May 19, 2013
John 14:8-17, 25-27
We come from the fire /
Livin’ in the fire /
Go back to the fire /
Turn the world around …
We are of the spirit /
Truly of the spirit /
Only can the spirit /
Turn the world around
– “Turn the World Around,” Harry Belafonte and Robert Freedman
According to the Acts of the Apostles (attributed to Luke), the Church was not born in stone buildings. The Church was born in fire:When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (Acts 2:1-4).
The noise from the house was so boisterous, the crowd outside thought that the Apostles were “filled with new wine” (vv.13).
The word “spirit”, from the Hebrew ruach, literally means “breath”. It is a vital and life-giving force. When ruach is taken away, people and institutions die. Fire must breathe in order to exist. The breath feeds the fire. Scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the Hebrew Bible usage of the term “spirit” as meaning “an invasive power at work in the world, deeply linked to YHWH’s will and purpose, capable of disrupting and transforming earthly reality” (Reverberations of Faith, 2002, pp.200). So the Spirit is more than some abstract concept. The Spirit is visceral, disrupting and transforming. And for any church that identifies with inert, stone buildings and stale, unchanging liturgy, that can be frightening.
With the exception of Pentecostal and Holiness churches, mainline Christian church services can be deadly sober (even with the Communion wine). This is not to say that all churches should immediately incorporate speaking in tongues or praise bands into their services. But do we really need to hang on to hymns and liturgies using language that no one has commonly used since the 17th Century (“Thee”, “Thou”, “Hadst”, “Shalt”, etc.)?? When was the last time our church services were so spirited that the people inside were mistaken for drunk – Ever??
Here’s a radical idea: why not take the Church out of the stone building and into the community? While this idea may sound laughable at first blush, dozens of churches across the country have begun doing exactly that. In 1996, the National Community Church in Washington, DC was about to become homeless, after the school that it regularly met in had been condemned. After much prayer, the congregation hit on the novel idea of renting space in the movie theaters at Union Station. Mark Batterson, lead pastor, says “Few churches could claim their building welcomed 25 million visitors each year, had its own bus and metro stops, train station, shopping mall, food court and parking garage. We attracted a wide variety of people as we were located four blocks from the Capitol and four blocks from the largest homeless shelter in the city.” From that time, the numbers of “movie churches” have steadily grown. Christianity Today reported in 2009, “Currently 180 churches are renting movie theater space under one-year contracts with National CineMedia, which manages rentals in 1,400 theaters nationwide. That’s an increase from three churches six years ago.”
Another radical idea is making church services meaningfully inter-generational. What better place to unleash the fire for our churches than in the hearts and minds of our young people – who will be the future church (if we are lucky). Many churches have an “upstairs/downstairs” model for children’s church: grown-ups upstairs, children’s chapel downstairs. Maybe once a year, there might be a youth service, but for the remainder of the year, children remain “out of sight, out of mind”. Why not overhaul the liturgy so that it would be interesting, engaging and understandable to a young person? Why not have children regularly participating in services, not just as alter servers/acolytes, but as Eucharistic ministers and readers? Why not have whole families “sponsor” a particular service, taking all the roles?
Change is not comfortable. The mantra that often meets change is “We’ve always done it this way.” The problem with always doing things the same way is that culture and technology outside the Church is changing at the speed of light. If the Church does not keep pace, it will be left in the dust-bin of history, as families and young people find other things to occupy them on Sunday mornings. And the numbers are fairly stark. As the chart to the left demonstrates, the trend is relentless decline. There is no longer a choice between change and no change. The choice is now between change and institutional extinction.
The good news is that the Church was born in fire. The Church has radical change in its spiritual DNA. All we have to do is remember on Pentecost who we really are. As Harry Belafonte says, “Go back to the fire / turn the world around.”