We have to start somewhere

A report came out this week that stirred a lot of conversation. It’s a Gallup study related to church membership in the United States. For decades, church membership has declined. Last year, according to the report, 47% of U.S. adults belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. This is the first time that figure has been below fifty percent.

If you haven’t read these reports before, this might come as a shock. It sounds like the sky is falling. So, let me offer you a word of assurance: God’s church will never die. There is always a movement of the Spirit.

One of the joys I have is to read testimonies from church leaders in other nations. Churches in other parts of the world are reawakening to the Spirit’s power. More and more people are coming to know Christ as Lord.

There are a lot of things we can say about our decline. That’s part of what our daily devotional addresses. I’m convinced our decline is the fruit of consumerism and poor discipleship. Those two things have manifested themselves in ways that have wounded the biblical sense of Christian community and what it means to walk as Jesus walked.

I’ve read about church decline almost ever since I first joined a church. Early on I learned that my church, The United Methodist Church, has declined in membership every year since its creation in 1968. This is nothing new.

When I reflect on our situation, I like to think of the word crucible. A crucible is “a situation of severe trial…leading to the creation of something new.” And maybe I’m a cup half-full kind of person, but when I hear that church membership is less than 50%, I hear ministry opportunity. There is a ripe mission field.

So what do we do?

Over the years, I’ve listened to ministry experts who have enlightened us to the “one thing” to do to grow our churches. Every expert has their own one thing. There are a lot of experts, which means there are a lot of one things. Who knows, you may think there’s one thing your church needs to do to change the tide of decline.

There is no one thing, but we have to start somewhere.

People have told me to consider being a church planter, someone who starts churches. So far I have decided that isn’t my calling. While I am intrigued by the idea and haven’t written it off completely, my sense is I belong in churches that need to learn to develop a divine imagination. I would love to be a part of a new thing God is doing in a new congregation. But there’s a blessing in watching a new thing happen in an already-established church.

Again, there is no one thing to do to reverse decline. Just because you sing a different type of song in worship doesn’t mean everyone will flock to your church. Update your church’s website and get on social media and people will still ignore you.

But I know that I know that I know, the best place to start is in prayer together. When the disciples faced threats in Acts 4, they responded in corporate prayer. As they prayed, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and a boldness to speak the word of God overcame them.

As we pray, God will show us what to do next. So, let’s not decide what one thing we need to do now if we haven’t prayed together. Let’s pray for a divine imagination to see what God wants us to do and in what ways we can speak the word of God with boldness to more than 50% of the U.S. population.

Stay blessed…john

Our resurrection faith

“Christians should always be ready to do two things: They should always be ready to pray. And they should always be ready to die.”

I only heard my bishop say those words once. It was actually an off-the-cuff comment. I could’ve missed hearing them at all. But that one time was enough to fuel my discipleship for years to come.

I suppose there are other activities and realities Christians should prepare for. These two, though, connect to our Bible reading today. Both help us understand an important part of what Resurrection Sunday means to us.

Our readiness for both praying and dying depends upon God’s work in Jesus Christ. Without Christ, doesn’t praying amount to wishful thinking? Without the resurrection, what victory do we have at all? 

The resurrection of Jesus makes us who we are. We are resurrection people. At Easter Sunday, many of us sing, “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!” One of the themes of that hymn by Charles Wesley is the connection between heaven and earth.

Listen to their bond:

  • Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
  • Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!
  • Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!
  • Praise to thee by both be given, Alleluia!

By the way, every line from that hymn ends with an exclamation mark. We don’t just sing the word Alleluia. We declare with boldness and excitement our praise to Christ as our exalted head of the church.

As we take the time to reflect on what impact the resurrection of Jesus has on our lives, we learn to do something important. We learn to live in the reality of the connection between heaven and earth.

Remember when Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? That reality shines in the resurrection. That connection between heaven and earth becomes real to us as we pray.

Let’s consider a sports analogy.

When a team develops a winning culture, other teams pay attention. Often, a losing team will pursue a coach from a winning team. The expectation is that winning culture will follow them. The resurrection of Jesus swallowed death in victory! That’s more than a winning culture. Jesus took the sting of death and shook it off.

Again, with his Easter hymn, our brother Charles Wesley helps us understand a part of the resurrection’s power: Christ has opened paradise. Once, we were susceptible to the sting and power of death. Now, the Victor over death has taught us his way.

Instead of us asking Jesus to be on our side, he brings us to his. Knowing that we have his victory, we labor to know Christ and to make him known. That’s what a resurrection faith does. In part, our resurrection faith teaches us that when we’re ready to pray, we’re ready for our work here on earth. When we’re ready to die, heaven awaits us.

Stay blessed…john

They’re not drunk

It never fails. You can always count on a good chuckle from the congregation when we read from Acts 2.

Specifically, it comes when we read Peter’s opening defense of what has happened at Pentecost. You’ll recall that the 120 disciples began to speak in foreign languages. People from all over the world who had come to the Temple heard them speaking in their native tongue.

In amazement, many asked, “What does this mean?”

Others weren’t as impressed. They laughed at the whole display and figured the disciples had too much wine.

Here comes the funny part for most churchgoers.

Peter assured onlookers that the disciples weren’t drunk. It was, after all, only nine o’clock in the morning. I can hear the church chuckle now.

We tend to laugh because it sounds absurd. Being drunk isn’t funny, but being drunk at 9am? My assumption is alcoholics don’t laugh at that verse. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for drinkers to get started early. Especially if there are more than one hundred of them together. The prophet Isaiah once gave this warning, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink, who linger into the evening, to be inflamed by wine” (Isaiah 5:11).

To me, Peter uses the time excuse on purpose. At least for us, it is a reminder of the 9am prayer time everyone would have been aware of. See? Another connection between prayer and the power of God.

Remember, the disciples gathered in Acts 1 in pursuit of God. That is, they gathered upstairs and joined in prayer.

I’m not going to give up on that.

God things happen to a church that prays together. Stop assuming your church is praying. Let’s encourage one another to actually sit down with each other and pray.

I don’t mean to suggest we can have our own Pentecost reenactment. That’s not the point of reading from Acts 2. We aren’t trying to make what happened then happen now. But we do want to understand and experience the grace and power of God. Our desire is to know Christ. 

Since we’ve already reiterated the importance of corporate prayer, let’s consider Peter’s next defense. He used the Bible to interpret what happened that morning. Can you imagine the amount of wine that would have been poured out to get more than one hundred people drunk? You would need a lot.

Because he knew the promise spoken of from the prophet Joel, Peter understood God was pouring out an abundance of the Spirit upon all people right before their eyes. Taken together, the amazement and scoffing spoken of in Acts 2 shows us just how much the whole event was for everyone to take in. The events of that day were what God had planned all along. The time for that outpouring had finally come.

Whatever outpouring we experience I believe will come from our willingness to gather in prayer together. The power of God is already known. The Spirit will awaken the church as we seek God together through prayer.

If the church is to reimagine a shared, dynamic prayer life it will not be by accident. We’ll need to develop and endorse such a shift in priorities. I’m willing to do that. Are you ready?

Stay blessed…john