given on Father’s Day, June 16,2013
Enough is enough! The reality of our 21st century’s church is outdated. Is this a problem or is the 21st century the problem?
Reporters are trained to look at an issue and then work to answer the 5 W’s and an H. Who is the story about? What is the issue? When did it happen? Where did it happen? Why did it happen? And finally, how: how did it happen, how is it going to be fixed.
Therefore, looking at the state of 21st century Christianity, who is a key component. Today’s Christians are dwindling. Attendance in many churches is decreasing. The ‘who’ is at the very heart of the 21st century church troubles.
The truth is that the small churches far outnumber the mega churches, but the diminishing attendance in the small churches is going to reduce that statistic. Who is attending is no longer dependent on the proximity of the church.
When did this change occur? As transportation improved, the church’s location no longer is dependent on how physically close the church is from the member’s home. As recently as the mid-20th century, the church a person attended depended on what was available in the immediate vicinity.
Now members jump in their vehicles and drive as far as they wish to go to the church that best suits them. Today’s Christians drive as much as an hour to reach a welcoming church that provides the programming best suited for the individual.
What programming is needed for today’s Christians is another concern. John Wesley defined the programming in two parts: acts of piety and acts of mercy. Today’s Christians still need these two forms of programming.
Somewhere between Wesley’s establishing of the Methodist Church and today, congregations lost the personal discipline or acts of piety required by Wesley in his class meetings. These acts include small group meetings, Bible study, worship, and sacraments
American Methodists also seemed to turn over their responsibility for the acts of mercy to government legislation. Accepting the personal responsibility for acts of mercy declined and the generations since the mid-20th century simply ignored this aspect of responsibility as outlined by Wesley.
Fortunately a push began in the last decade of the 20th century that has reactivated social responsibility in 21st century Christians. A perfect example of the churches’ acts of mercy following the EF5 tornadoes in Joplin two years ago and now the Oklahoma City metroplex. Assistance was needed immediately and churches were the first to respond.
No barriers, no red tape, no complicated process to follow hampered the churches. The 21st century church has turned into a well-tuned instrument for disaster response.
Ironically, the reaction to disaster relief began when the small churches were the first to take care of the neighbors. The old-style of social responsibility was determined by proximity; the 21st century approach is better because the focus is preparedness, training, and immediacy. Distance is not an issue any longer, but preparation and timing is critical.
Today, our task right here, right now, in our very own small, rural church is to evaluate our acts of piety and our acts of mercy. Are we honestly able to provide a positive account for both?
Right now, today, tomorrow, next week or next month it is important for this congregation to honestly evaluate that state of the church. Is the church healthy? What evidence is there to prove that Wesley’s Methodists are alive and well right here in our community?
Where are the small class meetings being held? Where are the Bible studies? Where are the worship services? Where are the sacraments conducted?
Where are the mission teams? Where are the food pantries? Where are the response teams? Where is the list of ministries the church supports?
Worship is still on Sunday morning at the times they have been for years. When and why did the service time become fixed at its current time of 9 am/11 am? Communion, too, remains a monthly tradition, but has the tradition lessened the meaningfulness of the sacrament?
What fills the calendar? Do the annual traditions continue to meet a purpose? Is there even a need to maintain a calendar? Do the traditions match today’s culture? Does today’s worship match families expectations?
Why do today’s churches need to reassess what they do? Why do 21st century Christians need a local church? Why do Methodists need to maintain acts of piety and acts of mercy?
The answer to all of this is Jesus tasked us to do these acts with the Great Commission: to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.
The evidence that the church is doing this well should be obvious. Church attendance would be growing. The doors would be open seven days a week, or at least more than one hour a week. Meetings would fill the calendar—at least more regularly than two or three times a year.
Why do 21st century Christians need to be accountable? Remember, Paul was instrumental in the church’s growth from the moment he had his epiphany along the road to Emmaus. Prior to that he was persecuting the Christians, a problem that we cannot comprehend, but was a problem that could have destroyed the development of the church from the very beginning.
Are we, 21st century Christians, able to transform the world like Paul did or even transform this community through our acts of piety and of mission?
This is the crisis point of the small churches today. The patterns of past cultures do not align well with the patterns of the 21st century Christian culture. Cultures constantly have to make adjustments as the community changes, and the same is true with the Christian culture.
The cultural shift does not mean letting go of the Greatest Commandment; it simply means that the church must be flexible enough to maintain its spiritual discipline and its ministries.
Look back to Acts and review the recommendations that Paul shared. Then look at today. What needs to be done if we are to continue following Paul and Wesley?
Not only does the church need to consciously provide a structure for acts of piety, it also needs to define the arena, a term the Bishop calls a church’s mission field.
Location, location, location may be the realtor’s slogan, but it is also the same for the church. A clear picture of the mission field needs to be developed. Is it just a mile from the church doors? Is it county-wide? Does a mile marker even matter? Does a county line really divide a mission field?
Imagine what Christianity would be had Paul not traveled. The region or arena in which Jesus walked was limited to that around the east side of the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus did not let borders hold him back; neither did Paul. And neither did Wesley let the border, not even the ocean, define his mission field.
How are we going to address these questions? There is a process available which Bob Farr has developed called the “small church initiative.” The tools are available; we just have to be strong enough to ask for help.
The Bishop clearly addresses this issue in his book, Remembering the Future. This is a tool, too, to help congregations to look at how well they answer the call to action. We are fortunate that these tools are available for small churches as well as mega churches looking for answers.
This past year, I failed. I have failed to make sure that the church offers acts of piety at least once each a year. I have failed to drive forward on the acts of mercy. I have failed to maintain my personal discipline necessary to manage teaching and preaching to the best of my ability.
I have allowed myself to worry, therefore failing to turn it over to God and let it go. I have allowed my personal highs and lows interfere with God’s plan for me. I have not listened and I have even ignored the one verse that has spoken to me personally for at least 10 years—I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, Philippians 4:13.
The 21st century is now 13 years old, and the cultural changes are charging ahead at a dizzy pace. Certainly it is not easy to face our own human limitations and ages, but we are equipped with the Holy Spirit and we have nothing to lose. At least, that is, if we act now.
Dear Heavenly Father,
I am sorry that I have failed to lead as your son lead.
I have allowed my humanness to interfere with your plan.
I have not quieted my soul to listen for your direction.
Today, I realize that Wesley knew we needed discipline
to maintain our spirituality through the acts of piety.
I recognize the needs in our global community
and I need to find the best way to perform acts of mercy.
I want to follow your one commandment to love one another
and to carry out your great commission, too.
Speak to each of us here today so we may work together.
Guide us as we face the challenges of the 21st century,
when time and distance no longer define our mission field.
Guide us as we make decisions to step up our efforts
to maintain self-discipline in acts of piety,
and to develop a ministry plan to perform acts of mercy.
In your name and with your blessing,
let us be crusaders for the 21st century. –Amen