I was about
halfway down the main aisle in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City
when I was struck by the realization. This magnificent structure
appeared to me more museum than church. I looked around and saw
the crowds of people, some pilgrims, some tourists. I saw the flashes
of cameras. I saw the tour guides explaining that so and so spent
12 years carving such and such. And suddenly a terrifying thought
crossed my mind: will our American churches become museums like
this one? Places to be admired for their historical value or for
their ability to stir up feelings of nostalgia within us?
Maybe it was
just that I was a tourist myself, but it seemed that many of the
great churches I saw were drawing people in to see the great works
of art they housed rather than to hear the great message of hope
in Jesus Christ.
And I wondered,
"Will that happen to our churches? Is it already happening?"
I would like
to share three reflections on the future of the church in a post-conservative,
post-liberal, Post-ToastiesTM, postmodern America. They are reflections
based on my brief travels in three European countries.
crafted for the glory of God can themselves become idols.
There it stood,
the towering altar that commanded the attention of the crowd of
tourists who wandered through the sanctuary of St. Peter's Basilica.
Three stories high, this fantastic altar of pure bronze was where
the Popes have presided over the mass since the middle ages. Like
many, if not all, of the masterpieces within this breath-taking
building, this imposing altar was created to give people a sense
of the glory and majesty of God.
The irony is
now its stands as a monument to outstanding craftsmanship. People
are rarely now drawn to contemplate the glory of God, but rather
they think, "Man, I wonder how long it took them to make that?"
or "Wow, I wonder how much that thing weighs?" or "Isn't that a
magnificent example of baroque sculpture?"
As I later stared
at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I found myself not in awe
of the God who is depicted in the paintings, but in awe of the skill
of Michelangelo. The colors, the form, the sheer mass of the paintings-amazing!
And all along
the winding corridors of the Vatican museum you can buy books that
describe just how amazing his paintings are. But not once did I
ever recall hearing anyone speak about the amazing story of creation
and redemption that Michelangelo depicted across the ceiling and
down the walls.
So I wonder,
could it happen here? Has it happened here? In one respect it cannot
happen here because most of our churches lack the artistic genius
found in those ancient basilicas and chapels. We lack the masterpieces
that could be worshipped as priceless works of art. But we have
made things objects of worship.
In our churches,
we have worshipped particular translations of the Bible. We have
worshipped certain hymns, or even the hymnals themselves. We have
worshipped styles of worship. We have worshipped styles of clothing.
We have worshipped all kinds of things that are more about aesthetics
than they are about God.
No, we do not
have white-marble statues of Peter carrying his cross, but we do
have our King James Versions, our New International Versions (but
not the scandalous TNIV!). We don't have Michelangelo's painting
of Creation, but we do have suits and ties and Sunday dresses.
I don't want
you to think that I am suggesting these things are outdated and
should be thrown out. I am not saying that they are bad. Some churches
are throwing out their organs because they think they are outdated.
I like the organ, to tell you the truth. I appreciate the skill
and artistry of master organists. But I don't worship the organ.
Nor do I worship the piano or the keyboard. I don't worship the
guitar or drums, or even the saxophone (although the Church could
use a little Coltrane!). I worship God, and all these things may
serve to help me do that.
I like hymns,
at least the good ones. I like the new hymns and choruses, but I
don't worship them. I worship God. I like theater seats. I like
comfortable pews. I like comfortable folding chairs. But I don't
worship any one of them. I worship God.
I like old church
buildings. I like stained-glass windows. I like brand new church
buildings. I like huge auditoriums where crowds of us can get together
and worship. I like little chapels where you can know everyone by
name. But I don't worship church buildings-new or old. I worship
It is important
that we remember that we must worship God, not the things that are
supposed to direct us to Him. What does that mean? That means we
must hold onto God, not hymns, not guitars, not buildings…not liturgies,
not spontaneity, not boomer, not buster, not netgen, not any-gen.
We must be flexible.
When we keep in mind that it is God that we worship, our focus changes
from what we are comfortable with to what is effective in helping
others encounter God. Our mission is not a mission to our ancestors…it
is a mission to this generation and the ones to follow. Our mission
field is not in the cemeteries, but in our homes, schools, jobs,
and the places we meet people who live in the world today.
Jesus did not tell his disciples he would make them architects of
buildings, but fishers of men.
The church buildings
I saw in Europe were magnificent. I saw a lot of beautiful cathedrals
and basilicas. What I did not see were a lot of disciples. I did
not see a culture that had been marked by the presence of the Holy
Spirit. I did not see a culture that was being shaped by the followers
of Jesus (might I add that my European friends would be justified
in saying the same of America-except the bit about church buildings).
What I did see
were church buildings that spoke of the greatness of its architects
and artisans. But as I said earlier, they are more museums than
luminous communities of children of Light.
gets at the heart of what we are about as a church. What did Jesus
set out as our purpose? Did Jesus say, "Therefore, go and make great
buildings and wear nice clothes on Sunday and compose great hymns,
singing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy
Spirit"? No! Our mission is to make disciples. It is to share the
good news of Jesus about the present and impending availability
of the kingdom of God.
What we do and
how we do it is not about making me comfortable. It is about delivering
the message of the gospel to people in a way they can understand
it (which makes me wonder if we even understand it).
We must renew
our sense of mission as the community of people who follow Jesus.
Our mission is to tell people about the availability of God's kingdom
and make the kingdom of God a reality in our lives and in the lives
of this generation and the next. Jesus did not call us to be his
disciples so that we could "play church" once a week or even twice
a week. He did not call us to "follow" him so we could carve our
names on brass memorials and build monuments to each other. He called
us to a changed life-a kingdom life-and he called us to bring others
into that kingdom life too. He called us to a changed world.
So often we
invest all our time in temporary things. They may be great, like
the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but they are
temporary. How much time have we wasted on temporary things when
we could have been investing in people's lives?
Man, that is
a question that haunts me quite often. I look at my life and ask,
"How did I invest my life today in things that are going to make
a difference in someone's life? Did I waste my time on selfish,
temporary things? Did I choose to invest my time building sandcastles
instead of building spiritual friendships with people?
We have to ask
that same question. How much of what we do is fulfilling our primary
calling? Do we do this program or that event just because we always
have, or because it is in some way helping to bring people into
the kingdom and the kingdom into people?
It takes a courageous
church and courageous Christians to ask those questions. Because
the answers might mean that some remodeling must be done so that
we can be more faithful to our calling. We may need to change our
vocabulary so the world can hear and understand our unchanging message
of God's grace through Jesus.
Latin may be a beautiful language, but it is also a dead one.
For the church
to have an impact on our culture, we must be able to speak to our
culture. We must become missionaries in our own neighborhoods.
We live in
a culture that speaks a different language than us. Their values
are different; their perception of reality is different. So we must
begin to see ourselves as missionaries to our own neighbors. We
must translate the gospel in ways that make sense to the people
we work with, the people we meet at the laundromat, and at the grocery
store. We have to be able to tell the gospel story in ways that
make sense. That means that we must understand it enough to be able
to translate it into the language we use outside the sanctuary.
We then have to speak about the significance of that story in our
The gospel story
does not answer every little question about life. What it does is
it tells us about God and His relationship with the world that He
has made, and with human beings in particular. We must tell this
story in language that draws people to God and enable them to relate
to Him as their Creator and Redeemer. We must make the distinction
between the never-changing message and the ever-changing methods
We cannot speak
to a 21st century culture in language from the 17th century, or
the 18th or 19th or even language from a large part of the 20th
I would like
to finish this by quoting a paragraph from Trevor Hart's book, "Faith
Thinking". He writes:
"So the church
must meet the challenge of an ever-changing present by responding
with new ways of expressing its message to the constantly revised
account of the world offered by the contemporary worldview, by answering
today's questions and concerns, rather than resting content with
the answers which it gave to yesterday's. Unless Christians face
this challenge squarely, they fail in the missionary task just as
surely as if, traveling in some far-off land, they had not bothered
to learn to speak the language or to understand the ways of its
inhabitants. The result will be the isolation of a self-imposed
irrelevance. If, rather than facing up to the task of extending
God's story into the present, we seek constantly to dwell in some
previous chapter of it, we should not be surprised when we are either
ignored or not taken seriously by those who find our approach quaintly
anachronistic. If we persist in such nostalgic inertia, we shall
rapidly become a mere tourist attraction, a side stall in the fragmented
freak show of contemporary pluralism, more pathetic than prophetic
in the face of the needs and worries of our fellow human travelers
through time." 
Will your First
Christian Church or your Second Lutheran Church or your Third Assembly
of God be like the museum-cathedrals of Europe in 10, 20, 50 years?
It is a very real possibility. It is up to us to stand up, wide-eyed
(and wild-eyed?), and reach out in fresh ways and words to share
the story of Jesus to the world around us.
through the pen of John, to the church in Sardis these words of
warning: "…I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive,
but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about
to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of
my God. Remember therefore, what you have received and heard; obey
it and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief,
and you will not know at what time I will come to you" (Rev 3:1-3,
May the Spirit
of Jesus guide us and bring fresh fire into the churches on both
sides of the Atlantic.
Hart, Trevor, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology,
(InterVarsity Press: 1995), p. 188.