Wednesday, August 31, 2011 | By: Zachary Bartels

(A) Moving Forward...

About six weeks ago, I received an e-mail forward from someone I’ve never met, with the subject line “FW: LET'S PUT CHURCH FIRST AGAIN.” Now, I usually don't read e-mail forwards, but that title (despite the author’s defiant refusal to push the caps lock key in order to stop shouting at me) connected with me at the time. You see, I’d been thinking about the very topic quite a bit myself (albeit in lower case), as I always do during the summer months when church activities go on hiatus and church attendance takes a major dip.

Here is the text of the e-mail (grammar and spelling mistakes intact):

When I was growing up (in the 60's and 70's), we went to church EVERY Sunday. We also went to church on Wednesday and whenever the doors were open. The Mom's and Dad's went to Bible Study and the kids went to AWANA and youth fellowship. The teenagers volunteered in the nursery, puppet ministry and youth choir. No one brought their phone to church (because it wouldn't have worked anyways).

Hardly anyone was open on Sundays then. It was a family day for church and for spending time together. Schools did not have tests or sports games or mandatorey events during church time, because they knew if they did no one would come anyways. If the rare occasian came up when some "event" was going on Wednesday night or Sunday morning, we didn't go, we'd already made a commitment to attend church! When we went on vacation (in a station wagon, not on a jet plane), we might miss a Sunday, but we still attended church SOMEWHERE. And when we did, we knew the songs they sang and the Bible they read from, because we used them too!

Today, is an optional feature on any given Sunday. If there is a game on or a big race during church time, people stay home and watch the game. If they were up late the night before, they sleep in and skip church. If they have work to do around the house, its more important than God who told us to rest on the sabbath day. If the weather is nice, they don't go to church so they can go fishing. If the whether is bad, they don't go because it would be a bother to get there. If there is a concert or a card game or a movie or a booster club meeting at the same time as church or prayer club, then it is ALWAYS more important than church. This is the opposite of how things used to be (and how things SHOULD be)!

If we really are CHRISTIANS and we are the BODY OF CHRIST we need to turn this back round! Send this on if you think Christians need to put CHURCH FIRST in their lives once again!

After reading this message, I did not “send it on,” but I did think about it. A lot. Not because it was a well-written masterpiece or even a persuasive argument (appeals to nostalgia and emotion are generally not conducive to either), but because—even though I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s (not the ’60s and ’70s)—I could relate to this trip down memory lane, and I found myself nodding as I read, longing for the Good Old Days™ along with the author of this impassioned piece. And that actually disturbed me a little bit. Because the mindset of those few paragraphs is this: “How can we move backwards?” It assumes that everything was better “back then” and everything is worse now, so our mission is to go back to the future, in a sense.

But should that be the goal? Would the church really be better off if we revived “puppet ministries,” even with the full buy-in of the congregation? Is it necessarily a step in the wrong direction that we don’t all use the KJV as our primary translation? Is there never a time to miss church for a family event or other “secular” commitment? If we were somehow able to successfully roll back the church to the ’60s and ’70s (or even the ’80s and ’90s), would we find ourselves better able to engage the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I would answer no on all counts.

Remember when I coined that clever acronym G.O.D.S. (Good Old Days Syndrome) while preaching through Haggai? (Pretend that you do.) Well, too often the "Good Old Days" do become gods and idols to us, even when our intentions are good. How else do we explain the inclusion of station wagons and jet planes in this piece? What on earth does it have to do with the subject at hand, other than describing a “simpler time” in which the author was more comfortable?

While prompted by a frustration that I fully understand, I think the above e-mail forward raises the wrong questions. Instead of wringing our hands about the direction the world has taken (and its unfortunate effects on the Church) and asking how we might rewind, we ought to be asking how we can stake out a vital and effective ministry as the Church of Jesus Christ in the world and the times in which we live. How can we best play the hand we’ve been dealt?

The reality is that people’s lives are fuller, busier, and less simple than they were in the past. The way people look at time and priorities is different than it was in the past. Denying those realities is no kind of strategy. And firing off finger-waggy, we-verus-they, guilt-trip-inducing e-mail forwards is no help either. No, dealing with the reality means asking each other and asking ourselves, “In the midst of all the time commitments and all the different aspects of my life pulling me in every direction, how high of a priority is worshiping God with a body of believers, receiving Christ together, and serving in his Kingdom?”

I don’t think any Christian intentionally chooses to put Christ and his Church on the back burner; it just happens gradually. It’s not (as the man or woman who penned the above diatribe suggests) that people choose to make Church last in their lives or that they sit down and number all of their priorities and write a notation next to the word church: “Skip this if inconvenient.” People are overloaded today—mentally, emotionally, time-wise, financially, and in every other way. If the Church adds to that overload (and if the Church makes it easy to slip away unnoticed), then people will gradually find it slipping down the list of priorities. Before long, the new habit is to come every six weeks, and then not at all. Some may even find it difficult or awkward to come back once they’ve fallen out of the habit.

That is exactly why my church is planning a Back to Church Sunday on September 25. This is the time of year when we re-start all sorts of activities—new classes, new projects, new schedules, new sports seasons, new TV shows. As the summer comes to a close, people get the urge to get back into the swing of things. What better time could there be to come back to church and re-commit to making the Body of Christ a priority in your life? If you're a member at Judson, there will be information arriving in your mailbox shortly about this special Sunday, but for now, I just ask you to pin down that morning on your calendar and plan to be here for worship and fellowship that day. You won’t regret it.

If you don't live near the capital city, I encourage you to go back to church all the same. Despite what George Barna tries to tell you, you can't do this disciple of Jesus thing on your own. That's why, from the very beginning, Christians have gathered together in ordered bodies (marked by the preaching of the Word, the proper adminstering of the sacraments, and church discipline) for the apostles' teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship, worship, and prayer. If you belong to Jesus, then you belong in church on the Lord's Day.

Or are you too busy flying around in your jet plane, talking on your cell phone, and sleeping in?

Let’s move forward together as the Body of Christ, with his cross at the center of our lives.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Pastor Zach

Friday, August 19, 2011 | By: Zachary Bartels

Speculative Faith

I had the honor of filling the Friday guest post slot at Speculative Faith today. Click here to read my article, Harry Potter, Bob the Tomato, and Genre, in which I try and subtly pimp my book 42 Months Dry and explore the weird lines-in-the-sand, which (heh...sandwich) Christians tend to draw when it comes to inventive fiction.