Text: Isaiah 43:16-21
Theme Verse: "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)
The title cover story by Pulitzer prize winning writer Jon Meacham of Newsweek a few years back said it all: “The End of Christian America.” This was not a story about God or Jesus as much as it was about the influence of those who claimed to follow said God and Jesus. The world is changing. Change tends to bring either some level of fear or a measure of excitement. Historians note a major shift of the Christian faith every five hundred years since the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The last major shift was the Protestant Reformation which launched in 1517. What is in store for the movement of faith in this day and age? Researchers suggest Christianity could be on the brink of an old, brand new thing.
reader : Rick Bohls
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
There seems to be a marketing ploy against grandparents these days. Are you aware of this? I’m not happy about it but I can’t deny it’s happening. The latest is an ad from Buick simply titled, “This is not your grandpa’s Buick.” The whole notion is that only grandpa’s drive Buicks – that they’re old fashioned and no hip, young, millennial would be caught dead driving one. Buick says, “Not so fast – Buick is young and hip and made for the young.” The concept – separate Buick from grandpa and sell more cars. I found there’s a brewery that’s trying to sell a line of beverages saying, “This is not your grandpa’s root beer.” Grandpa’s getting blamed all over the place for things that are not their fault whatsoever. And you think grandma would be untouchable, right? Wrong. One company is delivering an online White Pages service with the tagline, “Not your grandma’s phonebook.” It just gets more disturbing from here: A quick search of the Googles reveals more attacks on grandma: “Not your grandma’s bingo,” “Not your grandma’s catholic gifts,” and then the worst of the worst, “Not your grandma’s cookies.” Everyone knows there are no better cookies in the world than grandma’s.
This is really disturbing to me. I’ve been accused by some as having an “old soul” so maybe I’ve been a grandpa my whole life and therefore find these attacks to be personal and offensive. Truth is, I’d take my grandpa’s determination any day. I’d utilize his tool box over anything you could purchase today. They just don’t make them like they used too. I’d take grandma’s patience and market the power of her licked thumb to clean a child’s face over any of today’s baby wipes. The reality is that things do change. There are some improvements – technology is truly amazing. There are some things that we miss because every new creation signals the loss of something that once was a staple to every human life. This happens on a personal scale and broadens out from there: organizations, neighborhoods, cities, countries and the world. To imagine that the church is unaffected by the shifting nature of the world is to encourage those marketers who say, “Grandpa’s church is slowly fading into irrelevancy.” Again – extremely disturbing idea to me: I loved the churches my grandfather pastored – faithful, caring, community-engaging, a stable force in times of instability. How is that a turn off to today’s generations seeking meaning in their lives? Turns out those characteristics aren’t turn offs at all. But the Church, capital “C”, isn’t living out grandpa’s church values in a way that is taking root.
The title cover story by Pulitzer prize winning writer Jon Meacham of Newsweek a few years back said it all: “The End of Christian America.” This was not an indictment on Jesus as much as it concerned the waning influence of those who claimed to be Christian Americans. Some claimed irrelevancy of the church – couldn’t keep up with the times – grandpa’s church no longer connecting to the newest generations. Others said, it’s gospel-ignorance or at least gospel-resistance. Others yet said, “I like your Jesus, but I haven’t met any Christians who act like him.” Gandhi’s famous, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” resonated with this movement. There was enough buzz about this that researchers got engaged including the Barna Research Group whose findings encouraged the published work of several books including “UnChristian”1 which inspired a sermon series offered here a few years back and now, “The Next Christians”2, a supporting guide to this six-week series we launch today.
UnChristian was written in response to the perception of new generations of Christians and those rejecting Christianity all together. Why is this important? Why can’t we just keep doing what we’ve always done? If we are interested in communicating and expressing Christ to new generations, we need to understand the intensity of their views. We can’t just throw up our hands in disgust or defensiveness. We have a responsibility to our friends and neighbors and children and grandchildren to have a sober, reasonable understanding of their perspectives. This is not to scold you or me or anyone – quite the opposite actually. It’s to say that if authentic spiritual influence is important, then listening and understanding comes before wisdom-sharing. Nobody cares what you know until they know how much you care. Cliché, perhaps, but “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” seems more helpful than “They’ll know we are Christians by our judgments or by our complete unwillingness to listen to another viewpoint.” Plus, the latter didn’t fit the melody of the song nearly as well. First Corinthians 8:1 says, “While knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church.”
So what are the perceptions? Barna’s national surveys found the three most common perceptions (good/bad/or indifferent) to be the following: “anti-homosexual (an image held by 91% of young outsiders), judgmental (87%), and hypocritical (85%).”3 Those were the top three. Doesn’t sound like they know we are Christians by our love. It seems we have become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for. My immediate response is, “You don’t know my church.” Our tendency is to get defensive but that’s not all that helpful it seems. You may not agree with the views of those who hold this emerging sentiment about Christianity but we shouldn’t ignore them. If I’m honest, I’ve demonstrated in my own life at times expressions that were incongruent with Jesus’ call to be loving, engaged, sacrificial, unselfish, and compassionate contributors to culture. Part of connecting with a skeptical generation or culture is to admit: “I don’t have it all together. I’m sorry for hurt that I’ve contributed to this reality. Forgive me when I haven’t responded as Jesus calls me to.” Instead of putting up a wall and becoming bitter, I wonder if we could accept the challenge to ask questions of ourselves. Maybe questions like, “What does Jesus’ presence look like in America in our time?” How should the message of the Gospel go forward?” “What does it mean to be a Christian in a world who questions if we can really follow the Jesus we say we do?” “How can we be bridge-builders to a Gospel of love in a world that is ever changing?”
Some of this begins by looking back. The prophet Isaiah brings our word this morning as the mouthpiece of God who says to the people, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” What was the new thing God was going to do? After decades of slavery and displacement in Babylon, the people Israel were questioning if God’s promise of deliverance was even a thing anymore. “Deliverance. Is that a thing?” God starts through the prophet with a little Throwback Thursday version of their past. Remember when the Lord made “a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” for his people to escape their oppressors? The same God who did that will be the God who will do a new thing in this time – an exit from slavery into the promised land. Even so, this would be a tough time. Even when Moses led the people through the sea, there was forty-years of wandering in the wilderness: complaints, bad food, restlessness – an entire generation wouldn’t see the deliverance themselves even though the process was underway. But the prophet notes that the evolution out of Babylon will be a different kind of new thing… a different kind of deliverance than before. And thus creates a pattern system-theorists are bringing to light in our current day. Why?
This captivity in Babylon was roughly five hundred years before The Great Transformation – what we may call the incarnation of God in Jesus, Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. A definite new thing that was a game changer. Then what? Press forward another five-hundred years from Christ’s death and we see the Roman empire fall and with it, Constantinian Christianity. Five hundred years after that, The Great Schism of 1054 which divided Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. This was a split concerning ethos of church structure, theology like the role of the Holy Spirit, and whether or not the Pope should be the ultimate authority. Then another five hundred years and we have The Great Reformation of 1517 which followed Martin Luther’s lead, giving rise to Protestant Christianity. If we don’t look back at all, we can easily fall trap to, “Well, the way we do it is just the way it’s always been,” or “The way we think is just the way Christians have always thought.” But that’s not true and my goodness how stressful it must have been to try and be a faithful Christian in those seasons. Times of change are hard. Did you catch the year of the Reformation – 1517? I’m no mathematician but add five hundred years and you land in 2017. Now I’m not predicting the end of the world or even that Leonardo DiCaprio will reunite with Kirk Cameron to make a new season of Growing Pains with a bent toward the rapture. I’m simply noting what Episcopal Bishop Mark Dyer has noted in saying, “Every five hundred years or so, the faith has a huge rummage sale and we’re having one now.”4
If you look at our political climate and growing violence and fear-based preservation of identity, you’ve got to wonder what Christian response will emerge. It has been a horrific week in America – more hatred and violence and division. More black men killed. Policemen defending the right to protest in Dallas innocently slain by a disturbed US veteran. What is happening? We can be sad about it and I am deeply grieved by it… but what sadness for families dealing with the reality that their fathers are gone today. If Jesus were preaching into this matter, he’d do so parabolically as that was his primary mode of communicating. And if you’ve read a parable or three of Jesus’, you can almost bet one would include the #blacklivesmatter. It’s not that all lives don’t matter – Jesus would be the first to say so – it’s just that Jesus was most concerned with the underdog, the oppressed, the minority and attempted to get the attention of the elite… those with systemic power as if to say, “You’ve got to pay attention to this. You’ve got to do something.” What are we to do?
What new thing is God about to do in this time, in us, through us, in the world? The research and rise of the age seems to suggest we are on the verge of discovering “The Next Christians.” Some are calling this season, “The Great Emergence” to keep with the “great” theme that’s been out there throughout history. And while a new thing suggests change and will require change, it doesn’t have to equate to fear and the digging in of our Sunday heels. Each great shift didn’t find Christianity ceasing to exist, it just had to clean things up a bit. We have every reason to rejoice in this new thing God is doing today in the Christian movement. Most of all because it is radically Jesus oriented. Seems an odd thing to note – hasn’t Christianity always been about Jesus? Yes. But we’ve been distracted. The world is hungry, ripe and ready for the authentic ways of Jesus. Quoting the Hebrew writer who said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” is still powerful. The thing is, our quoting of that passage has typically meant, “My church traditions, songs, and membership that says who’s in and out, is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” No. The Great Emergence points us back to what is key – authentic relationship. How do we do this? Too often we confuse first and second things. Gabe Lyons describes it this way: “If I want my children to have beautiful imaginations (a second thing), I must first turn off the television, read them descriptive, fantastical books, and give them experiences that let their minds wander and dream (a first thing). I can’t tell them to practice “imagination.” I have to create an environment that first encourages it.” C.S. Lewis wrote about this too saying, “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” Five hundred years and changes of who we are and how we do “church” has led us to second thing priorities. Fear of the unknown and difference and change leads us to cling to second things like lists of doctrines or tests of faith over relationships.
The first thing has always been the Great Commandment of Jesus: “Love God. Love neighbor.”
What if we removed all of the other ‘second thing’ measures we’ve put out there and recovered that aim as our daily goal? What if anything you ever knew about the faith was erased and you had to re-learn everything spiritually. You’d ask, “Well what’s the first thing? What’s most important?” Love God. Love neighbor. How would you go about that without all of the baggage of second things and labels like liberal and conservative or Methodist or Catholic or Muslim? Since we can’t unlearn all of that perhaps, what if we re-learned to fall in love again with the beautiful, redemptive, faithful, demanding, reconciling, all-powerful, restorative, grace-bounding, soul-quenching, spiritually fulfilling good news of God’s love. We have grown more accustomed to defending ourselves than listening and embracing first things. Have you found more people to be open to your influence through an angry Facebook post or because you stood with someone who was hurting or you served someone else just because you could? Most people, it seems, don’t seek after a faith, but rather they “encounter one through their ties to other people who already accept [that] faith.” Authentic relationship. Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel, “Seek first the kingdom and all [of the second things] will be given to you.” I don’t simplify this to say it’s easy.
If you truly give it your all to love God with everything and love your neighbor as yourself for the rest of your life, you may make a small dent toward achieving that goal. It’s a massive goal – full of struggle and discomfort and probably some awkward conversations. But the next Christians seem to be ones up for this – befriending people through authentic relationships where love is the only agenda. They trust God to be responsible for any transformation needed in our own lives or the lives of those we authentically attempt to love like Jesus. [side note: God has always been responsible for this but we’ve tried to shoulder all of that ourselves]. Debating to change the negative perception will not be our task. But one experience and relationship at a time when we shift any inclination we have of judgment to grace, hypocrisy to authenticity, and rejection to acceptance will start to usher the Great Emergence into being. We will dive more deeply in the next five weeks into the characteristics of The Next Christians but for today, I close with a story of the transformation of one who has long been active in the work of the faith and perceives that God is preparing to do a new thing.
Gabe Lyons, author of the book, “The Next Christians” had a rare opportunity to meet Billy Graham in his home. Graham provided spiritual counsel to seven U.S. presidents and has had audience with people all around the world. He preached to crowds over time amassing tens of millions of those who would claim he introduced them to Jesus Christ. As Gabe walked the back hall to the home study of this evangelist, now 97 years old (a few years younger at this time), he was greeted by Graham and his five dogs that kept him company. Gabe noted that Graham’s body was undeniably old but quickly discerned that his mind was still very sharp. Gabe went to soak up wisdom but found Graham asking much about his work. After listening, Graham pondered for a bit before a smile walked the sides of his face. “Back when we did these big crusades in football stadiums and arenas,” he said, “the Holy Spirit was really moving – and people were coming to Christ as we preached the Word of God. But today, I sense something different is happening. I see evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in a new way. He’s moving through people where they work and through one-on-one relationships to accomplish great things. They are demonstrating God’s love to those around them, not just with words, but in deed.”
Summed up in the sage words of this iconic figure who had seen what twentieth-century Christianity had to offer was all Gabe Lyons had been sensing from his research and study. “God was about to do a new thing… and he was starting to perceive it.” How about you? How about us? What do we perceive? I close with a borrowed question from Nadia Bolz-Weber: “How can we be at the frontier of asking, ‘How beautiful can this Jesus Christ thing actually be when it’s lived out?’” That is the question of my grandfather’s faith even as the times and realities called for the church to be the voice it was in his time. The same question is ours even as we embrace the challenges and realties of new times. As the next Christians, what does our voice need to be? My friends, here’s to the journey of finding out…
1 UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… and Why it Matters. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, MI. 2007.
2 The Next Christians: How a New Generation is Restoring the Faith. Gabe Lyons. Doubleday. New York. 2010. This book inspired this six-week series and its influence is strong here. When Lyons is mentioned, those samplings tend to come from this book.
3 Cited from UnChristian.
4 The five-hundred-year piece is found in The Next Christians but is more deeply considered by Phyllis Tickle in her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.