The Church of the Future: Going Deeper (2)
Recently I wrote a blog on “The Church of the Future: Going Deeper, Reaching Wider.” I promised more. Here’s the first in that occasional series.
Someone asked me just the other day what I would advise the declining congregation of which he is part. I said, “people need to come out of church feeling better than when they went in.” They need to leave church with some sense of faith rekindled and energy renewed.
To be clear, I am not talking about happy talk, unremitting positivity or putting on a show. What I am saying is that people need to hear the gospel, the good news, about God’s ever surprising, always amazing, mercy and grace.
For a long time now what people have been getting from church is not grace, but law. We get demands to work on this, clean up that, be nicer or more loving and to be “better Christians.” None of that works. Demanding that people be or do better may have a short term effect, but it evaporates very quickly. And often when law is preached people hear it as something that someone else needs to hear, not them. “You really stepped on their toes today, preacher!” Or, “too bad so-and-so wasn’t here, he really needed to hear that!”
Let’s take as a case-in-point, the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, Matthew 5: 1 – 12, the Beatitudes. Often the way this is preached, and heard, is as a list of virtues you should work to attain and embody. Not a few preachers boil that message down to a snappy slogan, “Make the Beatitudes Your Daily Attitudes!” Because many, perhaps most church people, have been exhorted in this way for all their lives, they think this is the gospel. They hear, “Make the Beatitudes Your Daily Attitudes” and think, “that’s right,” “I should do that.” But it never works. You stagger out of church under the weight of a whole new to-do list and maybe a sense of being a complete faker or a failure as a Christian.
But if you read the Beatitudes you may notice that there is no “if/ then” there. It’s not, “If you are a peacemaker, then God will bless you.” Nor are the Beatitudes in the imperative voice, as in, “You should be pure in heart.” They are in the indicative. Jesus did not say, “If you are merciful, then God will be merciful to you.” No, he simply said, “Blessed are the merciful,” then a promise, “for they shall receive mercy.” Jesus isn’t telling anyone to turn this into a “to do” list or a list of virtues to strive for. He is blessing those who are these things — the poor in spirit, those who grieve, the merciful and the meek. And since the world is emphatically not about these things, Jesus is blessing those who swim against the stream and often get beat up for it.
I am preaching at a house church this week on the Beatitudes and will post my sermon nearer to Sunday, so you can see how I spin this out.
But back to my initial thought — people need to leave church feeling better than when they came — if you are feeling poor in spirit or are grieving or have had evil things said about you (maybe you even got “cancelled”?) because you have been faithful and honest, you might find these words of blessing comforting and healing. You might be able to face another week. Having been reminded, to quote a different but related passage, that “God does not look on outward appearances, but upon the heart,” you might feel as if you leave church with your vision improved, seeing more clearly.
So, to put a point on it, the message of Jesus was grace, mercy and forgiveness, not law. It is not what you must do. It is what he has done for us that we cannot do for ourselves.
Alas, the message of the church has, for the most part, been law. You have to do better. You have to try harder, make better choices, etc., etc. Not only does it not work as a way of healing the human heart, law slaps you down. You stagger out of church, feeling worse than when you came in. It’s no wonder churches, now without the social pressure to belong, are dying. The only people that could possibly enjoy such a message are those who are confident that they are the good, righteous people, who are now confirmed in their rectitude, while others are shown to be deficient. And doesn’t that just sound like fun? You should leave that church. That’s not the gospel.
So — trying to keep this brief — going deeper and reaching wider means going beyond moralism, beyond, “do this/ don’t do that,” (which does not work) to the radical grace of Jesus Christ for people in need of mercy, hope and healing. “I did not come for the righteous,” said Jesus, “but for sinners.” It’s like AA. Everyone there has stuff. Everyone there needs help. And that is true not just of those with an addiction, but all of us. We are all broken people in need of grace. If that isn’t you, either you are extraordinarily fortunate or extraordinarily clueless.
The church has to hand over the goods, the grace of Jesus Christ for sinners. Otherwise, go home.