SCRIPTURE: Ecclesiastes 12:1
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: May 14th, 2014
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.”— (Ecclesiastes 12:1)
I was troubled this week after reading Thom Rainer's "Autopsy of a Deceased Church." In it, Rainer , the President of Lifeway Christian Resources shared some grim statistics about the American Church.
- Healthy churches: 10%
- Churches with sickness symptoms: 40%
- Churches that are very sick: 40%
- Dying churches: 10%
A) Toxicity of Good-Old-Days Culture
In North America, churches are generally small to medium sized. If a congregation exceeds 100 on Sundays, you have a fairly nice small-to-medium sized church. Anything smaller than 80 would be considered small. The concern is that it is shrinking further. Even those churches that exhibit strong numbers are due to immigration and inter-church migration. Church shoppers are many. So you see hip-hop churches doing fairly better than the "traditional" or churches with a larger elderly population. Rainer identified a key problem in sick or dying churches. Such churches often herald the "past is the hero." They talk about the good old days. They have more moments of reminiscences than exciting dreams. They prefer the status quo more than radical change. They try not to rock the boat. They are content to just let things be where they are.
Not only that, they tend to compare present leaders to the old one. Whether it is a ministry leader or a Church elder, such aging congregations say things like: "The new one is not as good as the old one." In a good-old-days culture, the remembrance of the old far surpasses the dreams of the new. When the past becomes the hero, anything from now to the future is essentially a villain, relatively speaking. It is hard to escape the clutch of the past. History is good. The past is valuable. The trouble is, churches fixated on a good-old-days culture have blindsided themselves that the past had their share of problems too. They highlight all the good stuff of the past but forget about the bad things. In doing so, they can make it seem like heroes of the past make no mistakes. When the past becomes the hero, the brave new future will not stand a chance against the good old days. Rainer talked about even more evidence of a good-old-days culture.
"So what did the deceased churches cling to? What did they refuse to let go of facing certain death? Worship styles were certainly on the list. As were fixed orders of worship services. And times of worship services. Some stubbornly held on to buildings and rooms, particularly if that room or building was a memorial, named or one of the members of the past. Some would not accept any new pastor except that one pastor who served thirty years ago." (Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2014, p22)
Letting go is hard. Not letting go may be fatal. Churches do not die straightaway. They bleed to death through aloofness, apathy, passivity, and above all, a loss of identity. In a Good-Old-Days culture, churches breathe in the toxicity of remembering the past fruit so much that they forget to sow seeds for the future. In the process, they forget who they are, in particular, "whose" they are.
B) Fear of Change
One particular behaviour of a Good-Old-Days culture is the fear of making mistakes. It is the fear of failure. It is a fear of venturing beyond the comfort zone. Truth is, everybody makes mistakes. Sin has corrupted both the past and the present. Only God can make all things new. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!"
One Church used to have a fairly large youth population. About 30-40 people turned up regularly for Friday youth meetings. Less than five years later, the youth ministry was no more. After graduating from high school, many of the young entered university in faraway provinces. They made new friends and stayed there. They continued with a second degree program. They found employment in distant places. Those who returned were frustrated with job hunt. They joined other churches. They left for greener pastures. Many did not return. The Church they used to attend only has a handful of young people.
Like spring water from a local spring, once bottled up and shipped overseas, the water is no more available. There is a net loss of spring water. Those of us familiar with conventional water recycling knows that only water evaporated within a localized region will be replenished with the normal rain-evaporation cycle. Those that are too far away are gone forever.
How do we prevent hyping up the past and dumbing down the future? The clue is how we start seeding and cultivating the young. For the Church, it is the Church school from nursery to youths. Reach them before the world pulls them away. Reach young parents who can still influence them. Teach them the Word of God like the wisdom shared in Ecclesiastes 12. More importantly, youth ministry is about preparing the young when they are with us, and sowing seeds that attract the young who are not yet with us.
The New Living Translation makes it clearer.
"Don't let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, 'Life is not pleasant anymore.'"Kids often bubble up with plain excitement. We do not need to do a lot of things to keep them occupied. The younger they are, the more easily captivated they are by small things. Even a balloon can hold their attention for quite a while. For older kids, they need a different level of engagement. Whatever it is, a Church that is clear about her identity will be better prepared for the long haul. People may change, but the gospel will never change. The trouble is, people change, and in remembering the good-old-days, they unwittingly forget that the gospel is for all people, not just for the past. We must anchor ourselves back on the identity as Christ-people. How do we do that? We need to avoid building our identity based on erroneous ideas. Let me mention three.
C) Identity Now!
The late Henri Nouwen spends a considerably amount of time seeking answers to the fundamental question: "Who am I?" In his struggle, he identifies three main ways people do to discover their identity. The first way is activity based defined by "I am what I do." Parents often tell kids what they should or should not do. Toddlers are told to "Be a good girl by eating vegetables!" Junior school kids are reminded to make their own beds or to brush their teeth, else they'll be punished. High school children need to do their homework or to perform well academically to receive parental approval. Those who attain honours and awards annually get rewarded with a holiday or a gift. Is it then any wonder that when they transition from youths to adults, they measure themselves by what they do instead of who they are?
The second problem is "I am what I control." Girls like to look pretty and want to be popular. Boys crave acceptance and buddies to connect with. When things do not turn out their way, they pout. They complain. They become dejected. The campaign against cyber-bullying is essentially a campaign against abusing people who wanted acceptance by the community. It is easy to be jealous of those who have many more friends, most sought-after by people, especially when one envies the popular guy or the pretty girl. The desire to want greater acceptance can be a form of control. Teen flicks like the Twilight saga shows how love and control becomes a complex mesh of emotions. When fused with selfish wants, lost and lust gets mixed up. So what if one controls the circumstances that lead to greater acceptance? Is that not childish manipulation of others?
The third problem is "I am what others say about me." With peer pressure a top concern among many teenagers, it is no wonder many go into smoking, drugs, and alcohol just to be connected with the others. Teenagers like to be cool. They react badly when others say bad things about them. Self-esteem takes a hit when people criticize them. Friendships have known to be torn apart just because of an insensitive remark.
Now what does identity has to do with the topic of church's past and future? A lot.
If a church is centered on activities, they will be like the teenager who sees their own identity in terms of what they do. If a church is centered on controlling matters in their own hands, where then is faith? How will they be able to spring toward a spiritual adventure of faith and trust? Are they more interested in controlling their own churches or in letting God take control? If a church is centered in hearsay and constantly afraid of change because of a vocal group, they will be afraid to do things outside of their comfort zone. They become the very things that others say they are. Wanting to gain approval among members is not a very good spiritual practice. Desiring God's approval is core. This means, a Church who is firm on "I am Christ's" will be on solid ground.
D) Brave New Future
The key to a brave new future lies in the identity of the Church. The famous basketball coach John Wooden used to say: "Adversity is the state in which man most easily becomes acquainted with himself." Whenever adversity and hardship beckons, it is direct challenge to our core identity. Adversity and problems will always be there. Do we see them as problems or as opportunities? If we see it as problems, we will easily revert back to a good-old-days mentality. If we see it as an opportunity, we plant seeds. We seek God. We discover or re-discover our true purpose as persons or organizations. In A Book of Saints, author Anne Gordon relates the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe. When he was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1941, a fellow inmate escaped from the camp. As punishment for the rest, the cruel Nazis pulled aside ten inmates to die by starvation. In an honourable act of self-sacrifice, Father Maximilian Kolbe offered to take the place of one of the ten chosen. One survivor lived to tell his perspective of the whole sacrifice. That while Kolbe may seem to have died in a place of hopelessness, there is something very hopeful through it all. Kolbe's act of sacrifice is a loud proclamation that even in the deepest darkness there is hope. The noble act is a testimony that evil and darkness had not prevailed. Love has.
Does this not remind us of Christ who died for us that we may live? If our new identity is in Christ, we will not be easily worried about the decay or decline of the Church. We will do whatever we can in order to share the love of Christ. We will refuse to let evil and hopelessness prevail. Our acts of love and sacrifice is because we have a brave new future in Christ.
If we are Christ's, we know that we are loved. No amount of activities, no quantity of control, and no fear of what people say are going to change that.
If we are Christ's, we know that sacrifice is an expression of love. We know that the past does not owe us, we owe Christ by being responsible for the future, to sow our best seeds while we are alive.
Our brave new future begins not with a self-identity but with an identification with Christ. Activities do not define us. Our level of control does not make us superior. Our acceptance by the world will be few and far between. Only when we are identified with Christ, we become a new creation. We have a brave new future.
For the Church, for the young, for the sake of our communities, remember the Creator when we can now. The days will come that will render moments of meaninglessness. Be prepared with the purpose of Christ. For with Christ, death will not prevail. With Christ, our lives will be a living sacrifice for God to use for the glory of the kingdom.
THOUGHT: "There was no identity crisis in the life of Jesus Christ. He knew who He was. He knew where He had come from, and why he was here. And he knew where He was going. And when you are that liberated, then you can serve." (Howard Hendricks)
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