That Church ain’t Dead

empty_pew_68916012_800512b224_oThis morning over my third cup of coffee, I was thinking about some churches I know that are experiencing diminishing congregations, a mass exodus of Gen X and Gen Y attendees, and a lost focus outside their own church box.  The phrase that popped in my mind was “Ichabod,” the Glory of the Lord has departed.

But then immediately in my gut, I felt that was wrong.  Completely wrong.  As long as people are there, the Spirit of God will be there.  That’s a given.  God loves human beings, it’s just not in his nature to abandon us, so wherever we are, especially if our hearts are inclined toward him in anyway, the Spirit of God will be there.

I remembered a few years ago when I was driving home from work, the car radio tuned to a Christian talk show where listeners called in and asked questions about the bible.  At one point, they were debating “the End Times” and when and how the Holy Spirit will be removed from the planet, and then Evil would be given free rein.  And as I listened, I knew instinctively that they were wrong.  They assumed some event would occur in history that would cause God to depart from this planet and turn his back on humanity.  Of course before that occurred, all the saints would have been gathered up in a great rapture and pulled into his heavenly bosom.  The poor wretches left on earth would suffer through some arbitrary number of years of incredible and unimaginable misery before God would return and reimpose his reign physically on the cosmos.

And in my gut I knew that was dead wrong.  We can be so glib sometimes when we say that “God is love” and then go on to attribute horrific and spiteful acts to him.  What I sensed at that moment was that as long as human beings existed on this planet, the Spirit of God would be there living among them.  Tribulation or no tribulation, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Even in the darkest moments of our history, God was — and will continue to be — close to those who reach out for him.  To deny that is to deny the very character of God.

So when I was thinking about these poor churches, having lost their vision, lost their way, floundering in a sea of mediocrity and irrelevance, making no impact whatsoever in the world around them, acting only as a weekend social club for the same familiar faces week after week, it was very tempting for me to fall into that same trap and think that God would abandon them.  But the truth is, as long as there is a living, breathing soul in that congregation who is seeking God with even an ounce of their strength, I do not believe the Spirit will abandon them.  That church ain’t dead.  It may be on critical life support, just waiting for someone to pull the plug, but it’s never too late.

My job, then, as a member of the faithful community is not to wish them ill, or to pray for their speedy and merciful demise, or even to sit back with my bowl of popcorn and watch the slow, painful, inevitable conclusion unfold. As cliché as it sounds, my job is — should be — to pray for them.  I may not feel inclined to dedicate my life’s energy into trying to revive them — most dying churches are dying for a reason.  They are usually resistant to change.  They are often locked within the trap of their own limited vision, usually anchored in some romanticized moment in the past, and usually focused inward, too preoccupied with self-survival, and too out of touch with the world around them.  They often have become “of no earthly good.” But I can still pray that God will at least stir one or two of them with the hunger for more.  I can pray that their leaders’ eyes will be opened to see clearly what is happening, and that they will reach out to God in a real way, beyond a perfunctory routine of simply walking through a Sunday liturgy.  I can pray like the Apostle Paul that the eyes of their heart will be enlightened and that they will know the great hope to which they are called.  I can pray that even if there is just a corner of their hearts that has not yet turned to stone, that they will look outward and see the people around them, and be moved with genuine love and compassion to do something other than turning on the lights Sunday morning for an hour and then going home. I can pray that the Spirit, who is still there — even if constrained by their lost interest and their restricted time table — will be unleashed to work among them. The church is dead only when everyone in the church is dead.

I learned this morning not to so quickly write off churches that seem to be failing — at least from my viewpoint.  As that old prophet Ezekiel discovered, even a valley full of dry bones is no match for the breath of God.  As long as people are still there, the Spirit is still there, lurking, waiting to breathe new life.

Even where the pulse is weak, those churches aren’t dead. There’s still hope — just like there is for the old guy needing that third cup of coffee in the morning.

photo credit: Ally on Flickr, cc

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Jesus in Drag

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Funny thing happened in church today. (Yeah, I know. Sounds like the start of a joke.) The church I frequently attend put on a nice Christmas program, with the choir singing some of the holiday favorites, interspersed with readings about Jesus, and a good mix of worship songs that never let our minds drift too far from the theme that Jesus is at the heart of our holiday.

God’s got an interesting sense of humor. Because, there I was, sitting way over in the left section of the sanctuary, empty seats around me, and about a half hour into the program, two women whom I thought might well be hookers, came in and sat next to me. I smiled and nodded politely — being the welcoming Christian gentleman that I pretend to be. And a few minutes later, in the middle of a choir member’s monologue, one of the lady’s phone goes off. And it’s ringing. Literally, ringing, like the old style phones. And it keeps ringing. And she’s fumbling with it, trying to shut it off. And still it rings. You’d think it would stop after a few rings — even if she can’t manage to find the mute — and go to voicemail. But no. It rings continuously for close to a minute. I thought, surely she’d just get up and leave the quiet intimacy of the sanctuary and try to deal with the noise out in the lobby. But no. Eventually, after what seemed an embarrassingly drawn out period of time, her friend grabs the phone from her and puts it under her thigh, effectively muffling it. After my initial sense of mortification and a brief moment of internal wrestling with judgmental indignation, I manage to find the humor in it, and just start chuckling. The one sitting on the phone looks over at me and starts to laugh too. Quietly, of course. And she smiles at me. Okay, “welcoming mission” accomplished.

The guy sitting right in front of me, also on an otherwise empty row, … I don’t know quite what to make of. At first glance, I thought he was one of the homeless youth we’re currently providing winter clothes for, but during the “meet and greet” — that moment all introverts dread — when I shook his hand and we exchanged names, I realized he was no teenager. He must have been in his 30s at least. And he couldn’t have been homeless because he was dressed in clean loungewear. A cut off tanktop that showed his belly (not rock-hard abs, in case you were wondering) and … I don’t even know what to call them: fuzzy pink and lime leppard print tights? Sweats? Yeah, not what they’re wearing on the streets these days.

That’s God’s sense of humor for you. In a room full of familiar faces, the handful of first-timers flocked to the seats immediately by me. The professional ladies and the … party boy? … and the uptight middle-class white guy in a constant battle to keep his Christianity real. We were like a reunion of the cast from the Island of Misfit Toys. Must be something about that side of the sanctuary that intuitively drew us — check who’s over on the left side next time you’re in church — or maybe God was just punking me. But hey, I did the smiley face pretty convincingly apparently, since the ladies chatted me up a bit afterwards, asking if I was a member, and telling me how they’d often walked past the place, but this was their first time to get the courage to come in, and how maybe they’ll see me next week. I only got to nod goodbye to the guy in the pink and lime jammies, as he kinda hurried out the door and I got caught up in after-church conversation that always seems to go on in places like that.

But here’s the kicker. During one of the choir monologues about Jesus being the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Gift of Love from the Father, the woman with the neverending-ringing cell phone had her eyes closed and her hands in the air. I think I even saw tears in the corner of her eyes. And her friend was just quietly smiling. And during one of the songs, I heard her whisper “Jesus.” And the fashionable guy in front of me was clapping in beat with some of the songs and standing at appropriate moments of worship.

I don’t know what was going on in their minds any more than I know what was going on in the hearts of the guys wearing suits a few rows up and to the right of me. But God was there. The Spirit connected with hearts that reached out for him. “Emmanuel. God with us.” And I got to witness a little bit of that taking place.

Jesus said whoever welcomes the least among us welcomes him. I’m still wrestling to shed my white, middle-class, evangelical uptightness, but at this particular holiday event, I was reminded powerfully — yet again — that Jesus comes in all shapes, sizes, and packaging.

Merry Christmas!

 

photo credit:  Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Wally Gobetz on Flickr, cc

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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