Last week, I talked about how the church, as an institution, seems to have lost its focus and purpose in the world. These days, it is an understatement to say that it’s floundering more than it’s flourishing. The model and structure of the church that baptized and made numerous new disciples of Jesus in the 20th century seems incredibly inept here in the 21st century.
If we want to fulfill the great commission to make new disciples, many believe we must come up with a new model, or new models, new expressions of doing and being the church, the gathered and sent people of God in the world.
I believe that what the institutional church needs more than anything else is a movement of the Holy Spirit. We need the same Spirit that gave birth to the church at Pentecost in the first century to give it a rebirth in the 21st century. That’s right, you heard me, I am saying that I believe the church needs to be born again!
On the day of Pentecost, Peter described the movement of God’s spirit by quoting the prophet Joel:
These are the days God says:
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams (Acts 2:17).
During our graduate recognition service a few weeks ago, I talked about the importance of listening to young people who have essentially given up on the institutional church. I said we need to listen to the visions of these young people who believe the church, in the form that it is in today, is actually doing more harm in the world than good.
But I also believe we need to listen to the dreams of older folks, those who were raised in the 20th century church, introduced to Jesus in the 20th century church, raised their children in the 20th century church, but today are frustrated by the fact that their children have no interest in being a part of it.
Well, it’s Pentecost Sunday, and this old man has a dream!
This old man who has been attending church for nearly 53 years, and has served churches on staff for 33 of those years has a dream! And I believe today, Pentecost Sunday, is the perfect opportunity for this old man to share it.
When I dream about how the church needs to be born again today in order to recover its purpose in the world (which Jesus said was to baptize and to make disciples who follow his teachings), I am constantly drawn to Mark 6:6-13, the account of Jesus sending out his disciples into the world for the very first time—on the first mission trip—to do the very same things in the world that Jesus was doing.
Mark 6:6 reads:
6aAnd he was amazed at their unbelief.
I wonder if Jesus is amazed at our unbelief today. Having been a part of the church my entire life, I know I am often amazed how many in the church today really do not seem to believe that we are called to live, love and serve in the selfless, sacrificial way of Jesus. Many just believe we’re supposed to accept Jesus, receive Jesus, study Jesus, and worship Jesus; not actually follow Jesus.
I wonder if Jesus is amazed by the number of people who believe the Kingdom of God is just some place we go after we die, instead of something we are supposed to work at, to give of ourselves to, to pour ourselves out, to create here on earth.
I wonder if Jesus is amazed every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” and then don’t do a thing to make it happen!
I also wonder if Jesus is amazed at our unbelief in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit—the belief that although we cannot go back to the good old days when our church pews were filled with people, we can be led by the Spirit forward into good new days. We can be led out into the world baptizing and making new disciples, doing more than we ever dreamed we could to bring God’s kingdom to this earth.
I wonder how many people in the church truly believe that our best days of doing church, being church in this world are not behind us, but before us?
6bThen he went about among the villages teaching.
Notice that Jesus never stayed in one place. He was constantly on the move, going from village to village teaching, healing and restoring. He never set up shop in one building, or on a campus with five buildings, and expected people to come to him to get fed, receive a blessing, or be restored. No, he always went out to them to feed, bless and restore. And he expects his disciples to do the very same thing.
7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.
Jesus never intended to be on a mission to transform and save the world by himself. He called and gave authority to disciples to join him. He sent them out doing the very things that he did, some very big things like: challenging the unclean spirits of greed, materialism, poverty, sexism, racism, sickness, exclusion, and oppression. Jesus gave his disciples the power and the authority to change the world!
I wonder how many in the church today, sitting in their half empty sanctuaries, truly believe they have the power and the authority to change the world?
8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.
When Jesus sent his disciples out to be the church in the world, he ordered them to travel light, to keep it simple, and to stick to the basics. Disciples should leave behind all of their baggage: anything that might slow them down, deter their mission, or enable them to get too comfortable in one particular place. Jesus said that if they want to be his disciples in the world, they must leave some things behind.
And notice that Jesus said that they are to take no bread. Could that mean that Jesus wants them to go out and share a meal with others? Could that mean that he wants them to share a table with others, with perhaps strangers, and break bread?
10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’
Jesus said disciples who are sent out to encounter and love the world can expect failure. If disciples are following Jesus, and if they are taking his inclusive and unconditional love and grace out to the people, they will not be received by everyone. But they should never let that discourage or stop them. They should peacefully keep moving and keep doing what they have been called to do.
12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.
Disciples go out and proclaim that all should repent of their selfish, self-centered, self-preserving ways. However, proclaiming such repentance is impossible if the disciples are not first willing to repent of their own misguided ways, ways that are about preserving old structures, old traditions, ways that are solely about serving some institution rather than serving all people.
13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
As I said, disciples have the power to do some pretty big things. They stand up and speak out against evil forces. They restore, and they heal, and they forgive. They are a literal movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.
This is my dream for the church in the 21stcentury. It’s right here in this simple account of Jesus sending the disciples out into the world.
Yes, it’s Pentecost Sunday, and this old man has a dream!
I have a dream – that the church would once again believe that its main and only purpose in this world is to follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to go out into all the world to make, not new church members who want to serve the church, but new disciples who want to follow the selfless way of Jesus to serve a world in need.
Yes, this old man has a dream.
I have a dream – that the church’s annual Mission Trip—you know, the one of which the participants said was the highlight of their year, the very best thing they did all year long through the church— I have a dream that the church’s annual mission trip was not just one week a year but was actually 52 weeks a year! I have a dream that church itself was a Mission Trip!
This old man has a dream – that the church will one day truly leave its buildings to move from place to place, village to village, to teach the selfless, restorative, healing love of God to all people with words and deeds. I have a dream that one day the church will stop talking about getting outside of the walls of the sanctuary and actually get outside of them!
Think of how much better our worship would have been on the Sunday before Memorial Day, if we set up a tent and worshipped near the edge of the rising flood waters. Perhaps had a cook-out after the service, and then helped residents in the area by feeding them lunch and filling sandbags.
This old man has a dream – that the church will one day leave behind all of its baggage—anything that is not about loving this world as Jesus loved it, being people of grace and kindness and mercy and justice, and making new disciples who do the same thing.
I have a dream – that the church will leave behind its love for the nostalgic memory of the way things used to be, its pining to return to the good old days and will get together to dream new dreams and embrace a new vision, and move forward into good new days.
This old man has a dream – that the church will somehow learn to keep the faith simple by sticking to the basics, like simply loving others as Jesus loved others.
This old man has a dream – that the church will be a courageous, risk-taking, peace-making, justice-creating movement that’s never afraid to go to new places, even to those places it is not welcomed.
This old man has a dream – that the church will one day finally repent and change its ways selfish ways that focus on going to heaven, receiving a blessing and being fed, to embrace a selfless way that focuses on being in, blessing and feeding the world.
This old man has a dream – that the church will catch a new vision of how to be church, how to be a mission of selfless love following Jesus wherever he leads.
This old man has a dream – that the church will truly be about baptizing and making new disciples, teaching them to do the things Jesus did, instead of spending all of their energy and time trying to keep its old members happy.
This old man has a dream where the church no longer has any members.
It only has disciples.
This old man has a dream – that the church, the Body of Christ, God’s gathered and sent people, will be born again by the Holy Spirit to be a literal movement for wholeness transforming the world into the Kingdom of God.
Now, do you want to hear the good news?
The good news is that when this old dreamer looks around the room, I have hope that, as a prophet named John Lennon once sang: “I’m not the only one.”