church members,” Robinson explains, “was not to be engaged in mission or ministry themselves; they were to maintain the parish.” And the primary way to maintain the parish was to focus on “the growing structure of church boards and committees.”
Mission, in other words, was done by others and managed by the boards and committees, all financially supported by the church.
Though this was never the optimal way for any church to live out its sacred calling, such an approach today is even less relevant given contemporary realities. For today the mission field is not “out there” but right at our doorstep – and even in our pews!
Our task today is not, Robinson says, to “run the church.” Rather, it requires three basic things, what he otherwise calls “the cycle of transformation”: worship, teaching and learning, and the fellowship life within the church community.
These three critical aspects of church life “[transform] us, week by week, and throughout a lifetime, from disciples to apostles.”
Disciples, that is, are followers, students, of a teacher. Apostles, on the other hand, are those themselves sent out by the teacher to do Christ’s work.
Worship, not surprisingly, is the main event in the life of the Christian. It is here we “regress,” “return to the womb, to the source – and to something larger than ourselves.” Here “we are permitted dependence.”
“In worship,” he writes, “we seek to regain perspective, the perspective provided by our faith and by our relationship with God.” But we are not to stay here, to remain perpetually dependent, for at the conclusion of worship we are sent out – “rebirthed into the world.”
Rather than creating a system that designates certain individuals to “run the church” on behalf of others, everyone is called to perform ministry according to the gifts God has given each of us.
For not only does the “board culture” diminish the role of others, it creates, or at least reinforces, the idea of “first- and second-class Christians and church members, i.e. those who are active on boards and those who aren’t.”
Within the now-outdated board culture, new ideas or new ministries are met with resistance: “We’ll look into that,” they say, “and keep you posted.” Don’t call us, in other words, we’ll call you.
In the transformational “ministry culture” the response to the same proposition is: “Go and do ministry, and you keep us posted.” Note the difference.
Robinson emphasizes that this does not mean church structure is unimportant. On the contrary. His point is that the church should be more focused on identifying and employing spiritual gifts, God-given gifts every single church member, without exception, possesses.
Church members, in other words, are not supposed to be “consumers of ministry” done by others, but active participants in the life to which Christ calls each and every one of us. The Protestant Reformers, Robinson reminds us, had it right: “Baptism is our ordination into ministry. And that ministry belongs to the entire church.”
“The ministry of the laity is to represent Christ to and in the world, the ministry of the ordained is to equip the saints for ministry.”
Finally, he writes, “The board culture tends to operate from a scarcity approach: ‘There are all these board slots, positions, offices – how will we ever fill them?’ A ministry culture tends to operate from the idea of abundance: God gives all people gifts for ministry. The church’s task is to help people discover, identify, and exercise those gifts. In that way we will get as much ‘ministry’ done as God calls forth.”
In Isaiah 65, God reminds the faithful that he plans “to create new heavens and a new earth, where the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Trusting in this, having faith that this is so, is the only rightful and enduring hope for humankind. Amen.