Does Church Make a Difference Anymore?

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Message given June 12, 2016 by Larry Eubanks, First Baptist Church of Frederick

This past week I was up at Princeton Seminary attending a religious writers workshop. In one of the sessions, Jonathan Merritt, who writes for the Religious News Service and is the contributing writer on faith and culture for The Atlantic, showed us the book proposal that he prepared for the book he is currently writing.

He said that in one section we should show what our book will do—motivate a person to a closer walk with Christ, increase the vocabulary we can use to engage culture in conversations with Christ, that sort of thing.

Then he said that we should tell what the book won’t do. In his proposal he said that it won’t be preachy, be dark or overly serious, it won’t be predictable, it won’t offer simplistic ideas or clichés.

And it won’t bash the church. “That’s been overdone,” he said.

And indeed it has. There are no shortage of books and articles out there pointing out what is wrong with church. The best ones offer solutions that are not, well, preachy, dark or overly serious, predictable, or offer simplistic ideas or clichés.

But there aren’t very many of those.

It’s easy to point out someone’s faults; anyone can do that. Offering solutions that aren’t preachy, dark or overly serious, predictable, or simplistic—well, that’s another story.

Everybody likes a good fight. It’s an election year, and we are hearing a lot about what is wrong with the other candidates, and what is wrong with the country. When solutions are offered, they are overly simplistic and cliché.

The networks and news organizations can’t get enough of the fighting and harsh language, but it’s too easy to blame the media for this. They are simply being responsive to the audience. They have to get eyes on the screen, and what gets the most eyes on the screen is a good fight.

Everybody likes a good fight; a good peace just doesn’t sell.

But a good peace is what we need.

Three weeks ago I talked about the Dones, the people who were in the thick of it in churches and got done in by the dysfunction. These aren’t Christians who were on the fringes of Christianity and the church; just the opposite. They are the ones who are very committed to Jesus Christ, and used to be very committed to the church. They were the ones who served on committees, worked in ministries, taught Bible studies, were deacons and elders and served on church staffs.

And they got wore down by the lack of love in the churches, by the dissensions and fighting, the dysfunction of the church, the bureaucracy that cared more about preserving the past than about making any real difference.

They love Jesus but left the church because it had become toxic to their faith. Leaving was a matter of spiritual survival. They are Done, and they aren’t coming back.

But they aren’t the only ones who have stopped attending church. I’ve always said that there are three types of de-churched: the bored, the busy, and the burned.

The Dones are the Burned. Enough said.

THE BORED

There’s the bored. The church is too boring, too predictable. They left looking for fun and excitement, two things the church isn’t exactly known for.

Here’s a conversation you’ll never hear:

“I’m bored.”

“Yeah, me too. There’s nothing fun or exciting to do.”

“Hey, I know! Let’s go to church!”

“Great idea! Let’s go!”

But that says as much if not more about the state of our culture. We have grown up being catered to, being entertained, and we don’t know how to deal with something that may not be fun or exciting but has other, deeper, more important things to offer.

I was reminded of that during our worship sessions this past week. They probably epitomize what the church is not when it comes to being fun and exciting.

We sat in an old chapel, sat in pews, a type of seating that is hundreds of years old and so uncomfortable and impractical that it is used nowhere else except in churches. You don’t go to a baseball stadium and sit in pews.

We sang hymns that were hundreds of years old, many with which I was unfamiliar. The Presbyterians apparently sing different hymns than we Baptists do. The worship leader would say, “Turn to page 315 in the red hymnal,” because there was also a blue hymnal which we never used. I learned talking to some of the Presbyterian ministers there that the red hymnal is new, and many of the people don’t like it, not because it’s not good, but because it’s new. The blue hymnal is the one they are used to, so they have to keep it in the pew rack, even though they almost never use it.

The singing was accompanied by a pipe organ, an instrument that is hundreds of years old and so unpopular that organ schools are shutting down for lack of students.

Yet, it was beautiful. The voices of men and women, of Presbyterians and Baptists and Episcopalians and Brethren and Assemblies of God joining together.

Together. We were connected in worship, and not just with each other, we were connected with dead hymn writers, with Christians who had sung these same songs hundreds of years ago.

It wasn’t entertaining, but it touched a place deep in the soul that is beyond the place where I can be entertained.

The burned, the bored, and the busy.

THE BUSY

Some of the de-churched stop coming because they are too busy, and that’s on them. There are some things they can’t help. When you work 8-9 hours a day and have a commute that adds another 2-3 hours a day, that doesn’t leave much time, and then kids and marriages and recreational activities add even more.

But all too often, to keep from being bored, we go to the other extreme and fill every possible moment with activity.

But the church often adds to it by asking—even demanding—more busyness. We’re another activity. And then there are the committee meetings and other meetings we ask people to attend.

Maybe what we ought to be offering is not more things to be busy with, but a retreat, a haven from the busyness.

A place where a person can just…be.

Rest.

Quiet the soul.

Give attention to the soul.

Attention to the soul means slowing down, quieting down.

Yes, there is much wrong with the church. And that’s the way it’s always been.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there wouldn’t be a New Testament if there wasn’t something wrong with the church. Paul writes his letters because he’s dealing with problems. And he wasn’t able to solve the problems. The early church is marked by its controversies, it’s disputes over doctrine, over the way the church functions.

Through the years the church has engaged in many things that were anti-Christ.

The Crusades, where we went to war in the name of the man who died opposing violence with non-violence.

There’s the inquisition, the deep anti-Semitism that has marked the church, the deep anti-woman stance that has also marked the church.

There’s been witch trials and Christianity’s complicity with American slavery, Jim Crow, and other forms of discrimination that are still being advocated today by many Christians.

Many people, maybe even you, wonder, “Why church?”

In researching how people answer this question I came across an article on the Internet, where everything is true, in which the author listed 14 reasons why he attends church. Want to hear them?

Actually, you don’t. They’re OK. Some of them are pretty good.

For instance:

1. I want to please Christ and he’s commanded me to not forsake the church

2. It’s the only place where I can fulfill all the “one another” commands in scripture

You get the picture: it’s a lot of commands and “shoulds,” which is what you need when you really don’t want to do something. But he summarizes his fourteen reasons this way:

I go to church because I don’t want to go to Hell.

Really? You’ll go to hell if you don’t go to church?

For some people, going to church is hell.

So the question remains: Why church?

Paul gives an answer in 1 Timothy 3:14-16

 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.

The Church is the body of Christ, the body of the Living God.

But all that shows is why there will always be a Church, and that it is always necessary.

But it doesn’t mean that every church will always be around, and that every church is necessary.

The Church is necessary, but maybe this particular church isn’t necessary. We could cease to exist, and Christianity would roll merrily along without us.

Except…

At this point in the message I had Leon (Miguel) Collins come forward to give his testimony. Since it’s his testimony and not mine, I won’t try to give it verbatim. The gist is that in January, 2014 he was driving down Rt. 40 thinking about all that he had lost in his life. His business and the wealth he had accumulated were gone, his wife left him and took his children from him. He was lost in his thoughts and missed his turn, so he turned on Bowers Road to make his way to his home, and saw our church. He felt that the Lord was telling him to come to this church. So on Sunday he came, and the message was about leaving your burdens. He came forward at the end of the service, rededicated his life to Christ, and was baptized a couple of months later. Since then, his job situation has improved to where he is able to work almost exclusively from home, he is earning more than he ever had before, and he met a wonderful Christian girl to whom he is now engaged.

I remember the day that Leon came here, and I remember him coming forward. I don’t remember my message that day or saying what he said I did. I’m sure I did, but the point is that it was God working in him.

But here’s the thing: What if we hadn’t been here.

What if he had taken a wrong turn and all he found was a field? Or had found a church but no one to receive him and love him?

What we do here is important, if only because of the Leon’s in the world.

Why church? Because sometimes people make wrong turns and need someone to be there for them.

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