It is all too tempting to look back on the 1950s church and say, "Wow! Look at the growth! Look at all the programs that were developed! Look at how everyone in the nation was a church-going Christian--and the most popular brands were the Methodists."
While I was in seminary, I remember visiting the church where my wife (then fiance) served as a student-associate. After worship we went to a local diner in the 50's style with several members of the church. One man pined away--"Ah! this place reminds you of the good days, doesn't it? Those were good times. Life just isn't what it used to be!" As I listened to him, I had a sudden realization. Here we were in rural North Carolina at a '50s era diner--exactly the kind of place where black people were refused service--and so without thinking, I shared my reflection... "Well I guess the '50s were pretty great, so long as you were not black." Silence... Then an uncomfortable agreement... "Well... I guess so..."
When we compare the current generation/situation to the past we generally perceive the past as better than the present. The overwhelming assumption among people I know is that day by day, month by month, year by year the world is always getting worse... while at the same time there is an overwhelming shared hope that the future will be better... The past is rosy and the future holds hope--where does that leave us today--?
You can see this reality in the current political climate. We are in an election season, and regardless of who you support, you support that person/party because you believe they will make this country better in time. At the same time, a poll compared people's preference for the current candidate with the hypothetical possibility of reelecting Bill Clinton or Ronald Regan (two presidents who are recent enough that we have some sense of knowing who they are/were and far enough past that we see their work through the lens of time which makes all eras seem better). Regardless of party affiliation, people overwhelmingly would prefer to be choosing between Clinton and Regan instead of Obama vs. Romney.
The past seems rosy, the future hopeful and in the meantime we bemoan decreased attendance averages, decreased finances available for our many wonderful denomination-wide programs, frustration over theological differences... Often it seems the way to sound smart, powerful, and effective in this day is to either talk about how great things once were and call us back or about how great things will be and call us forward... the best do both at the same time. But either way, there is a tone of negativity with regard to the present--too many churches are not this or not that, etc.
But I believe we serve an infinite God. A God who sees our present as much a part of our past as our future. We are called to minister today. And as we minister today, we can see ourselves in the shoes of any church past or present (or future?) in relationship with the timeless God who has sent us, whose power strengthens us, and whose mercy guides us. One such church that ministered in its time, facing its own challenges and frustrations was the church at Philippi. How did Paul instruct them:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4: 6-9, NIV)This is where I could say how anxious we have become as a denomination. That too many churches and too many church leaders focus on every challenge every anxiety, every number that just seems to not add up. And perhaps someone might think me an expert because I name yet another problem....
But my point is this: none of that is helpful. It is not helpful to dwell on the challenges, and the "expert culture" is seriously overrated. How do we minister faithfully in the present?
"Do not be anxious, in every situation go to God in prayer with thanks... and dwell on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, anything that is praiseworthy, etc..."
To the denominational leaders--the bishops, the superintendents, the seminary professors, the so-called "experts" and "gurus" out there... I would ask you to simply lead us in praising God. Continue to tell us about the praiseworthy ministries that are going on all across our denomination. Tell the stories of churches overcoming challenges and reaching their community with the love of Christ. Celebrate the churches that are breaking through the culture divide between the various races and nationalities in their neighborhood. Encourage us all to find ways to reach new people in new ways, to be creative and passionate about our worship -- this is all good. But please don't perpetuate the spirit of anxiety. Rather lead us in thanksgiving to our God who is faithful.
And to the church (yes the Church Universal, but specifically the church I serve) lets us praise God and give thanks for the growth in vitality we have experienced. Let us celebrate the many people who were not in church as recently as two or three years ago, but today are initiating and leading ministries to touch the lives of people in our community. The us praise God with thanksgiving for those committed disciples who are pouring their passion into making our worship setting an inviting, hospitable, and holy atmosphere. Let us continue to encourage one another in our discipleship path--to grow in knowledge, love and service... but let us not be anxious--Jesus said, "Why do you worry? No one has added a single hour to their life by worrying."
There is no greater expression of faith and faithfulness than our ability to remain non-anxious in the midst of challenges and struggles; to continue to work faithfully at sharing the good news and to praise God for the ways we see God at work.