Some of you may have seen the movie Dogma where comedian George Carlin plays a Roman Catholic cardinal who is actually a PR man for the Vatican. He’s in charge of changing the “depressing” image of the crucified Jesus to something a little more palatable for the masses. On the front steps of a local church, the good cardinal initiates a campaign called “Catholicism Wow” which replaces the crucifix with a “Buddy Christ” who winks, smiles, and offers followers a big thumbs-up. It’s a great scene because it is so frighteningly true. Church leaders often do some pretty weird stuff to bring ‘em in.
At last count, I have roughly ten books on how to reach out to so-called “seekers.” Many of them detail strategic plans on how to pack folks into church. “Use whatever style music is most popular on the radio in worship,” recommends one earnest specialist. Another advises that we take down all the trappings of religion: the cross, the altar, the bible, and make sure the church building looks more like a shopping mall than a church, so not to offend the sensibilities of those who might not be used to such overt expressions of faith. Yet another suggests that we “ride the latest wave,” be it bible studies based on the Purpose Driven Life, showings of the Passion of Christ, or whatever the flavour of the month may be, this book tells us to “find the next wave and join the swimmers!” in order to enjoy greater numbers on a Sunday morning.
You’re probably asking why I have these on my shelf if I’m just going to mock them.
Well, I bought them out of desperation.
Coming out of seminary, I had no idea how to run a church or do evangelism. I knew how put together a sermon and write a decent theology paper, but I had no idea what I was doing when it came to going outside the church doors with the gospel. Also, as I looked at the sea of white hair in my first church, I became frightened for the future. I felt we needed some help figuring out how to get folks through our doors. So I subscribed to a church growth magazine and filled my shelves with strategy books. I keep them there for two reasons: 1) they’re not totally useless as I have found some helpful practical stuff in them 2) they remind me of my dark side; the price I’m tempted to pay for numerical church success.
Of course, Jesus didn’t need any of the latest techniques. He had something a little simpler: the message of the kingdom of God. All he said to Peter and Andrew to get them on board was, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And, it is said, immediately, they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Down the harbour, Jesus did the same thing with two brothers, James and John, who heard Jesus’ invitation, quit the family business, and joined Jesus’ small band of disciples.
The interesting this about this story is that neither Simon Peter nor Andrew, nor James nor John, ever went looking for Jesus. They didn’t seek him out. Their eyes were open but their feet remained planted; but it was the Messiah who sought them out. This story turns most of what we know as church on its head.
Will Willimon, talking about so-called “seeker sensitive churches” said this, “One of my problems with so-called seeker services and seeker-sensitive churches is that, in my pastoral experience, whatever most people are seeking, it isn’t Jesus. We live in a society of omnivorous desire where people tend to grab at everything hoping they might seize upon something that will give them a good reason to get up in the morning.” (Foreward to Preaching to Skeptics and Seekers by Frank Honeycutt).
In a recent sermon, Willimon tells of when a businessman came to Duke University to gave a lecture to about 200 students entitled, “My Five Years with a Zen Master.” Two hundred students sat in rapt attention for two hours, nodding in agreement as he talked about the joys of studying Zen Buddhism.
Two nights later, a graduate student gave a talk called, “My Semester in a Benedictine Monastery.” Again, about 200 students were in attendance, in rapt attention for over an hour. And they were the same students! (Willimon, Pulpit Digest)
This story doesn’t surprise me. I’m told that many religion courses at Wilfrid Laurier University, (my old stomping ground) that once attracted only a handful nerdy specialists like myself, are now forced to turn students away. I am told the same thing is going on at U of L. Church observers note that a new found interest in spirituality and religion has emerged over the last 15 years or so. Young people, we are told, are embracing the religious faith that their parents rejected.
I really noticed a change in folks, especially younger people when I was serving in Halifax. I encountered many university students who were fervently involved with social issues; poverty, war, third world debt, human rights, but confessed that they lacked a spiritual framework for the causes they so passionately pursued, and they wondered openly whether or not the church was the place for them to explore who God was and to reconcile these two parts of their live. Being brought up on popular culture they saw the church as a caricature of itself: an authoritarian institution bent on protecting its own interests and shoring up its own power, all at the expense of message of Jesus.
It’s hard to argue with that when so many cheesy TV evangelists are milking unsuspecting believers out of their hard earned cash; or when we hear new about the latest cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church.
But as Dr. Harold Remus of Waterloo Seminary pointed out, “A lot of people don’t like the church but almost everyone likes Jesus.” But still, when talking with many of these people, young and old and in between, on the street, in the coffee shop, or wherever, they groan about “feeling lost,” “less grounded” or “cut off from the source of life.” In a world where the rumour of God is being shared in hushed tones in downtown alleyways, in the book sections of big box stores, and in the hungered whisperings of young people as they walk past open church doors, the church has a challenge.
When I think about the process in discerning if God is calling us to a new facility; I think Jesus is asking us if this is what we need to find the ones cut off from church but searching for the presence of God and hungering for good news.
Jesus is asking us if the building will simply be a solution to our physical plant problems or if we’ll use the building to further our mission: to go after the ones cut off from God, Simon’s, the Andrew’s; the James’s and John’s; Jesus is asking us to think about those folks whom he healed, forgave, and loved, and says to us, “Can you bring me the pains and sorrows of the world? Can you bring me the cries of the children whose bellies are swollen with hunger? Can you bring me lost, the grieving, the imprisoned, those living a nightmare we can’t even begin to imagine, and lay it all down at the foot of my cross?
If you can, I will bless you. If you can tell me that your heart swells with the love that I have for the world, then I will lead you on an adventure into eternity. If you can tell me that you will engage the world with the transforming message of the gospel: that death is defeated, the lame walk, the blind see, and the captives go free, then I say to you, “Drop your nets, and follow me, I will make you fish for people…” Amen.