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“The Church as an Influence for Good in Society”

a sermon based upon Luke 10:25-28

Over the last Century, the Church’s impact on society was often measured by its “social action.” The “Social Gospel” pushed public policy agenda like anti-poverty efforts, support for public education, women’s rights, civil rights for minorities, gay rights, and environmental activism. There is still some of that going on in “mainline denominations” such as ours… and the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. In the days of the Social Gospel, the institutional church was expected to be the “conscience” of the society… speaking truth to power, and advocating for social change for the betterment of our culture.

There was, however, a counter-movement building among “Evangelical” churches (such as Baptist, Adventist, Pentecostal, and independent Bible Churches) which insisted on seeing Christianity only in “personal” terms -- one’s own salvation was what mattered -- personal assurance that they would be “heaven bound” when they died (or when the Rapture came and took them to heaven, whichever came first).

From the Evangelical perspective, this world was a “fallen creation” led by sinful people in rebellion to God, destined to be destroyed by God’s righteous judgment. (Frankly, there are many Christians who think that way!) For these people, the efforts of the “Social Gospel” to change the world for the good of humanity was considered irrelevant to God’s “Plan” of Salvation… which was understood to be a “personal” decision. For the Evangelicals, the social aspect of the Gospel that Jesus had taught (the gospel he lived daily & died for!) was minimized.

This idea has spread widely. The authors of the book “UnChristian” -- who spent three years of extensive interviews and research among young adults who were not active in local churches (as well as examining more than a dozen nationally representative surveys, reflecting thousands of interviews) -- want us to see what Christianity looks like from the outside.

“Young people today are incredibly candid,” they write. “They do not hold back their opinions … For many people, the Christian faith looks weary and threadbare. They admit they have a hard time actually seeing Jesus because of all the negative baggage that now surrounds him.”

The Barna Group (based in Grand Rapids) has studied the social trends, lifestyles, and public opinion among more than 200,000 Americans. They write: “In many ways, young people perceive the world in very different terms than people ever have before. For example, their lifestyles are more diverse than those of their parents’ generation, including education, career, family, leisure, and values. Young people do not want to be defined by a ‘normal’ lifestyle. They favor a unique and personal journey. Many young people do not expect to be married or to begin a family as a young adult (if at all), though this may have been the expectation in the past. … Being loyal to friends is one of their highest values. They have a strong need to ‘belong’, usually to a ‘tribe’ of other loyal people who know them well and who appreciate them [making them unlikely to join a larger organization, in which they are just ‘one member’ among many.]

“Younger adults consume more hours of media from more sources than do older generations. Many enjoy immensely the latest hot movie, music, website, or pop-culture buzz. [Smart-phones and other] technologies connect young people to information and to each other in ways older adults do not fully appreciate. [Mobile devices] power their self-expression and creativity. Young people engage in a nearly constant search for fresh experiences and new sources of motivation. They want to try things out for themselves, disdaining self-proclaimed ‘experts’ and ‘talking head’ presentations. … They prefer casual and comfortable to stuffy and stilted. … They may tell someone what that person wants to hear, but then do whatever they desire.”

If this is the basic context in which the Millennials and “Generation Z” young people interact with Christianity, we old-line, main-line, Church-going Christians have our work cut out for us! The authors of “UnChristian” say their research shows that “when it comes to matters of faith, young outsiders feel they know what Christians want before any words are uttered. … A generation reared in a marketing-drenched world is quick to sniff out what they believe to be the underlying motivations and superficialities.”

The book quotes Shawn, age 22: “Christians are too concerned with converting people. … All I ever hear is ‘Get saved!’ I tried that whole ‘Jesus thing’ already. It didn’t work for me before, and I am not interested now.”

The “Jesus thing” Shawn says he tried is not related to the Gospel that Jesus taught, and lived out, and died for. (!) It has been tied (in his thinking) to a matter of “personal salvation” -- Evangelical proselytizing (or “conversion”) -- getting “saved”. Having grown up in a Congregational Church, I had never even heard of that “personal salvation” perspective until I became a Chaplain’s Assistant in the Army! I’m still a Social Gospel guy.

But even among those people (like me) who still wish that the “power of the Church” might be used as a major force for good in the world -- or serve as a public “guardian of values” that can confront the more arrogant expressions of politicians, leaders of business & finance, & other social powers -- we are “scaling down” our expectations. (!) Too many un-Christian values have been seen among Church leaders -- too much of a partisan bias has infected Church pronouncements -- for the ordinary church-going person to have much confidence in the spokespersons of the larger “institutional” Church.

To be honest, this skepticism toward “partisan bias” in church pronouncements has been growing in me for several years. The United Church has always been among the “firsts” at the forefront of social change, and it’s an admirable legacy, but we are getting more highly “politicized” (and a bit peculiar!) as to which “firsts” we choose to pursue as a denomination.

So, when researchers ask people in the pews “why do you relate to the Church?” what they tell are personal stories. (!)

+ The Church supports them through the ups-&-downs of life. + The Church offers help in times of crisis and trouble.

+ Belonging to a church is important because of the special dimension it offers to their daily life: a place to worship, to pray, to learn, and to sing… opportunities to serve others… a place where they find friendship and community… a place to reflect on the larger issues of life beyond the stress & chaos of what’s in the news 24-hours a day, 7 days-a-week. To go to church is, for some, the best “sabbath” rest they get in a busy week.

What I get from that research is a sense that “personally”, people need (and want) the local congregation, even if the social values of “the Church in general” is being questioned. In other words, the ministry of the Church which once was “in general” has largely become “privatized” – what’s in it for me!

Now, I know that I preached a whole sermon on “Going to Church: What’s in it for Me?” just two weeks ago. And since it is available on the web-site, I don’t want to repeat it this morning.

But let me remind you that in the UCC, the basic unit of the church is the local congregation… the gathered people: us here. That’s what I mean when I say “the church”. It’s not our denomination, with its national offices in Cleveland, nor the Michigan Conference where Edith & Gene & I were last weekend as delegates to the Annual Meeting. Those are “settings” of the Church.

We listen to those “expressions” of the church, because we work together with those “structures” to get our Church’s Wider Mission accomplished beyond the confines of what we can do in Alpena County. However, because “congregations” are “autonomous” in the UCC, we don’t have to pursue the agenda they would like to set for us, if we choose not to.

Our church relates to other churches on a voluntary basis. We choose what we want to emphasize by way of mission in our community. We own our own property and hire (& fire) our own ministers. We cooperate and collaborate with other congregations in order to be more accountable and effective, but that’s by our choice. So, I repeat, for the Congregationalist: the basic meaning of the word “church” is the local congregation.

The second meaning of the word “Church” refers to the collective experience of all Christians all over the world and throughout time since Jesus founded this movement in his day. Every baptized Christian in every denomination (& “non-denominational” as many Evangelicals like to call themselves) are our sisters & brothers in the faith as they, like us, try to follow Jesus, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. In that regard, there is only One Church, whose head is Jesus Christ.

While Edith, Gene, & I were at the meeting in Kalamazoo, we had a chance to meet other UCC folks from around the state -- to confer about church business, to celebrate in worship, to acknowledge one another’s contributions to the denomination, to collaborate, to encourage, to equip one another for ministry. And we heard reports about six resolutions and pronouncements asking local congregations to study and act upon a variety of topics. I told something about them to our Board of Directors on Monday evening, and I’ll mention them to you in a moment. But please remember: they have no “power over” us as a local church, no hierarchy is implied, neither from the national nor state settings. Each “expression” of the church – the local congregation, the association, conference, and the national offices – are “covenanted” to respect one another as equals. In other words: they cannot “mandate” anything onto us. We are “free”.

On that Sunday before I went to the Michigan Conference meeting, I said that I would talk a bit more about our 850,000 member denomination this week, and why I think it is good for society to have churches like ours. In other words, I want us to reflect on what churches do for our culture “in general”, not just what we get personally and privately from it. (And that is much more affirming than to listen to pronouncements & resolutions!)

First, I see church as a place to become aware of the “moral” dimension of life. You see, “morality” is an aspect of everything you and I do… it’s not simply a list of “do”s and “don’t”s! The moral dimension is that aspect of our behavior that affects another person. If what we do has no consequence on anybody in any way, there’s nothing moral or immoral about it! But if our behavior affects another person, to the good, it is moral; if it harms them in any way, it is immoral. In church we talk about “right & wrong”, moral choices. Jesus put it simply: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” … if the roles were reversed. We ask people to consider basic values.

We teach the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule. Churches help shape basic social values and articulate human rights… and we pass them along from generation to generation.

Education is important to the United Church. After all, Jesus was himself a teacher, who spent most of his ministry sharing new values (which he said represented “the Kingdom of God” at hand… in the world!) shaping his society in a better direction. He told his disciples that outward appearances were not as important as one’s inner convictions… that genuine leadership would be expressed in greater service… that loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself were the “greatest of all” the biblical commandments.

Church people, because of their moral commitment to “a just world for all” people, have spoken out against racism and sexism, ageism and economic “classism”. In many situations, churches have made a political difference… as did the United Church in court cases ten years ago… which fought to allow equal marriage rights for all Americans, regardless of gender.

While I (and many others) hold the opinion that the social programs of modern government -- which spend tax-dollars so freely! -- have largely nullified the importance of the Church as a helpful organization, still church people are ready to serve.

Our programs are not bound by government regulations or dependent upon public legislation. Church members give their own money, freely, and commit their own time and talents to causes we believe in. Churches fill the inevitable “gaps” – such as we did: buying “drug kits” for drug court participants when the federal funding was withdrawn, and providing spiritual counsel to addicts – both as individual Christians and as a congregation.

Churches are free to act with care & concern in very effective ways, because we do it together…

… and (from our faith perspective) it’s the right thing to do.

The Church in general is a “keeper” of values, a “helpful” service organization, and a place to “belong”. Church is a place to meet people. Deep friendships are made and maintained in local churches. Companionship. During the regular work-week, people are so wrapped up in their personal/family world that they don’t want neighbors or others “butting in”. It’s often hard to really “belong” anywhere except in your own family & workplace. However, when you join a church, you choose to be with other people who feel much the way you do about things. It’s like an extended family of new aunts & uncles, siblings & grand-parents.

My image of the church, rooted in past experiences here in Alpena (as well as more than 30 years of ministry elsewhere), is very positive… even though it is taken much less seriously than in times past. (!) It thrives on the notion that we’re doing good in many people’s personal lives, as well as in general: as a keeper of values, an organization that does good in the community, a place to belong to, and a place to find spiritual meaning in life.

If you’re interested in the topics of those six recent UCC pronouncements, here they are (take ’em… or leave ’em…):

(1) abolish private prisons, such as the new private-for-profit immigrant detention center in Baldwin. (2) Address the reality of global forced migration, including underlying attitudes of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. (3) Stop using plastic foam products. (4) Denounce acts of violence & racism carried out by white-supremacist hate groups. (5) Declare support for the “Green New Deal” as proposed by Democrats in Congress, and (6) consider encouraging a plant-based life… that is, going “vegan”. These are today’s efforts to be “cutting edge” - “first and faithful”.

May the Holy Spirit guide us in such matters. ---- Amen.

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