If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 1 Chronicles 7:14
Willow Creek Community Church, just outside of Chicago is, by any standards, a massive church. They have a membership into the tens of thousands, and on any given weekend they welcome 15 000 souls through their front doors. I had the opportunity to visit Willow Creek 2 summers ago and I left with deeply mixed feelings. After making our way through parking lot number 3, we found the front doors, where upon entry, we were greeted not by a smiling usher handing us a bulletin, or a bible open to John 3:16, or even a cross on the wall – but we were greeting by the smell of hamburgers frying at one of the booths of the food court. In fact, upon entry, there was nothing telling us that this was a place where God was worshipped. Beside the food court was a lounge with comfy chairs arranged in a circle so the overflow of worshippers could watch the 5:15 Saturday evening service while enjoying a fresh cup of java while watching the service on a Big-screen TV. I couldn’t help but ask myself, How does this place represent poor man from Nazareth named Jesus?
I also marveled at how well the brilliant strategy their senior Pastor Bill Hybels worked in attracted people to church. His strategy wasn’t new. The Jesuits have been doing same thing for the last 500 hundred years. 1300 years before them, the ancient Celtic church saw massive growth in the church as the gospel rippled its way across Europe. This strategy is now called “inculturation.” Basically it means to use the trappings of the culture to preach and teach the good news of Jesus Christ. The gospel isn’t shared, heard, or experienced in a vacuum. The gospel needs a vehicle, and the vehicle that Willow Creek uses is the consumer culture of the affluent suburbs of Middle America. But I have to be honest, hearing testimonies of people whose lives have been transformed by the power of gospel through the ministry of Willow Creek, people who testify of relationships healed, addictions brought under control, the lonely finding community, I have to say that God working powerfully through that ministry.
But yet, I also have to ask myself if they’re missing a second step. At what point do we use culture, and at what point do we challenge culture? If we distance ourselves too much from the culture we run the risk of becoming irrelevant, an island unto ourselves speaking a language only we can understand. But if we use too much of the culture, we risk losing our distinctiveness, our prophetic witness to the alternative way of living that Jesus call us to. But the results will be the same; we will become irrelevant.
But while Willow Creek is an extreme model, I wonder if we Lutherans can fall into the same traps set for us by the world that surrounds us. What makes us different from the rest of the world? Are we a “counter-culture” that lives in sharp distinction to the rest of the world as many of the theologians suggest, or is our faith merely a “spare tire religion” where we pull it out when the wheels of life go flat? How do we live our faith that speaks to the good news we have received in Jesus Christ? Is our common witness to the life-altering, world-changing power of God evident in how we live our lives as a community? Do we use the resources that God has so graciously give us on ourselves or do we share abundantly with a world outside our doors who is starving for grace?
These are questions the prophets ask the people of God all throughout the bible. Whether its Amos and Hosea in the north or Isaiah and Jeremiah in the south; whether the times are prosperous or perilous, the message remains the same: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.”
In other words God is saying, “Always keep me in your sight. Remember who you are; a people chosen to be a light to all the world.”
I know for me, sometimes I let my dreaming, my ambition, my hunger for influence and status in the world distract me from where God wants me to be. I often get caught up in how my life will impact the world I forget how God’s world will impact my life. I like this text because it haunts me. When I mark an achievement in my life, this text reminds me of how fleeting worldly success is. When I hear the siren call to worldly power and status, this text calls me to greater humility. When I am tempted to wonder if the grass is somehow greener in another pasture, this text calls me to stronger commitment among the people I am called to serve.
But perhaps mostly, this text calls me to my knees to kneel in repentance, prayer, and to seek after the one who named me and claimed for his own. I think this is God’s message for us as people of God, God is asking us, Why do you spend your lives chasing after shadows that flicker and die, when what I’m offering lasts forever? I don’t need your riches. Instead of a big cheque, bring me your tears, bring me your diseases, bring me your broken heart. Instead of fancy buildings all I need from you is that which the world asks that you hide: your sickness, your sorrow, your loneliness.
This is kind of offering that God wants; for us to bring our brokenness and pain and to lay it at the foot of the cross to be crucified with Jesus, so we can rise with him in the freedom that belongs to the children of God. Jesus is offering us the love that sweeps us into eternity: unlimited life, love-filled life; joy-filled life; deathless life!