Yr B ~ Easter 5 ~ Acts 8:26-40
Let’s start with some numbers. A recent (2011) National survey (because we don’t do census anymore) had this to say: Out of 33 million Canadians – 22 million are various flavours of Christians – almost 13 million are Catholics – 2 million are United Church – there’s 1.6 million Anglicans and about 1 million Muslims – but the second largest single group after Catholics, at around 8 million strong, are the Nones. No, not the nuns, the Nones! No religion!
There are 4 times as many Nones as there are United Church people – and 16 times as many Nones as there are United Church people who actually go to church – which maybe means the ¾ of Uniteds are actually Nones!
2 out of 3 Canadians identify as some sort of Christian, but almost 25% of Canadians say they have no religion. None.
The Nones are the fastest growing group in Canada. A whole generation or two is now living with virtually no connection to the church – they don’t know who we are, what we do, or why we do it.
The numbers are similar in the United States. Religiously non-affiliated Americans now make up nearly a quarter of the overall population and a full third of Americans under the age of thirty.
I bet you know some of the Nones. I bet you have some Nones in your family. And this is where the conversation gets uncomfortable – because we start to ask ourselves “if I can’t even communicate something this personally important to me to my own family how am I going to engage some None that I barely know?”
Or the even more uncomfortable question: “How did all these people become Nones on our watch?”
And then the really practical questions:
Where do you think our potential members will come from?
Who will you pass the torch of faith on to?
What is the future of the North American mainline Christian church?
We live in what’s called a “post-Christian” age. It means that the assumptions we used to be able to make no longer hold true. When I was a kid the United Church was a dominant force in Canada. When some of you were kids there really weren’t all that many options. You could assume Christianity in the culture, not just in church. Not that we were ever a truly “Christian nation” – even though that’s exactly what the goal was when our denomination was formed.
If you were a None back then you hid it. Now those days are long, long gone and were are Post-Christian.
And yet, spirituality is hot.
The Nones are “no religion” but they are definitely not “no spirituality” – well, some are, but most aren’t. A popular phrase among the Nones now is [S] “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
Now we get to some really intriguing and useful questions for us:
What does it mean to be spiritual but not religious?
Why are they thus?
What is it about churches that these Nones think will inhibit rather than help their spirituality? — Because for us we think this place helps our spirituality! Don’t we?
What are they rejecting? Why are the Nones on the run?
Well, maybe part of the problem is that they’re just generally on the run and they’re trying to cram so many things into their lives and their kid’s lives that they don’t have time to show up here on a Sunday. That may be true, but if church was really scratching their itch they’d find time. They find time for everything else! So it must be something more.
Why are the Nones on the run from the institutional church?
It may be a sense of institutional distrust and that big organizations are not very responsive to individual needs.
It may be a sense that churches all adhere to strict dogma and have rigid belief requirements.
It may be that the Nones have serious theological challenges with what they perceive to be the theology of the church. I know some of you here have serious theological challenges with stuff we do and say, and we’re a remarkably progressive version of church!
For example, I struggled this week with whether I should include verse 5 of the hymn we sang earlier – Tell Me the Stories of Jesus. The lyrics are: “Show me that scene in the garden of bitter pain, and of the cross where my Saviour for me was slain.”
Personally, I need to do some serious theological stick-handling to be able to sing that “for me was slain” part. On the surface it represents a theological doctrine that works powerfully for some and is a non-starter for others.
I think the sense out there is that you have to swallow the whole Christian thing without question or thought – which couldn’t be further from the truth, but that’s still the dominant perception.
If I can’t question and wrestle I can’t be a Christian – and neither could Jesus have said word one about the Judaism he was immersed in! Questioning is required!
And if you like wrestling and questioning stick around for “Stump the Chump” after church today and bring your questions and we’ll have a go at them.
But I think the single biggest piece that’s making the Nones run away from churches is that they think we’re ‘religious but not spiritual!’ I’ve worshipped in a lot of different churches, and I’ve got to confess that for too many churches that critique is true.
We stand in a liturgical tradition that if not done well and with deep spiritual authenticity can become empty rituals without connection to anything transformative and deep.
They say they’re spiritual but not religious, and it’s mostly because they think we’re religious but not spiritual. Obviously I think they’re wrong, at least about Faith United – but we’ll be focusing on that next week.
For now our focus needs to be on what we can do about the context we find ourselves in. Many church thinkers look at our context today – our post-Christian world – and they see that in many ways it’s similar to the pre-Christian world that the first followers of the Way of Jesus faced after his death and resurrection. So that means we can look to scripture for some really practical advice for how to navigate our times. Which brings us to Philip in Acts 8.
First of all, I hope you appreciate how nutty a story this is. It’s really comical.
Philip hears the call of the Holy Spirit and off he goes running after a chariot carrying a high ranking Ethiopian official – the queen’s treasurer – who happened to be a eunuch.
[for those unfamiliar with the term “eunuch” it was a custom in some countries to castrate the royal servants in order to make them more docile and to remove any possibility of “indiscretions” – but in Jewish religious culture that made the person “unclean” and therefore they could never fully participate in Jewish religious life]
Filled with the Spirit, and hopefully a good dose of Gatorade, Philip literally goes bounding up to the eunuch’s chariot and starts running alongside him, and hears him reading from the prophet Isaiah. (well, technically it’s ambiguous at this point whether the chariot is moving, but I think it’s hilarious if it is so that’s the way I read it!)
This Ethiopian was what they called a “God-seeker” – a person who was a foreigner but worshipped the Jewish God – in fact, he was returning home from a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem – although because he was unclean he would’ve been denied entry and would have to stay on the outside.
Are you hearing parallels yet?
All sorts of people out there think that because of who they are, or what they’ve done, or how they think, or who they love that they would not be welcome in a church.
I wish they’d know they’re welcome here!
Back to the story. Boldly, while still running alongside, Philip asks, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” But instead of being insulted or offended or wielding the status or power of his position the eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invites Philip to jump into the chariot and ride along with him. The eunuch reads from Isaiah 53 and then asks the pivotal question, “I ask you, about whom the prophet says this?” Well, about whom? Who are we all about? Jesus.
And now with an invitation Philip shares the love he knows.
That sets the context (theirs, and ours!). In a hostile culture a Christian is led by the Spirit to an outsider who has questions about spirituality or God and is looking for some answers, and invites the Christian to tell the story of Jesus. Of course the outsider doesn’t say, “Hey you, come and tell me about Jesus” because here in our context everybody already has an opinion about Jesus and what they think he means.
Well, actually, to press that further they probably have a fairly positive opinion about Jesus the iconic character and his teachings in general, but they would also likely have a negative opinion about what churches have done with that iconic figure.
And maybe they’re right and we’ve blown it as an institutional entity.
But for me a place like Faith United seems to get it and it seems to work here, and we’re not the only ones by far, so it isn’t that the institutional church is fundamentally flawed but that we frequently screw it up in our execution of it.
The reality is that there’s a great spiritual hunger out there – a thirst for meaning – a desire for enlightenment – and a Spirit-filled follower of the Way of Jesus (like you) who’s ready and willing to share the story of how and why their life is enriched by immersing in Jesus’ way is going to be welcomed by those hungry and thirsty – IF we follow Philip’s lead!
Are we being led by the Spirit and then going off running alongside people in their chariots,
or are we building our own beautiful chariot and waiting for people to come for a ride?
This place, our churches, aren’t supposed to be the destination.
This place is supposed to be a training and workout facility to help get us in shape to lace up our jogging shoes and get out there chasing chariots!
But again, we have to follow Philip’s lead.
My dog goes out chasing cars if she gets out of the house but the person in the car is not very receptive to being chased by a barking, wild-eyed mutt! Would you be?
That’s not what Philip did. Inspired by the Spirit and led by the Spirit Philip encountered a spiritual person, ran alongside them for a while to discern whether or not this seeker was even open to a dialogue, and when an opening presented itself Philip built on the seeker’s spirituality and shared his own experience. And then he waited for the seeker to ask for more.
That is simply not how we’ve been taught to do evangelism.
LOL who am I kidding – we’ve never been taught how to do evangelism!
We’ve only just seen terrible ways to do it by bashing people over the head or threatening them with “turn or burn” so we rejected the whole concept. And look what that’s got us.
Philip’s interaction with the Eunuch is a masterclass in evangelism for us today!
How do we chase the chariots of today?
Look at the steps – listen for the Spirit – be led by the Spirit – engage someone hungry (already seeking and asking questions) – poke at the questioner a bit to pique their interest (do you understand what your reading means?) – listen to their story and hear about their spirituality – then be ready to tell the story of Jesus and what it means to you personally – hopefully the story will captivate the listener – and we may very well welcome a new friend.
The key features are to be willing to run alongside them,
to be willing to listen first and validate the person’s spiritual experience,
and then when invited to be ready to share your own spiritual experience of journeying ever deeper into the way of Jesus.
And if they resonate maybe they’ll come along with us.
And if they don’t you’ve just shared a lovely dialogue with someone affirming their journey and wishing them shalom.
If we aren’t rooted in an authentic, transformative spiritual experience for ourselves then we’ll never have anything to say to those Nones on the run. If someone has a hunger and a thirst they’ll want to know what helped you feed your hunger and slake your thirst. That’s what Philip did.
That’s what the Nones are searching for, they just don’t think they’ll find it here.
I think they’re mistaken.
Philip shows us how to approach Nones on the run.
Our task is to lace up and get chasing chariots.
It’s what we’re in training for!