We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

To Thrive In Secular Times

Let's acknowledge that churches in decline are not like the aging bodies of the elderly.  Church decline can be reversed.  Let's call the ways and means of reversing decline opportunities rather than even challenges.  Let us also accept the reality that many mainline churches are not able to take advantage of the opportunities of decline.  Some are poorly led.  A few are rife with factions.  Some lack vision.  Others have given up.  Mainline decline seems destined to continue as secularity spreads throughout the Western world, most strongly in northern Europe and most tenuously in the American South.

Still, mainline decline is an opportunity—or, rather, a set of interlocking opportunities.  It is, more than anything else, an opportunity to get back to the basic reason churches exist, namely to grow faith.  As banks are financial institutions, so churches are spiritual organizations.  The business of banks is investing money and the business of churches is growing faith.  In fellowship with each other, the members & friends of churches now have the sparkling opportunity to grow in faith with each other.  In fellowship with each other, they have the opportunity to share their faith with others.  In fellowship with each other, they have the opportunity to embrace new ways of thinking about God and faith offered by science and other living faiths.  In fellowship with each other, they have the opportunity to discover new approaches to the Bible, approaches that make sense in the early 21st century.

The key in all of this is spiritual growth.  Without that, all of the worship in the world, all of the growth strategies in the world, all of the doctrinal purity in the world, and all of the social action ministries in the world will not lead to a church that is grounded in the Spirit and able to thrive in secular times.  That's what churches are now called to do—thrive in secular times.  In secular times, they embrace science with relish.  They accept with joy the faith of people of other faiths.  They affirm the full civil rights of all people.  The earliest church thrived in a world where the vast majority of people believed differently than did the followers of Jesus.  They did this by embracing the world they lived in—by embracing Gentiles as being able to follow Jesus as faithfully as Jews and by embracing Greek philosophy and Roman forms of social organization.  They thrived by being in but not of the world.  We are called today to thrive in just such times.  This is an exciting opportunity.  It is an opportunity for mainline congregations to join the pentecostal revolution and become Holy Spirit churches, but not the kind of pentecostal church that goes off into its own ideological ghetto to escape secular society.  "Mainline pentecostalism" embraces the secular world, celebrates its virtues, and seeks to share with it a still better Way—a way grounded in the Spirit.  Amen.