The church is alive, but needs some reality.

“The report of my demise has been greatly exaggerated.” That recognizable quote from Mark Twain illustrates the current status of the Christian Church. This report has come from a number of quarters, up to and including the church. This is really kind of presumptuous, it is God’s church, not ours to judge.
The church I pastor is part of the Southeast District of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. I am very proud and pleased to be a part of this district. It is very focused on evangelism, outreach, being disciples of Jesus Christ. Along with members of First St Johns, we attended the annual “Tending the Flame ” Conference in Richmond, which is a conference that builds evangelism and discipling skills. A church organization devoted to bringing the Gospel to such an influential part of the United States.
There is usually a speaker who keynotes the conference and is a speaker who is well known for his/her evangelism efforts, bringing Christ to those who are lost.
This year Reggie McNeal spoke, well known pastor, author. He is a great writer, man of God and great guy. But … Yea, I have some issues.
Believe me, I get what he was saying. There are a lot of churches out there, new, suburban, frankly these are more monuments for person pleasing then they are for God honoring. The theme of Pastor McNeal’s talks was “Get off Your Donkey”, essentially get out of your pretty churches and do some real engagement for Christ. There are a lot of these fancy churches that are attached to their monument, their church, not so concerned with the Great Commission.
The church has been around for 2,000 years, and has confronted greater challenges than post-modern neo-paganism and I have no doubt that it will continue to be. I have no doubt that Jesus’ imagery of building His church on a rock and the gates of hell not prevailing against it, ever is still valid today. Has the church gone through some tough times? No doubt, but as I’ve suggested before a lot of those tough times were self-inflicted and frankly I think Pastor McNeal’s forum touched on another aspect of that, perhaps not intentionally, but it illustrated it for me.
The problem that I see is that, again, too many new, suburban, in some aspects, almost exclusive churches that started since the 1950’s. But it goes back farther, where it seems that churches really lost sight of their vows to build the church and became social clubs, more concerned with being comfortable and not so concerned with providing for the lost in any respect, spiritual or material.
As Pastor MacNeal pointed out, we, the church, are the only self-conscious organization that is serving and proclaiming God today. We know that we are the agents of God. We do know and should practice what was ordained by Jesus.
Allow me to presume, but it seems as if McNeal is calling for a reformation of sorts and certainly it seems as if it is time for another one. The Reformation brought Christianity back to what is truly Christ-centered, God’s Word. It did away with the man-made stuff that affixed itself to the church. The church went back to Jesus’ command in the Great Commission, to baptize, to make disciples, to go into the world and not hide behind big church doors.
The issue I have is this, the Christian church has not only fallen in love with itself, and decided it was an exclusive club, but also decided that it was going to be a political force. None of that was intended by Jesus, much as the Roman Church became a political force in the medieval period.
Again I have a great deal of respect for Pastor McNeal, but I think a lot of what he talked about was probably derived from his church, the Baptist church. While I really don’t disagree with a lot of what the Baptists are actively involved in, I think that it has become way too involved in the world and has tended to ignore the Great Commission. It’s been way too involved in politics, has a very low view of the sacraments, tries to make the pastor more of a CEO then a man who should be much more concerned with being a “seel sorger” (soul doctor).
Gordon MacDonald tells of a time when he was at the clean up area from 9-ll, he was with a monk dressed in clerical apparel, where MacDonald was dressed business casual. MacDonald noted how he was pretty much ignored while the man who was attired in ecclesiastical/Christ proclaiming garb was treated with respect and deference. Clearly there is respect in the world for a man of Christ, but it seems, frankly as if those in the church don’t and the clergy does little if anything to expect respect from laity. Heck when you have some 24 year old say; “oh, call me pastor Jimmy”, well what do you expect.
When “worship” amounts to world pleasing music patting people on the head, “worship” that is man pleasing and not God-honoring you can’t expect the world to think otherwise. When you go to a Lutheran worship you “should” see true worship. You should see Word and Sacrament. Word, which is the preaching of Law and Gospel and doesn’t get into a lot of of societal platitudes, ten ways to be … , political agendas. You should be getting the fall of man into sin and how Christ, the Son of God, lived and died to reestablish the relationship with Jesus.
Has the church, that really did sell out the Gospel in the 80’s and 90’s, become irrelevant? Yes. It inflicted its own wounds. Instead of creating disciples in Christ to truly serve the world and to proclaim a message that certainly has political application, but it tried to force a political agenda, much like the medieval Roman church.
The LCMS, on the other hand, has the correct message and practice, but had its own self-inflicted wounds which mostly consisted of isolationism and provincialism.
When Law and Gospel is presented it resonates with people, it is readily understood. It’s not political, it’s not hodge-podge, it’s serious and meaningful. When we talk about baptism we are talking and expecting a true transformation. That person has been reborn, they are now a child in Christ, the old person is dead, it still lingers, we still sin, but we are now in that relationship with the Father. With that there is the hope and promise in the church. The church talks about the forgiveness, restoration of Christ. When we take His Body and Blood, it’s not just a quaint little remembrance, it is truly His Body and Blood that forgives, restores, strengthens.
All due respect those 1950s/60s building are a problem. The old churches were built the way they were for a reason, to the glory of God and to inspire awe, a tiny taste of heaven. The 1950s/60s buildings were built to be man pleasing, very little in terms of God honoring. No wonder the church is irrelevant, it’s jut become another, among many, man honoring monuments, since it really doesn’t proclaim hope and promise, forgiveness, eternal resurrected life. so yes, the church of the 50s-70sis a failure. It is suburban-man honoring-social club, this is what MacNeal is talking about and seems to be condemning. Frankly, in terms of that I agree.
The inner-city church has been doing for years what MacNeal advocates. The problem is this, what MacNeal advocates is serving and social work. OK, that’s what the inner-city church does, but it also does what is truly important, bringing the hope and promise of Christ. The people of First St Johns have stepped up and done much social outreach and will continue to do so. But what has been discovered is that much of what is done is taken advantage of by people who have no intention to do anything other than what they’ve been doing. The church should serve, but often ends up just being an enabler. I intend to develop this thesis further, but there is only limited time, resources and persons to do this ministry. I do a lot of “social ministry”, I could do it 24/7 without a problem, that’s not what I’m there for or trained for. We do serve physical needs, but more importantly doing what’s important: conducting worship that is God-honoring, disciple-making, Word and Sacrament. That church, First St Johns for example, St Thomas’ in Baltimore too, those churches are very valid and need to be built up and restored. Now if Pastor MacNeal is talking about the churches that have become superficial, sappy, irrelevant, that they should get off their donkies, OK. They should and schlep downtown to the churches where the faithful have been serving, not just food, clothes, shelter, but also genuine Word and Sacrament, the hope and promise of Christ. Well then they should, and do it quickly. But churches like First St Johns are more relevant than ever.

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