31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
October 22, 2017
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
The church as we know it will be completely gone by 2050, according to Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon and their book Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century. Actually, they write that the church as we know it began to disappear 17 years ago. Because that is about when Christianity stopped being the dominant religion, the ruling force in people’s lives.
The news that Christianity and the church are in decline is upsetting, and at the same time, I’m going to guess you are not surprised. There was a time when this Sanctuary was filled to capacity. There was a time when, of course, all families came to worship – instead of choosing the sports fields, swimming lessons, and birthday parties. There was a time when we brought our ‘out of town’ guests to worship instead of staying home when they came to visit.
Although distressing, it is no surprise that Christianity and the church are no longer the central force in society and people’s lives.
However, that does not mean that the good news of Jesus Christ is dead or irrelevant or in decline. The good news of God’s unconditional love is as important and needed in our world as it was 2,000 years ago.
Thirty years from now, church as we know it may be gone, however the good news of Jesus Christ will live. The church of Jesus Christ, the body of Christ, will live – and our Christian community will live too, if we let go of our fear, listen to God’s still speaking voice, hold fast to the good news of Jesus Christ, and are willing to try new ways of being ‘church’.
Let’s look again at Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. In it he says, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy” (Phil 2:1) The Message translation speaks more to my heart, “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you.”
To Paul, it’s a rhetorical question. To Paul, the answer is “Of course! Of course, Jesus and his love have transformed my life. Of course, being a part of this community is a blessing to me.” For Paul, the answer is “Of course!”
What is the answer for you?
What have you gotten out of following Jesus Christ?
How does his love make a difference in your life?
What does being a part of this Christian community mean to you?
If being connected to Jesus Christ means something, if his love makes a difference in your life, if you are encouraged, comforted, strengthened, and inspired by God’s love made known to us through Jesus Christ, then Paul asks that we make Paul’s joy complete and “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2)
It is possible to hear those words and think Paul is asking us to be brainless zombies. One mind. Same mind. Can’t think for self. Must follow status quo.
We need to read farther. In verse 5, Paul writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 2:5) The New International Version translates mind as attitude.
If Jesus’ love makes a difference in your life, then your mind, your attitude, your purpose should be the same as Jesus – and if you were in any doubt as to what that ”mind” should be, Paul goes on to write that Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited [or taken advantage of], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave [a servant]…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8)
If Jesus’ love makes a difference in your life, then be of the same mind; be of the same attitude as Jesus; Be humble; Choose a life of service.
To us, who were born into a world where Christianity has ruled for 1700 years, humility and service are virtues. In Paul’s world, though, you did not choose to be servile. Never would you relinquish your power. Never would you desire in any way for people to look down on you or consider you a servant.
Hmmm. Maybe Paul’s world was not so different from ours.
As Christians, as those who are new creations in Jesus Christ, as those called to bear the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we do not conform to the world. We are called to be transformed by the Spirit, to renew our minds and renovate our hearts to be Christ-like. To be humble, to live a life of service.
Humility and service were and still are counter-cultural. Counter cultural and Christian.
Unfortunately, for hundreds of years, Christian service and mission hasn’t really been humble. Christian missionaries went out to serve the “poor native peoples”, with the attitude that they knew more than their “neighbors”, that they were better than their neighbors.
For those of us currently engaged in Christian service, we do truly want to love our neighbors as ourselves; we want to regard others well and look to their interests and not just our own. Which is why Broadway United Methodist in Indianapolis killed off their food pantry, clothing ministry and after-school program.
That’s right. Not because these programs were not numerically successful, not because these programs didn’t help people. At one point, their summer youth program served 250 kids a day, “bringing them in for Girl Scouts and basketball, away from the violence and drugs of Broadway’s neighborhood” (Robert King, Faith & Leadership)
There were lots of people being ministered to by the community of Broadway United Methodist, and their pastor, the Rev. Mike Mather said he felt so good about their care giving role in the community “that I broke my arm patting myself on the back.”
But then Mather was confronted with a heavy dose of reality. In a nine-month span, nine young men within a four-block radius of the church died violent deaths. Some of them had come through that great youth program at Broadway, a program that had done nothing to inoculate them against street violence. Mather was left to bury them — along with the sense that what Broadway had been doing for its neighborhood all those years had been ineffective. (Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church, Robert King)
Broadway began to realize they had been doing ministry for their neighbors, instead of ministry with their neighbors. “The church, and me in particular,” [Rev.] Mather said, “has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.”
The article goes on to say, “Rather than a bestower of blessings, the church is aiming to be something more humble.” Broadway has decided their call is to be good neighbors, seeing people as children of God, as people with gifts and not just needs.
And that is exactly what Paul is saying in his letter to the Philippians. Paul was encouraging them and us to be of the same mind as Christ, to be of the same attitude as Jesus, and really see others, to see them as people who have passions, as people who have gifts, as people who have an abundance to share.
What would the church look like if instead of thinking we knew what our neighbors needed, we went out and listened?
What would the church look like if we saw our neighbors as children of God, blessed with abundant gifts and talents?
What would the church look like if we became curious about all of the ways the Spirit is already moving in our world?
What I have just said is going to feel crazy and weird, however, we need to be open to the new, open to being changed, open to being renovated by the Spirit.
Not because we are afraid that the church as we know it will die in 30 years if we do not. We need to do it because we have been called by God. We need to do it because being part of this Christian community has transformed our lives, and it is a blessing we can and should share with others. We need to do it because Christ’s love has made all the difference in our lives.
Will you be with me in prayer?
Gracious God of all, Amazing Spirit God, renew our hearts, renovate our minds, renew our attitudes, that we might embody Christ’s love and go forth to listen to our neighbors, to seek out the ways your Spirit is moving in our world, to serve humbly and generously, and to always share the love, joy, and peace we have found by following Jesus Christ. Amen.