In case you missed it, the sky is falling. Perhaps you saw the news and social media this week about a new release from the Pew Research Center. It records the ways that Americans mark their religious preference or affiliation, and the report this week shows that fewer and fewer Americans affiliate as Christian. The Pew researchers break down the results by denomination:
Evangelical Protestants have lost 1% of those who affiliate…in just the last seven years.
Catholics have lost 3% in the same time frame
Mainline Protestants have lost 3.4%
And the result is that social media has exploded this week with interpretations and explanations.
The conservatives have claimed that it is evidence that they are have been right all along. They claim it is proof that people want a more conservative church, numerically because they have lost less affiliations than more liberal denominations. Clearly, that means that we should all be more conservative.
Meanwhile, the liberals have claimed that it is evidence that they have been right all along. They claim that conservatives spend vast amounts of money on evangelism, tend to live in areas of the country where church attendance is more culturally expected, and tend to have more children which should grow the ranks of the church. Yet, they are still losing members, many citing conservative stances on issues like homosexuality and abortion that are driving them out. Clearly, that means that we should all be more liberal.
Meanwhile, the emergent types have claimed that it is evidence that they have been right all along. Those who claim that the church is changing and we need to get on board claim that unless we do something different, reinvent ourselves, change our worship, and remake the church, we are going to die the death of irrelevance. Clearly, that means that we should all be more emergent.
Meanwhile – and this is good news for those of us in this room – American Baptists have claimed that it is evidence that we have been right all along. After all, American Baptists were one of the few denominations to actually gain members over the course of the last seven years. We increased our membership by .3 percent, which compared to the hemorrhaging of other denominations, we look pretty good. Clearly, that means that we should all be American Baptist!
Meanwhile, the atheists have claimed that it is evidence that they have been right all along. The percentage of people who claim that they are atheist, or those who claim “none” when asked to name a religious affiliation, has risen the highest percentage over the last seven years.
Clearly, all of this means that means that we should all be more conservative, more liberal, more emergent, more American-Baptisty Christians. Or atheists. Sigh.
Has anyone else stopped caring at this point? Or if not stopped caring, has anyone else at least numbed themselves like I have to this “sky is falling” mentality that reacts and overreacts every time that a new study comes out? It seems that whenever a new study comes out, everyone claims that they should keep doing what they have been doing and everyone else should change to their way of doing things.
Of course, we cannot completely ignore these studies. They help us to see that the religious landscape is indeed changing, and that we do need to change and adapt. This report should help us be better listeners and learners, more thoughtful about the sometimes exclusive ways that we talk about membership and belonging, and more intentional about building relationship and community.
But, it should also make us return to our identity, and not run away from it. We cannot assume anymore that the culture knows our faith, and I think that we have to be clearer and more thoughtful about what we believe. Who we are.
In fact, as we gather this Sunday around the story of the Ascension, perhaps we should focus less time and energy on the empty space in our pews, and more focus time and energy on the empty space in Bethany. Let me explain.
When we read of the Ascension, the part of the story that gets the most press is this magical moment in which Jesus rises up into the sky, with the disciples staring with their mouths open. But the reality is that even in the ten verses in the passage about the Ascension, one half of one verse is about Jesus’ rise into the sky. The rest of the passage is about what the disciples are doing and what they are supposed to do next. Count the verbs in the passage. Look at all the things that the disciples do in these ten verses, or are commanded by Jesus to do afterwards:
Open their minds
Understand the scriptures
Proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins
Witness to what you have seen
Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power
They worshipped him
They returned with great joy
They blessed God in the temple continually
This is a to-do list. A list of action items from Jesus.
Perhaps you can imagine what it was like for the disciples in that moment. How easy would it have been for them to fall into a “sky is falling” mentality? They had given up everything to follow Jesus, lost him once, and now were getting ready to lose him again. But this time, he was leaving as the triumphant conqueror of death, and this time he was leaving them a mission to fulfill.
David Cunningham says that that is the most significant message of the Ascension. He suggests that the Ascension is “concerned with the divine act of making space so that the mission of the church can begin. So long as God was in the world in human form, all eyes and hearts were fixed there. Jesus’ ascension makes space for the disciples to turn their gaze upon the world…”
I imagine the experience of the disciples might have been a lot like the experience of the 16 year old who is given permission for the first time to drive the car by herself. Mom and dad give her the trust to throw her the keys and she gets in the car, where there is this moment. There is no parent in the seat next to her. No drivers ed coach. No manual to read while driving down the road. There is simply empty space. Perhaps her first response is to panic a little. But, before long, she will recognize that she knows what to do. Her teaching and learning has been internalized. So in that empty space moment, what does she do? Hopefully, she goes through the to-do list. Seat belt buckled. Mirrors adjusted. Phone in the console. Keys in the ignition. Hands at ten and two. Check the street for cars. And go.
For the disciples, they surely had to pause – maybe even panic a bit – for a moment, to see that Jesus wasn’t going to be there anymore, but that he had left in order to make space for their mission and the accomplishment of their purpose. But they weren’t really alone. They had the teachings of Scripture. They had one another. And they had been promised the key in the ignition that would be the power of the Holy Spirit. So, hands and ten and two, they pulled out into the street.
Pretty easily, the disciples could have fallen into a “sky is falling” mentality, but they didn’t. They took Jesus’ to-do list and, well, they did it. They opened their minds, understood, proclaimed, witnessed, stayed, worshipped, returned, and blessed God continually. For them, it was less about the way that Jesus left, and more about what he left behind for them to do.
And that is the message of the Ascension for us today, I believe. There is plenty of hand-wringing today and there will be in the days to come. We will continue to be anxious that the church does not hold the place that it once did before. We will grieve that which we don’t have any more, and yearn for the good old days, when everything seemed easier (or at least we remember it that way).
But when it comes down to it, Jesus has ascended in order to make space for us to be church. We have long ago received the power of the Holy Spirit into our Church and into our minds and hearts. And so, we are left with the challenge that Phillip Yancey gives us in his new book Vanishing Grace: “be the Jesus left behind.” In the space left by Jesus, we become his hands and feet on earth.
And so, like the disciples that clear afternoon in Bethany, like the new driver behind the wheel for the first time by herself, we are called to go through the checklist:
Are our hearts opened to the Scriptures? Are they the words that guide and move us? I don’t believe that they are the only words that should have an impact on our lives, but they have precedence over the latest Pew study, or Barna article, or Rachel Held Evans blog, or posting from some grumpy millennial explaining why he left the church. We can read these through the lens of Scripture and be transformed. Again and again in chapter 24, Jesus opened the Scriptures to his followers: as the travelers paused on the road to Emmaus, with his disciples as he prepared to leave them. And they became the guiding force for them to understand what was happening around them and what was to come. When we crack open this book and share it in study, in worship, in personal devotion, we begin to understand in new ways what God is doing.
Are we proclaiming forgiveness and witnessing to what we have seen? My biggest concern using the checklist metaphor was that it can sound like if we don’t do all of these things, God won’t love you any more. But Jesus emphasized that his message was one of forgiveness and grace. Jesus has given us a checklist, but we also have a God that forgives us when we fail to do something right. For those of us who tend to struggle with perfectionism and derive a largely unhealthy glee by checking every item off of our to-do list, we must remember that Jesus told us that forgiveness is the first item on the list. Proclaiming the joy of reconciliation with God and with others is why we are here. Sharing the story of grace and witnessing to the love we have experienced – that is our goal.
Are we staying in the city? It is interesting that Jesus commands them to stay in Jerusalem. The most obvious reason is that he wanted them to remain where they were so that the Holy Spirit could come. But there is more to his command, I’d like to think. Jesus’ ministry was one of locality. He began in Galilee, in a bunch of Podunk towns that no one had heard of. He began in his own neighborhood. And so his command to stay in Jerusalem was perhaps intentional. There is a time and a place for global missions, and for sending missionaries across the world. But I find it significant that in that moment Jesus told his disciples to stay in the city. There is a time to stay where we are – what we know – and grow to understand it better before we move out and away. Are we looking to see how the Holy Spirit comes to us in our context, instead of craning our necks to see what everyone else is doing?
While we are on the topic, how are you doing on your homework? A few weeks ago, I told you to start to pay attention to your 3422 – the neighborhood that surrounds our church – and ask how we are acting as good neighbors and how we could be better. Have you taken a different route to church and paid attention to what you saw? Have you driven or walked through the neighborhood, praying for the residents and businesses as you went? I did it yesterday again – and got lost in the neighborhoods east of Lawrence Avenue again – but drove through and prayed through neighborhood that I had never seen before, less than a mile from where I live and work. What might Jesus’ words mean to us today: “stay in the city.”
Finally, are we worshipping God, and blessing God continually? Christ’s Ascension did not mean that we quit talking about Christ. In fact, our community worship and lifestyle of worship are ways to talk about Christ more intentionally and continually. Whether it is in the sanctuary, or on the back deck with the birds, or on that prayer walk or run through the streets of your city, we are invited to worship God and bless God continually.
In case you missed it, the sky is not falling. If you look closely, you might catch a glimpse of Jesus on the way up. But what is more important is what he left us behind, and the instructions he left for us. So, instead of trying to be more conservative or more liberal or more emergent or more…whatever, let us be who we are and who God has called us to be:
• Creative and flexible and responsive to the Spirit as we work together.
• Open to God’s remaking and reinventing of who we are, as a church and as individuals.
• A people who welcome, worship, work, and wonder on the corner of 14th and Kasold.
• And a church faithful to God’s Word in the midst of this liminal moment, flourishing in the midst of change and transition, allowing ourselves to be “the Jesus left behind.”