Yr B ~ Epiphany 3 – 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Look around you. Needless to say, this ain’t 1965 anymore. 1965 was when the United Church was at its highest membership. What happened? What momentous event occurred in 1965 that signalled the decline of our numbers ever since? Well, that was the year I was born – but I don’t think I was the cause!
There are a million theories and opinions about what has happened to churches since the 60s. And it isn’t just us. All mainline churches – United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist – all have seen the same decline. How do we fix it? Well, our more conservative and evangelical sister denominations seemed to be doing better so many of us tried to copy them. The thing is, the trend that hit the mainline in the last 40 years has now hit the evangelicals and they’re shrinking too. So copying them isn’t the answer.
Why is this happening? Has church really become irrelevant? Has our time really come and gone? Well, yes and no. The truth is this is the way it’s always been. Churches come and go. Times change. The way we do things evolves. And then again, not.
If you were to get in a time machine and travel back to the 2nd century what do you think a church gathering would look like? No organ, no guitars, no stained glass windows, no elaborate buildings. So it would look really different – and yet – I think it would be familiar too.
They would gather together in close community.
They would sing or chant hymns of faith.
They would hear scripture read and reflected on by someone.
They would share in bread and wine.
They would pray together.
And while together they would organize how to care for one another beyond the gathering.
In fact, that’s pretty much what every spiritually based group does, in one form or another, in every religious denomination. People gather together to share their spiritual experience and their lives and the gathering is shaped by certain rituals. Lots of things change and evolve, but the very core elements are the same. Church is completely different than how it used to be, and it’s exactly the same!
Think about the context that Paul was writing in. The church in Corinth was trying to figure out how to live faithfully in the midst of a hostile empire, and Paul wrote the letter because they were screwing it up. But there’s something else. There’s an incredible urgency in Paul’s tone. He’s really concerned that they get this right. Why? Because he thought the end of the world was coming. He thought that Jesus was going to literally, physically return any minute now and everyone needed to be ready.
He was wrong.
It’s ok to say that.
Paul was a brilliant and inspiring theologian and church leader. His words and ideas still pop two thousand years after he wrote them despite us being a ridiculously different culture than anything he could’ve imagined. But his words don’t apply to us literally all the time. He got stuff wrong. The world didn’t end on his watch. (or did it? – we’ll come back to that.)
So when we read Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 we raise our eyebrows, cock our heads to the side and go “Huh?” He tells the Corinthians to behave as if not… Have a wife? – behave as if you didn’t. Mourning or rejoicing? Behave as if you weren’t. Buying and selling possessions? Behave as if you don’t have any.
Why? Why on earth would he say these weird things?
Aren’t loving relationships our most important thing?
Aren’t emotions like mourning and rejoicing what make us human?
He may have had a point about the consumerism thing, but the other ones he’s right out to lunch about. So why is he saying this, and what the heck are we supposed to do with it?
I think it’s about attachments. Paul was so convinced that Jesus was coming any minute now that any attachments they had would be distractions from their focus on being ready for Jesus to come. He wasn’t telling people to go and be promiscuous, or to walk through life like an emotionless robot with no possessions – he was telling them to behave like there was no tomorrow.
People have been making this same mistake for centuries. Some whacko draws a group of followers and they become convinced that the world is ending on a certain date. Even non-religious people fall victim to this. Do you remember how the world was going to end in December 2012 because of the Mayan calendar? That wasn’t church people – that was “regular” people. I’m pretty sure they were mistaken!
So, do we ignore Paul as a crackpot and dismiss what he’s saying? No! We look deeper into it and realize that he was absolutely right! (don’t worry, I’m not starting a cult!)
Paul said they needed to do all that stuff because the time had grown short. But it wasn’t chronological time (that’s chronos in Greek). The word he used was kairos. Kairos time is special time, a significant time, like a spiritual season or era. So he was really saying that spiritually ‘the times they were a-changing’ and something new was coming. And while he meant it literally we can read it metaphorically.
He said they needed to do those things because: 1 Corinthians 7:31b – …the present form of this world is passing away.
The present form of this world. The word form here means fashion, or habit, or style. The Greek word is schema where we get our word scheme or schematic. So even for Paul it wasn’t that the earth was going to explode, it was that the way things had been were not going to continue – something new was about to happen.
Isn’t that exactly how it feels now, for us, today? Doesn’t it seem like we’re in the midst of great change in the world? That the fashion of the world is passing away and something new is coming?
And it’s not just in church. The environment, climate change, economic unrest, terrorism, diseases, it’s easy to draw parallels.
Or think of things culturally. Equal rights for women, for minorities, mixed race marriage, mixed religion marriages, same gender marriages – all these things have emerged in the last few decades. The present form of this world is passing away.
Maybe if I say it slightly differently it’ll help. How about this?
For the present form of the way we’ve understood this world is passing away.
For the last few centuries we’ve been in something they’ve named the ‘modern’ period where scientific, factual, rationalistic knowing has been considered the highest form of truth.
Well, what if the way we’ve understood this world is passing away?
What if the emerging era is about different kinds of truth and meaning?
What if metaphors, and poetry, and spirituality are emerging as the highest form of truth? That sounds pretty good to me!
But does that mean that we chuck science out? Absolutely not! It means we build on it and learn from it and go beyond it to even more wonderful knowing. This is one of the main features of the way I do theology. I try to take us beyond the literal words printed in our scriptures and dive deeply into them to bring forth their fuller and more life-giving meaning. It’s not a rejection of what was; it’s a transformation – or if you like scientific terms, an evolution.
For the present form of the way we’ve understood this faith is passing away.
For the present form of the way we’ve understood this church is passing away.
And like Paul, I’d say, “Don’t cling too tightly to what was. Don’t be so attached to your theological attachments that you might miss out on what’s coming next – because what’s next promises to be even better, and richer, and fuller, and deeper, and more wondrous!”
We all have what is called an embedded theology. It’s the ways we’ve understood certain concepts, or interpretations of the bible, or how we’ve done faith before. Some of our embedded theologies are wonderful. And some aren’t very helpful at all. The trick is to discern which is which. And the problem is that they’re buried pretty deep so as you’re exposing them and wrestling with them it can be really painful and disorienting. Change sometimes hurts. You can’t be transformed and stay the same.
Ok. I imagine some of you are getting nervous right now wondering where I’m going with this. And the angel said, “Do not be afraid!”
I’m asking you to take a risk here and try to catch a fresh perspective on this whole faith and church thing. I want us to embrace a new way of seeing. Some of you, many of you, already can see it – and for some it’ll seem scary.
Let me make you a promise. I absolutely promise that with whatever I suggest and whatever I try to nudge you toward that this, this Sunday morning experience, this beautiful thing that we’ve all nurtured and grown together, is not going anywhere. It will continue to naturally grow and evolve like it has over the past 18 years that Faith United has been in existence, but I have absolutely no intention whatsoever of drastically changing ‘this.’
However, the present form of the way we’ve understood this church is passing away.
I want to introduce you to a concept that we’re going to be thinking about this whole year, and beyond. We’ve spent the last few years doing needs assessments and figuring out how to better support and nurture people who are already here, and that’s great. Now I’d like us to spend a few seasons figuring out how to reach people who aren’t here.
I’d like to introduce you to Faith 2.0. The 2.0 idea started, I think, in technology. When a new technology, like a software program, comes into being it usually gets named ‘version 1.0’. Then, as the designers learn things from using it they release new and improved versions – 1.4, 1.5, 1.6 etc. When they finally get to a point that they’ve achieved a significant change or a whole new way to do things they put out version 2.0. Now, 1.0 is still in there. 2.0 is entirely built on 1.0, but it has evolved.
Several years ago, as the internet was really starting to expand and ‘everyone’ was now using it, some people started to explore ways that they could have a richer internet experience. What eventually emerged was a concept called ‘Web 2.0’ – not just a piece of software improving, but a whole philosophical concept evolving – a new way to understand and experience the internet.
In the early years the web was static. You’d surf to a site, read or watch the content, maybe leave a comment, and go on your way. That’s web 1.0 and it’s still perfectly legitimate and useful.
But, people wanted more. They wanted more interaction. They wanted the ability to contribute their own content to the sites. They wanted to socially interact with other users. And so Web 2.0 was born. Our church website is pretty good, but it’s definitely a 1.0 era website. Facebook, on the other hand, as the most popular example, is what 2.0 looks like.
I know not everyone will get this metaphor – especially if you don’t use computers a lot – but that’s kind of the point. It isn’t absolute – there are older people who are wired in and younger people who are not – but generally speaking, generally speaking, younger people have a decidedly different worldview than older people – and it’s most prominently revealed in technology. And guess where the dividing line is? Yup, 1965!
People my age and younger – and especially younger – can’t imagine life without our cell phones. Our worlds are inextricably intertwined with our technology. I was at a presbytery meeting last week and I tweeted out a prayer of thanksgiving for churches that have non-password protected Wi-Fi. If you don’t understand what that means or why that’s valuable, you’re in the other group! And that’s ok, but it reveals that there IS another group!
Church culture experts tell us that we’re living in a new world and if you don’t know how to speak TGIF you won’t be able to communicate with the technology generations. What’s TGIF? Not thank God it’s Friday – TGIF means Twitter, Google, Instragram, Facebook.
For the present form of the way we’ve understood this world is passing away.
Let me say it again. I’m not suggesting that we stop doing this Sunday morning stuff or the other great things we do. We need the strength of the 1.0 world to build on. But I AM suggesting that we need to learn how to be a 2.0 church. I’m going to talk a lot more about what that might look like next week, but for now, I’d like to ask you to do something.
We have free, open Wi-Fi here. Take out your phone and either send a tweet or do a Facebook check-in to say that you’re here at Faith United today. Maybe you might add a sentence about what we’ve been talking about and what you think about it.
Now, for those who don’t have their phone out right now, do you see what we’re doing? While sitting here we’re communicating a faith experience to everyone who follows us or is a Facebook friend. Younger generations today have hundreds of friends on social media. So with one post, one tweet, one touch of the screen, they are communicating a positive experience of Faith United Church to hundreds of people. Can you see how powerful that is! For those without phones right now, will you talk to hundreds of people about church today?
Now, the 2.0 part is what we have to follow up with, and the magic phrase you’re going to hear me say over and over again is “alternate delivery system”.
We do great stuff here – worship, bible study, learning programs, supportive relationships, serving the community – but you have to be here at a certain time in order to plug into them. Faith 2.0 would be all about alternate delivery systems. Maybe live-streaming our worship service on the web – having short videos of things we’ve done on our Facebook page – live-tweeting worship for those who can’t be here – web-based learning times – social media organizing for events – an alternative worship time.
Nothing can replace live, in-person relationship building. It always has been and always will be our core practice – on Sunday mornings at 10:30 – for those who can make that work. But what if you can’t?
If we don’t find excellent alternate delivery systems for a couple of generations who live in a 2.0 world then we won’t ever get the chance to build relationships with them – because they’ll never hear us – [hold up phone] because we aren’t speaking their language.
Friends, the present form of the way we’ve understood this world, this church, this faith is passing away.
The really exciting part is… what’s next? Welcome to Faith 2.0.