In the Beginning...

Perhaps a little out of order, but this week we go back to the beginning.  This is the Introduction to "Who Do You Say I Am? Finding Your Voice in the PCUSA."  The first three posts were the chapters used in our Wednesday Night Program.  Over the next few weeks, I will continue to post the chapters from the book in the order they were written.

Please feel free to comment and interact with the information presented...

In the Beginning...
Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!
-Genesis 1:31

Who cares anyway?
I mean, to most people outside our church family, our beloved Presbyterian Church isn’t something they disagree with. Instead, the Presbyterian Church is just something that is irrelevant. As a pastor that stings a bit. To think that the sum total of our work in the world means nothing to most people is not very comforting.
So I ask, “Who cares anyway about all this church stuff?” Well, for one, I do! And for two, I think you do too!

The church was packed to the rafters. People were standing outside on the sidewalk trying to hear what was going on inside. I remember thinking the whole thing looked a bit like a rock concert. As I looked out on the whole assembly, it was easy to see there were more teenagers than adults, each of them entering the building from the rear in small groups, like packs of wolf pups (it seemed) for protection and support.

Each little group found there way to their seats and waited to see what would happen
next. Each of them had this uncomfortable daze on their faces. No one wanted to appear lost, but for most it was obvious the church was clearly a new experience.

“Why does it take this to bring young people to church?” I wondered.

Tragically, the reason so many of these young men and women had gathered for the occasion was to say goodbye to a friend, a friend who had tragically lost his life in a car accident just a few days before. One thing was obvious to me. The young man had been very popular. I watched our sanctuary fill beyond any number of people we had ever seen before. Obviously his death was the reason for tremendous sadness and pain in young minds that were otherwise occupied with the delight and energy of the teenage years. But now, tears flowed down the cheeks of boys and girls alike.

As I stared at the whole scene, with tears welling up in my own eyes at the sight of such a tragedy, again I asked myself “Why are they here now?”

I think I actually whispered my question from the front of the church, where no one else
could hear. Again, sadly there were no answers for “why?” to be found on that day. There was only the tragic death of a beautiful and promising young person much earlier than it should have occurred.

The good news, and there was good news even on that day, was the assurance that Jesus Christ rescued him from death in the sure and certain promise of life eternal. As a church, that was what we had to proclaim with all our might to all those young people who made their way to our church. That was the good news that enabled the young man’s parents to get through such a day. It was the good news that pushed the “why?” question aside for a short time at least in favor of answering a better question for all of us, “what now?” And yet, for me, the “why?” question remained...

It was several months later that it occurred to me why so many had gathered. Why so many, who rarely darkened the doors of a church, would suddenly come out in such
numbers. I believe these young people were there because for the first time in many of their adolescent lives, they needed God. Oh, not because they needed to seek deep answers to theological questions about death and loss. I’m not that naïve. But on such a day, with the loss of their friend, these young people clearly needed something. Why else would they have abandoned all the other ways that made sense to dress up and come to a church?

What they needed, I believe, was to show their care and compassion for a friend and the members of his family. They needed to be part of something bigger than themselves if only
for a few minutes. They needed to be connected to their creator; to get through a time of senselessness and struggle. Again, I thought to myself, “Why does it take something like tragedy for young people to finally come to God?”

But maybe looking back now, it makes a lot of sense. There are times in every life, no matter what age, when (the) needs (of life) overwhelm everything else. When all that
matters is what’s most important at that moment, and that motivation sparks behavior that is otherwise irrelevant.

On that particular day, God and the church were there. That’s the good news. Not just the building, mind you, but more importantly the people. My young friends were in church that day, I believe, because of their need. They needed God. Maybe not on a level they fully understood, but at some basic level that they sensed.

On that day in April, our Presbyterian church was surrounding young people, in fact all
ages of people in deep pain, with the grace and love of Jesus Christ. Jesus was “in the house” to embrace these hurting lives and to help them to do what they needed to do. Say goodbye to their friend.

“In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the
-Carl Sagan

But there is a question that remains for me. We know God will always be there for the needs of the world. John 3:16 tells us so. But as far as the church in its present form is concerned, how much longer will it be so? Many of us have noticed that churches, these places to encounter the God that heals the hurts, are becoming less and less populated, especially our Presbyterian churches. It’s no secret that our own denomination has been losing ten percent a year for as long as I have been a member. If this trend continues, mathematically we are left to predict that day when there will be no place to go and ask for the fulfillment of unmet needs. There will be no one left to offer the love and peace of God to a world that is hurting.
The truth, above all, is that the church continues to become less and less relevant. Oh, not on days like that day in April when tears drowned out the noise of everything else. Those days are the last stand of relevancy of the community of faith. Those are the days when the needs overwhelm the irrelevancy of the church and people come seeking God.

That’s the reason most of my young friends had entered our church on that day. That’s the concept of God they somehow knew to be true, down deep in their souls without anyone telling them. That’s the idea that God is there when you need Him, when you hurt. This is the idea our culture and our society has taught us about faith in God. On the day you need God, God is there.

For centuries, people have always known that when you need God, you go to church. The church is where God meets needs. And as we have already noticed, need is what brings most people into our churches. The day of a person’s need is sometimes the day they seek the church.

What about other days? What about the days when the need for God is not so clear? What about the days when issues of justice and ethics come bubbling up to the surface? What about the days when decisions have to be made concerning how to live life with dignity and with compassion for others? What about the day when young people are deciding about careers, and family, and their responsibility as citizens of our country and of the world? What about the day when a young man is making a decision to drive intoxicated, or stick a needle in his arm? What about the night when a young lady is deciding to have a casual sexual relationship? What happens on those days?

You see the problem we have is that too many in our world have a bit of a warped understanding of who God is. Too many people fail to see God as the guarantor of wholeness in life and goodness. Instead God is an overly serious, therapeutic divinity only necessary at times of distress and need. God is there when you need something. Like a magical, heavenly slot machine. Insert prayer, pull the handle, and all your tears go away. That’s the God of today for our world.

But there is so much more to the God we believe in. I like to say, sometimes you come to God because you need something, and sometimes you come because someone needs something of you. Through Jesus Christ, we become whole again in a way that the world cannot fully comprehend. Christ creates in us a new life that is not possible without Him, a new life of confidence and compassion, one of holiness and humility. That’s the message of the church.
But the reality is in our declining churches with declining resources, someday there will
be no one to proclaim that message. I think there will always be seekers. It’s hard wired
into the human psyche to seek God at certain times. But what happens when there are more seekers than people who have answers? What happens when so many people no longer see the church as necessary? What happens when our message becomes so weakened that it no longer has any power or conviction? Where will people go then?

I don’t truly believe the church will ever go away until we reach its fulfillment. I believe as long as Jesus Christ has a use for the church to fulfill needs it will continue to exist.
As I look around I certainly see a lot of needs unfulfilled. So if that’s the measure maybe we are closer to the beginning of the church than to the end.

But what will the church look like? Is it going to change into something we don’t
recognize as many experts predict? Are we emerging into something new? Has the traditional old way of being church run its course? Are we at the beginning of something new?
And so here we are back at the beginning. This book is about the relevancy of the Presbyterian Church. These are the thoughts of a pastor who desperately wants to see the church relevant in the world. It is a hope and a vision that our beloved church can somehow find its voice again, and begin to offer transformation to a world so in need of help.

It is my intention that it be both theological and practical; since I still believe those two concepts belong together. It is my hope that it be idealistic and realistic at the same time. These two concepts must remain joined to be truly relevant.

This is a book that I hope will be read by everyone in the church and beyond; pastors, elders and deacons, lay people, life-long Presbyterians and those like me who are
relatively new to our faith. It is a book offered out of my deepest love for the church, and at the same time my hate for its irrelevancy.

My assertion to all who come and read is simply this. I believe our Presbyterian Church, with all its seemingly clunky polity and current misplaced priority, is the answer to the irrelevancy of the whole church of Jesus Christ. That’s not arrogant or exclusionary; other systems of church are fine with me. However, we Presbyterians must reclaim our belief as reforming Reformers. We must reclaim belief in our system. We must believe that our Presbyterian system is the answer, while allowing room for other answers as well.

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations... can never effect a reform.”
-Susan B. Anthony

This is my very bold pronouncement. The Presbyterian voice must be heard in a world
losing its ability to hear anything necessary about God and God’s church. Our church may already be emerging into something else, something different than we have ever
known. This book will claim that it would be better if it “Presby-merged.” It would be better if our church maintained its central focus on “big-tent” theology and conflict
resolving polity, at the same time proclaiming a strong message about the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ.

Why? Because in our age of conflict over faith and politics, what could be more necessary. Imagine a faithful witness to unity in the midst of theological diversity. Imagine a church that teaches that you don’t have to agree with me to be a person of deep faith. Might we have an affect even beyond our own Christian faith? Might we have an affect on Jewish/Muslim relations? What about black/white? Maybe even immigrant/naturalized citizenship? Our world seems to be tearing itself apart over differences, and yet a church that holds differences subservient to what makes people the same is not only relevant, today it is absolutely necessary.

The Presbyterian polity system is one of the only “bottom-up” systems in which every view is empowered and respected. It’s why we have so much conflict in our church, and yet it also works to hold us together when done with intention and conviction. Our polity system is what keeps us focused on the mission of the church, the proclamation of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world, even when the world doesn’t always agree with us. And by the way, that’s okay...

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the church of Jesus Christ.
And it was very good. May the pages of this book proclaim the goodness of our church for a modern age! 


Popular Posts