My understanding of the church was that it was the physical manifestation of Jesus in the world. With that understanding . . . what I see scares me. I am not seeing a whole lot of Jesus in what I see in the church . . . and, that scares me. It should scare you too.
The numbers don’t lie . . . the church, especially the mainline denominations, are dying. They are dying faster than we can resuscitate them. More people are leaving through the back door than are coming in the front door. At this rate, it has been predicted, most mainline denominations will be gone in a couple of decades. Polls show that there are now more “spiritual” people than there are “religious”—meaning church people . . . and, those people do not care for the church as they see it manifested today. People vote with their inaction . . . church as we have known it is dying.
There is an old joke about a guy who attempts to go to his local church, but each time he is turned away at the door because he just does not fit the “image” of Christianity that the church is attempting to sell. After his latest rejection, he is walking home, crying. Suddenly a booming voice (doesn’t God have a booming voice?) speaks to him . . . demands to know what is wrong. The man tells him that the church won’t let him in. God laughs and says, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I have been trying since the day they became a church to get in, and they still won’t let me in either!”
There lies the complaint against the church today . . . where is Jesus . . . where are Jesus’ teachings and actions . . . where is God’s will? For many, many years it seems that the church has been focusing on the comfort and needs of those who belong . . . worship to equip the saints . . . Sunday school for those who are saved . . . everything pointed inward to meet the needs of those who belonged. The result? The church is imploding . . . blowing up from within. This is not what people want . . . because they don’t want this they either walk out the back door or they just don’t come.
I think the church is beginning to get it. There is someone knocking at the door . . . and, the church hasn’t quite decided whether or not it is going to open the door. Knocking on the door is Jesus . . . and, if the church lets him in . . . well, things are going to change. No one enjoys change. But it is getting to be a “do or die” situation . . . hopefully it is not too late.
To let Jesus in the door means that things are going to change . . . change to the way that Jesus would do them. This is not a real popular notion because that means giving up control, and the church has been about control pretty much since its inception. At some point (and it would be interesting if someone would study the scriptures and determine at what point that those who were a part of “the Way” transformed into the “church”) the church took over and Jesus was shown out the back door. That is the complaint, people are having a difficult time finding Jesus and his ministry within the church. Where did Jesus go? For a while now, the church has been playing its own version of “Where’s Waldo” as it searches for Jesus.
I don’t think that the church can stop what is happening today . . . it is too late. It is like trying to plug a crack in the Hoover Dam with a Bandaid—it won’t work. The church needs to open the door . . . let Jesus in . . . and then begin to listen, discern, and do. That is what people are looking for . . . a Jesus that makes a difference beyond the individual . . . makes a difference for the world in which we all live. It is not the music . . . it is not the sermon . . . it is not the Sunday school class . . . it is not the potluck dinners . . . bible studies . . . it is none of that. It is about Jesus and what he said and did.
Jesus loved God. Jesus loved people. Jesus cared. Jesus did not speak, but acted out of his love for God and others. Jesus did. In the beginning there was no church, there was only “the Way” . . . Jesus’ way. People did not declare themselves to be Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, or even Holy Rollers . . . they declared themselves to be followers of “the Way”. Jesus’ way . . . in the words that he spoke and the actions that he took. They followed Jesus . . . not the church.
Somewhere along the way, if ever, the church lost sight of that. Today we are paying for it.
For several years now, though I serve as an ordained minister in a mainline denomination, I have quit saying that I am a Christian . . . that is a church term, a church description. Instead I have begun to tell people that I am a follower of Jesus. There is a huge difference. Primarily, once Jesus is allowed in the door, things are going to change . . . change towards actually living God’s will. God’s will is simple enough, love the Lord completely and love your neighbor. That was what Jesus was about.
Someone is knocking at the door . . . thankfully, I can just about ride out the demise of the mainline denominations before retiring. But, I say open the door. Open the door and let Jesus in . . .
These are scary times for the church. Phillip Yancy writes: “As I look around on Sunday morning at the people populating the pews, I see the risk that God has assumed. For whatever reason, God now reveals himself in the world not through a pillar of smoke and fire, not even through the physical body of his Son in Galilee, but through the mongrel collection that comprises my local church and every other such gathering in God’s name.” I say, open the door! Let’s get back to “the Way”.