Today’s church as relevant as ever

I am pained when I hear people say the church has lost its relevancy in the world because I have never believed that to be true about the church. It wasn’t true in the nascent days of the church, and it isn’t true now.

I will agree that there have been periods in our history where the faithful people of God seem to have lost sight of their mission in the world and to the world. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the 30 Years War and many other examples bear eloquent, if often overlooked, witness to the church’s misplaced and misdirected focus of its calling.

But to say that the church has lost its relevancy in the world ignores too much of the church’s mission and denies the church’s continual call to be “in, but not of” the world.

It isn’t easy to be “in, but not of” the world these days, but I’m not convinced it ever was easy. It is easy to blame others for the church’s perceived failings; it is much harder to bear a faithful witness to the constant challenges the church faces in the world.

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) sends Jesus’ disciples ‘to all nations’ with the good news of the Gospel. I suspect that many of those first hearers were “secularized, unchurched, non-religious” people. Jesus saw nothing wrong in shining the Gospel with those kinds of folk, so I’m not convinced we can ignore them, either. In fact, Jesus was a lot less picky about whom he associated with than the upright, religious people of his own time. More than once he was criticized for sitting with sinners and eating with them. Yet he himself declared, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

So I ask you: where do you look to find the church today – among the righteous or among the sinners over whom the heavens rejoice?

When I was younger, there were many imposing social issues where the church was involved: civil rights, nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, human rights, famine and hunger, and criminal justice, just to name a few.

Unless I am mistaken, all of these problems still are with us. But now, voices that claim to speak for God and God’s people set these real problems aside and declare that the church is irrelevant as they brandish their flags and Bibles and guns.

When a person can bring a loaded and concealed weapon into a house of worship and the church fails to say, “No” to such behavior, how is the gospel served?

The Lord who tells me to “turn the other cheek” is not the Lord who says it’s OK to shoot anyone, or to take out a national leader we don’t like, or to condemn an entire community because evolution is taught in its public schools.

The Lord who tells me to treat others as I would want to be treated cannot be pleased when one of his followers stands ready to burn 3,000 kerosene-soaked copies of the Holy Koran as a sign of our witness to Christianity more than he could be pleased when masked and hooded believers burned crosses to frighten and intimidate others.

Please do not dismiss these examples as rhetorical exaggeration; people who claim to speak for the church have said and done all of these. So if the church appears be have lost its relevancy, perhaps non-believers have watched what some in the church do, assume that these people speak for the entire community of faithful people, and then decide on their own to stay away from the church, and dismiss its message.

As I have said, it isn’t easy to be “in, but not of” the world.

I am even more concerned when the claim is made that the church has “morphed into a faith-based social service agency.” Really? What is wrong with that? I can only ask anyone who would make that claim: have you read the Bible? From the days of Moses, people of faith have been called to care for the poor and needy among them. People who are called to “love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all you mind, and with all your strength” also are called to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Old Testament prophets condemned Hebrew culture when it ignored the needs of the poor and promised God’s judgment upon them. Ruth gleaned in the fields of Boaz, and she was an illegal immigrant! Jesus reminds the church (Matthew 25:31-46) that failure to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned will lead to judgment: “Truly, I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did not do it to me.”

The book of Acts (6:1) notes that the Hellenists protested to the apostles because their widows were discriminated against (in favor of the Hebrew widows) in the daily distribution of food. Paul railed against the Corinthians because they abused the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with gluttony and drunkenness while the hungry among them went without food or drink (1 Corinthians 101:17-22). That sounds like social ministry to me, and it sounds like what the church still is called to do in the world. In fact, that is what the church still is doing.

As an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I serve as full-time chaplain to Buffalo Valley Lutheran Village in Lewisburg, and yes, it is a faith-based social ministry organization. I am privileged every day to work in the home of some of the needy ones in our community – the very ones Jesus calls us to serve. I see dedicated men and women serve the needs of these same people with care and compassion and grace, and I will not stand quietly as this ministry is dismissed or scorned as something less than the call of the gospel.

I also was privileged, less than a month ago, to serve as a voting delegate of the Upper Susquehanna Synod to the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh. During a very busy week, we elected a new presiding bishop, and she told us, “We don’t know what the church is going to look like (in the future,) but if it’s God’s will that there will be evangelical witness to the gospel raised up, we’ll be there.”

That doesn’t sound irrelevant to me. Nor do some of the other actions we took: we approved a social statement addressing the inequities of the criminal justice system in this country; we pledged $19 million every year to combat hunger at home and around the world; we heard good news about our $15 million campaign to help eradicate malaria – we are more than half-way to our goal – and we voted to begin a stewardship campaign to raise nearly $200 million in five years, to develop new ministries, to provide for future leaders, to establish new congregations, to address the needs of youth and young adults, and to provide for the needs of the disabled.

To my way of thinking, none of this sounds like the church has lost its relevancy. It sounds like the church is reaching out to new people in new situations and different circumstances, with the same message we have had from our Lord for 2,000 years: to go and ‘make disciples of all nations,’ baptizing and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded. And as we obey, we do all this with Jesus’ own promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

That doesn’t sound like the church has lost its relevance to me; it sounds like the church still is hard at work in the world – just as Jesus has commanded. I regret that others may see things differently, but this is the church where the work of the Lord is done in the world. I suspect that we are not alone in this work, and I, for one, am ready to welcome anyone who wants to help.