Willow Creek’s Meeting for Worship was again canceled over concerns for traveling safety. This was the thought that I would have shared.
1 Corinthians 1:1–9 (NRSV)
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
For many in our society there is power in trends. They look at the trends in statistical analysis and they adjust their thinking around them. One could make the case that during the presidential election the statistical analysis was so accurate that many people decided to stay home instead of voting, in key states. The reason behind this phenomenon was that they did not need to take the time out of their day when the candidate with the greater majority was supposed win handedly. The reality is that statistics only measure trends, they only give a picture of reality and as with any picture there is more than meet the eye.
One trend that people speak about a great deal is the trend of church attendance. Nearly every publication has mentioned that churches across the country are losing members and that the next generation is becoming more nonreligious. This trend is one that can cause alarm. Yes this is a statistical trend that takes a picture of something within the portion of our society known as the church, but is this the reality? I do not think so in the slightest.
What the statistical analysis is measuring is something purely human. Attendance is down. When attendance is down many believe that the church is dying. The reality is that attendance of worship services is only one picture, there are factors that influence this statistic. This statistic really shows something else entirely. Our culture has shifted.
The fact that the culture shifted and that because of it church attendance has dwindled tells us something. Namely that the church had stopped teaching and living the gospel. The church has stopped requiring the living a godly life and has gladly accepted a nominal religious identity that does not translate into true life change. As a result when a generation comes that values authenticity of life and they do not believe what the church speaks they leave.
Those that fully reject God say this is a sign that religion is dead, but this is far from the truth. The church is probably stronger today than it has been for generations. How can I say that? I say that because we have a generation that does not seek to only speak, but a generation that seeks to live. The church, that followers of Christ will follow even if the culture rejects them.
I speak of this shift because in many ways the culture of Corinth in the first century has aspects that are reflected in that of ours. Corinth is a port town that is filled with various forms of entertainment, athletics, and religious participation. They had even made their religious activities correspond and support the other various entertainments in their culture. Sailors and traders would come into town after extended struggles in the Mediterranean to have their ships transported over the narrow strip of land to the other side because the seas in that area were treacherous and it was safer to unload the ship and transport the goods and the boat over land than to sail around the peninsula. The community played to these people, their religious observances focused on bringing safety and comfort to the sailors, and to ensure maximum participation in the observances they would have certain comforts that could be experienced for an appropriate donation. When they weren’t being religious they would like to pass the time by watching fights and other games in the arena. The culture revolved around entertainment, sensuality, and distraction. Corinth was in many ways the mecca of sensuality of the ancient world, like Bangkok, Las Vegas, or Amsterdam have the reputation of being today.
The culture was focused on the sensual; the desires and lusts of the flesh in many forms. It was a culture that was built on financial, spiritual, and sexual exploitation. Right in the middle of it all was an assembly of disciples who walked in the ways of Christ and not that of the pagans. I want us to just imagine the struggle that these people would have had. Many of the struggles we face today are similar. We have corporations around the world who seek locations where they can exploit their workers, making them virtual slaves where they are barely able to survive; they can afford to work and cannot afford to leave, living in poverty. At every college campus, there are predators roaming the lanes finding financially struggling students who they can convince to sell their bodies for money. True they can make a great deal of money but the emotional exploitation and abuse they endure lead the vast majority of these students into drug abuse, and many lose their self-worth cause many to find comfort in suicide. Most of these women though they may have earned money while they were young, live the rest of their lives in financial and emotional poverty. Then there are the athletes who sell their bodies to a game, trading all that they have for fame and fortune.
We live in a culture where entertainers are given more respect than educators, where a beautiful face and perfect body are given greater honor than character, where the ability to run and tackle are worth more than the ability to defuse a potentially threatening situation. This is our culture both inside and outside the church and we wonder why people leave the church.
Paul says to the people of Corinth, grace and peace to you. I wonder about this. You see in a world of exploitation grace is not something that occurs. Exploitation is the opposite of grace because in a world of exploitation the only thing that matters is yourself. As long as “I” get what “I” want, everyone else be damned. But grace is different. Grace is freely offering to someone else a kindness, for no other reason than because they are there. The do not deserve the kindness, they have not earned it, it is the antithesis of exploitation. To live by grace is to live in such a way as to be a blessing to others. Instead of “I” being our focus it instead becomes “Us” the relationship and the cooperative nature of a relationship becomes the driving force of life. I offer kindness to you even though you may not deserve it so that we can both live. Peace goes along with grace because peace can only occur when one side of an argument steps down and decides not to continue to fight. Peace is grace, it is where one side of the argument decides to lay down the weapons and decides to proceed without conflict. There is not peace in our culture. We are in a constant state of conflict, my entire lifetime our nation has been in conflict somewhere in the world. Most people have just given up on peace and have come to accept that violence is the only method of resolving our differences. It occurs in the streets of our cities and in the nations around the world.
As followers of Christ our focus should be on a different type of lifestyle. The lifestyle of Christ not of the world around us. In Christ’s kingdom grace and peace are the norm not the exception. The people of Corinth lived in a community that opposed very standards of Jesus’ holy lifestyle, yet they lived in grace and peace. This should cause us to pause for a moment and contemplate. These people lived in a culture that was antichrist yet they lived victoriously and the influence of Christ spread throughout the community. How can that be?
When our lifestyles turn from a self-centered focus to one that is more concerned with the mutual profit of a community something happens. When we use our talents and abilities to bring blessing and encouragement to others it is difficult to oppose. Many will say that this is socialism and will not work. I disagree, the holy lifestyle of Christ is one that is based on living a life of contentment. Paul says in his letters that he is content with plenty and in need, meaning he is living a sustainable lifestyle no matter the conditions. He lives this because to life is Christ and to die is gain as he wrote to the Philippian believers. When our lifestyle takes on the rhythm of worship, prayer and service to others we are not concerned with the same things that the world is concerned with. Our success is not determined by the same standards. Instead when we have plenty we share, when have little we realize that there are others that are also struggling so we do all we can to help even through the crisis.
Paul tell the people of Corinth that they have grown in speech and knowledge as well as having their testimony strengthened. These are profound statements. The first, that their knowledge and speech have been enriched means that they have taken on the disciplines of Christ. They have made it their custom to worship, this simply means that they have gathered together to be encouraged through praise and conversation, as well as having been feed by the spiritual food of scripture. But that is only one third of the life of devotion. The second aspect of Christ’s holy lifestyle is withdrawing often to the isolated places to pray. This is the area of discipline that I have found the most difficult and rewarding. Prayer is not just speaking our needs to God and hoping that he will grant our wishes. Prayer is a conversation with God. We participate in a lifestyle of prayer when we read scripture and sit to think about what they are saying to us. We participate in a lifestyle of prayer when we are listen, without speaking, to what is around us. Music can be a language of prayer, at times writing can as well. To live a life of prayer is to open ourselves up and listen for the voice of God. The early Friends established within their Meetings of Worship silence. This silence corporately encourages those in attendance to learn the discipline of prayer. It allows the scripture to speak to us so that we can then use those words to encourage others. It allows us time to release the burdens of our hearts from our grip so that they will no longer keep us from grasping the future God would lead us to. It gives us the opportunity to allow God to lead and teach us. The people of Corinth have shown to the world around them that they have grown in these areas. They have been seeking the Lord in prayer, and have been gathering together to worship and because of this they have more knowledge of the ways of God and can speak these things when the situation requires them to speak. But that is just two thirds of the holy lifestyle of Christ, the last part is included in the second statement that Paul gives, “just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you.”
The word testimony simply means witness. It is communicating and demonstrating what we believe or have observed. In the holy lifestyle of Christ that I speak often about this explained by living the love of Christ with others. It is putting into action the things that we have learned through worship and prayer. It is becoming the reflection of Christ in our communities. It is living a life of service to the kingdom of God. The people of the Corinthian church have been experiencing a strengthening of their testimony of Christ. They have been demonstrating a lifestyle that is different from the lifestyle of their culture and because of this the influence of Christ has expanded. They are authentic people whose lifestyle reflect the words that they speak.
Of course, we will find out that there is always room to improve when we continue to read this letter, but by in large they are living the lifestyle of Christ. This leads me to wonder, why it seems a generation of people are leaving the church? Maybe we have lost sight? Maybe they are not leaving the church but maybe the church has left them? The last statement that Paul makes in this opening section of his letter is, “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This last statement is powerful. We are not lacking, we have all that we need to do what he is calling us to do. And we will know what he is calling us to do if we remain focused on one thing, our Lord Jesus Christ. He will provide the strength for us to continue, he will provide the means for us to accomplish what needs to be done. We as the church must simply follow Him. Take on His lifestyle and live it out in every aspect of our lives.
Maybe the church has left them? Maybe we have taken our eyes from Christ and have placed them back onto ourselves and our institutions instead of keeping focused on the most important things. Maybe people no longer identify with Christ because the church itself no longer identifies with Christ. This is both frightening and encouraging because it means that our testimony our lives do have importance in our culture. So, as you consider this today are we allowing Christ to enrich our speech and knowledge, are we allowing Him to strengthen our testimony, and are we allowing Him to provide and strengthen us as we live for him? I pray that we will take on his holy lifestyle and become a people who are loving God in worship, embracing the holy spirit as we pray, and are reflecting and living the love of Christ as we work and serve others for our mutual profit.