Does the church have anything to offer the world in the 21st century? This seems to be a question that plagues pastors, writers, theologians and thinkers alike in the church today. You see articles and books about church growth or reaching millennials or connecting families on an almost daily rate. The church seems to find itself at a crossroads of crisis and our offerings to me, and I imagine to a lot of the world, just seem lack luster at best. “Oh, you’ve got another program for me to attend?” “This book study will make me a skinnier, wealthier and happier Christian?” “This program is guaranteed to make church stick for me and my family this time?” I don’t mean to sound too cynical, but why bother? If all the church is trying to do is to compete with other social activities in the world, then why bother?
A couple of nights ago I sat across from a couple from our church in my living room. We were meeting to talk about a new (I’m reluctant to use the word because it just sounds like another program) ministry they’ve launched. Well, I guess it’s more of an inter-generational small group (even that sounded programmatic). But I asked them to sum up the rationale behind it and the gentlemen responded with, “Well, it’s more or less our attempt to build a family in the church.” YES! In a simple statement made on my sofa while my kids were all sleeping (I hope) in the background I heard the why bother answer resonate loud and clear. And it all goes back to the birth of the church. What does the church have to offer to the world? It goes like this in the second chapter in the book of Acts. “All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:42-47 Did you see that? The church, at it’s core, is a family that wants to be together, takes care of one another and shares life together.
So church, please hear me in regards to your existence in the 21st century. We have the greatest hope to share with the world. But if we just make it another program, social event, to-do list, check mark or any other means of clever marketing we will continue to fail. The world will look at our existence as simply another ploy to get them to commit to something that at the end of the day adds very little value to their lives. But if we, and I know it might be a stretch, actually began to mirror the lives of the early church and became that Family of God we used to sing about all the time, then perhaps those outside our walls might see the life we share and come to realize it might be the very thing they’re missing. In a world of broken families, fractured homes, disenfranchised lives, social media virtual communities, depression, anxiety and fear we as the church have something to offer that nothing else can compare with. The Kingdom of God goes beyond all other kingdoms and programs when our family’s head calls us to remember, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:12-13 It’s high time we started being that kind of family again and I can’t wait to see what happens when we do.
Growing up in a relatively small town meant that life always seemed to have a rhythm. Your school year would flow in it’s given way. And then school would let out and that meant it was time for little league baseball. Of course, the only thing outstanding about my short-lived baseball career was my incredible ability to get from the dugout to the snack-stand before my teammates for my free snow-cone after each game. I remember the first time my family mixed up this rhythm because I decided I wanted to play basketball (I wasn’t too great at this either…most improved player three years in a row). Basketball was a winter sport though, and so it took place in the middle of the school year. And when I first hear the word extracurricular I actually thought it meant something in addition to church and school. You see, the center of my communal life wasn’t school, although that helped to provide the rhythm, but rather church…and I think that was and still is a good thing.
According to Merriam-Webster’s, the secondary definition for extracurricular is, “[something] lying outside one’s regular duties or routine.” And so I suppose my way of understanding recreational basketball in its regard to school and church wasn’t that off base. However, over the years I’ve begun to notice a cultural shift where extracurricular has begun to solely reference things outside of one’s academic career to the point to where church itself has come to be viewed as extracurricular. Before you get defensive, hear this; I don’t believe that church attendance is necessary for one to believe in God…but (there’s always a but). At the most vital moment in the life of the church, that is the beginning, we read this from the book of Acts, “All the believers were together and had everything in common…and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:44,47 The power found in the life of the early church revolved around their shared life. And yet for many, church life has simply become an occasional appointment that they can check off their calendar so they feel as if they’ve accomplished something.
Within the manual of the church of the Nazarene, we have what we refer to as a church constitution (I know it sounds exciting). And within this constitution we affirm what we aspire the church of the Nazarene to be. It goes a little something like this, “[The church is] those persons who have voluntarily associated themselves together according to the doctrines and polity of said church, and who seek holy Christian fellowship…and the simplicity and spiritual power manifest in the primitive New Testament Church.” – 2013 Manual Church of the Nazarene. Did you see that? The church is those people who want to be together and see the early church’s power manifest in their lives. I hear people often complain about the disorder in their lives, the chaos in their schedules, the brokenness in their familial unity and their in ability to feel at peace and I will often look at their involvement in a local community of faith for a sign. The “simplicity and the power” of the early church was present because of their presence in each other’s lives. When the life of the church becomes extracurricular it often means that you’ve chosen to sacrifice something else. You have chosen to sacrifice people praying for you or senior adults hugging your kids. You’ve given up singing together words that remind you of your identity or eating with people who remind you the story goes on. And you’re missing out on knowing that you are a part of something bigger than your schedules, appointments, practices, performances, etc. that have taken over your life. Maybe we all need to find a healthy rhythm again. And maybe we need to find it with our fellow believers.
One of the things you sometimes forget about as parents of older children is one of the first lessons you have to actually teach your kids. One of the things you are reminded of quickly when you become parents of small children again is one of the first lessons you actually have to teach your kids. And that is the art of sharing. For some reason, right out of the gate we seem to be naturally inclined to claim possession of things. This is mine, not yours. And if it belongs to me and you take it from me then I am entitled to any level of escalating violence to retrieve said object and restore order in the world. This becomes true of toys, snacks, blankets, stuffed animals, etc. ad nauseam. Luckily at some point, someone somewhere decided that sharing was a good idea and it started to become more of the norm…or did it? Today we continue to fight over toys (whose car/house is better), snacks (food resources), blankets (let’s just say land and natural resources), stuffed animals (each other as possessions) and whatever else you can think of. We forget that we share the same globe and more than not we even have shared stories…if we are willing to listen.
This past week I have had the opportunity to sit in and listen to shared stories on a couple of different occasions. In the first instance I found myself surrounded by ministry peers at a Young Clergy Conference in Oklahoma City. And although we all ministered in radically different contexts (what could be more different from West Texas than Northern California), we still found that many of our stories were similar and many of the issues facing us had common ground. Then just last evening I found myself in a room with people who are bit more seasoned in life. I had everyone share their stories of how they came to be in the Church of the Nazarene and why they continued to be a part of the church. And all of a sudden I realized how similar so many of the stories were regardless of years or experience that separated them. However, it sometimes seems that in today’s society we have been influenced by a mentality that reflects a perpetual toddler mindset. This is my story, not yours. You’re different. Give me that. We’ve allowed ourselves to be defined by a dominant narrative that defines me against you versus me alongside you.
When Paul was traveling on his missionary journeys throughout the book of Acts he came into contact with many different cultures/stories. Yet instead of looking for that which was different, or would set him apart, he would instead look for the shared story. In Athens we find him saying this, “ ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” – Acts 17:28 Paul took the Athenian philosophers and helped the Athenians to recognize that they shared, not only a story, but their Divine heritage in God. Maybe we could take a page out of Paul’s book. Maybe we could come to realize that we share a lot more with those around us than we think. And maybe we can listen and tell stories and begin to see God open up doors that we previously had tried our hardest to keep shut. And maybe we will begin to realize that we all are God’s children and we are called to help each other live into that identity.