There is a crisis in Christianity and Christendom. It is actually a funny crisis, when you think about it, because the crisis is one of identity. If you could boil the crisis down to one question, it would read like this: “What does it mean to be a Christian today?” I find it funny, because if you strike “today,” you’re really asking a fundamental question of Christian identity. If there is anything we should be able to answer quickly, it is what it means to be a Christian! I think this is one of the things that gives fodder to people who are so much against Christianity. How can things not be hypocritical, if you do not know why you are doing them in the first place?
This crisis exposes a real problem that was true in Christ’s time and has been true many times in history. That problem is: who do we serve? In the Presbyterian church, this has been a very interesting question.
In the late '80’s and into the '90’s, as the denomination began to shrink, many questions in the church changed from “What should we do?” to “What do you want?” Hopefully, you hear the difference in the two questions. One points outward and the other inward. If we ask what should we do, we are not worried about the immediate consequences to either ourselves or the church. Interestingly, that was not the main concern when Presbyterian clergy and laity went to march in the civil rights movement. Granted, many objected to the action of those who did that, but there was a very lively debate, and at the root of the debate was not concern about how we were going to “grow the church.” Regardless of what side of the issue one was on, it was not about what we were going to do to preserve the faith, but where the church should stand in the community.
They knew who they were, and even if they sat across the side of the table, both sides knew and trusted that the other was deeply rooted in faith. Unfortunately, in times when the church has put itself out there, there is a reality that when people get challenged, many cannot handle the challenge and leave. That is always sad, but that is also when churches made the real mistake of switching from the questions of “What should we do?” to “What do you want?” The problem is, when you ask someone what they want, you are no longer in ministry, you are creating a service.
Over the past 30 years, most of the mainstream church has been focused on service to “clients.” Some would even say that many of the missions and outreach have not been as much about questioning where God is calling us to be, but rather, “How are we making people happy?” or “What are we doing to grow the church?” Don’t get me wrong, people are important, as is growth within a congregation. But if you are servicing congregational growth, or being dictated by what makes people happy, are you really serving God, or are you just trying to keep the doors open? Moreover, to what end?
It is worth noting that the churches, conservative or liberal, that stayed fast to their question of “What should we do?” have grown. Examining the top 10 largest congregations (half of which are conservative and the other half, liberal), one fundamental similarity is noticeable: They are rooted in Christ and constantly trying to discern where God is calling them to be in their communities and the world. While they all offer lots of programs and opportunities, the reason for their success is simple---it rests on God.
As we prepare for our next 125 years as a congregation, I would like to boldly say that our session is committed to putting God into every decision that we make in order to discern where God is calling us to be, even if it does make us uncomfortable. We must do this; otherwise, we run the risk of again losing our identity and our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen