The Burning Question
One day we discovered two bags of old Bibles and Lutheran hymnals abandoned in the church lobby. Someone figured the church would know what to do with a bunch of old Bibles. They were pretty worn out; I decided that I should burn them reverently. So I piled them in a little metal fire pit and put a lighter to them. No matter how much I focused the lighter on any particular book, I got a lot of smoke but never more than a few feeble flames. After a while I was ready to give up. I realized that books are flammable but they are also very dense. So I took a bunch of the Bibles out and stood one up on end and fanned it out and lit that. In no time, I had a good fire going. Then I fanned out another Bible and leaned it up against the first. It too caught fire. One at a time I opened them up, put them up against the burning Bibles, and in a surprisingly short amount of time I had a roaring fire.
Christianity Is Rapidly Declining in America
On 12 May 2015 the Pew Research Center released a study titled, "America's Changing Religious Landscape." It compares surveys from 2007 and 2014 and reveals that the number of Americans who consider themselves Christian has decreased dramatically. In those seven years, 8% fewer people consider themselves Christian. I suggest you take a glance at the study and draw your own conclusions. Lots of bloggers and media outlets are a-twitter about the implications. I have two thoughts:
First, this tells us what we already know. It's obvious to any committed Christian that the numbers of Christians has been shrinking and an increasing rate. None of the churches in our area are really growing; holding your own is the best we can hope for.
Secondly, it's not for lack of trying. I know that myself, my staff, my Parish Council, and every other pastor and church I know of have been working incredibly hard to try and "bring people back." None of it seems to be working.
Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen to Good Churches?
It all looks like a tragedy. Christianity is dwindling in numbers and influence precisely when the world seems to need God more than ever. But Christians believe in an omnipotent God. God can do anything He wants, including blessing, protecting, and increasing His church. Why would God allow such bad things to happen to good churches? Let's think about this more: What if the Church were to lose everything: all the faithful abandon her, she loses influence and credibility due to scandals, her property is taken away or squandered, and no one wants to be priests or nuns... what will she have left?
Jesus. Only Jesus. He will never abandon her. And He's the only thing she had that ever really mattered. The Church is being reduced to her essence, and that essence is the presence of Jesus in and through the Church. And this, too, is the essence of what it means to be Christian.
It's All About Relationship
It's easy to get caught up in all the "stuff" of Christianity: cross necklaces, Mass attendance, "Merry Christmas," bake sales and bingo, Catholic schools and "family values." Fundamentally, though, Christianity is about relationships. The Creator made us to be in relationship with Himself. Sin damaged our relationship with God, one another, ourselves, and creation itself. Jesus comes to restore those relationships. Being righteous in the Biblical sense is about being in right-relationship with God, self, others, and the world. It starts by putting God first. Our relationship with Jesus is essential to restore and heal the other relationships in our lives. Too many Christians don't really have a living relationship with Jesus. The rest of the Christian "stuff" only starts to make sense when we know Jesus personally and have been changed by Him. We begin to learn that Jesus is the one thing we have that truly matters. This truth is life changing. And this truth will change your church.
It's Your Turn to Burn
I started with the story about burning Bibles. People, too, are flammable: we are meant to be "on fire" with the love through the Holy Spirit. But we're very dense. We have to be opened up by grace before we are ready to really burn. Most Sunday Masses look a lot like my fire pit full of Bibles. The Priest is holding a lighter and really trying hard to light the people in the pews, but there's just a little smoke and a few feeble flames. It's frustrating for everyone involved. But then you go on a retreat like TEC or Cursillo and you find yourself in a confined space with some people who are really on fire. You open yourself up a little and you can't help but start to burn. And then when you go home, that's all you really want to talk about. The problems that seemed so big before suddenly don't matter. Jesus is all that matters, and His love begins to change your life and the lives of those around you.
I'm not saying it ends with me-and-Jesus. It starts here, but it ends with love for all. As a church, we have to focus more on relationships. Our people are starved for healthy relationships. The consumer culture turns everything into contracts and consumption, and it's killing our love for others. We have to focus on helping people come to truly encounter the God who is Love. We also have to help them encounter one other at a deeper level and form good community. We have to lead them into a better relationship with themselves and a healthier attitude towards the world. It sounds like a lot of work, but it's really not. None of us has to save the Church; that's Jesus' job. I just have to burn as brightly as I can, then light one person at a time.