New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 26, 2014
Last Friday I attended a leadership workshop at Andover Newton Theological School, entitled “New Habits for Nones: Practicing Digitally-Integrated Ministry in the Post-Christian World”. It focused on those who are unaffiliated with any religious institution and how we can form connection and do ministry with folks who have opted out.
Later that night I had dinner with a friend from high school. When we had finished, we ventured on to another restaurant to have a drink and continue our conversation. Instead we found a place that was on its way out of business and a gregarious bar mate I’ll call Bruce.
Bruce was unabashedly himself. He not only inserted himself into our conversation, he drove most, if not all, of its major themes. He could speak knowledgeably on a wide range of subjects and never lacked for an opinion. So much for my friend and me catching up. But could this be an invitation in disguise? An invitation to form connection whenever and wherever we can, with whomever presents themselves. Here was one of the “nones”—in Bruce’s words, “a lapsed Jew”—trusting and connecting with this wide open world in the form of me and my friend.
We are soft-wired for connection and trust. We come into this world trusting that the people around us will take care of, love, feed, and comfort us. Through our relationships with our families and later on, with other adults and peers, our ability to trust becomes more complex. We adapt what we’ve learned, gauge what we can say and do with new people based on previous experiences, and choose whether to renew trust with someone who has broken it. If we’ve experienced any kind of abuse, it can be very difficult, even painful for us to form connections, to feel like we belong, or to trust ourselves, let alone anyone else.
But we are hard-wired for caution and fear, and with good reason. These innate characteristics have saved human beings from becoming the next meal of a grizzly bear or African lion all the way to keeping us from making friends with every person on the street. Caution and fear are what keep us alive some days. They wise us up, saving us in our foolish and reckless youth to living to be older and levelheaded adults.
The author of Matthew himself gives Jesus some geographical credentials by quoting from the prophet Isaiah: “13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
The territories of Zebulun and Naphtali, two of the lost tribes of Israel, to listeners in both Isaiah’s time and in Jesus’ would be like us hearing about places like Mogadishu, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Egypt, Syria—places where war and violence have made a living hell for those who live there.
So when Jesus moves into this neighborhood, he is saying in no uncertain terms that he has come for the lost, for those who live in the shadow of death, for those who have been forgotten. Jesus and his disciples would not be fishing for converts but for those the world has left behind. They would be doing God’s work of gathering in those still in exile: the poor, the outcast, those considered unclean. Jesus was declaring not with words but with his actions that he was ready to do messiah work. For this reason, these first few disciples trusted Jesus with their lives. They initiated a new kind of community, made up of some of the most unlikely folks to succeed, setting up shop in a place not to be trusted.
Jesus takes his message and his disciples to those who need him the most. He goes where they are. He does not wait for them to come to him, though many do. Jesus is more interested in closing the gap, making a connection with those who feel disconnected from God.
The time of churches relying solely on growing through attracting new members is gone, long gone. Yes, we have a good, functional website through which some folks have found this church and found community. But there are many for whom church is irrelevant and benign at best and hurtful and abusive at worst. An ever-increasing population of religiously unaffiliated folk number as many as all mainline Protestants combined.
They’re called the ‘nones’: when asked in a survey about their religious affiliation, they respond ‘none’. It’s a very negative designation, the assumption being that folks who are unaffiliated with organized religion are not religious. Actually, the majority of these folks do believe in God or Spirit or a higher power. 70% hail from a Christian background, which means it is our churches that have produced this phenomenon. Ironically, churches have become communities in which disconnection is more than just a by-product. In the last 50 or so years the church has been so focused on survival that we didn’t look to ourselves to answer the question, “Why are people leaving?”
People continue to make meaning, connections, and ritual regardless of whether they are in church or not. Most human beings share a desire to make a difference in the lives of others, to recognize the sacred in our ordinary lives. But if folks aren’t finding meaning and connection in church, then it’s time for us to go where they are, rather than continuing to wait for them to come to us. If we aren’t finding meaning and connection in church, then it’s time for us to examine just where we do find meaning and connection and take the church with us.
It’s time for us to trust where Jesus is leading us, which is right through the doors of this building. Which means how we do church needs to change. It means using technology to create a web of relationships and connection with not only ourselves but with anyone who would like to do ministry, create meaning, and imagine traditional rituals in new ways. It means we need a broader understanding of what it means to belong. It means that the institution, the Church, can no longer look for institutional solutions to save itself.
Up until now, the institutional church has looked at all of this as decline, disaster, and many of our efforts as tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. What if, instead, this is Jesus? What if this is Jesus setting up shop with an unlikely crew in a place we’re not sure we trust because we’re afraid we’re the ones who will be lost? What if instead of responding with our hard-wired fear, we went with our soft-wired trust and desire for connection? What if the so-called ‘nones’ are leading the way and the church is the one who has to catch up? What if this isn’t the end of church-as-we-know-it but the beginning of what church could be? What if this is the way to resurrection?
I know these are not easy questions. I’m hoping, though, that we’re up to the call to imagine the possibilities, the Holy Spirit maneuvers, traveling the Jesus path in new ways. Not to survive, not necessarily to grow, but to be faithful to the trust God places in us each day. Amen.
|by Kristen Noelle - see more at her website Trust Tending|