I do not wish for any church body to decline and die.
And yet, many are. Some slowly. Some spiraling out of control.
Now, this is not some sort of "the Church must change or die" sort of post. God knows, I've heard so many of those lectures and read so many of those blogs that I have started tuning them out.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to become more moralistic.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to focus more on justice.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to change our doctrines.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to stop being so liberal.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to stop being so conservative.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to implement more programs.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to implement less programs.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to have more "contemporary"/modern worship.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to have more "traditional" worship.
In each and every one of these things, we are focusing on ourselves. We are trying to figure out what the surrounding culture wants and give it to them. It's as if we believe the Church is here to satisfy the needs and desires of the culture, and if we want our pews to be full, then we need to be giving the culture what it wants.
I can see the early Church trying to take such action.
"Well, you see those Jews over there. They expect a Messiah who will come and establish power and peace by military force. The Messiah will overthrow the Romans and free the nation of Israel. Let's shun the cross and what Jesus did and talk about such power and might. Let's give them what they want."
"Well, you see those Gentiles over there. They want comfort and security. They want a god who is omniscient and omnipotent who can favor them. Let's get rid of the cross where God dies and give them a god who allows them joy and pleasure in their lives."
"For the cross is a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles." --1 Corinthians 1:23.
Indeed, the cross still is foolishness. It must be. That's the only reason I can think of that it didn't make an appearance at the Synod Assembly I attended last week. Can you imagine a Synod Assembly whose focus was intended to be evangelism that didn't mention the cross? That didn't mention the acts of God on that cross? Can you imagine a Lutheran Synod Assembly whose focus was supposedly evangelism--whose founder espoused and coined the phrase the theology of the cross--who didn't spend a single minute asking the question, "How do we convey the message of the cross in this day and age? How do we talk about God's reconciling the world unto Himself in this postmodern age?"
So, what was the Synod Assembly focused on?
Essentially, it was one giant pep-rally trying to get us to do good things. Yep, that was it. Work hard at being especially nice. Work hard at listening to your neighbors. Work hard at loving everyone. That is evangelism. Your works are evangelism. What you do is evangelism.
So, you might ask, what is the problem with that? I'd like you to read the following quote from a young man who served on a panel of young adults at the Synod Assembly. He leans atheist/agnostic, and he offered this scathing criticism of the church:
But the part of me that lives on the edges has to stop and ask this...why? Why is the christian church trying to recruit "youths ages 18-35 who make up the blah blah blah??? What does having more people in church do?
The people I asked to help me with this do amazing things, why doesn't the church stop trying to pull them into their crowd and instead go out and be with them? ...The question I want answered is, when will the church stop trying to make itself the center of everyone's world and go out and do something like so many 18-35 year olds are doing, because I have to tell you, we are just waiting for the day the church joins us.
What response can one give to such a scathing criticism IF the church's job is "doing good things?"
There is no response. The criticism stands, and the Church is convicted. (Although to be fair, in the omitted examples this gentleman listed in his screed where he asked "Where is the Church?", in all reality, the Church was already in all of those places. One can easily ask the question: why can't you see it there?)
In fact, as I was debriefing with one of my members, I was brutally honest. I said, "I don't want this guy in my church. He reminds me of myself not too long ago. Arrogant. Self-righteous. He'd be a troublemaker. But it doesn't matter if I want him in church or not. There is One who does want Him. There is One who wants His heart and soul."
Indeed, there is one part of the young man's criticism that is Truth: the Church should never try and make itself the center of everyone's world. Never. Ever! At the center of everyone's world should be a cross with a suffering God who is stretching His arms out to suffer and die to make sure the world is reconciled to their Heavenly Father. At the center of everyone's world should be Jesus.
If anyone in the Christian Church disputes this, then I simply think you cannot call yourself a Christian. (Read my extended quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a few days ago.) If at the center of your world is anything less than Jesus, then you are committing idolatry. You have a false god.
And so, the answer to the young man's question is Jesus. The Church doesn't want you, sir. Jesus does. The Church will go on without you too, but there is One who doesn't want to go on without you. There is one who was willing to die for you. I know you probably don't see that or get that. You are completely and totally focused on your actions and the actions of the world and the Church. You want to make a difference. I understand that. I really do. I wanted to change the world myself.
But I found out something. It was a hard lesson. A very hard one. I couldn't make that difference. I couldn't change people. I couldn't change the world. I might be able to feed a person for a day. I might be able to lobby government officials. I might even be able to lead a movement to change laws, but I can never, ever change someone's heart. I can't make people love each other. I can't make people get along and see each other a fully human. I can't convince people to stop looking out for their own interests and look out for the interests of another.
I know you are a studious sort of person. It came across very strongly in your presentation. Read Nietzsche? You understand, don't you, that if there is no transcendence, no God, then everything we do are simply power plays, right? You do understand that essentially we are all working out our own wills to power even if we say we are looking out for another? You could argue that you aren't looking out for yourself, but Nietzsche would scoff at you and say, "Yeah right. The only reason you are trying to help others is because you get some benefit.
You see, there is One who indeed came and lived for no benefit to Himself. Jesus didn't need anything from us. He was totally satisfied, loved, and glorified in His relationship with His Father and the Spirit. He needed and needs nothing from us. Yet, He came to us for a reason--to change our hearts that we might experience the same kind of love He knows living with the Father and the Spirit. He came that we might be able to love one another without any sort of contempt or anger towards those who are different than we are. And He showed that not with power and might but with a cross.
It's all about Jesus and the cross. If you can't get someone to the foot of the cross, then...well, you might be doing some good things, but you are not doing evangelism. And if the Church exists solely for doing good things, then we have no need of worship. We have no need for buildings and Bible Study. All we essentially need is to have someone urge us, remind us, sometimes whip us into submission to "Love our neighbors as we love ourselves."
But Christianity isn't about that. Evangelism isn't about that. It's all about Jesus. It's focal point is the cross.
Somehow, this has been pushed to the periphery. No longer is it at the center.
To our detriment.
What will it take to reclaim our cross-centeredness?
I frankly don't know, but I know what I will do from henceforth:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. -- 1 Corinthians 2:1-2.
If that message changed hearts then, it will still change hearts now. Here I stand...