Which Jesus Will We Give Them?

cappucino and cross“When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens an espresso bar.”

That was one of the better lines from my recent, two-part sermon series called “The End of the Road.” I had been talking about how the church in America is in decline, and how some church leaders seem willing to do whatever it takes to get people back into the pews and their dollars into the plates. I followed it with this story:

Not long after I graduated from college I was I was called to serve as a part-time youth minister at a small church in Kentucky. I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids. I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park. But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie. And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else…was Jesus. So, I made up my mind to do that—to give them Jesus—and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds.

In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

But what I said in the sermon is this: that “giving people Jesus” can mean more than one thing.

I was reminded of that when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg recently. There we were—a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire” (1:14). So if I’m going to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?

Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s “our” Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus doesn’t look like “your” Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.” And something about that rang so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Stage One: to Love Us. In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world so much he gave his only son. I’ve pointed out to you before that the word world is often used in a negative way in the New Testament, as in, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much he gave his only son for it. And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does. Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. God sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we should love it, too. What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians, was simply to love people? Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to love them? Is this the way Jesus approached his ministry? Did he think, “I’ve got to begin by loving the world, because that’s what my father sent me to do”?

Stage Two: to Save Us. Jesus himself says that he didn’t only come to love the world, but “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). I’ve told you before that the word save in the Gospels is a bigger word than we sometimes imagine. It doesn’t usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually means “to help,” “to heal,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” More often than not, this is how Jesus used it. He said to the woman with the flow of blood, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to that one leper who came back, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to Blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well, and made you whole. What if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do that? To help people, to heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole? One of the most important ways we can do that is to let people know that their sins can be forgiven—those things that fill them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from becoming all God made them to be. They need to know that all those things can be forgiven, forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.

Stage Three: to Change Us. Marcus Borg says that every major religion is about transformation, and Christianity would be at the top of that list. Jesus didn’t think it was enough to save us: he wanted to change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to be. And Paul, perhaps more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that charge. In dozens of different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life might look like. In Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the flesh in favor of a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit. Those of you who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the flesh keeps doing its work. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four.

Stage Four: to Send Us. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As I’ve said before, this is the moment when the disciples became apostles: when they were no longer “learners,” but “sent ones.” And you’ve also heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to give up gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before Jesus I don’t think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his second missionary trip; I think he’s going to ask us where we went on ours. That’s what KOH2RVA was all about, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with KOHx2 as we look for partners who will work with us to bring heaven to earth, in Richmond and around the world. We believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and that we can’t give up until it is accomplished.

Which stage are you in? Which stage are you in today? Which stage will you be in tomorrow? And which stage will that person be in you encounter on the street, the one who shuffles along with her head down, wondering if there’s any reason to go on?

Which Jesus will you give her?

KOH2RVA: Day 61

Last night I was buying my meal ticket for our weekly Wednesday night supper at church when Mina Tatum asked me, “What was that you said in your sermon a few weeks ago? That only 17 percent of the American population is in church on any given Sunday?”  I nodded.  “And that means everybody?” she asked. “Not just Christians, but everybody?”  I nodded again.  She said, “I looked at the attendance figures on the back of the bulletin when you said that and calculated how many of our own members were in church the Sunday before. I came up with was 22 percent.”

And that’s rather shocking, isn’t it?

What Mina was saying is that out of all those people on our membership rolls—many of whom walked down the aisle of the church fighting back tears while the congregation sang “Just as I Am,” and who stood in the baptistry a few weeks later confessing, “Jesus is Lord!”—only about one in five actually came to church on the Sunday before.

Now, I know that some of our members would love to come but can’t: they are physically unable. And I’m sure that some of the people who are usually there couldn’t be there that particular Sunday. But that Sunday is more typical than I would like to admit and it makes me wonder:

Does the church have a future?

If we think of church as a place where people go to hear sermons, sing hymns, and enjoy Christian fellowship, then I’m not sure that it does. Churchgoing, as an activity, seems to be going the way of bowling. Look at this article I found online:

The invention of the automatic pinsetter led to a rapid growth in the number of bowling alleys and lanes in the later 1950s and early 1960s. The heyday of bowling was the mid-1960s, when there were approximately 12,000 bowling centers in the United States. Business predominately was driven by leagues where bowlers signed up to come once or more every week for at least 30 weeks and to participate in tournaments.

Bowling has undergone a major transition over the past several decades. Whereas league bowling used to generate about 70 percent of a bowling center’s business, due to societal and lifestyle changes, it now generates only about 40 percent of overall bowling business, and is continuing to decline.

During the 1997-98 year, the United States Bowling Congress reported 4.1 million members of the ABC, YABC and WIBC league bowling organizations. That membership declined by 36 percent to 2.6 million in the 2006-07 year.

There has been a steady reduction in the number of bowling centers since the 1970s, driven by both the decline of league bowling and the sale of many bowling centers so the land could be used for more profitable ventures. As of December 2007, there were only 5,498 certified 10-pin bowling centers with 113,897 lanes, and just 137 duckpin and candlepin centers with 2,560 lanes. That’s less than half the number certified in the mid-1960s.

The interesting thing about that story is that it parallels the heyday of churchgoing in America, which occurred around the same time.  I can imagine the owners of bowling alleys getting together and commiserating over coffee in the same way pastors do these days. I can almost hear them saying, “Does the bowling alley have a future?” in the same way my colleagues and I say, “Does the church have a future?”

If we think of church as a place, maybe not, but if we think of church as a people the picture changes. Think of those people who used to go bowling. Did they stop getting together with friends? Did they give up their need for recreation? No, they just began to do it in different ways, and maybe in better ways. These days a lot of people meet on the soccer field, where children race around kicking balls into goals while their parents sit on the sidelines and chat. That might be a more family-friendly form of recreation than leaving the kids with a babysitter while the grownups go to the bowling alley.

If church is not a place but a people, and if those people are committed to Christ and his mission, then church could take a hundred different forms. What if there’s a soccer mom living next door to you right now who has no interest in going to church, but if you asked her to come with you on a mission trip to help AIDS orphans in Africa she would start packing her bags? What if that guy hanging out in front of the 7-11 with all the tattoos and piercings wouldn’t come with you to Sunday school, but would come with you to tutor a third-grade boy at a local elementary school? What if the church of the future has less to do with sitting in pews and more to do with pounding the pavement? Would that be a bad thing? No. Not if it’s grounded in relationship to Christ and commitment to his mission. It could be a good thing. It could be a very good thing indeed.

Our year-long, every-member mission trip is giving us an opportunity to explore new ways of being the church, and not just going to church. Maybe we’ll get to that place where we stop counting how many people happen to be in church on any given Sunday, and instead start counting how many times church happens between one Sunday and the next.

KOH2RVA: Day 41

I had coffee with Chris Backert yesterday morning.

Thursday is my day off, but Chris and I hadn’t been able to work out any other time and the idea of having coffee at Starbucks with a missional church strategist didn’t sound like something I would hate. In fact, it sounded like something I would want to do.

Plus, Chris is a really nice guy.

We started talking about the decline of the church in America these days and the recent statistics suggesting that twenty percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation at all, a number that has grown by five percent in just the last five years. That means that in the last five years roughly fifteen million people have stopped saying they are Baptist, or Catholic, or whatever. Now they just say they “unaffiliated.”

The evidence is everywhere.

Church attendance in America is falling off at an alarming rate. While some 40 percent of Americans say they go to church, the truth is that on any given Sunday the number of people in the pews is less than half of that. In fact the latest statistics suggest that only 17 percent of the population is in church on Sunday.

It wasn’t like that fifty years ago, and the people who can remember how things were fifty years ago—when about half of all Americans went to church—are anxious. That anxiety often expresses itself in hurtful ways. I talked with a pastor last week who had been forced out of his church, not because he wasn’t preaching the gospel but because he wasn’t filling the pews, or, more truthfully, because he hadn’t figured out a way to make it 1962 again.

I told Chris I thought that kind of institutional anxiety is just beneath the surface in most of the churches in America these days, and that many of them keep hiring and firing pastors in the hope that they can find the one who will “pack them in,” just like they did back in the good old days. I told him the church in America seems to be going through the stages of grief Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described so many years ago: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. And that’s when he began to tell me about the church in England.

The church in England has already worked its way through those stages. These days less than 17 percent of the population in Great Britain can say “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it” and only about three or four percent of the population goes to church. In other words, Christians in the U.K. have had to accept the fact that the church as it once existed in that country is dead, and rather than try to merely resuscitate it, they are trying to resurrect it in new and different forms.

And that’s what Chris wanted to talk to me about: not just another way to boost church attendance, but ways of thinking about God’s mission that may not look like church at all, what Chris and his friends in England are calling “Fresh Expressions.”

I don’t have time to tell you everything we talked about yesterday, but here’s a link to Fresh Expressions in the U.K., and another to Fresh Expressions in the U.S. If you have some time take a look, and then tell me what you think by leaving a comment below. This is a conversation we need to continue as we think about how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

Now Available!

I’ve published a book on the issuu.com web site.  It’s called “When the Sand Castle Crumbles,” and it’s for pastors and members of churches that were thriving in the fifties but are now struggling to survive.  It’s free, it’s online, and you can read the whole thing in less than an hour. 

The book grew out of five sermons I delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church during the 2010 Lenten Luncheon series, as I shared my thoughts about why so many churches in America seem to be dying and what can be done about it.  My hope then (and now) is that these words would be an encouragement to those churches, and help them re-imagine their mission.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

When my daughter, Ellie, was a little girl we built a magnificent sand castle at the beach.  It had turrets and towers, and little flags sticking up on top.  We were standing there admiring it when the first wave lapped up against the foundation.  “Daddy!” she screamed.  “Do something!”  So I did.  I started digging a moat around the castle and Ellie helped me pile up a big floodwall in front.   But there was a whole ocean out there and the tide was coming in.  In the end we watched helplessly as the waves washed our sand castle away.

“Now what?” Ellie asked, glumly.

I looked out over the clear blue ocean, felt the warm water swirling around my ankles.   

“Let’s go swimming,” I said. 

That story is a metaphor of what’s happening to the church in America today.  The beautiful edifices we constructed during the “Christian Century” have been emptying out over the past few decades.  Those of us in leadership positions are doing everything we can to shore up the foundations, dig moats around the church, and build floodwalls to save it.  But maybe that’s not the answer.  Maybe at a time when the tides of change threaten to destroy the church it’s time to go swimming, time to dive into a culture that no longer loves the church and learn a few new strokes.

To read the book, just click the link below.  When you get to the web site, click on the “full screen” option at the top left for easy viewing, and then use those little arrows down at the bottom right corner of your keyboard to turn the pages. 

When the Sand Castle Crumbles by Jim Somerville

Feel free to forward the link to others, especially those who might need a little encouragement.  And, as always, thanks for reading!


Prosperity Will Have Its Seasons

IRAQ DROUGHT YEARI just got back from the Rotary Club, where I enjoyed a delicious breakfast and spoke to some fifty members of the West Henrico chapter.  As I prepared my speech I tried to think about what a Baptist preacher could say to a group of business people that wouldn’t sound too “preachy.”  I ended up talking about a favorite subject of mine, and that is the way the church has responded to the changes in culture over the last forty to fifty years.

I told the Rotarians how, in each church I served, there had been a “legendary” pastor, the one everybody still talked about.  In my first church it had been Bill Hull, in my second church Dewey Hobbs, in my third church Ed Pruden, and here in Richmond, of course, it had been Ted Adams.  What didn’t occur to me early on in my ministry is that each of those pastors had served those churches during the 1950’s, which was a unique time in history.  The war was over, soldiers and sailors were coming home, marrying their high school sweethearts, settling down, having children, and bringing them to church.  I believe the churchgoing “boom” precisely paralleled the Baby Boom (1946-1964). 

So, I talked to the Rotarians about that, about how the culture at one time had pushed people through the front door of the church and how now the culture seemed to be dragging them out.  I talked about how the church had responded with a sort of widespread panic as it watched its pews and offering plates emptying out, and how the church growth movement has been a desperate bid to get those people (and their dollars) back.   “It’s not only churches,” I acknowledged.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been difficult to attract new members to the Rotary Club.  ‘Service Above Self’ (their motto) isn’t all that popular these days.”

After breakfast a number of people came forward to tell me that it was true: membership in their club was in decline.  Several others told me stories about their churches—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian—and the way they had been struggling to keep the lights on and the doors open.  I had tried to leave all of them with good news.  I said that in times like these its important to return to our roots, to remember who we are and why we’re here.  I told them that at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we are turning our attention toward the clear commands of Christ, who is Lord of the church, and trying to get serious about what he asked his followers to do.  Maybe the Rotarians, likewise, will look to their founding principles and get serious about those.  Maybe they already have.

On the way back from breakfast I remembered a song by David Wilcox that has always made me think about the church:

Summer lasted a generation
A generation – and then the winter wind
The bounty harvest that seemed so endless
It seemed so endless until it gave what it could give

Prosperity will have its seasons
Even when it’s here, it’s going by
And when it’s gone we pretend we know the reasons
And all the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.

This is my prayer for the church of Jesus Christ in this dry season: that its roots will grow deeper, and that instead of worrying so much about how to fill pews and offering plates, we will drive our roots down into the deep places, and discover the living water that quenches our deepest thirst, and becomes in us a spring of water gushing up to everlasting life (John 4:14).

I’m Finished Quitting Church

imageI mean, I’m finished with that book I’ve been reading, the one called Quitting Church by Washington Times Religion Editor Julia Duin. 

The subtitle of the book is “Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do about It,” and yet I came to the end of the book without feeling that either question had been answered.   That the faithful are fleeing seems clear: religious attendance in America fell from 41 percent in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002.  More recent studies suggest that only 22 percent of Americans go to church regularly (p. 11).  Why people are leaving is less clear. 

Duin’s chapter titles and subtitles give some clues:

1.  The Flood Outward: why so many good people are leaving
2.  The Irrelevant Church: give them a reason to be here
3.  Searching for Community: what we really wish church could be
4.  Emergence and Resurgence: adjusting to the twenty-first century
5.  The Loneliest Number: why singles over thirty-five are saying good-bye
6.  Not So Solid Teaching: why Christians cannot exit the obstetrics ward
7.  Is the Pastor the Problem? Or is the whole system broken?
8.  The Other Sex: why many women are fed up
9.  Bewildered Charismatics: looking for the spirit in a parched land
10. Bringing Them Back: if they want to come

Julia Duin strikes me as a smart, conservative, single mom, who became a Christian during the “Jesus Movement” of the 70’s.  Some of her complaints about church seem deeply personal.  For example: the church hasn’t helped her find a life partner (chapter 5); she’s tired of getting “baby food” instead of solid biblical teaching (chapter 6); she’s encountered some egotistical, out-of-touch pastors along the way (chapter 7); she is one of those women whose gifts are overlooked by conservative churches (chapter 8); she’s a charismatic who’s had trouble finding a church like the ones she remembers from her days in the Jesus movement (chapter 9).  Some of her other complaints, however, are true for everyone, particularly her insistence that the church must deal with the questions people are actually asking (chapter 2); that the church must help those who are starving for life-giving, life-changing community (chapter 3); and that the church must adjust to life in the 21st century (chapter 4).

Duin’s last chapter includes this provocative paragraph:  “In the local church, everything depends on the pastor, who must want to reach the more mature Christian and be willing to make the necessary changes to attract this group.  I’ve not seen many churches like this, that concentrate on discipleship and leave the bottle-feeding to the megachurches, but I’m willing to bet such a church would do well in this era of dumbed-down, purpose-driven, seeker-friendly Christianity.  But the pastor must be willing to tackle the hard questions or this experiment will fail” (p. 178). 

While she may be right about most of that, I would say that it doesn’t only depend on the pastor, but also on a church that is willing to ask the hard questions, risk authentic community, and change with the times.  I have a feeling Richmond’s First Baptist is one of those kind of churches, or will be.  As a member of our staff said last week, “But Jim, people are not quitting this church.  They’re coming, they’re joining, they’re giving, they’re serving.” 

Yes, thank God.  They are.  And for their sakes and ours may we never stop asking the hard questions or trying to find the answers…together.