In this service, we delve into Acts 10 to learn how the church is called to be a vehicle for God’s movement in the world. What does Peter’s encounter with Cornelius teach us about being the church in our time? Have a listen and find out. The message starts at 20:16.
Normally, on Good Friday, I write about the crucifixion. And make no mistake: the fact that Jesus died is an important fact on which to meditate, and for which to give thanks in worship today. (You can do so at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, at 10:00 a.m. if you are able!)
But a big event from last Monday prompts me to go in a different direction.
Last Monday, a serious fire occurred within Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.
The outpouring of emotion on social media was palpable. To be sure, it is profoundly sad that this icon of religious architecture would be nearly destroyed by fire. It appears that the structure may be saved, and French leaders, with large donations from wealthy people, are vowing to rebuild what has been lost. (That in itself has caused no small amount of controversy.)
What I’m left wanting to ponder with you, though, is the reality that though a building may be destroyed, the church is not.
The church is not a building: the church is people.
Every time I say or hear that, I am reminded of a very old radio ad I used to hear as a child for Dofasco, a steel fabrication company in Hamilton, Ontario. I couldn’t tell you a thing about the commercial itself, but the tagline has stuck with me for well more than forty years: “Our product is steel. Our strength is people.”
The company knew that while they would be known for producing steel products (among those with which I’m best acquainted are the side frames for Canadian-built locomotives), they could not produce those steel products without the employees who make it happen – everyone from the people who heat the molten material to the people who sweep the floors to the people who keep the books in the office.
The same is true of the church – almost.
When we think of the church as bricks-and-mortar, we have only an imagined product. A church building in and of itself is only a tool. The building does not preach the gospel. The building does not care for the sick. The building does not feed the hungry. The building does not advocate for justice.
It’s the people who do that. We are the church.
So yes, be sad for the significant damage done to a magnificent church building which has stood for almost nine centuries as a testament to the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But be resolved to be the church. Some of the most effective gatherings of God’s people in the world do not worship in an architectural masterpiece; some of them don’t even have a building to call their own. And while people may be inspired by the incredible architecture of great church buildings (and there are many), let your inspiration be channeled into a deep and abiding faith in Jesus, who died and rose again for us, that we would be his hands and feet in the world – preaching the good news, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and advocating for justice.
When the church loses these characteristics, we ought indeed to mourn.
But you and I aren’t going to let that happen, right? It doesn’t matter if we have a building or not: we are the church.
Jesus said, “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matthew 18.20, NLT).
I’m attending the Canadian Church Leaders Conference in Barrie today (and last night, and tomorrow). It’s the second year in a row that Connexus Church has offered this conference, aimed at leaders in Canadian congregations (since so many church leader conferences are held in the US and aimed at the American culture, which is different from ours). Even after hearing just two short talks, I’m encouraged to keep going in the work of change.
Change is a hard word for most people, but perhaps especially for those who have been invested in the life of a local church for a long time. We all remember what the church used to belike. Some will remember when there were 500 kids in the Sunday school – a number that seems to go up every time the person recounts the story of what life in the church was like 60 or more years ago.
Trouble is, the world looks a lot different today than it did in the 1950s. In those days, the post-war baby boom and the optimism that came with a rejuvenated economy meant churches were full most Sundays, without much effort on the part of the leaders. Today, we have generations of people for whom the church has never been a factor in their lives.
One of the key learnings, so far, has been this: if the church is to be strong, we have to be set free from the idea that we just need to survive, so we can dream again. And that means change. And while change will be uncomfortable, we need to continue to focus on the people who are not among us yet.
That means ‘doing church’ in such a manner that it attracts those who are not yet part of the church and being more concerned for those who are far from God than those who are unwilling to change. It’s a tough sacrifice, and it can even seem a bit cold. But if we focus on who we already have, making sure we keep them happy, we are unlikely to see measurable growth in our churches.
I remember in one church I served, someone got up at a congregational meeting and complained about the changes that were happening. After the meeting, a dear old soul came up to me and said, “I wonder if his kitchen looks like it did in 1950.”
Of course, few of us have kitchens that look like they did in 1950, even if the house is older than that. Kitchens are among the first rooms in a house to be renovated, because we want to have the most up-to-date cooking and eating spaces money can buy! We want granite countertops instead of laminate; we want dishwashers, water-serving and ice-making refrigerators, and efficient ranges – all in stainless steel, bien sûr!
Few kitchens today lack a microwave oven, but in 1950, there was no such appliance.
Yet too often, our churches look not much different than they did in 1950. In some cases, the order of service might not have changed since then! But if we’re going to reach a new generation, that change has to be made.
I am fortunate to serve a congregation that has adapted to change very well. There’s more that needs to be done, for sure, but none of it is simply for the sake of change: we change howwe present the timeless gospel of Jesus, because that’s what’s going to reach a new generation.
Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message, and he had a point: the way we present truth attracts people, perhaps more than the truth itself. And that’s okay! While we don’t change the message, we do change the medium, because the method of presenting the timeless truths of Scripture inherently makes the timeless truths of Scripture more appealing, thus increasing the potential audience.
Is that always what we old-timers prefer? Probably not. But we already know and love and serve Jesus. What we want is to engage our neighbours so that they will know and love and serve Jesus. So we set aside what we prefer in favour of what they prefer. And the Lord does the rest.
“When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some” (1 Corinthians 9.22, NLT).
This is one of those months that has five Sundays in it. Any church treasurer I’ve known wishes that every month had five Sundays! While it doesn’t happen every month, I’ve often wondered whether the unusual nature of the rhythm-breaking fifth Sunday could be harnessed in some way. While we like the idea of an extra Sunday of offerings, perhaps that fifth Sunday could also benefit those outside the church.
A couple of years ago, one of our Encouragement subscribers, Sharon, told me a story (which she gave me permission to share) about what happens in her church on the fifth Sunday of the month. In her congregation, they gather for a short worship time, and then go into the community to help their neighbours.
Sign-up sheets are provided so that activities and helpers can be coordinated. The first time the church did it, one group went to a nursing home to visit residents who never get visitors. Another group planted a vegetable garden on church property so that fresh vegetables could be provided for their local food bank. Another group helped neighbours with physical challenges tend their gardens. And yet another group picked up trash near a railroad right-of-way.
“The response from the congregants and the community was amazing,” Sharon told me. “Great bonding, lots of laughter, many community members really impressed that we would leave church to come ‘out’ and help others. It was a most powerful experience.”
If the church of Jesus is going to grow as God intends, one thing we know for sure is that reaching our neighbours is key. I encourage you to consider this tangible way to reach out, whether on a fifth Sunday or some other time. God knows the difference you could make by being ‘neighbourly’.
“Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith” (Galatians 6.10, NLT).
The subtitle says a lot: “A survival guide for the seasick Christian”. Many churches in the 21st century have lost their purpose, going from gatherings of people seeking communion with God to being institutions existing to promote the organization. Skye Jethani uses the cruise ship analogy to help us understand how that model doesn’t fit with God’s plan for the church.
Ships were called liners because they moved people from one place to another. With jets being used for that purpose – and more efficiently – when they were invented, ships turned to the cruise experience instead. No longer modes of transportation, cruise ships became ends in themselves. Some churches, large and small, have made similar transitions, but Jethani suggests they have missed the mark in terms of being the church faithfully.
Jethani’s analogy of the cruise ship church helps the reader put into perspective what has happened – and happened again – to the church in recent times. This hour-long read will help church leaders hit the reset button if they have disengaged from God’s picture of the church. Well worth your time.
Skye Jethani, How Churches Became Cruise Ships: A survival guide for the seasick Christian. Available for Kindle and Kindle app at https://www.amazon.com/How-Churches-Became-Cruise-Ships-ebook/dp/B018RJHNZK?ie=UTF8&keywords=Jethani%20cruise%20ships&qid=1462736837&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1