BLVD - Week One: Why Nobody Wants To Go To Church Any ore (and what we can do about it)
Today we are launching a brand new sermon series entitled BLVD, and the idea behind this series is pretty simple. Christians need to become roads that connect people to Jesus.
I know, it sounds like a fairly obvious kind of idea... but Christians don't often get this right and when they don't, it can be disastrous.
Some years ago, my oldest boy attended a small, private Christian school in Florida.
Many of the churches that were a part of the particular Christian denomination that the school was affiliated with believed that you could not be a Christian unless you were baptized in a church like theirs.
Even though the school openly marketed to people from all walks of life and religious backgrounds, it only hired teachers who went to churches who held to that belief.
It was inevitable... My son came home one day after school to tell us how one of his teachers was leading a discussion about what constituted a Christian and proceeded to inform the class that anyone who wasn't baptized in his kind of church was not really a Christian.
One of my son's friends, who was Catholic, asked the teacher point blank, "So if I am Catholic, does that mean I am going to hell." The teacher went on to say that was, in fact, the case. For the minority of students in the room like my son and his friend, who were not part of those churches, this was a low moment, for sure---but for this young woman, it was crushing.
And for that teacher he didn't act like a road that connected people to Jesus---he acted like a roadblock.
We all know what this is like to some extent.
We've had those moments when people claiming to be Christians judged us, or questioned our credentials because we didn't vote a particular way, or we believed something they didn't think Christians ought to believe, or we liked a particular author, loved a certain television show... the list goes on and on of the things that Christians use to beat one another up about.
A few years ago, there was a Gallup Poll that was commissioned to find out why people were not going to church as much as they used to twenty years ago.
People cited four main reasons: 1. They felt judged when they went to church. 2. They felt lectured. 3. They felt like the church was full of hypocrites. 4. They really didn't see the point--the thought the church didn't really care about their experience.
Something is definitely wrong---over 4000 churches close their doors every year. We've become really good at being roadblocks it seems. People aren't being connected to Jesus.
They are being told all of the things they need to do before they can be counted among the faithful, and there's no rhyme or reason as to what those things are because they vary from church to church.
And what we're going to be learning today is something very simple and transformative if we want to be roads who connect people to Jesus.
Connectors don't put up roadblocks, they tear them down.
The passage of Scripture that we're going to be exploring today takes this issue head-on.
We're going to be reading Acts 15:1-21, so let me set the scene. We are roughly twenty years into the Christian movement at this point. At issue in this text is a controversy that has sprung up surrounding what constitutes a "real" Christian.
So, The Apostle Paul and Barnabas, his right-hand guy, were planting churches and teaching in Antioch, and a bunch of non-Jewish people started following Jesus and hanging with the Jewish Christians.
A contingent of Jewish Christians from the area around Jerusalem get wind of this and decide that they need to do something about these false teachers (Paul and Barnabas) who are leading people astray. Let's read:
15 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.So, these people from the "home office" travel to Antioch to set everyone straight, but Paul and Barnabas have an issue and debate them--so the whole crew is sent to Jerusalem to meet with the Apostles and leaders of the church there to settle it all.
Paul, Barnabas, and the Apostle Peter all have experience with Gentiles who came to believe in Jesus, but who didn't convert to Judaism to make that happen.
Now throughout this whole explanation, we still don't know who the "certain believers" were until this moment:
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”Aha!! Now we know who the "certain people" were... they were most likely Jewish Christians who also happened to be Pharisees. Now, it is pretty awesome that there are Pharisees who have now come to believe in Jesus, considering it was the Pharisees that Jesus had so many contentious moments with during his ministry.
BUT and you knew that was coming right... They couldn't seem to shake their obsession with rule-keeping. The Pharisees were a group of people who were laser-focused on upholding traditions.
These Pharisees believed in Jesus, but they believed that Jesus had just come to rescue Jews. They were quite willing that everyone become a Jew in order to be rescued, but you had to become a Jew for that to happen.
Also present at this conference was James the brother of Jesus. If anyone would carry some clout in this moment other than Peter, who was Jesus' disciple, it would be James, Jesus brother. James represents the Apostles and elders at Jerusalem--the holy see, so to speak.
Then this happens:
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.Basically, what Paul, Barnabas, and Peter all are proclaiming is that if the Jerusalem Council determined that you had to become Jewish in order to be a follower of Jesus it kind of defeated the purpose of Jesus in the first place. It would make Jesus himself and alone as the means of redemption for all of Creation insufficient.
But on the other side of this were the Pharisees who were saying, "Listen, we get that you want these people to be a part of this thing---we do, too. But signs and symbols aren't good enough if they contradict our tradition, and our tradition is pretty strong. This is how it has to be."
Finally, after everybody has had a chance to speak, James speaks up:
3 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent.Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it,17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name,says the Lord, who does these things’—18 things known from long ago.
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”Basically, James points out that there is a way of interpreting the Hebrew Scripture that includes the Gentiles in God's great big redemption story---as is, without having to convert to Judaism.
And then he basically says, "Why are we trying to make this harder for them? You want to be Jewish, Pharisees, knock yourselves out. But they don't have to be."
The only caveat that James suggests is that they ask the Gentile converts to reject idolatry, and all that goes with it. The ancient Roman temple systems were permeated with prostitution both inside and out. There wasn't much you couldn't get for a price. So James says, beware of that lifestyle! And he also tells them they shouldn't eat meat that has been ritually prepared for a pagan sacrifice.
That's it. They didn't have to keep the 613 laws in the Torah. Just do two things. Which really meant one thing. Give up the soul-killing idolatry of the age.
So what does all of this mean for us?
Well, what James essentially did was to establish this very important truth that almost all Christian denominations and countless Christians themselves have ignored ever since then:
The church cannot make a test of fellowship what God does not make a condition of salvation.
Let that sink for a moment.
While it's sinking in, let me shift gears for a moment and talk about the Art and Science of Creating Intersections for all you would-be urban planners out there.
What does it take to create the perfect intersection where a pair streets meet?
According to Wired magazine, this is what it looks like:
So what makes this perfect intersection? There's definitely a lot going on, am I right? How do we narrow it down?
Well, I think it comes down to three things: It has to be Accessible, Safe and Designed for Movement.
First, it has to be Accessible.
Take a close look at this image. There are all kinds of people who are able to access this intersection and use it to not just cross the street but to move, to live, to interact and find a place to be.
Second, the intersection is Safe. It's the kind of space where people know they not only will be welcomed, but it is clear that every precaution has been made to keep them from harm.
Finally, it's Designed for Movement.
So I have a big question: What if the Church were like that?
We can be. We have to be. We have to show people that we can do this all differently.
We can be accessible. We need to be asking ourselves, "Are we doing everything we can to show our welcome?" Are we demonstrating that we actually are ready for guests--that we expect them, and are happy when they are here. Do we convey the kind of openness that draws people in rather than driving them away? Do they know what we believe and why we believe it pretty quickly? Do we show them that what matters to us is not what we want from them, but what we want for them?
Are we the kind of church that anyone... from anywhere... who has gone through anything would feel at home?
Second, we can be safe. How open are we to doubts, questions, and struggles? Are we the kind of church where it's okay to not be okay? One of the things that we say every week at our Lifetree Cafe meetings is: "Your thoughts are welcome, your doubts are welcome..." We need to own this in every part of our life together as a church.
We want to be a big tent. We don't care if you are a Democrat, a Republican, a Libertarian, a Greenie... We don't care if you are liberal, conservative or somewhere in between. We don't care where you've come from, what your skin color happens to be, or how much money you have or don't have. We don't care if you are gay or straight. We don't care if you're from Oklahoma. We don't care if you aren't a Christian.
We want you to know that you are in a safe space to figure out what God is up to in your life.
Third, we need to be designed for movement. If we're going to be the kind of church that I believe God intends for us to be, it has to be clear that we are going somewhere together. As I'm fond of saying, God loves you as you are, and loves you far too much to let you stay where you are.
And the same thing holds true for us as a church. We are moving closer and closer every day to fulfilling our vision as a church to love God and love everybody. We are a work in progress. Which is why we have opportunities for growth and service that we want all of our members to be a part of.
We should be moving, growing, stretching and expanding our understanding of what it means to be a community of Christ in a 21st-century context. Because if we're not designed for movement--we won't last.
You and I can own each of these things for our own life, as well as our life together. If we are going to more fully and completely follow Jesus, then we need to learn how to be connectors rather than roadblocks.
And people will take notice. They will begin to see the difference between what it means to be a connector and not a roadblock. The other day someone shared with me that they had not been to church in a while, but had already begun hearing about how our church has been working to become the kind of place where people are connected to Jesus---a church full of connectors, not roadblocks.
She said that she had been wounded by the church, but was considering giving us a try because what she was hearing felt right to her. Some of you have shared similar stories with me as you've talked to friends and co-workers about journeying with you.
This is who we are called to be, sisters and brothers--true connectors that are accessible, safe and moving together as we stumble after Jesus.
Because connectors don't put up roadblocks, they tear them down.