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.
This past Monday evening my wife and I entered into a phenomenon which we had yet to experience, but which I have heard occurs rather frequently. Our oldest had been registered to begin soccer and then our 6-yr-old decided to give gymnastics a try and lo and behold, they were both on the same evening. And so all of a sudden we were scrambling, heading in different directions with the kids split up and even all grabbing dinner at different times/locations…and I thought it was terrible. For a day my family simply felt like we were all roommates under the same roof and it just felt so disjointed. You see our usual routine of the day culminates around one table where we share a meal and our days with one another. We get to see what each other experienced throughout the day and offer up encouragement and affirmation to each other as we conclude the day. And yet, I am led to believe that what we experienced on Monday has simply become more of the norm for a majority of households in America today. And it kind of makes my heart sad.
An often quoted Proverb in and around the church goes something like this, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” – Proverbs 22:6. And we often use this as justification for getting our kids to church or praying with them or occasionally reading scripture with them. And this is good, but this isn’t the whole picture. What kind of precedents are we setting for them? Are we allowing space for them to still be children? Are the expectations that we place on our kids and spouses realistic? Where is our space to just exist for a moment as a family? In our pursuit of what we often think is best for our children we have begun chasing after things that are ultimately unrealistic/unattainable and leave us and them drained. In commenting on our pursuit of empty things, Jesus had this to say in the Sermon on the Mount, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” – Matthew 6:32-33 Now before you say that this doesn’t relate, let me extrapolate a bit.
There is a phrase in our society we hear sometimes about, ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ (I kind of feel for anyone with that last name). But it’s an expression about attaining to the status that our neighbors have achieved. So if their kid is in three sports, then my kid needs to be in three sports. If there kid is on the honor roll and a master of violin, then my kid needs to be. If they are holding down two jobs to hang onto the mortgage for the house and the car payments that they can’t afford, then by golly I need to as well. And if there family is falling apart and their marriage is a sham because they rarely have time for each other, then I guess it’s okay if mine is too. What example are we setting for our kids? Where is the space left for our families and our marriages to succeed? Maybe today we need to realize just how precious little the time we have is and find space for our families and for God to make the most of who He has called us to be.
I’m tired…and it’s only Thursday (feel free to substitute any day of the week except Friday).
How many times do we find that this becomes part of our vernacular? We have become a people whose god is busyness. There was even a recent commercial released during the Olympics that praised Americans ability to achieve out of said busyness and encouraged us to be even more busy.* But the schedules and the to-do lists and the accomplishments and the appointments and the events and the practices and the rehearsals and the whatever is next never seems to stop. Is this how it is supposed to be? We almost seem to think that it is an accomplishment just to make it to the next day. Something has to give because we cannot keep going like this and have healthy lives, families, relationships, etc.
Fortunately for you my friend, this is not how you were designed nor is this how you are intended to live. The Hebrew scriptures were penned in such a way as to help us see that our lives are intended to be ordered in a more unique fashion. Way back in the very beginning we see that God himself built a rhythm into creation and we are intended to follow said rhythm. It looks a bit like this, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” – Genesis 2:2-3. The word for rest in the passage above is shabath from which we get Sabbath and it literally means “STOP”. After six days, God stops…and does nothing. Isn’t that beautiful? There is built into the very fabric of creation a day of nothing…no schedules, no appointments, no errands, nothing.
And yet, we are too busy to honor the very fulfillment of creation itself. If we don’t go here, if we don’t do this, we won’t have this or we won’t get that done; STOP! As Jesus is coming to the end of His time with His disciples he reminds them of this is John 15, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you” – John 15:4. Jesus, knowing the rhythm that is built into creation reminds us to stay, pause, remain, stop and dwell with Him. Does that mean that God isn’t present in our busyness and goings and comings throughout the week? By no means. But perhaps we need to take a day to be aware of His presence by stopping and finding ourselves renewed for a moment. After all, we are only human.
So my challenge to you and to me this week? In the midst of renewed schedules and life rhythms that come with the fall, find some time, preferably a day, to stop; to shabath. You need it. God made you and creation itself for it. And as you do may you find yourself renewed in The Spirit that gave life and breath to creation itself and then stopped.
* I do love this commercial though: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfUhExdNjK8
I am admittedly a creature of habit. I know that for many of you who have known me over the years this may come as a bit of a surprise. But, ask my wife and she will definitely confirm this fact. I love my routines. That doesn’t mean that I can’t break away from the norm from time to time, but just that I’d rather do things a certain way day in and day out. I guess it’s more of a framework than a schedule. I like for things to fit my general framework. So in any given week my Mondays will be reflexive of other Mondays and the list goes on. Now this week, we took a couple of days to commute to Austin for a District Education event and I find myself now on Thursday and completely out of it (this perhaps could maybe have something to do with 17+ combined hours of sitting in class or driving over the last two days, but I digress). How did I get to be so dependent on this framework? Why is it that I find myself so rattled after this change?
There is this passage towards the end of Jesus life in the gospels where the disciples find everything changing. Now I don’t want to compare my off kilter schedule to the disciples predicament in this passage, but I think there is truth to be found here. Jesus has had a final meal with the disciples, they are groggy and he asks them to pray with him. Let’s put this into perspective even further. They had come to the city to celebrate Passover. This was something they knew very well and more than likely had even done with Jesus twice before. But this time something is different. He consecrates and celebrates the meal differently. He washes their feet. And then he drags them out into the garden to pray with him. Multiple times they find themselves out of their element and even falling asleep and Jesus says this to them, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” – Matthew 26:41 The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Today I have been reminded of my mortality. A two day road trip combined with a compromised immune systems (you should see the stuff we are sharing in our house) along with a schedule that is off the norm and you have an Arp who is feeling very mortal. I love Jesus’ reminder to us though. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation”. When we are off kilter or when we are out of balance it is easy to fall short of God’s best for us. But He doesn’t say try harder. He doesn’t say to power through. What does He say? Watch and pray. Step back out of your situation, see what is going on around you and lean into me. May these be words of comfort for you today. Whether you are full on in your routine and schedule or you find yourself a bit off kilter today, there is always room for us to watch and pray.
I am a creature of habit. I know that this statement may strike many of you as a bit of a paradox. ‘But Andrew, you seem so spontaneous, so spirited’. And I thank you for those complements. But truth be told, I like to kind of have a steadiness about my schedule. And so this time of year can kind of drive me crazy. Here I am just truly getting settled into a lackadaisical summer schedule and boom; school starts again. Now all of a sudden my schedule gets shifted around my son’s transportation and homework and sleep schedule etc., etc.. And not only that, but I guess I thought it was a bright idea for me to start back to school as well…as if one of us in our household in school wasn’t enough (19th grade if anyone is counting). But needless to say this has caused me some weird undue stress and sometimes I don’t exactly know how to deal with it well.
One of the ways in which I try to deal with stress is by going to the gym (I now know some of you are smirking behind your computer or phone screens). But I do enjoy getting to work out…when I get to it. You see, sometimes when I go to the gym I don’t get much working out done. Instead I find myself getting interrupted by others in the midst of my routines. And I have come to love it (and not just because it is an excuse not to work out). I once heard someone say that ministry happens in the interruptions. And more and more I am beginning to see that this is the case. Why? Because when our routines/schedules are interrupted we become more aware of what is actually happening in the moment. Hebrews 13:1-2 says this, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” I know many of us have read this verse before and I have always been tripped up by the ‘showing hospitality to angels’ part, but I’ve been doing some thinking about this.
You see, most of the time our encounters, maybe I should say our true and real encounters with strangers are in the interruptions of life. When we are going through our routines and schedules very rarely do we actually have a true and real encounter. But when we allow space for interruptions, all of a sudden we find ourselves engaging others or being engaged by others. And as far as the ‘showing hospitality’/’being a friend to’ (this is what the Greek really means) to angels…well I have a different approach to this. In his essay The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis had this to say about our encounters with others. “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
So perhaps our interruptions have eternal effects. May you find yourself aware of those around you and allow Christ to shake up your schedule for the sake of another.