Thursday, September 9, 2010

Alan's Epistle to the Church in North America

One of many letters being written...

September 2010

To the Church in North America:

You have a proud heritage, one that is worth celebrating, a glorious history that must never be forgotten. I am a product of that long heritage. For almost forty years I have been a part of you in one form or another. I want my children, and even my children’s children to have that same opportunity. But I fear that if we do not change our present course dramatically, that opportunity may be lost forever. So when I speak strong words to you below, know that I speak as one of you. I want us to have a future with hope. I want the Church to live again—I want us to be all that Jesus intended us to be.

For many years, even generations, you nurtured the spiritual health of individuals, families, and communities from Atlantic to Pacific, from the mountains to the prairies, in scores of communities large and small, all across this continent. In the world of the mid 20th century geographic communities were at the very heart of daily life—and you stood proudly in the center of those communities, a visible symbol that even after two World Wars and a Depression, God was still very much with us! People were attracted to what you offered them; young and old, they came in droves. You were the place where the congregation gathered on Sunday to worship God, but also where they “kept in touch” with what was going on in the larger world outside the church doors.

But in essence what I have against you is this: When the world changed you didn’t! You failed to realize that though the Message of Jesus is eternal, the ways in which we share that Message have always been adapted to more effectively reach the surrounding culture. As the world began to change around you, as society became increasingly mobile and the definition of community changed dramatically—you somewhat naively expected them to stay the same as they have “always” been inside your doors. You dug in your heels and resisted making changes that could have made you more adaptable and responsive to the rapidly changing world around you. In fact, in many cases, you went so far as to drive away those who tried to make changes in your midst. In doing so, you crushed the spirits of many enthusiastic laypeople and leaders alike—many of whom were youth and young adults.

Long is the sad trail of tears of the brokenhearted faithful whom you were willing to “sacrifice” on the altar in order to preserve the status quo. Most of the time, these were people whose only “crime” is that they actually had the audacity to challenge you to be the Church that Jesus called you to be.

But in making that fateful choice in past decades you sacrificed more than you realized. For all those people that you drove away had strength and vitality that you desperately needed. You could have been their mentor in the faith, but instead, you were indifferent toward many of them and sometimes you actively opposed them. You were willing to do anything, to say anything to get things back to the way they had “always” been. And eventually you got your wish—all those “new” people who had been stirring things up left… and things got back to “normal”. The problem is that they took their friends and family with them—and, with rare exceptions, they have never come back. An entire generation is missing from your pews! You should weep for what you have lost but in most cases you show precious little remorse.

And to add insult to injury: When they stopped coming to you, you did not go after them! Perhaps you didn’t have the time and energy to do it. Maybe you were too wrapped up in your own internal problems at the time to go after them. Maybe given your reduced numbers, there just weren’t enough of you willing and able to go out to the places where people gather in our world today. But you are a people who can do anything when you set your mind to it, so I fear the single biggest reason you didn’t go after them is quite simple: You really didn’t want to…

Somewhere along the way, you became content with the status quo. What has been most important to you recently is preserving the way things are until you are no longer here. To that end, you’ve chosen to devote your increasingly limited time and energy to maintaining your aging and outdated structures rather than reaching outward to draw in new people to the Kingdom of God.

But now, you’ve begun to reap the consequences all the shortsighted choices you have made over the years. Your youth and vitality are virtually gone; you’ve lost the flexibility and adaptability that used to make you attractive to the world. You also increasingly lack financial resources to actually do meaningful ministry in the world. Though there are still moments where God works in powerful ways in your midst, you often appear impotent to address the real problems that this world faces—heck, it was all you could do to pay the electric bill last month. In a world that is increasingly post-Christian, people increasingly view you as irrelevant to their daily lives.

You once stood proudly in the center of your communities. People were attracted to you because they saw something they wanted to be part of. Now, you are a mere shadow of your former self—sometimes quite pathetic looking to the passer-by. And no matter how hard you try to freshen up things, you can’t fool the world for very long. The stench of death and decay permeates you; your bones are old, dry, and lifeless, and people generally aren’t attracted to something that is so obviously dying—at least in the form we presently know it.

So God asks you the same question God asked the Prophet of old: Church, can these bones live again? The brutally honest answer: no one knows for sure. I believe in you; I always have; I have been part of you my whole life and I can’t give up hope now. Some say I am a wide-eyed optimist and that may be so. Regardless, it doesn’t really matter what I think. It’s more important what God thinks—and God has always believed in you. In a real sense, God’s only Son believed in you so much that he was willing to gave his very life that you might be born, and put his trust in you to spread the Way of Jesus around the world.

So I think it’s clear that God would have you live again; but to do so, you will have to actively choose life. And the way of life is usually found only by passing through the valley of death. If you truly want to live, you’re going to have to embrace a whole “new” way of being you. (It’s actually a very “old” way and really the only way you can ever truly be what Jesus created you to be.) To enter this new way will require you to “die” to the old way—which is scary because it’s the only way you have ever known to be you. This will probably seem quite radical to you, more change than you could possibly endure in one lifetime—but of course part of why it seems that way is precisely because you’ve put off changing for so long!

But frightening as this “new” way may seem, nothing less than radical change can help you now. Incremental changes and band-aid fixes have been tried and failed. They simply haven’t bought about the kind of renewal and healing you seek and the kind that God longs to see.

God’s desire is that you would be a community of people set apart to serve the world, a community united in your love for God and for one another who gather together throughout the week to participate in worship, prayer, fellowship, study, and other spiritual practices that help prepare you to be sent forth to live out your calling in the world.

If this vision sounds like a strange way to think of yourself, it only shows how far you have strayed off course. If you truly desire to live again you must once again become what Jesus intended you to be—a place where the veil between Earth and heaven thins and Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God becomes tangible and real in our midst. You must show the world examples of how the Way of Jesus can actually offer more effective means of responding to the world’s major crises than the dominant ways of this world. If you did this, the world couldn’t help but take notice. They would once again see in you something that they would find attractive and want to be a part of—your dry bones could indeed live again!

This is my fervent hope and prayer for you—the Church in North America...

Yours In Christ,

Alan B. Ward (Baltimore, MD)

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