When we consider the future of the church from God’s perspective, we are considering the subject from the perspective of vocation. Given the conditions of the church, the nature of humanity in general, and the active presence of the Spirit in the world, what is the nature of God’s call for the church and those within it. Since God calls a people as well as individuals, let us begin by thinking of the church as a corporate body.
From a biblical perspective, God’s call in the formation of Israel or the church was never based on the capacity of a group of humans to achieve perfection. From the beginning those involved demonstrated both ethical lapses and theological misunderstanding. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 4:7 ff “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to god and does not come from us.” This same Paul continued to strive for both ethical and theological maturity and was not adverse to strategies by which the church grew, but the key was that this was God’s doing, not a clever human plan.
So begin with your church. What does it mean that your church, with all its strengths and weaknesses, is called by God? Whether it is wildly successful in attracting new members or barely surviving with a declining membership, what is God’s call for them? Whether it is boldly courageous in standing for justice and mercy or timidly anxious that it might offend people, if God is starting where they are, what is God’s call at this moment in their lives?
As a way to deepen your reflection, try writing ten statements about the future of your church from God’s perspective. How is God’s power made perfect in weakness and how does grace shine through in the ordinary humanity of your church? What is God’s calling for your church?
When you are debating the future of the church, it makes a significant difference the perspective from which you come. If you are focused on how too attract more people to the church, then the issue is marketability. What are the activities that appeal to those who are not yet a part of the church. If you are focused on the purity of the church, then the issue is how we cleanse the church of those behaviors or people who pollute the church. If the issue is the ethical behavior of the church, then we seek to get the church to both behave and advocate for that which is righteous.
Are your thoughts about the future of the church based on marketability, doctrinal purity, or ethical behavior. All of these approaches are based on decisions that we as humans can make and actions that we can take. These are also the foundation for much of the debate that takes place in the church and the factors that lead to divisions within the church. None of them should be dismissed lightly because they all raise significant concerns.
However, a fourth perspective, which alters significantly the way we respond, is the vocational concern. What is God’s calling for the church and the people within it. The vast majority of the Scripture tells the story of God’s people that begins with God’s call that resulted in God’s covenant with a people. Sometimes the Scriptures celebrate the influx of new believers, which would appeal to the marketing factor. For example, Acts 2:41, “So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.” There is nothing wrong with adding new members to the church. Sometimes the focus is on theological lapses such as the debate between Elijah and the priest of Baal, 1 Kings 18:20ff. At still other times, the issue is ethical. Recall some of Paul’s struggles with ethical lapses within the church, such as in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. The people of God have never been sustained by their perfectibility and always because it was God who formed them.
Over the next few days I want to raise the issue of vocation as a key focus for our reflection on the future of the church.
Paul’s advice to not let the sun go down on our anger confronts the danger of nurturing anger within us until it becomes destructive. When you experience anger, following Paul’s advice, it is important to act in a way that can resolve it. When you act to resolve feelings of anger, you are retaining your power over the anger rather than allowing it to dominate your personhood.
An important first step is to own your power over your emotions. Victor Frankel reminds us, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that the last and most precious freedom that we have is the power to choose our response to whatever is happening to us. Writing from a Nazi concentration camp, he suggested that the Nazi guards could act in hateful and cruel ways but the power they could never acquire over him was the power to choose how he was going to respond. He could choose to hate them, feel pity for them, laugh at them, or even have compassion for the way that hatred had distorted their personality. That freedom to choose his response gave him dignity in a very dehumanizing situation.
Two days ago I asked you to make a quick list of ten things, people, or conditions that generated anger within you. Now look at that list. Taking them one at a time, first consider what alternative emotional responses you could choose rather than anger. You may not want to choose another response, but you have the freedom to do so.
Having taken control of your capacity to choose, I want to suggest a further step. If the Spirit of God is present in your life, how might you choose to respond in a manner that holds the possibility of building up the community rather than further isolating you within it. Anger has frequently become the generating force that has resulted in transforming actions. A mother’s anger at the fact that her daughter was killed by a drunk driver, resulted in the formation of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers that has saved countless lives. Don’t overwhelm yourself, but pick one of two from your list and consider how you might allow your anger to move you in a redemptive directions. Even as you do that, I think that you will discover that anger has become less destructive in your own life.
A major reality that we have to confront in what we might call an age of anger is the fact that anger often hurts the person who is angry more than the person or situation that is the object of their anger. While it is true that occasionally an angry person will erupt in violence or otherwise express their anger in ways that harm others, for the most part unresolved anger hurts the person who is feeling it. When Paul says, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” Eph. 4:26, he is offering some good advice for one’s personal mental health as well as speaking a truth for the community.
One of the criteria that Paul insists on for measuring action is only doing or saying that which builds up the community. This is a practical expansion of Jesus central teaching that all the rules of life can be summed up in loving God and loving neighbor. Anger that we hold on to tends to isolate us from both God and neighbor. You might share with God an anger concerning conditions or actions that hurt others, but the objective of God’s anger is always towards redemption. Being angry at conditions that cause little children to starve, for example, only has value if it moves towards those children getting fed. To truly love God requires us to love those who God loves, and that includes the sinners that rebel against God. Paul is an obvious example. He, by his actions, had become an enemy of God but God’s action was towards redeeming Paul so that he might become God’s instrument for advancing the church.
While, in most cases, you don’t have the power to change evil people into good people, holding on to that anger only permits them to have power over you and “makes room for the devil.” So tomorrow let us look at the strategies by which you might redirect the energy generated by anger towards attitudes, actions, etc that are less harmful to you the believer.
Polls show that Americans are deeply affected by anger. Fifty-six percent are so angry that it disturbs their sleep. I recently talked to a pastor who was so angry at his denomination that he was thinking about leaving the ministry. When I made him promise that he would have lunch with me and talk about it before he wrote his letter of resignation, he said with a sly grin, “OK, I will call you for lunch before I do two things — write a letter of resignation or curse someone out.”
“Be angry” Paul says, “but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Eph 4:26 RSV)” Anger is not something new to our society but its pervasiveness is deeply troubling our society and our churches. Our ability to deal with our anger “before the sun goes down,” does not seem to be our current society’s mode of operation. Rather we seem to hold on to our anger, nurture it, and allow it to explode in most unproductive ways.
We will deal with this more in the next few days but for now, I would ask you to take a piece of paper and note quickly and without censorship ten things, causes, or realities that are generating anger within you. The very naming of them will have some value. Now, consider, if you were going to respond to these situations in some manner that allowed you to not let anger harm you, how might you respond before the sun goes down?
Further, consider where the Spirit of God is in your choice of response. Anger in itself is not wrong but divorcing it from our spiritual journey is robbing us of a significant opportunity for growth.