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Answering the Call: A Vision for our Future

Dear Christ Church Family,

On Sunday, August 4, 2013, Christ Church Nashville entered a time of prayer and reflection. The purpose of this discerning process is to clarify our church’s identity and mission in a culture that has changed considerably since its founding era. That morning, we focused our attention on the reasons this process had become necessary. That evening, Dr. Bruce Grubbs and I presented thirteen teams of individuals within the church who will focus on short-term and long-term issues affecting our church. These teams will gather data and make recommendations about how we will address these issues.

Below you will find video links to the Sunday morning service and Sunday evening Vision Meeting in addition to the text of my Sunday morning sermon. You can download the “Vision 2020” document, which was presented Sunday evening and contains greater detail about the discerning process we are in, by clicking this link: Vision 2020.

We welcome any insights you may have as you watch and read.

In the multitude of counsel, there is safety.

God bless you,
Dan Scott

 

 

Answering the Call

Acts 11:19-26

Imagine we are the inhabitants of a ten-story apartment building.

Now imagine that first floor of this building is on fire. Finally, imagine that we are uninterested about what to do about the fire down on the first floor because we are arguing about how to decorate our apartment.

That is the present condition of many American churches. They are passionate about small issues while many of their children and grandchildren are deciding whether the faith itself is even true.

Too often Christians keep ignoring their children’s questions and the questions of those around them as long as possible. Then, in desperation, they offer their children and neighbors some new styles of music, trade their suits for jeans, and redecorate their sanctuary.

While they are busy fixing these relatively small problems, they ignore the smoke drifting up from the first floor. They believe the fire down there will not reach them up on that tenth floor.

That is a perhaps dramatic and theatrical way to describe American Christianity, but it is an accurate view, and it is a description not only of most American Evangelical churches, but it is an accurate description of our own church.

Ahead of us is a potentially great future, but to reach that future requires that we pay attention to the alarms from the first floor.

Charles Dickens began The Tale of Two Cities with what is arguably one of the most famous paragraphs of all literature.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens wrote this paragraph because he wanted to compare two cities. However, he also wanted to compare two different eras. He hoped a story about the French Revolution would inspire readers to look deeper at their own times.

I want to do something similar this morning. Pastor Hardwick used this same passage thirty years ago to defend his belief that cultural change around us required this church to respond and that we could do so while remaining faithful to the gospel.

He told the story about the churches of Jerusalem and Antioch from our same Scriptural reference today to remind us that Christians had faced such cultural changes before. He said that Christians had been forced to choose between their familiar customs and unfamiliar innovations several times in history and we could learn from how they responded. He reminded us that we are not allowed to change eternal things, that changing eternal things seriously undermines the faith. Our challenge was to remain firmly grounded on eternal things while remaining flexible when responding to things that were not eternal. The question, of course, is always about how to discern the difference between things that are eternal and things that are not.

The specific instructions Jesus and the apostles gave us are eternal things. They told us how the soul comes to God, is formed in God, and prepares to meet God. For example, the celebration of Communion and Baptism are permanent features of the faith because Jesus told us to do them. No one has any authority to eliminate them, whether or not he personally finds these celebrations meaningful.

The belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is another permanent thing. St. Paul said that our belief in the resurrection is ground zero in our faith. If we remove it, we turn Jesus into a moral teacher on the level with Socrates or history’s other great teachers.

There are several permanent things we could consider this morning. However, much of church life does not consist in those permanent things. Sunday School, for example, is not a permanent thing. Sunday School is a means our great-grandparents developed in order to teach children and adults the beliefs of our faith. Choirs, pulpits, pianos, gospel music, and tons of other stuff we take for granted are not permanent things either. They are all relatively new adaptations to the needs of specific times and specific places.

I made a statement a few weeks ago about how the “old time religion” was not very old, that it was a response of the American frontier to the gospel. Many of us are attached to that expression of the faith because it is the way our relationship with God was formed. There is nothing wrong with honoring the old time religion or the things it produced.

We immediately recognize Russian Orthodox music when we hear it. We recognize a Russian church as a unique expression of Russian architecture. Most American Christians experience these aspects of Russian culture as both beautiful and strange. They are both familiar and unfamiliar. There is something underneath those expressions that unite us to Russian believers. But there is also something that feels very different: our connection to them and the gospel that inspired them. Their strangeness is because the early Russian believers responded quite differently to the gospel than the early American believers.

One doesn’t have to go to Russia to experience this kind of difference between believers. You can experience it right here in Nashville.

There is a Greek Orthodox Church on Franklin Road. I hope you will visit it sometime. All you have to do is tell the receptionist you want to look at their sanctuary. If you do that, you will experience how our faith looked to a believer in fifth century Byzantium.

If you go on downtown, you can visit the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Incarnation. There you will experience how Christians adapted the old Roman basilicas for worship.

Also downtown is a Presbyterian church, modeled after pre-Christian Egyptian architecture.

A few blocks from our church, on McMurray, is a Coptic Church. Its exterior has the unmistakable influences of American Evangelicalism because Baptists once used it for worship. Inside it has been restructured to resemble the early Christian worship space in North Africa.

Many, perhaps most, of the differences among Christians are rooted in the ways we have responded to the cultures and times in which we have lived. Because I love history, I enjoy these differences. I even celebrate them. I’m glad these differences exist. Each of them offers me a valuable insight into my faith.

It is one thing to admire past expressions of the faith, though quite another thing to become imprisoned in them. Some of us live through seasons that require us to recognize the need to modify how we express our faith. After all, these different expressions exist because somewhere along the way, somebody adopted something new and left something old behind. Unfortunately, these were rarely peaceful changes.

When we adapt, we usually leave a few precious things behind. Doing that seems unbearable to some people but seems unavoidable to others. That is why cultural change always brings conflict.

A Greek scholar told me recently that the melodies of the Psalms Greek Orthodox people sing are very close to the melodies Greek-speaking Jews sang in the first century. So I went to YouTube and searched for some of those melodies. I can now sing a few Psalms in Koiné Greek. It moves me to do so, and I’m glad people have preserved these things. Nonetheless, if I were to insist that remaining faithful to the apostles requires our church to sing the Psalms in Greek, only four of you will think this is a good idea!

The principle here is that our faith must retain its core eternal beliefs. It must do this at whatever cost. But it must adapt those expressions that are not essential to its message. We should never adapt because we dishonor our past.  We must adapt in order to effectively communicate our faith to a changed culture.

That was what Pastor Hardwick taught us in the mid-eighties. We were making a painful exit from our parent denomination. It had developed a subculture that it expressed in the way we dressed, in our music, and in our theology. Many of us could no longer relate to that culture. We were trying to find a way to expand our world. And yet, today, thirty years later, this church has unique features that still echo that background. We moved on but also carried some of who we had been with us.

Today’s passage tells the story about the first time Christians had to face cultural change. The Jerusalem church was rooted in Hebrew culture. The Antiochian Church had a Greek culture. Believers in Jerusalem wanted to maintain their connections to the past. The believers in Antioch wanted to form connections to the future. Christianity’s second-generation leaders were excited. Christianity’s first-generation leaders were alarmed.

These different perceptions began to clash and threatened to divide the new faith.

Something had to be done.

The clash was ultimately resolved in the first church counsel, recorded in Acts 15. But the first real movement toward agreement was probably Barnabas’s trip to Antioch. The Jerusalem church wanted Barnabas to investigate what was really happening in Antioch. The traditionalists probably chose Barnabas because he had a reputation for fairness and wisdom. They also chose him because he was a priest. They could expect a priest to defend Jewish law. But when he decided that God was at work in Antioch, the attitudes in Jerusalem began to shift.

How important people like Barnabas are to the work of God. How desperately we need those people today! They are like hinges on which the doors of history turn.

Today, we are facing monumental shifts now in the way people perceive, experience, and live out spiritual life. Unfortunately, most church leaders were trained to minister in a much different time. The more these Christian leaders try to remain faithful to what they were trained to do, younger people, or those new to the faith, tend to view what we preach as irrelevant and unhelpful. However, if we try to adapt to the changes of culture, our more seasoned members often become anxious.

These seemingly irreconcilable differences can make church leaders defensive and frustrated. Many just quit.

But there is a way forward, a way that leads to a productive future.

The reason our church experienced a season of astronomical growth a generation ago was because it offered those raised in more traditional, less emotional churches, a powerful worship experience. At the time, most of churches in our area were still focused on the needs of a previous generation so we offered an alternative.

Thirty years later, we are the stewards of this massive campus and these large buildings. They were very powerful tools working in a specific era and with a specific demographic. However, as time has moved on, both our demographic and our surrounding society have changed. Personal computers were rare thirty years ago. Thirty years ago, the only personal media outlet was the United States Post Office. The huge influx of foreign-born immigrants into the American heartland had not yet occurred. The cold war was just ending. September 11, 2001 was still far away into the future. We could not imagine then that the entire financial structure of the United States would become globalized and no longer ours to control. We were located at the extreme Southern boundary of Greater Nashville. Cool Springs Mall did not yet exist. We were Nashville’s only mega church. We attracted a rather conservative, upwardly mobile, and mostly Caucasian, baby-boomer crowd.

In other words, as we remained in the same geographical location, our church nonetheless gradually found itself in a very different social and cultural environment. However, we have retained essentially the same kinds of worship services, the same organizational structure, the same décor, and the same approach to reach our community. We have retained these practices because they have been very successful. We have also retained them because the price has seemed too steep to do anything else. For the sake of unity, we have backed away from making real changes.

Meanwhile, the area around us has filled with unchurched people. Many of course come from other nations. However, many of them are young native-born Americans who do not relate to what we are doing or the way we are doing it.

When facing similar situations, many churches begin giving up eternal things as a way to remain connected to the culture around them. They become flexible about eternal things and rigid about non-eternal things. That is a disastrous course that we do not intent to take.

For example, many church leaders now are unsure of the importance of Holy Scripture. They may not view the celebration of Communion as an essential part of church life. They are unsure of the content of their faith and believe that a humanitarian concern and care for others will be enough reason for the church to remain in business. In other words, they become willing to dismiss the core content of their faith in order to become relevant, not realizing that the core content of the faith is the very thing that produces our desire to help others in Christ’s name.

Other church leaders do not seem to notice that a large percentage of young adults are losing their faith. If they do notice this, they may not understand that these young adults are not losing their faith primarily because they don’t relate to church music, length of the worship service, or the traditional settings for worship. Of course many young adults don’t relate to these things the same way older people do. However such things are secondary issues. Young adults are actually losing their faith because they are not sure it is true. Many young adults who still attend church are unsure about the foundation of their faith. They are not sure the church can provide any real answers, or that the church even comprehends many of the serious challenges of our times.

So if church leaders remain focused on the pragmatic requirements of the church as institution, as though these were the main challenges we face, the institutions they lead will not survive. They will be like the people on that tenth floor apartment, trying to decide what to do about the old paint and plumbing while the fire on the first floor spreads to the second.

We must find a way to address the fire.

There are two essential and eternal things that we must do:

  1. Recover our belief in the power and the real presence of God in worship, daily life, and witness.
  2. Wrestle with the intellectual part of our faith. We must stop demonizing the life of the mind as though it is somehow detrimental to spiritual life.

These two things must come together. It is not our job to be God’s salesmen. If God doesn’t care enough to reveal Himself to the world with supernatural grace, why is it our responsibility to convince people of His existence? Charismatic life is real. However, it must not seem manufactured or exaggerated. Even if people sense God’s presence however, that also does not eliminate our need for real answers to questions we encounter in our studies or professional lives. To those who say we need dynamic experiences with God in worship, I answer “absolutely.” However, we must also have “an answer for the hope that lies within us.” Many of us can no longer defend or represent an intellectually vacuous faith.

Community life and care are also essential elements of our faith. Our age is filled with addictions, a lack of adequate medical and other kinds of care for huge parts of our population, mental health issues, broken families – the list goes on and on. We need a spiritual family to help us cope and find our way forward. We cannot say to the hungry, “Go your way, be blessed and filled.” We must feed them. We must make community with them.

The gist of this sermon is that Christ Church Nashville must find ways to reinvent itself and with this some serious, discerning conversation. That is what we will be trying to encourage beginning today and in the next few weeks.

Rich Alves said a very wise thing in our Bible study last Wednesday night. It resonated with many. He said,

Conversation has become difficult because we think someone must win and someone must lose. But sometimes we just need to understand. We must learn how to have a conversation that doesn’t require confrontation.

That was a valuable insight. It expresses exactly what we need to do now.

There are a number of practical things we can address immediately, such as whether we should concentrate our efforts on providing a single Sunday morning worship service. That might free up time and people for other ways to serve this congregation and the city around us.

We need to settle soon on a youth pastor that is called, equipped, and capable of leading our students and helping the rest of us prepare for the future.

There are dozens of things like this we are very close to figuring out, and need your help to make the final decisions.

However, there are other things that we will discover as we move forward in discernment and conversation. The fire on the first floor must be addressed as we repaint the apartment. But most of us realize that fire exists, and that is a huge step forward.

We will find our way forward if we listen, really listen, to how the Spirit is speaking through each of us. We can learn that from looking deeply at this New Testament story about the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch.

We can learn from the fact that believers in Jerusalem could not imagine at first how people could do things as differently from them as the folks up in Antioch while still claiming fidelity to God. For them, temple attendance, circumcision, avoidance of pork, and the rest of Hebrew culture seemed so deeply connected to faith that spiritual life without them seemed unimaginable. And many of us are not very different from them. For many of us, church involves Sunday School, midweek services, preachers wearing suits – whatever components formed our particular tradition of Christianity. Churches without such things seem empty and even unimaginable.

Like the people of Jerusalem, we must develop different ways to relate. For some of us – and I am one of these – worship without the celebration of the Lord’s Table misses a vital component. I would like to maybe offer a service each week in which Communion is offered. It would not matter at all to me if 30 people attended that service, or 300, or 3,000. However, at the some time, I would be delighted to preach in a more contemporary service or a more charismatic one, a Hispanic one or one created to meet the needs of new immigrants from Bangladesh. We have a lot of space here. If we develop leaders we can trust to care for the congregations that emerge here, I would be delighted if our campus would become filled every weekend with congregations of all sizes and which exist to serve all sorts of needs.

To have such a church, we must learn to tolerate a lot of difference.

Some of us are very Pentecostal. Some of us are not.

Some are quite liturgical. Some of us are not.

Some of us like old songs. Some of us do not.

We have a lot of different views about things like dancing, wine, prophecy, political differences, and many other such things. We must find our unity in those few things that the church has at all times and in all places affirmed necessary to Christian life. The other things we must learn to discuss with civility and grace, just as Paul teaches in Romans 14. Otherwise, we will be a Jerusalem church, where everyone looks like us, thinks and behaves as we do, and conforms to whatever we think is right.

An Antioch church is complicated and challenging. It pushes people to grow, develop and expand. It is not always confortable, but it is always reminding us to study, to interact with the world around us, and to resist the denial of time and culture that can stifle and suppress the human spirit.

I invite you to return tonight. Among other things, we will hear Pastor Bruce Grubbs describe how a number of teams within our congregation are going to be meeting and discerning how our church can move forward in unity and grace in several key areas. The process he will describe will help us walk the road to Antioch, so we can be like Barnabas, who ventured out from the safety and security of his past in search of the work God was doing in this new place.

We have come a pivotal point in our history. I believe we are ready to make some turns that will produce a very great future indeed.

I believe we are ready, and I believe the time is now, to find our own Antioch; a place where the grace and the glory of God becomes visible to a city in great need and to a people who are hungry for a real encounter with the God who has descended to save them from their sin.