Passion in Church
August 6, 2017
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in her joy she goes and sells all that she has and buys that field.”
This is from a blog posted by Sam Eaton. According to [a recent study by the Barma Company] (and many others like it) church attendance and impressions of the church are the lowest in recent history, and most drastic among millennials described as 22- to 35-year-olds.
*Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).
*59 percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out.
*35 percent of millennials have an anti-church stance, believing the church does more harm than good.
*Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church (by far).
As I sat in our large church’s annual meeting last month, I looked around for anyone in my age bracket. It was a little like a Titanic search party…
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
Brian McLaren shares this from a pastor in a piece he wrote about why clergy are leaving the church.
As I sit in our weekly staff meetings there are so few things that get talked about that I can muster up passion to engage or care about. I’m not only talking about things like whether we use bread or wafers, Easter worship service times, and carpet color, but even worship itself and the doctrine that binds us often seem simply irrelevant to the issues of our world. I wonder if I’m burned out but I don’t think I am because there are things that do invoke deep passion in me. When I watch the news, I feel passion. When I hang out with kids who are struggling with great questions for which I have no great answers, I feel passion. When I see someone searching to find their place in the world, I feel deep passion, when I see people trying to understand one another despite their differences, I feel deep passion. When I see young people starting a recycling campaign or a stop bullying campaign, I feel deep passion. I went to school to become a leader in the church because I somehow believed the church would be the platform from which I could work alongside a community of people to engage these areas of passion. I think I was naive.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in their field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
What happened? Why is it this thing that so many people are looking for, what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven or the Realm of God not being found in the church? Why are millennials and clergy and a lot of other people shaking the dust from their sandals as they walk out of the church for the last time? Where is the passion at church?
We have been exploring these issues for quite a while. We’ve read these statistics and heard so many stories like this one. And what we are learning is that the church is not the place where you go to find the Realm of God or, at least not all of it. Rather it’s the place where you go to share where you are finding it. The church is where we gather and form this community that nurtures, engages, and celebrates the work of God, of which the work of the church is just a small part, a really good part, but just a small part. This tiny little seed that Jesus compared to the Realm of God that sprouts wherever it can take root, can’t be contained to a building we call the church or even this metaphor we call the Body of Christ. It grows everywhere.
In the Weird Church book, which we’ve been reading and talking so much about the issues it raises, even before we knew about the book, the authors write about the dance of the Spirit. Go where the Spirit is dancing. Be where God is and join the dance. For some of it’s been the Lorain Ohio Immigrant Rights Association. For others, it’s been Black Lives Matter. For others, it’s been Indigenous Peoples rights. For others, it’s been the Lorain County LGBTQ+ Task Force. For others, it has been working with kids, developing relationships with students, challenging patriarchy and misogyny, or helping church folk and others with their needs. For others, it has been confronting the climate crisis and working for the healing of the earth. For others, it’s the Baptist Peace Fellowship or Community Peace Builders. For some it’s the new things they are learning about following Jesus. And for many it’s the combination of these and so many other things that ignite passion. We have taken our stand with the Community of Creation and joined the Call to Protect All People. We have joined the dance though dancing is not allowed in many churches because they fear the passion it will create. But that’s exactly what the Spirit does; creates passion. If Jesus was anything, he was a passionate guy. And he spent most of his time outside the synagogue, because he knew the Realm of God wasn’t going to be found just there.
Our own nation’s political leadership is hellbent on ripping out this mustard plant Jesus talked about. They know its threat much more than we do. That’s why it is so important to them that the church is compliant, not passionate. When the nation is proclaimed to be Christian then the church has no relevance. The seduction is complete and the passion quickly fades. This Administration will never, though, be able to root out the Realm of God no matter how many preachers lay hands on the President, how enabling the media is, how much money the billionaire class throws at their efforts, how many lies they tell, or alliances they make with the forces of oppression.
The President of the United States and his supporters actually believe he has more to offer this world than the Spirit of God. Sixteen Hundred Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill have always had their abundance of arrogance, but this has been weaponized. This is nothing new. The arrogant come and go, but the Realm of God is still here. It’s like this crazy mustard plant that starts from a little seed. And here’s God’s trick. The mustard plant was to Jesus’ day what kudzu is to the American south today. It’s everywhere. Try as hard as you can, you can’t get rid of it. What did Jesus say? “The Realm of God is in your midst.” And when he said seek the Realm of God he knew it was not going to be hard to find. Just look around. It’s like kudzu growing on the trees, engulfing signs, climbing up flag poles, hiding the fences. Go where God is, which is everywhere. Join the dance of the Spirit. Bring that life into the church and bring the life of the church there.
All of those folk leaving the church? Or not able to imagine there is any reason to come into one in the first place? We can either wait for them to show up or take the church to them. Except waiting for them is no longer an option. That time has come and gone. We go where they are, discover what they are passionate about, and bring the presence of Jesus to those places. That’s the way it used to be when the church countered the culture rather than baptized it.
The early church got a lot wrong. But they got enough right. They knew to go to the dance. Their passion covered a multitude of sin and they showed their world who Jesus is. And we get to do the same thing. We are smaller than we have been for maybe a couple of decades. But the passion is just as great as it has ever been.
Millennials and so many others are abandoning the church, but we are not going to abandon them no matter what form the church takes in the future. That crazy mustard plant Jesus told us about is going to thrive and the dance of the Spirit will continue.
As we get ready to gather at the Communion Table there is another parable that comes to mind. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” This table reminds us that the Realm of God is as present in this world as the yeast is in this bread. And you can’t take it out of the world any more than you can take the yeast out of this bread. The Realm of God was the passion of Jesus. That’s what we remember today.