The Church is Dead. Long Live the Church

So, I was thinking that the Church is dead. If not totally dead, it is as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride would say at least “mostly dead” or in very critical condition.  I know you probably don’t read a pastor’s blog expecting to hear this kind of thing.  You were perhaps hoping for something a little more uplifting. Sorry. The vital signs are, it seems weak.

When it comes to belonging to a church, the fastest growing group of people in our culture simply don’t.  5% of the population said they were “unaffiliated” in 1972.  Today it is 16%.  People are not choosing other churches, mega churches, new churches or old churches; they are not picking more conservative or more liberal churches, when they leave one church, they are not going to something “better” – they are choosing to do away with church completely. They are often called “nones” because they check “none” on surveys about religious affiliation   This is happening to every single segment of the Christian Church – Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic — it across the board.

More facts: 70% of mainline Protestant households have no children; 91% of those same congregations are white (unlike our society).  The median age of people in church is steadily and quickly rising (averaging over 62 years).  Congregations are getting smaller and smaller on the whole. Only 27% of “members” actually worship each week.  Only 7% of Christians have actually read the whole Bible.

The truth is that things have changed in every aspect of our world – economic, political, cultural and yes, religious.  The Church that we all remember from our youth is dead, mostly. Think back to the way things used to be:

¨The Way Things Were
  • You were born into the faith and stayed in your tradition
  • Faith was a way of believing, so you learned beliefs first – memorized, understood.
  • Christian faith was expected of most everyone
  • Institutions played an important part in our lives
  • Authority was given to those who had studied – experts
  • Keeping the faith = Keeping the traditions
Look at how things have changed:
¨The Way Things Are
  • People seek spiritual connections and religious life on their own.
  • Faith is a way of living – doctrines and “truth” are understood to be negotiable or dialogic.  So, spirituality is about living daily
  • Christian faith is no longer a cultural norm
  • Institutions/Denominations have lost their power and are fading
  • Seminary training and official teachers are suspect
  • Keeping the faith = living with integrity
The Church, as we remember it, even as we long for it, is dead, mostly.  But that is not “bad news.”  God is faithful and the Spirit is always moving.  We have the challenge and blessing to be living in an age when the Spirit is rewriting, re-imaging what it means to be the Church.  To be part of that means we will need to wander in the wilderness (sounds familiar) we’ll have to change our attitudes (not the first time), We will have to live our faith in a way we have not for some time (likely a refreshing change).  We will have to adapt the way we engage in mission to the reality of our world.
The great news is that God gives life to the Church in every age.  The Church may suffer many deaths, but God is in the resurrection business.  So what do you think about the death, and the life of the Church today… and tomorrow?
Pax Christi,
Pastor Tim

THIS is the Christian Life

Don’t you hate it when people say one thing and do another?  Don’t you hate it when people accuse us Christians of being “hypocrites?”  I mean, what do they expect, that we are perfect? We know that we are not — we are both sinners and saints all the time.  So, give us a break.  We know in our heads what we should do as Christians, but the doing is hard.  Thinking something is often easier than doing something.

The Reformation of the Church that began in earnest in the early 1500’s, altered the way we think about our faith forever. The Reformation challenged the thought that one’s relationship with God was up to us, dependent on our individual actions.  Instead, the good news of the gospel was reclaimed — that God reached out to us in Christ; that our acceptance by God was not based on our effort, but God’s love.  Over the last 500 years, the Church has been in a constant engagement with belief as a way of thinking about God. The reshaping of our thinking has been crucial and vitally important.  As a result, belief in God has come to mean a way of thinking about God.  This is why many of us memorized Bible verses and Luther’s Small Catechism as part of our Sunday School and Confirmation experience.  It is why becoming a new member of a congregation involved a review of the doctrines and confessions of a particular denomination or tradition. We needed to understand the faith.

All of this thinking and re-thinking was a necessary way to combat a way of believing that centered on rituals and works that had little meaning or purpose in the lives of everyday people. As with all things however, there is a danger in attending to one dimension of life to the exclusion of others.  All the attention on thinking often ended up making us good at talking about our faith, but not always good at walking or living it each day.  Now, I am not suggesting it is time to stop thinking about the faith — I’m a theologian! We are called to love God with our minds as much as any dimension of life.  It has become clear however, that too often people see that Christians are “hypocrites;” that our thinking and talking don’t lead to any change or difference in our lives.  Those voices of criticism are right.  If we do not begin to balance thinking with doing, we will continue to become more irrelevant in a world where people are longing for a way to live each day with meaning.

Our observance of Lent begins next week with the observance of Ash Wednesday (we will worship at 5:30 and 7:00 PM – no other Wednesday evening programs will take place). Over the following six weeks we will worship each week using the theme: THIS is the Christian Life.  The goal is to emphasize in our weekly gatherings the way our faith meets daily life; the way the rubber hits the road.  We will look at how we deal with the temptation and trials of living the faith everyday; we will explore how hard it can be to live your commitments, how we can endure the suffering and brokenness of life, and how essential God’s love is in our living. We invite you to come and walk together with us as we explore faith as a way of living.

Each Wednesday evening, beginning February 20, we will focus on connecting the Table where we celebrate Holy Communion to the table that gathers families at home.  We call it Table to Table and it is another way of looking at how to live the faith.  Wednesday evening church school, confirmation, youth ministry and Foundations class will all be combined into a multi-generational time of learning to live the faith at home — as families, couples, individuals. By the end of Lent, we will have provided materials and resources and practices that can help your home become a sacred place.  We will begin at tables in the fellowship hall for a meal at 6:00 PM and then proceed to worship and learning.  We’ll all be done by 7:30.

Why all this attention to living the faith?  Well, because one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is, “How is my life different today than it was a month ago, six months ago, a year ago because of Jesus?” If that is hard to answer then we have not allowed Jesus to shape our living and so, redeem our days.  I think we all want that.  I know he wants to give that to us.

Pax Christi – Pastor Tim


Whats with those collars? – Ask a Pastor –

Whats with those collars? – Ask a Pastor –

So what do you think of pastors wearing collars?  Both Pastor Pam and I wear them on Sundays and at other times.  Do they communicate good things or bad things for you?  Do they invite you to talk or put you off?  Tell me what you think of your pastors wearing collars. — Pax Christi, Pastor Tim

Life in the Blender: Changing the Church in a Changing World

So, I was thinking that one of the biggest causes of anxiety and fear today (at least for me – but I don’t think I’m alone) is the pace and depth of change. Change to every aspect of life happens at a dizzying pace.  The changes are not minor adjustments, they are huge shifts in the way we think, work, eat, spend, and yes – worship & believe.  It is as if somebody stuffed the world as we know it in a blender and pressed the highest speed — and left it there!

Think about just a few things: In 1900 there were less than 10,000 cars in the US.  We send 247 billion emails every single day. 20 years ago most of us didn’t know what email was. The youngest among us believe that email is a dinosaur and use it less and less. I got my first cellphone in 1996. In 2000 there were 93 million cell phones. Ten years later it was 293 million. I typed my first term papers in college on a portable typewriter.  Then I moved to a “PC” – which is now obsolete, replaced by my smartphone and tablet.  In 1970, nearly 90% of the American population was “white.”  In 2008, less than 75% were “white.”  By 2050 it will be closer to 50%.  College educations and home ownership, two foundations of middle-class stability, are in serious decline.

Welcome to life in the blender. Change is the agenda for every day in the world around us. It is an exhausting way of life.  It is then very natural and expected that we will come to church hoping to avoid the whirling blades of change. After all, as the Bible declares, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) The world can change, but leave the church alone, we might declare.  Unfortunately, Jesus also says: “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) 

So, the reality is that church has to go in the blender too. There is no way to insulate ourselves from the change, or somehow just wish it would go away. Consider just a few facts: The fastest growing group in the religious landscape are “nones” – those who claim or desire no religious affiliation. The growth in the ranks of “nones” comes from previous church members. We often think that when someone leaves our congregation they go somewhere else.  The fact is that up to 90% just leave and go nowhere. In 1980, most of your neighbors went to church on Sunday morning. You are a serious minority when you pull out of the drive and head to church today. 25-40% of Christian congregations will not exist in the next decade or two.  Of the 4-5 generations that could inhabit the church today, we are losing (or have lost) 3.5. Studies show that when young people disappear after confirmation or high school graduation, they do not often return when they start raising families.  Welcome to the church in the blender.

I know by now you are saying “Thanks for completely ruining my day.” That is not my intent.  The fact is that the church, and the world, have been through the blender before and God has always made some tasty dish out of the mixture. Change is not evil, nor is it the enemy, it just is what it is.  How we respond is the challenge is the crucial issue.  Sadly, while everything in the world has changed, the reaction of the church has been to make its mission to stay the same, which makes us irrelevant.

Over the next several weeks, we are moving into the 5th and final section of Foundations – the course on the Christian faith that meets every Wednesday evening.  In this module, called Our Calling, we will look at the changes that we face and examine how we answer God’s call to change both as a congregation and as individual disciples.  We will work to discern where we are going and what God is calling us to do.  If you have been curious, frustrated, angered, worried about the changes around us and in the church, come and join us.  If you would like to be part of the discussion about how we respond to the changes in this world as a congregation, come and join us.  We meet at 6 PM on Wednesday in the sanctuary.

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim

‘God Has Called Them All Home:’ President’s Remarks at Sandy Hook Interfaith Vigil – God’s Politics Editor | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners

No matter your political proclivities; no matter your like or dislike of our president, his words bear gospel and prophetic call to justice and mercy. That is why I share them today…

‘God Has Called Them All Home:’ President’s Remarks at Sandy Hook Interfaith Vigil – God’s Politics Editor | God’s Politics Blog | Sojourners.

Waiting for Peace

So, I was thinking that the last thing I wanted to see in the news today was another senseless act of violence. Unfortunately, the lead story details a shooting at a mall in Oregon.  Last week it was a woman shot to death by her NFL lover, who then turned the gun on himself. In other news, the middle east is still a cauldron of hate and violence and, lest we think violence is only a reality in far away places, the news reports that an Ankeny man will be spending the rest of his life in prison for the death of his daughter.  Just another day in paradise.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the “Prince of Peace” it is no wonder that atheists and people who have deep doubts about the Christian faith think we are a little out of touch with reality.  I mean, if Jesus brought peace, where the heck is it anyway?  Bono, the front man for the group U2 sings in the song “Peace on Earth” –

Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth

Jesus this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This peace on Earth

It is a legitimate question. And there are legitimate answers – but not simple ones.  In the coming of Jesus, peace (and grace and love and justice) dawned, but the sunrise continues to be an agonizingly long process. In the midst of a very violent world full of very violent people (and that includes you and me) God made a declarative statement in Jesus that violence was NOT part of the reign of God, peace was the way.  God declared that justice and love would win out in the end, which makes them worthy, eternal values in the life we lead today.  Peace can happen today, if we dare to live in anticipation of the peace that began in Christ.  But that is harder than it sounds.  To live with a predisposition to violence that mirrors Christ is dangerous and divisive.

The violence around us often sparks conversations about guns. Now, I am not going to wade into a debate about the constitutional right to bear arms.  I’m not a constitutional scholar. That we can bear arms seems a given in our civil society. If you own guns, fine. Hear me clearly, I’m not telling anyone what to do when it comes to guns, knives, fists, or harsh words.  You have a constitutional right to have a gun, carry a legal knife, defend yourself and say whatever you want.  Please don’t take what I write here and find cause to yell at me about your rights. I completely acknowledge them. On the matter of peace and violence, I don’t care about constitutional arguments.

As a theologian and pastor, I know this: If “the constitution” of the reign of God says: “(God) shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4) then I think it is safe to say that no one in the courts of heaven will be packing heat. If swords are pounded into plowshares, I’m not sure what happens to guns. Bud vases? Hammers? Tent stakes?

For me that means that I choose to live as if the reign of God is already here in ways that make sense to me. That, not the Constitution, governs my behavior.  I do indeed have the right to say whatever I please. I am always reminded of Kierkegaard’s thought on free speech: “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”  The most difficult thing to holster is our mouths. Violence starts with harsh words. As James says: “For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,  but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:7-8) So, living in the reign of God means I begin my path to peace by rejecting words that harm and injure. My guess is that every shooting has a harsh word in its trajectory to death. So, we holster our pie holes in the name of peace. Told you it was tough.

So, as the reign of God pertains to guns, I share the approach of Hawkeye Pierce from the TV Series M*A*S*H: “I’ll carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash and carry, carry me back to Old Virginia, I’ll even `hari-kari’ if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun!” For me, same goes for anything bigger than a pocket knife to open Amazon boxes – won’t have one.  I hope and pray that if you assault me, I will manage to keep my Irish side in check, and forget the Tae Kwon Do I practiced, and turn the other cheek. After all, I profess to follow one who could raise the dead and cure the sick, but who absorbed the violence inflicted upon him as a means of unmasking the ugly face of evil and overcoming it in God’s redemptive action. Jesus refused to participate in the violence.  He told Peter to put away the sword.  He did not unleash the awful power of God on the people who nailed him to the cross. He practiced what he preached and then had the nerve to call us to do the same.  See? Peace is tough.

I recognize that this all sounds foolish. Some have said that if we all carried guns, violence would decrease. That assumes a pretty elevated view of humanity to me.  It assumes that only “bad” people do violent things.  The truth is, unless you are Jesus, we are all bad people, capable of evil things. I know that revenge, retaliation, and fighting for honor are all part of the fabric of life, but I long for peace more than I value these things — at least I want to; I feel called to. And, it is foolish. I admit it. So did Paul: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

Again, I’m not telling anybody what to do with your weapons or your words.  I’m just suggesting that the reign of God has come near in Christ – and that means peace is an eternal reality, and a present possibility. So we are not hypocrites for celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace. Christ calls his followers to work our with fear and trembling not how to live according to the rule of a violent world, committed to death.  Christ calls each of us to figure out how we become the blessed peacemakers who live in hopeful anticipation of the peaceable reign of a peace-loving God.  Then we can read the bad news in the paper with hope that it is not the only and final word. The Word (of peace) has been made flesh and dwells among us.

Pax Christi (Peace of Christ)

Pastor Tim

War on Christmas?

So, I was thinking that I must be really out of the loop these days.  Seems someone has declared war on Christmas (and so one must assume on Christians) and I had no idea. I’m merrily working away in my study instead of practicing battlefield tactics for parish pastors. I haven’t even dugout “Onward Christian Soldiers” so we can sing on the way to the front (note to David, our Minister for Worship and Music). I checked my inbox several times, nothing is there from my bishop or the ELCA offices in Chicago about how to cover this outpost from the attacks.  I checked in on Pope Benedict figuring at least Rome would be on top of this whole situation.  All I could find out was that he now has a Twitter account. Assuming it was all up to me, I tried a push up… (Lets hope my role on the field of battle doesn’t call for much heavy lifting). The church supply houses are not offering any camouflage clergy shirts, so apparently I’m not the only one who missed the commencement of hostilities. Perhaps we should get the property team on some barbed wire and barricades.

So, as I take my tongue out of my cheek, and with all due respect to Bill O’Reilly and the folks at Fox News and any other media outlets that are calling Christians to arms, I find myself wondering what is really up with the feeling – and it is an emotional response, not a rational one – that there is a “War on Christmas?

First, let’s not get pulled into the emotional drama. Those who announce we are at war are in the business of selling soap and filling every minute of every day with things that make us worried enough to watch, so hyperbole is a tool. Henny Penny was absolutely wrong about the sky falling, but the little chicken no doubt had good ratings.  Second, it seems to me that this kind of thing is really an emotional reaction to the changing world in which we live.  I know that the ghosts of Christmas past are powerful and give us a magnified sense of longing for the old days at this time of year – even if our memories are filtered through rose-colored lenses. So, when we hear that a town council has decided not to put up a nativity scene, or that a store has strung a banner that says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” we feel like our “good old days” are being turned to bad new days.  That makes some of us mad, perhaps fighting mad.  But, before we arm ourselves for war, we best make sure there is an enemy and that the enemy is not really us.

So, what about the battle of the winter greeting? Aren’t opposing forces trying to force us to stop saying “Merry Christmas?” Should we say “Merry Christmas?” “Happy Holidays?”  “Happy Hanukkah?” “Blessed Kwanzaa?” or “Holly Jolly Winter Solstice?”  My answer: Sure.  Say them all, with gusto.  And don’t be afraid of the term Xmas — it is not an atheist plot.  Xmas is shorthand with a Greek letter. “X” (chi) is the first letter of “Christ.”

“But Pastor, aren’t these other people and traditions stealing our Holiday?”  No, not really.  The celebration of Christmas on December 25th is not done because Jesus was actually born on that day.  We have no real idea what day is really Jesus’ birthday.  Christians in the west stole December 25 from the pagans, who worship the sun.  It is near the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice. “Happy Holidays” uses an English word that means “holy-days.”  Why would I wish a Jewish friend anything but “Happy Hanukkah?”  Why would I wish someone who does not believe in Jesus as the Son of God a “Merry Christmas” unless I was trying to provoke.  It is that kind of behavior that probably turned the person off to Christians in the first place.  Accept a greeting for what it is.  Give a greeting that edifies the other person.  No enemies here.

Ah, you say, but what about the ACLU and all those atheists who keep taking down public displays of the Nativity?  They must be enemies.  Maybe. Maybe not.  Personally, I don’t want city hall or the public schools messing with the proclamation of the gospel.  The Oklahoma State House now has a monument to the 10 Commandments.  It is drawing fire from those who say it is not appropriate for the state to promote religion.  Proponents insist that we are a “Christian” nation.  Ahem.  Excuse me, but the 10 Commandments are the Jewish covenant first.  Second, the commandments are ordered in a way that does not match Luther’s Small Catechism.  And last but not least, they misspelled Sabbath. “Sabeth.” No kidding. Leave the faith stuff to the church, please. I’m beggin’ ya.  I also do not want Macy’s and Younkers messin’ with our holy symbols.  The wise men did not bring the latest Christian Dior fragrance. No enemies here.

The truth is that if there is a “war on Christmas” it has been raging for a long time and the enemy is us. The celebration of the birth of a savior who we would eventually crucify is far more serious than candy canes and fruitcake.  God’s intrusion into the world through the incarnation is too mysterious and awe-filled to celebrate with endless choruses of “Frosty the Snowman.”  The humble birth of Jesus is a much deeper reality than an extended orgy of shopping and spending.  So, I have developed a keen strategy for this war on Christmas.  Let the culture have the shopping, the trees, the blaring music, the cards and the wrapping paper. Let December be for most a limitless venture in debt, unfulfilled expectations and reminiscing about days gone by. Forfeit the battle. For people of faith, retreat and quietly, just give us Jesus.  The only war is for our souls and only Jesus can win it – and he already has. Happy Holy-days. Merry Xmas. Blessed Hanukkah. But mostly, May the peace and joy of Christ by with you all.

Just some joy and a bit of bah humbug for your season.

Pastor Tim