Friday, January 11, 2013

From the center to the margin

According to recent studies one of the fastest growing groups of people today are referred to as "nones."  These are people who list no connection to any organized religious group.  They are one more example of how evangelical Christianity is losing ground in this nation.  Of course, this was not always the case in America.  Drive through any of our small communities and you will often find in the middle of that community a church signifying its place in the hearts of the people who lived there at the time the church was built.  I believe one can argue there was a time in our nation when American was a Christian nation, but even if someone disagrees with that there is little doubt that the church and God held a central place in the lives of many people and the communities in which they lived.  That is not the case today.  While many people claim to be spiritual, many of them are not sure what that means and are even less certain what it is they are seeking.  One thing these spiritual seekers share in common is that the church is not at the center of their lives.  If it is on their radar screen at all it is down on the periphery somewhere.

More and more we see evangelical Christianity being pushed to the margins of the public square.  Anyone holding to conservative Christian beliefs and morals is subjected to ridicule, isolation, and even persecution.  Our society prefers to reverse the story of creation and wants to create a god in their image, a god who will approve of their lifestyle choices, offer universal salvation to all, provide heaven on earth, and kiss away their "owies" when their choices brings pain into their lives.  I once referred to this in a sermon as "an easy-greasy gospel that goes down smoothly but will make you sick and eventually destroy you."

The reality is this is the world in which you and I are called to minister.  We may not like it, but that is immaterial.  I'm sure the first century Christians didn't like a lot of things about the world in which they ministered either, but despite the horrific obstacles they faced they became known as people who turned the world upside-down.  How were they able to do that?  By staying true to the message Christ had given them even though it cost many of them their lives.

Like others, I believe that the church in America is facing some tough days ahead.  I believe we will find ourselves forced even more to the margins in public life.  Those of us in ministry, both bivocational and fully-funded, will be challenged in the days to come like we've not seen in this country before.  Our beliefs and teachings are going to be criticized even by our own colleagues unless we compromise and begin to proclaim a more socially acceptable gospel, which is really no gospel at all.  I believe that conservative churches are also going to come under more governmental scrutiny in the days ahead not only by our state and national government but also by local governments.  Some local communities are already making it nearly impossible for churches to build new facilities or hold home Bible studies or small groups in people's homes, and as more of them lust after the property taxes our churches do not currently pay we can expect to see more challenges of that nature as well.

However, the church has often done its best work under persecution.  This was certainly true of the first-century church and in more recent times has been true of the church in China, Russia, and other places where government attempted to stamp out the church in those nations.  Perhaps finding ourselves under attack in this country will wake the church out of its slumber and help it return to the mission God has given it.

Regardless of what happens, the one thing I am certain about is that we will have to learn how to live and work on the margins.  It will be a long time before the church ever returns to the center of life in America, if it ever does, so let's get used to doing ministry on the margins of our society.  Expect to have your message and your motives questioned by people who do not understand what the church is about.  Expect to have the majority of people ignore your attempts to point them to the God they are seeking.  Our challenge in these difficult days ahead is to remain faithful in proclaiming God's truth and grace to all who will listen and to be prepared to receive those who respond.  My final prediction is that we will eventually see people respond as they finally discover the emptiness of their lives due to the choices they have made.  When they have sought God everywhere else and not found Him, perhaps they will return to the place where He can be found if we have remained faithful.

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