Archive for September, 2015

Hope Returns

September 30, 2015

A few years ago, it seemed like the Catholic Church was a mess. They were facing so much anger and criticism around a sexual scandal with priests and parishioners and even children. No matter how they tried to respond, it seemed to be too little, too late. They never could seem to find the right words, the right actions, or the right tone to re-assure people that they were taking corrective action and addressing the root problems. It was a mess they could never seem to get out from under. In addition to this, the church was facing questions of financial mismanagement and they even went so far as to fire the Pope’s butler.

However, last week, Pope Francis made his first trip to Cuba and the United States. For a few days, he seemed to be the most popular politician in our country. People love him. Both political parties wanted to claim him as their own. Each party focused on their policies that Pope Francis supported, but said nothing about their policies that he did not support. It seemed as if everyone wanted to see and be seen with Pope Francis.

This Pope seems to have changed people’s minds about the Catholic Church. Attitudes have shifted from being very negative to being very positive. People are much more upbeat and hopeful now about the future of the church. Why is that? What happened? What has changed?

In the early days of his tenure, many in the secular media misunderstood the Pope. They thought he was changing Catholic doctrine, when he really wasn’t. What he changed was the tone in which the teaching came through. They thought he was changing the church’s teaching on abortion, marriage, and homosexuality. He actually didn’t. What he did change was the tone, the focus, and the emphasis. He has left Catholic doctrine alone, but has said – let’s not fight the old cultural wars anymore. Let’s focus on loving our neighbor, feeding the hungry, and caring for the poor. Let’s focus more on ministering to regular people and hurting people, rather than on preserving the institution.

Pope Francis rejected the luxuries of the position, carried his own suitcase, checked out of his own hotel room, and paid his own bill. He washed the feet of women, kissed the disfigured, and put people before rules. Instead of trying to correct all the bad things that people do, he focused on loving them back to God. It has worked. He is changing the culture of the Catholic Church. He has provided hope to people who were feeling hopeless about their church. People see him as a genuine and authentic Christian, and they are flocking to that. He has focused on both evangelism and social action. He wants people to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and he wants to meet their everyday needs. He has not been afraid to leave his privileged surroundings and go to where the ordinary people live, work, and play, finding common ground on their turf.

What we can we learn from watching this? I think there are a couple of things:
1. While many today have developed a negative view of the church, their perceptions can be changed when they see people who actually “walk the talk”. When they sense of spirit of humility and love and genuine care, they respond in positive ways.
2. There is still a deep spiritual hunger in our culture today. For whatever reason, some people have not found churches that are addressing their questions and concerns. But, when they see people with integrity and compassion, they are drawn to them.
3. We serve one surprising God. We serve a God who can bring about change in the church, in our community, and in our individual lives. Jesus brings hope to the hopeless. The Holy Spirit breaks down barriers between people. God keeps showing up in the most God-forsaken places.
4. The image of the church in our community can change, and we don’t have to throw out Biblical teachings for that to happen. Often, people listen more to how we say things than what we actually say. Both are important, but we don’t have to throw out our content to get people to respond positively.
5. I believe God wants the church to have a positive ministry in the community. This does not mean that we don’t ever talk about controversial issues, or that we have to pretend to agree when we don’t. We can be people who have compassionate convictions. We can be people of genuine grace.
6. As the church, we can’t wait for people to come to us. We have to go to them. We have to leave our homes and church buildings and meet people in their homes, their neighborhoods, our schools, and our places of work. If we are excited about our church, and if we invite them to come with us and share in our excitement, we may generate some interest and they just might come. But, that usually only happens after we have gone to them, taken the time to listen to them, heard their stories, and understood where they are coming from.

The story of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church shows us that the image of a church can change. The image of a church can get better. People can get excited about being a part of a church again. Our God can create something out of nothing. Jesus can create hope where there is no hope. The Holy Spirit can create something encouraging out of something that had been discouraging.

Christianity was founded on the story of the resurrection – what was dead has now come back to life. The God of the resurrection is constantly breathing new life back into the church. While we don’t want to minimize the challenges facing the church today, this is an exciting time to be a part of the church. We serve one surprising God. You just never know what God might do next. .


We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

September 1, 2015

One of the classic movies in American culture has been the Wizard of Oz. Many of you know the story. When a tornado blows through the Kansas farmland, Dorothy gets hit in the head by a window, knocking her unconscious. She has this dream that the tornado has picked up the house and plopped it down somewhere over the rainbow. She wakes up and doesn’t recognize where she is. She’s in some strange foreign land and there are these little people called Munchkins. It’s all a big shock to her system. She has never been away from home before. She’s trying to figure out this strange, new world, when she exclaims to her dog, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!”

That’s a phrase that describes a lot of this unsettled feeling that many in the church have today. We look around at the world around us and we don’t recognize it. It doesn’t resemble the world we grew up in. On some days, it feels like a foreign country. There are now more people who recognize that the Starbucks logo means Starbucks, and that the Golden Arches mean McDonalds, than there are people who recognize that the cross indicates a church. Almost ¼ of Americans now claim no religious affiliation. And an increasing number of Christians in their mid-40s and younger are consciously choosing not to go to any organized church on Sunday morning. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

What do we do? How do we begin to address a world of rapid, discontinuous change that is so very different from the one we grew up in? Where do we start? How do we begin? One place we begin is by looking at the scriptures for how God’s people have done this before. One such time was in 586 BC, when the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Judah fell to King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. Their country was demolished, their temple was destroyed, and the people were demoralized. They were carried away into exile in a foreign country that they didn’t like, didn’t understand, and didn’t want to live in. They had to go through a paradigm shift. In other words, they had to shift their mental models of what the world was supposed to look like, what the world was actually like, and what they were called to do. They had to learn to live in exile.

In Jeremiah 29, God shows the Israelites how to adapt to this strange, new, cultural situation that was foreign to them. These instructions were summarized in verse 7 – “Seek the welfare of the community where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” God was telling them that they needed to move out of their homes and their buildings and engage their local community. They needed to get out and meet people. They needed to interact with the people who lived there and work for the betterment of the community. This is what missionaries do. When missionaries move into a new community, they get to know people, spend time with them, build relationships with them, find community groups to join, and seek to disciple the unchurched. They seek to build bridges with people who are not following Jesus. They work for the common welfare of the community and earn people’s trust, because they know their welfare is tied up in their community’s welfare.

I believe this is what God is calling us to do today. Rather than expecting or hoping that people will magically discover us and come to us, we need to go to them. We need to adopt this missional mindset that we are a sent people, sent out into our community by God to function as missionaries, to bless, to serve, and to heal. We love people, serve people, and make friends with people unconditionally, whether they ever believe in our message or not. This kind of approach requires that we “think outside the box.” It means that we have to be willing to experiment with new forms of worship and ministry. It means that we have to be creative and innovative and develop a new missional imagination. When the world around you shifts, and the old ways are no longer effective, it requires a lot of experimentation to figure out how to connect the unchanging gospel to a rapidly changing world, in ways that make sense to people, and connect with their stories.

We’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s easy to get disoriented. And yet God still invites us to join His world changing mission. God continues to go ahead of us. He sends us out into our community to make a difference in our world. We are called to engage our neighbors, the people who live around us, and the community we live in. We must learn to live like exiles. We must learn to live like missionaries. God is sending us out every day. Don’t be afraid to go.