at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston
My, how times change. If you had told my mother when she was 16 years old that one day she would be able to put a bag of popcorn in a small box and push a few buttons and a few minutes later have in her hand a steaming hot bag of popcorn she would have laughed in your face. Today my mother can log onto her laptop computer and buy an 800 watt Sharp compact Microwave for $62.99 and amazon.com will deliver it to her doorstep for free. Forget the lemonade, we are drowning in data. It is estimated that a week's worth of New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 1800s. More than 3000 new books are published every day. In this era of accelerating change and information overload, we wonder how the church may reach the next generation of Christians. This issue is of vital importance because Christianity is always one generation away from extinction.
Our outreach population is known as Generation X (also known as Busters, 13ers) who were born between 1961 - 1981; and Millennials (also called Blasters, Generation Y) who were born from 1982 - 2003. People in their mid-40s to early childhood are the target audience for this congregation. While my mother's generation has lived through dramatic changes in society, people who are today in their mid-40s, 30s and 20s are living through a time of exponential change. For example, the amount of new technical information is doubling every two years. For students starting a four year technical or college this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated in their third year of study. By 2010, only 2 years from now, the amount of new technical information is predicted to double every 72 hours. Now that's cooking! Our target audience is this younger generation who are technologically savvy and riding a wave of exponential change.
In his book The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier, Loren Meade suggests we need to "reinvent the church." He says we are in the beginning stages of the greatest transformation of the church for 1,600 years. He says this is the greatest challenge the church ever experienced in America and may eventually make the Protestant Reformation look like a ripple in a pond. Things have fundamentally changed in the church in the last 50 years.
Meade divides the history of the church into three paradigms based on three time periods. The first period in the church, the time from 0-325 A.D., Meade calls the Apostolic Paradigm. The early church consisted of a group of believers who were a distinct minority within the larger culture. The boundaries between the church and the world were clear during the times of the Apostolic Paradigm. Meade says the second period in the history of the church is the era from 325-1965, which he calls the Christendom Paradigm. This period began when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and insisted that all his subjects, which included most of the people in the world, should be baptized and become Christians or they would be killed. The boundaries between the church and world were less clear during the Christendom Paradigm. Meade calls the third period in the history of the church "The Time Between Paradigms." This time began in about 1965 and and will continue indefinitely into the future at least throughout our lifetimes and perhaps for several generations.
In 1965 the Christendom model started to break down. Since the 1960s the Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and all the other mainline denominations have been losing members. Meade says the situation the churches are in is much worse than we have been led to think by leaders whistling in the dark, telling us that the troubles have "bottomed out" or that "we are turning around." He says we will not recover by returning to the simplistic ways we have used before. This is not something we can generate a program to fix. A project to increase church membership will not work. Meade says we are in the midst of a storm that is not likely to blow over in our lifetimes.
During these turbulent times in the church we turn to the Bible for instruction and encouragement. There is no easy way out for the church today and that was also true for the early church who received the Epistle called 1 Peter. Our text for today talks about being "tested by fire." So are we Christians today. It is time to reclaim our New Testament roots. Meade suggests we emulate Jesus' ministry. Recall how Jesus performed his first ministry at the wedding in Cana. The wedding party ran out of wine. They presented their problem to Jesus and he responded to the need by turning water into wine. So Jesus cooked up a creative response to a real need. Jesus' strategy was to meet specific needs as they arise. That strategy will work for us as well. As chefs in training, we watch how Christ cooks and feeds and meets the needs of people. We learn to cook like Christ.
In 1692 a catholic monk named Brother Lawrence wrote a book called God-Illuminated Cook: The Practice of the Presence of God. Amid his pots and pans, Brother Lawrence became known for his serenity and joy while he chopped potatoes and washed dishes. Cardinals, theologians, and even the Pope came to learn his secret. What they learned is that Brother Lawrence practiced the presence of God during every moment of every day. He communed with God while chopping onions and cleaning plates. Brother Lawrence demonstrated how to practice the presence of God. We too may practice the presence of God while cooking, driving, working, or volunteering. As we learn to practice the presence of God we come to see our mission field is right under our feet. Our mission field is right here on West Bellfort in Southwest Houston, in our homes, where we shop. Wherever we are God is there with us.
We at St. John's, along with all Christian churches, face a great challenge. God's message to us is do not retreat! Go forward. Now is the time to dream big dreams. Now is the time to clarify our vision for the future. This church has a bright future. God is doing great work in this congregation and through this congregation. The Spirit moved in the Easter Sunrise Service. The youth and adult leaders did a great job leading that service. We mentor the youth in this congregation. We need to continue that and build on it. We need to refocus our energy on reclaiming the 20 to 40 year old age group. That is the age group that we are lacking here and in most mainline churches today. At the same time we must honor and encourage the great mission work accomplished by the older adults of this congregation. We need the wisdom and wit of our older adults.
In our scripture today (1 Peter 1:3-9), God offers hope during this time of transition. God is doing a new thing now. Let us go with God's flow in the present moment. Let's practice the presence of God in the kitchen of our daily lives. Imagine Christ as a Cosmic Chef. We may not be certain which recipe the Cosmic Chef is cooking but we know it will be one fine meal, for we have tasted the bread of heaven and the cup of eternal salvation. We have yet to taste the soul food served in heaven. But once we do, we'll never die again. In the meantime, let us feed those who live around us. Let us offer them the bread of heaven and the cup of eternal salvation. The future is unpredictable. That is one characteristic of this postmodern era. So let's be patient with one another as we change with the times.
As 1 Peter puts it: "The genuineness of our faith is being tested by fire." We know fire burns and fire purifies. Hot grease on the hand makes us howl. Our faith is being tested by the hot grease of God's Spirit. The purpose of this test is not to hurt us but to purify our souls. This church and all churches are being purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit. The purification process is not pleasant. In fact, it is painful. Yet it is necessary. As God purifies the church, we learn to listen to our own inner voice, which is God's voice within us. We work to get our interior kitchen in order. Then we get cooking with Christ. This is a time for moving forward. May God give us the courage to rise to the occasion. May Christ strengthen us for the days ahead. May the Holy Spirit continue to purify us with the fire of the Spirit. The genuineness of our faith is indeed being tested by fire. May it be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.