Monday, February 14, 2011

Inside Out

1 Corinthians 2:14-3:9

Watching a movie recently about the 1956 Montgomery AL bus boycott, which ultimately began the Civil Rights Movement, it occurred to me that in the two "sides" involved in the struggle against one another - or against a "system", depending on perspective - there was a risk of "loss" for each but from two different perspectives. One "side" felt like there was too much to lose and no discernable gain to make it worth standing up for what was right, while the other "side" had so much to gain that there was nothing worth keeping left to lose. Such differences in perspective actually define the gap that exists between the True Mission that is the Church and ambivalent worship attendance.

There are many and varied conditions within the American church that have continually contributed to an overall decline in worship attendance, but there is only one dominant condition that defines the difference between the "vital" and compelling Body of Christ - and a building with a cross; and that condition is determined by whether we think we have "too much to lose" - or whether we realize the true value of what is really at stake. And it sometimes seems as though we lose sight of what is at stake because we become comfortable within a self-created Christian subculture that has all the language and idiosyncrasies of pop-Christian culture but with a distinctive "worldly" flavor that is, ironically, familiar to those on the inside but completely foreign to those on the outside.

I thought of all this in light of a book I'm currently reading as well as Jesus' prayer to the Holy Father about His disciples as recorded in John 17:15: "I do not pray that You should take them out of world, but that You should keep them from the evil one." And the book I'm reading is entitled, "They like Jesus but not the Church" by Dan Kimball. Add to this mix an article in yesterday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that featured a 10-year-old church that was apparently founded for people who do not like The Church. Among the attributes of this "non-church" church were "great programs" such as music, relevant preaching, Bible studies, etc. All the markings of "church" but ostensibly designed for people who don't like The Church.

Once we stir in everything, then we read St. Paul's admonition to the Corinthian church that he could not speak to "as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh" because in the midst of all their internal conflicts and arguments, they had all the makings and the markings of a secular sub-culture, yet they called themselves "Christians". "For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving according to human inclinations?"

Yes they were. Yes we are. And yes, so are the "non-church" church people who are in the process of creating for themselves a unique subculture that, like all other churches and denominations, will welcome people in but works harder at sustaining the internal Christian subculture that does little to promote the missional nature of the Body of Christ which is undeniably "the" Church - not "several" - and certainly not a building.

If the Church IS the Body of Christ, the Christ who is so compelling, then it cannot be confined to a building - it must by definition be active and mobile. It must necessarily GO rather than WAIT. It must STAND FIRM rather than SIT QUIETLY. It must not be afraid of the dominant secular culture, but it must also be distinct from that culture.

Internal programs and personal preferences are among the many important elements that make up the life of a church but if these programs are not designed toward Christian education - not indoctrination - and are not inclined toward mission work, toward teaching the faithful how to function in the world as the "salt" and "light" of Christ, then all that exists is an infrastructure that is self-sustaining and pleasing only to those who are inside. It is a foreign subculture that people on the outside do not understand. And if programs of self-sustenance or entertainment are the dominant elements of the life of a church, the church is falling flat and loses its integrity as a church and becomes more like a private chapel suitable only for those who "fit in".

Speaking to a pastor friend recently in another part of the state, he expressed to me that he might have been better off becoming a firefighter rather than a church pastor because he spends entirely too much of his time "fighting fires"! As we were talking, we both seemed to realize that internal problems are borne of an inactive community of believers who call themselves "Christians" but are not inclined toward "mission", the very nature of Christ Himself, which is to say that they spend entirely too much time looking inward - "navel gazing" - focusing only on their own problems and not nearly enough time looking outward "from the balcony". "Navel gazers" see only what concerns themselves; they do not see outwardly toward the "big picture" because, quite frankly, they don't care beyond themselves. This cannot - this MUST NOT - be the Church, the Body of Christ.

The problem with "mission" is that most Christians have come to understand "mission" as going into a jungle and trying to witness to cannibals! We think in terms of the missional church in Unalaska that we have supported, and we have visions of all sorts of overseas missions in strange lands with strange customs and even stranger cultures and languages. We can easily see that many, if not most, of us are not geared or even gifted toward that kind of life. So we write 'em a check and call it good. There is nothing wrong with writing a check if this is all one is capable of.

At the worship service conclusion we jump into our cars and drive right through and into the greatest mission field we could ever hope to find, but we're driving so fast or are so focused on our destination - beating the Baptists to the buffet! - that we hardly notice the tons of folks with whom we share a common culture and a common language, but not a common Lord. Unlike the foreign missionaries, however, we don't try to appreciate who these people are and we don't care much for where they are or what they believe or even think; we care more than they should think and believe and speak as we do. We see it as our jobs, perhaps our "personal mission" to make these neighbors see things our way - and when they don't, we write them off as "lost". I don't think it ever occurs to us that they may be open to such interaction, but they don't understand our lingo or our subculture.

If you think I am pointing a finger here, you bet I am. STRAIGHT INTO THE MIRROR! It has occurred to me that far too many churches - and far too many pastors - have become so internally oriented that this is where we find the time to fight and to fuss and to worry about what is and what isn't, what we like and don't like, and we have all this time on our hands for "quarrelling" because we are not busy at all with the work of the Kingdom of Heaven; we are not at all about the mission of Christ, the mission to which we have been "saved" and called. Like the old saying goes, "idle time is the devil's playground, idle hands the devil's tools". And make no mistake; the devil is very busy IN the Church.

It may sound hopeless, but there is always hope where there is life and light because what does exist within the Christian subculture are "relationships", friendships that have been forged by a common cause, a common culture, a common language, a common Lord. The hope which exists - and will always exist - is that these existing relationships came from the same place and from the same hearts and from the same Lord as other relationships that are waiting to be developed. There are people out there who have no one. They don't need to be "saved"; they need to be loved. They need to know someone cares. And they will never know how deeply Christ cares until His followers step out and take a chance regardless of the risk.

My dear friends, these very people are the ones who are waiting for you and for me to finally "get it right", to finally come to understand what it really means to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world" because they are quite literally dying from broken hearts, profound loneliness, and extreme poverty of spirit. They've heard about this Jesus, but they have yet to experience His true grace because they have yet to experience one of His true followers. They've probably met all sorts of Crusaders, Christian "soldiers", enforcers of the code and the faith, and they may well have been genuinely wounded by some, but they have yet to meet one of the "medics" of the Great Physician.

It is time. There never was a better time than right now. It is time for us as individuals and it is time for this church, this Body of Christ, to step outside of our flesh and into the Spirit of the Lord. It is time for us to take risks and put everything on the table. It is time to take what we know from inside this building and inside this sanctuary and turn it OUT! It is time for the world to meet Jesus the Christ - perhaps for the very first time. Through YOU. And through ME. We have nothing left to lose but the life we think we have gained. And we have everything to gain from the life we think we have to lose.