The world is changing around us. That is probably not really news. It is always changing. For centuries though, the world changed so slowly and so little that people scarcely had to deal with change. You were likely to die in the town in which you were born. Your family all lived right near you. You saw the same sights every day of your life. The only change most people had to contend with was aging, and the occasional death in the family - which was possibly anyone in town, after a while.
Our world is changing so fast, you may not have time to wear out your cell-phone before it is obsolete and you need (or want) to exchange it. Lately, the pace of change hasn't slowed or accelerated, but the nature of change has become troubling for many people. Our nation is becoming less free, often by the design of those elected to office. We are becoming a more Muslim friendly, less tolerant of Christianity sort of place. America seems to be on a path toward less wealth and abundance for your average person. These new conditions are not as enjoyable as the old ones, and the changes are not as pleasantly exciting as those previous. The difficult changes, like increased unemployment, are being talked about as"the new normal." We are being told to get used to it, realities have changed.
It is one thing to be a Christian when everything is going well, and another thing entirely when life is seemingly conspiring against us. Okay. It is the same thing, but it feels different. Being a Christian in a diminishing economy, for example, is not about victory and thriving, as people seemed to portray it when everything was booming, but about holding on, and surviving, and maintaining ones equilibrium in the face of escalating challenges. The way the future seems to appear stirs up some fear in many people. It isn't a sudden terror, but a slow, gnawing and creeping realization that something isn't as it was, and the world is a less safe and enjoyable place and our expectations are less delightful and more insecure than we imagined them to be just a few months or a couple of years ago.
We've been here before, as a nation, but it was when our parents were young. We haven't had to deal with these things for ourselves, or for our children before. We had come to expect that things were slowly getting better each day, and the outlook isn't so optimistic right now, and it is troubling. This is the sort of world that the Christian faith was born into and in which in thrives by the grace of God. It is world where we must face the truth that we are not able to rescue ourselves and fix everything, necessarily.
Let's face it. We were living in a fantasy world for quite a while. God's blessings and our abundance had convinced far too many people that we had the world by the tail. Far too often, people imagined that they were able to live without God. He became an old-fashioned concept that Americans had outgrown. Church attendance slumped, and then church membership began its long, slow decline. People had better things to do on Sunday than sit in a church and sing those old songs, and listen to some windbag prattle on about whatever struck his (or her) fancy this week. Now, when the citizenry could use a good dose of theological positivism, they have gotten out of the habit, and have no taste for that 'Old Time Religion'. Besides, they don't want God or church, they want to have the means to continue their pursuit of pleasures both gross and subtle, as they learned to do before the collapse of the old normal.
We are not immune to the malaise and creeping uncertainty inspired by our cultural shift in the past year or two. What we need more than anything, right now, is to distill in our minds how to go about living the faith and exercising our theology in a way that is helpful and satisfying in our altered circumstances. We need to think clearly about how to be a Christian in a changing world. And then, of course, we need to do it.
One of the first things we need to understand is that nothing has really changed. It is our human perception and thinking about our circumstances that has changed, not the realities on the ground so much. God is still God. His promises are still valid and true and - when you get right down to it - still quite delightful. We have some advantages, here at Shaped by the Cross, that others lack. We have not taken the bait on contemporary worship, so we don't have to try to find our way back to something familiar. The world around us is not likely automatically to join us, however. If the last six years have proven anything to us, that would be it. The people around us, whose consternation with the swiftly changing realities of our society are greater than our own, have convinced themselves that they don't need church, or that they have a better way - although they don't seem to be really satisfied with their "better ways".
We need to be Christian 168 hours a week. It is time to re-learn and remember the truth that our Sunday morning is not our Christianity or our worship. It is our refreshment and our re-equipping time. Our Christianity and our worship is the other 160-plus hours of the week. If our neighbor is going to meet Christ in us and through us, it is going to happen at the store, in a restaurant, at the gas station, or the coffee shop, at work, or attending an auction, or whatever other context in which we encounter our neighbors. Those are the places that they will let down their guard and speak about their fears and frustrations. They probably won't ask you about faith or God, or even how you hold on and make it though the uncertainties of the economy and the frustrations with the strange things we hear on the news. They will simply vent their feelings, express their confusion, pine out loud for the good-old-days, or complain about this or that, uncertain why they are feeling their fears and frustrations.
Sometimes, they will ask you questions. They probably won't be religious questions, but you never know. They may ask you what do to, or what you think about this or that thing or idea. If they know you, they will likely be asking because they have sensed that you seem to know something or understand life differently than they do. If they don't know you, they are simply revealing that life has them so flummoxed that they cannot contain themselves. Either way, you have an opportunity in the moment of the question or complaint, to reflect faith, confidence in God, a hope for something that transcends the pain of the moment, or simply a way to handle the burdens and discomforts of life. You won't have a lot of time to meditate on your answer before you deliver it, and they won't sit still for one of my long-winded responses. But you will have a moment - and, sometimes God will make it more if you are ready to confess Him.
See, the thing is, you will have to actually know the answer before they ask the question. You will need to have that peace, to know where your hope lies, sometimes, be ready to pray with someone, and to do all of that with meekness and reverence, as the Apostle Peter put it. Being a Christian in this changing environment will require living in and living out your faith, and thinking about what you do and say so that when the moment comes, you understand how Christ and forgiveness, and the hope of salvation helps you hold on and stay balanced in a world that is terribly off-balance.
That means that your faith has to be every day and all of the time and working for you before you bump into the person who needs to hear about it from you. You probably won't say what you say in words I would use, or sound like you are quoting my newsletter article. If that works in this situation or that, great! But most of the time it is going to need to be you, expressing how Jesus helps you through, or that it is your faith that comforts you, or that you have nothing to offer but compassion and you are willing to pray for them - or, better yet, with them. But be aware, this sort of thing doesn't really work well unless you are practicing it all of the time.
Even then, it is likely to feel awkward. You have to train yourself to think in terms of faith and prayer and blessing (rather than luck, for example) before you will ever find it possible to spontaneously speak about it. It will not be necessary to get all religious on them, either. People will probably respond better to compassion, calm confidence, and the sense that you are actually in touch with the realities of life, than to a carefully prepared speech, or a lot of religious words. The truth is, when I run into people who get to talking in a really preachy sort of way, they give me a sense of disquiet, and I am in the business of talking religion, so I imagine it can be even more off-putting to people who don't expect it.
You do run the risk of finding those people who have a theological ax to grind, of course. You will run into the people who want to impress you with their spiritual powers, or tell you how much they hate closed communion, or try to convince you that the latest passion in their swiftly changing life is 'the truth' and you need to get on board with them right now! It is helpful to remember that our goal is to speak the truth, not win an argument or whatever. We are to speak His Word. God is responsible for making it work or take root and grow in them.
The new normal may only be a temporary situation, or it could become something much more durable. It is hard to predict, and I have no better information on that than anyone else. What I can predict is that people need to meet real Christians who walk and talk their faith. They need to meet them outside of the church before they are likely to develop any real interest in joining them inside the church. And the world around us is not going to become more hospitable towards us and our faith in the long run. Jesus actually taught us about that, so I am fairly confident about that prediction.
The Christian faith is something that has to be apparent in you and of some value in your own estimation before people are going to meet Christ in you or listen to the Gospel from you. The weakness of the Christian church in America has often been that its participants have echoed the world and its values more clearly than the Gospel. The changes we are living through are challenging those worldly values, and showing them up for their weaknesses to many people. While they are at least temporarily disabused of their truth and beauty, we have a moment of opportunity to show them something better and far more lasting.
Being the full-time, conscious and deliberate Christian has another value. It will serve to carry you through the times of turmoil and uncertainty that you may face. The old evil foe will certainly try to take the changing conditions of life to rock you off balance. Keeping God and His love, forgiveness and the hope of everlasting life in the front of your mind makes an even keel easier to maintain, and aids you in finding it again when life knocks you off your stride.
Of course, as a member of the Church, you also have the fellowship of the saints to fall back on. We, your brothers and sisters in Christ, are there for you, as we also hope you are there for us in our moments of need and pain and sorrow. The more we learn to count on one another, the stronger we are, and the greater the resources - personal resources - we have to meet the challenges of life.
Essentially, nothing has changed about how to be a Christian - at least about how we ought to have been going about it. We are to walk in faith, live with integrity, find peace in the certainty of the love of God for us and His good will toward us, and act like we believe the things we believe. As the world around us grows more hostile to the faith, and it is growing more hostile toward us all of the time, we will have a different variety of opportunities to stand up for what we believe and live in the light of the truth of God and the Gospel in the face of active unbelief around us. In turn, our steadfast confession of Christ and our faithfulness to Him and His ways - loving one another and being good and decent people in a difficult world - will stand out in brighter relief against a world seeming to be going mad.
God has planned on this. This is our 'end-game', so to speak. Just as the early Christians drew men to the Gospel with their confession and living in their pagan society, we will do the same, with the same methods, in our pagan society. We will also bring glory to God, and finally receive that crown of glory which we don't really deserve, but which Christ has won for us and gives to those who stand faithfully, nonetheless.
Yours in the Lord,
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