Christianity For the Rest of Us
Sermon preached October 3, 2010
Texts: Lamentations 1:1-6; Luke 17:5-10
As mentioned in the Children’s time, today is World Communion Sunday, and I think that makes it a good day to speak about the state of Christianity in the world. Now that is about the least exciting beginning to a sermon I can imagine, but I hope you hang in there with me because I am going to bring it all back, close to home.
So what is happening with Christianity in the world? In 1910 there were over 600 million Christians in the world, about 34.8% of the population. It was the world’s largest religion by percent. In 2010, Christianity still claims more adherents than any other religion, now with 2.2 billion persons calling themselves Christian. However, the percent of the world’s population that is Christian has declined ever so slightly, 33.2%. And in these past 100 years which religion has grown most dramatically? Islam – 12.6% in 1910 to 22.4% in 2010. While the percentage of the world’s population that considers itself Christian has remained about the same, the geographic center of Christianity is shifting. Christianity is declining in the modern, industrial and post-industrial West and increasing elsewhere, especially in Africa.
Closer to home, we know that the situation for mainline Protestant Churches in the United States has changed and continues to change. The place of the church in the culture has shifted. Here are some words offered by the authors of the book we are using in the 9 a.m. Bible study on Acts: No longer are stores closed on Sunday in tacit support of the church and Christianity. No longer do public schools give privileged status to Christianity and its leaders. No longer does the church benefit from a pervasive expectation that part of being a good American is being a participant and member of a church or synagogue. (Called To Be Church, 9). Our own church statistics for worship attendance and membership are an indication of such changes. In 1984 First UMC had 1023 members and averaged 352 in worship on a Sunday morning. In 2009, our membership was 592 and our average worship attendance 194. Interestingly, I recently came across some information that indicates that while church membership fell some after the 1950s in the US, “participation in churches has remained proportionately higher compared to previous eras” (Christian Century, August 10, 2010, 9) Another change for us is that there is not only greater “competition” for our time from outside activities, there is also more “competition” from new churches. A couple of weeks ago I was at a church fair at St. Scholastica – an opportunity for local congregations to promote themselves to college students. One of the amazing things I noticed was the number of newer ministries present – Community Churches – Rock Hill, Eastridge; the Vineyard Church; funky sounding ministries like The Fringe.
To all of this we could offer a lamentation. How lonely sits the church that once was full of people. How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the community…. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her. There is biblical precedent for such lamentation.
But if we offer lamentation, it should not be our signature note. Yes, our situation is different from the situation in which this church was founded in 1869 and when we built here in 1966. The world is not the same. Yet God still calls to us. Jesus is not yet done with us. If we want to lament for awhile, fine, but let us also seek refreshment, renewal, rekindling the fire.
What might that look like? There are some models of Christian faith out there that are not necessarily fitting for us, that are not the way for our renewal. The First and Ten men’s group is reading a book called When Christians Get it Wrong, written by Adam Hamilton, United Methodist pastor of one of the largest mainline churches in the country with 17,000 members. Christians can get it wrong; even some successful Christian churches get it wrong. Hamilton’s book discusses how Christians get it wrong sometimes in our temperament, in our thinking about science and politics, when speaking of other religions, when bad things happen, in dealing with homosexuality. Evidence of getting it wrong abounds. Our newspaper has carried letters written by local Christian clergy in which Islam is called evil and Allah a demon and foreign god. I received a fax this week from an organization called “The Pray in Jesus Name Project.” It was a voter’s guide and I was encouraged to reproduce it and distribute it. The guide ranked our Minnesota congressional delegation on “faith-friendly” issues. And how were these defined? Abortion and homosexuality. The statement of faith of one of the growing churches in our area proclaims “the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked” (Vineyard Statement of Faith), but it is not clear who that includes – anyone who is not a Christian?
So if there are forms of Christian faith that seem to us to get it wrong, versions of Christian faith that don’t seem fitting as our road to renewal, and yet we know we cannot simply turn back the clock to a time when church was the only thing going on Sundays and the culture strongly encouraged that you go, what are we left with? Christianity for the rest of us!
Two weeks ago I invited you to pray with me that God would let God’s Spirit rain upon us generously. Today I invite you to join others in thinking about what it means to be a Christian and a part of a Christian community in our day and time, beginning with reading Christianity For the Rest of Us. The author of that book shares stories about churches like ours that are discovering new life, often by reclaiming faith practices from our Christian tradition, but making them new. From now until Thanksgiving, I am going to be preaching on some of the themes of the book. People are going to be reading the book and discussing it in groups. It is not a magic wand, but it is a step.
In light of the declining position of mainline churches and of our church, we might want to lament. We also might pray, “Increase our faith.” Jesus response to the disciples request for an increase in faith was to tell them, in a cryptic way, “Use what you’ve got!”
I believe the seeds for the renewal of our church are here. They are here in our thoughtful minds. They are here in our compassionate hearts. They are here in our shared life with its inclusive table fellowship. We may not soon have 1,000 members, but as we seek renewal of our faith and life, as we seek to live out a Christianity for the rest of us, others will find that attractive and join us on the journey. What we want here is faith in Jesus that is thoughtful, compassionate, and passionate – one that is open and generous, intellectual and emotive, beautiful and just. We want a Christianity for the rest of us, a Christian faith that gets it right often.
I began with statistics, let me end with a story. You may have heard about the Superior Spartan High School Football team. Last week in a game against Menomonie, losing significantly, the Superior team, late in the game, allowed a Menomonie player to catch a pass and score a touchdown. The player was a senior with developmental disabilities. The first time I heard the story was in an e-mail from Julie that was circulating in the Superior school district. A man had sent a copy of a letter he was writing the Superior Telegram to the district, and it was being circulated. In the letter the man wrote about “the larger than life gift given by these Superior HS men…. That Friday night the Superior HS varsity football team and its coaching staff exhibited, without apology, a willingness to honor the ‘least of these.’”
You know where that phrase comes from – the Bible. Our world yearns for Christians to live this way. It yearns for followers of Jesus who live a faith in Jesus that is thoughtful, compassionate, and passionate – one that is open and generous, intellectual and emotive, beautiful and just. That is our path to renewal, and the seeds of it are already planted in our hearts, our minds, our souls. May the rain of God’s Spirit water them generously. Amen.