The Rise of the “Nones”, Part 2

religionThe Rise of the “Nones”- Part 2

Ezekiel 17:22-24

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

Last week during our Message we looked at what the “fresh off the press” Pew Research Study had to say about the direction of the modern Christian church in the US. Which, to many, foreshadows a bit of an uncertain future because the researchers are seeing the pull away from nominal Christianity (the reign of Christendom) and a raise in the “nones” or those no longer specifying a religious title.

Last week, once we had absorbed this information, I challenged us to consider the sub-text/ what is happening between the lines of data and percentages, facts and figures.  For while the mainline and evangelical Christian churches across the US are in a state of decline (there is no getting around admitting that)… In no way does that mean our God is in a state of decline. God hasn’t checked out!

The mainline church has gotten into this bad habit of linking our attendance numbers to the faithfulness of God… like somehow, the Golden Era of the church- back in the 1950 or so (how many churches in Princeton have big educational wings that were built during the 50s to accommodate the masses? We certainly do…)- We think that exceptional Golden Era that was felt across much of America somehow proved that God was more powerful/ or more active/ closer/ more present…

I blame Santa Clause for this.

As children we are taught that Santa sleigh can’t fly unless we believe enough, like there is a “belief quota”! So suddenly believing in Santa becomes urgent!   Children get worried if they find out that one of their friends or classmate doesn’t believe, because what if we don’t make the quota this year… then the sleigh won’t fly on Christmas Eve.

We treat our Lord, like we treat Santa Clause!

Yet, while Santa’s power/presence/his mode of transportation is contingent on the dreams, joys, belief of a child.

Our Lord’s power, presence, activity is not contingent on our belief. We don’t fuel God.

In fact, it is the other way around. Our joy, our dreams, our beliefs are all gifted to us by God. God fuels us with faith!

(And what do we do with it? … We give it to Santa.)

         A shrinking church doesn’t mean a shrinking God. In the same way that a packed house on Sunday mornings with offering plates that are over flowing, doesn’t equal a God that is increasing.  But since we can’t freeze time, we get all caught up in the struggle to catch up. Don’t we? We get wrapped up in feeling like we lost our connection with that powerful/active/alive God. We get caught up in thinking the sleigh won’t fly… simply because our friends and family would rather play a round of golf on a Sunday morning than sit in a pew listening to some preacher drone on.

In uncertain times like these, the assurance needs to be given… that God is still thriving and growing and actively redeeming the community around us. Or as Paul writes in our Scripture passage today from 2 Corinthians, God is bringing about a time of “new creation.” God is an expert at resurrection and transformation. That is where our hope lies.

It would be a very brave thing for us to acknowledge that God’s work in this world has very little to do with numbers/ percentages/ quantitative data/ fictional “belief quotas”/ attendance records… and everything to do with fostering real/vibrant relationships with Christ… it’s about faithfulness.

As you sit there in the pew… I ask that you keep this question rolling around in your head: Where do you see the presence of God at work, not just in this church, but in this community? Where is God bringing about those vibrant relationships? Where is God strengthening and growing a ministry?

And then, of course, I encourage you to ask yourself… what can I do to join God in this kingdom work?

Consider this parable from the Gospel of Mark:

         [Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” [Jesus] also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4: 26-33

What I love about these two parables is the surprise of it all.

A farmer goes out and sows a seed, a seed that is apparently new to him, because he watches it day and night… but that’s all he can do- plant and watch and wait. Jesus reminds us that there is a level of uncertainty and risk when it comes to sowing seeds for the Kingdom of God. So imagine this farmer’s surprise/delight, when this crop actually yields and is ready for harvest.

David Lose, had some good perspective to offer us, he suggests that this first parable is about how we are completely unable to control or dictate what other’s believe. Which can make the church (the collective church) incredibly uncomfortable, because there is a level of vulnerability there. To think that God’s kingdom comes apart from our efforts- to think that God’s kingdom is outside of our control/ influence and can only be received as a joyous gift!

I don’t know about you, but that makes the planner in me/ the controlling human in me that likes to have it her way… very nervous.

What does this mean for how we regard the “Nones” of the Pew Research Study? Those that claim no religious title. How are we to regard all those who do not seem interested in our sermons and hymns, our congregations/ don’t seem to be interested in the Kingdom of God? Or what about those that we might say have “fallen away” from the church, our family members and friends whom we love that would rather golf on a Sunday morning/ or sleep in- watch cartoons with the kids and eat cereal? Those that think our attendance of worship is nice, but seem to have no interest in why we worship?

What does Jesus’ parable have to say for them?Are these folks to be targeted for urgent outreach? Persuaded and cajoled into faith?

I dare say that Jesus tells us that we are simply and humbly all part of the same soil.

The only difference is, as followers of Christ, is that we have a gift to offer! The faith that we hold, the glimpses that we have of the love of God, the witness that we have toward the beautiful coming kingdom of God!  All that we can do with that is offer them out of the sheer delight of the offering. A gift without strings or agenda.

Like a child running through the backyard with a dandelion in their hand that is ripe for the blowing. Scattering those seeds, without concern of what happens to them or where they land. But scattering them because of the joy of the gift.

Our parable tells us that God is in control of where those seeds land/ God is in control of bringing forth a harvest.

Jesus reiterated this idea when he tells his disciples that faith is like a mustard seed. To look at it you might discount its potential. But when it is planted in this ground – God’s soil- great things can happen!  But if you try and control its growth, you are in for a rude awakening! (Mustard, was considered an invasive species in the ancient world. It runs amok easily.)

If we joyfully sow the seed of our faith into this world, into our community, God is the only one that can truly tend to it, nurture it and grow it into something bold and surprising.

We are like that farmer that sows a seed of faith.  Not quite knowing what it might grow into. We might check on it day and night. We might hover over it. But whatever it grows into, wherever it spreads is going to be a surprise, because it is in God’s hands!

Earlier I asked you to consider where you see the presence of God at work, not just in this church, but in this community. To think of where God is bringing about those vibrant relationships. Where God is strengthening and growing the kingdom of God.

Where do you see that happening?

This is soil being tended. Soil that is ready for the planting. Ready for us to run through with our dandelions letting seeds fly!

Last week we started this talk on the Rise of the Nones and looking at the Pew Research Study, alongside the dream cards that you all turned in on Pentecost Sunday. Where you wrote about something you dreamed for the future and direction of this church family.

Just as a recap: you dreamed that this church would build disciples, that it would be a place to grow our faith and teach our children how to love in the name of God, and over and over again you all wrote that you dreamed that this church would grow in number! That it would be packed every Sunday- bursting at the seams.

If that is so, if you all want that to happen… then we need to open ourselves up to seeing where God is busy tending the soil/ preparing for a crop, and then we gotta pitch in!

So I ask you again: Where do you see the presence of God at work? Is there a friend or a loved one that you just know is searching for God? Is there a need in this community that God has placed on your heart? Is there a place that is thirsty for redemption?

That is the good soil! God is letting you know that the time is right to run through with your dandelion! The time is right to share your bits of light and love- to pitch it and help the community with the work of our hands/ a living testimony… that’s how we scatter the seed of the gospel.

Here is a truth for us today; Church growth isn’t a target goal that can be aimed directly at. It’s not. It’s not something that is achieved through advertising campaigns and models. Church growth is a side affect of our own faithfulness. It comes out of our own joy at pursuing our Lord!

True growth (the kind that is long lasting, life changing, God infused) comes from where God prepares the soil, grows the seeds that are scattered in love and hope…

Then we await the surprise of the harvest.

Paul reminds us in his letter to the church in Corinth that we are not called to walk by sight, but by faith. To let the call of the Lord on our hearts guide us forward. To lead us onward.

That is one of the best things about being a Congregationalist. One of the pillars of our church is Freedom! Now, that isn’t freedom from something… But we are free to go where God calls us to go. We are free to follow the pull and direction from our God.

Christ is our only compass.

So as you consider the soil that is around you, I hope that you commit yourself to looking for where God is active and at work. Because you are needed there. Your story, your witness of God’s love, your message of the goodness of God’s kingdom… they are needed there.

That Pew Research Study, we’ve been looking at, shows us that there is soil that God is making ready. Building it into fields of potential, ready for our faithfulness. Ready for us to spread seeds of our witness.

It is my hope that our focus over the past couple of weeks, won’t end here. I truly hope that this is just the beginning of our conversation regarding faithfulness and looking to where God is calling for our presence and ministry.

Let’s pray:

God Almighty, you have blessed us with big dreams of a thriving ministry. Help us to be brave and bold in our faithfulness! Help us to look to your purpose and direction Lord, for you O’ Lord are bringing about a new creation. Amen.

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