12 Sep Church Reimagined
September 13, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
As we know all too well, living through a global pandemic changes everything about our lives—how we work, play, buy groceries, go to school, see the doctor and yes, how we worship and do church. People are already thinking out loud, wondering if some of the changes and adaptations we’ve made in the past seven months will end up being permanent and if so, which ones. Perhaps telework is here to stay in much greater numbers than before. Real estate companies report a significant shift of people trading in their urban lifestyles for homes in the suburbs and in even more rural areas. Colleges have been experimenting with virtual learning for years, but some predict that Covid-19 has been the catalyst that was needed to radically alter how we price and deliver higher education, even though its core mission stays the same.
And I can’t help but wonder if the church won’t be similarly impacted. Our core mission has not and will not change, but how we deliver and experience worship, community, mission, Christian education, and pastoral care might. So, let’s spend a few weeks reimagining church and how God might want to use these past several months to shape us for the future.
We start this morning in John 6 where a lot has been going on. The chapter opens with a crowd of 5000 people following Jesus to hear him teach and to see his miraculous healings. As mealtime approaches, Jesus feeds the huge crowd with the contents of a little boy’s lunch pail—five loaves of bread and two fish. The people are awed and impressed and begin to suspect that Jesus is the prophet who has been promised, the one who will deliver them from Roman oppression. They are sure they know how this story is supposed to go, but verse 15 says, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
A little further along in the chapter is the scene where Jesus walks on the water in order to join the disciples who are across the lake in a boat. The crowd again seeks him out, questioning him about what signs he will give them so that they might believe. Jesus answers with one of his “I am” statements: “I am the bread of life” and goes on at length to teach them who he is and what his answer means. Instead of reassuring them, however, Jesus’ words cause alarm. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And John records that “many” of Jesus’ disciples turned away and no longer followed him. From excitement to disillusionment, from high hopes to unmet expectations, from crowning him king to walking away—in just a few verses, something significant shifts. It turns out Jesus isn’t who they imagined him to be, and he is asking too much of them.
Except that there is a small group of twelve who stay with Jesus. They recognize that there is something different, something special, something utterly unique about this man. They have nowhere else to go to hear the kind of words Jesus speaks. Through his actions and words, miracles and healings, they have come to believe he is “the One.” So, they make a decision, a commitment, that they are with him for the long haul. They are “all in.”
This scene has a lot to say about how we imagine and reimagine church, but before we get to that, let’s be sure we are talking about the same thing when we use the word “church.” If the disruption of the past several months has reminded us of anything, it is that the church is more than a building. As much as we may miss being able to be in one place together, church did not stop because of the coronavirus. As I saw it stated on an outdoor church sign, “the building is closed; the church is open.” And, we have been and continue to be open for business, regardless of the limitations placed on our communal gatherings.
The truth is that you are the church and collectively, together we are the church. Which is why it is impossible for the church to ever close. As long as we follow Jesus Christ wherever we are, wherever we go, in whatever situation we find ourselves, in every interaction, including our most private times with no one but ourselves—in all times and places, we are the church. The question is, what kind of church are we?
Let’s look closely at John 6. A lot of people in the crowd were intrigued by Jesus and they imagined they knew what he was there to do. They were willing to follow him as long as:
- Jesus satisfied them
- there was a payoff, there was something in it for them
- it didn’t cost them very much, which in this case meant as long as they could follow in their own strength, with their own understanding, using their own resources
But Jesus imagined people following in a very different sort of way. His way asked that:
- people trust him with everything within them
- they would rely on Jesus’ strength, wisdom and resources rather than their own
- their aim would be for God to get the glory, rather than being focused on themselves
One way you could summarize the difference between what the crowd and Jesus are thinking is to say that the people imagine that following Jesus is something they can do with their heads. Jesus reimagines it as something that requires their hearts. I think this is still widely true today. There is a perception that being a Christian, being the church means believing the right things, i.e., thinking the “right way” who Jesus is, what he came to do, what scripture says and a whole host of other issues.
The trouble with this approach, as Jesus points out again and again is that people can give intellectual assent to something without their hearts ever being touched or stirred to respond. If this were all the church was, it would be a cold and sterile environment. We could come and go as we please, without running the risk that anything would ever be asked of us that pushed us outside our comfort zones. Which is exactly why this type of church appeals to so many people. It leaves us in control. We never have to reckon with a God who does the unexpected or asks more than we want to give.
Jesus, of course, reimagines church as a people who bring everything they are and everything they have to be used by God to accomplish God’s purposes. We don’t call the shots. Instead, we commit to live in community with one another learning how to be people of faith: learning to trust God when we don’t always see or understand what God is doing; learning to love and care for people who are different from us, people we may not know and some people we may not even like, yet we are still called to love; learning to be generous so that others’ needs can be met; learning to praise in the midst of pain, to be honest about who we are even though it requires vulnerability, to allow ourselves to receive from others in our weakness, rather than always projecting that we are the strong ones.
The crowd also imagines that following Jesus and being the church is about achieving a short-term, specific goals, whereas Jesus reimagines church as changing history. The crowd was fired up, to be sure, but think about it—they were imagining the same thing they’d done before (overthrow their current occupier) in the same way they’d always done it, through military might. We see it all the time in every area of life—doing things like they’ve always been done while hoping for a different result.
In the last couple of decades, in the church this has often taken the form of chasing after any and every new program that promises to grow your church. Workshops, books, seminars, conferences and podcasts have become a multi-million-dollar business to help pastors and lay leaders reverse the downward trends in attendance, giving and participation. In my office I’ve got an entire shelf of books with titles like, Twelve Dynamic Shifts for Transforming Your Church, Pathway to Renewal: Practical Steps for Congregations, and church 3.0: upgrades for the future of the church.
Many of the books I’ve read and seminars I’ve attended have been helpful, giving me fresh ideas and insights about how to examine how we do church. But, if we’re not careful, the emphasis becomes nothing more than institutional survival.
Jesus reimagines this tired cycle in an entirely new way. Instead of focusing on “firing up the troops” with another new program, Jesus expects his troops to be on the front lines already because they want and choose to be there. Church, the way Jesus reimagines it, is willing to try something new, not because it worked for the church down the street but because we discern specific ways that Jesus is leading us to respond to the spiritual hungers and practical needs in our community. Our desire is to grow in faith and help others do the same, and we leave the results to God. The focus, then, is not on the next great program but on being a church that joyfully, willingly, obediently chooses to follow Jesus.
Finally, the crowd imagines that following Jesus might cost them a little of their time and maybe some effort. After all, overthrowing the Romans won’t happen just by wishing it is so. But the church, as Jesus reimagines it, costs us our lives, so that we can learn to live a new life in God. The good news for us is that new life in Christ is not dependent on whether the building is open or closed, or whether there is a global pandemic or not. We are called to be the church in all times and in all places—and we can answer that call regardless of the situation by responding with a “yes” to Jesus Christ. Will you follow me, asks Jesus? Yes. Will you yield to the work of God’s Spirit? Yes. Will you allow Christ to reimagine for you what it means to be his church right now, right where you are and to continue to listen as we discern together how God is inviting us to live into the future? Yes and yes.
Thanks be to God. Amen.