(John 3: 1-21; Acts 17: 16-34)
We’re talking this Lent about conversations – conversations I had a few years ago with Greg, a swimming workout buddy, one of the one-in-five Nones in America who do not claim any religious tradition or house of worship as their own. We’re talking about conversations Greg and I had about the kinds of things that should matter to us in the church.
But this morning, if I could, I want to begin with another conversation; the one between the two people in our first scripture today. So much about this conversation fascinates me, because in many ways it is a miracle that it happened to begin with. Nicodemus, the prominent Pharisee, well-known and respected in the hierarchy of that Roman-ruled culture. Jesus, the son of a carpenter, living as one of the ruled, the lower class. These are not two people who would normally find themselves chatting it up. That and the fact that it’s the Pharisee who comes to the carpenter’s son for enlightenment; the student teaching the teacher.
But the thing that fascinates me the most here is not who is having the conversation, but when and how it happens. The writer of the gospel of John pointing out at the very beginning: He came to Jesus by night. That word “by” – it means something more than just the time it happened, don’t you think? It’s almost intentionality that’s addressed here. After all, nighttime is when it’s dark. Nighttime is when things are hidden, concealed. Nighttime is when you don’t want to be seen or noticed – like when the teacher seeks wisdom from the student.
Right off the bat, the stage is set. Because as much as Jesus tries to explain and Nicodemus tries to understand, the Pharisee can’t seem to get it. There’s this disconnect going on here, as if the darkness of the night in which they’re meeting is somehow cloaking clarity. It is almost as if they’re having two entirely different conversations.
I think about that confused exchange in the dark when I remember one of my conversations with Greg. For whatever reason, the chlorine in the pool that day was particularly strong. I don’t know why – I’m typically oblivious to it – but I remember it was stinging my eyes more than usual. Which actually felt kind of appropriate given Greg’s musing. Offered up, as always, in the middle of our rest set:
Steve, I’ve got to tell you,
I learned more about Jesus in my World Religions class than I did in church.
It wasn’t meant to hurt, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t a little. After all, church had been part of my life from the very beginning. And now it had become my livelihood and my passion, what I’d given my life to. I’m okay with church not being great at everything, but I kind of want it to excel in the “teaching Jesus” department.
Now it’s possible that Greg was talking about instruction here. Maybe the church he grew up in lacked a strong Sunday school or Bible study, those sorts of things. Which is why we should always be looking for new ways to teach others about Jesus; and that’s why I’m so pleased that our Christian Formation Ministry Team, and their leaders Laura, Candy and Tom, are looking at new ideas and innovations that will help us teach Jesus to our children, our youth and our adults even better than we already are.
But I get the feeling Greg meant something else here. Not how we teach Jesus, but how we show Jesus. How we as the church cut through the confusing dark of night.
Last week, you will recall, I shared some startling revelations from the 2006 Barna Study of 16-29 year olds in America and what their perception of Christians are. In summary – not very flattering. I suggested that we in the church have an opportunity to create an alternative vision where Christians are seen in a more authentic and empowering way – in short, more like Jesus.
Doing this requires, of course, change. We know that. But the tricky thing, and one of the more critical discernments for the church of today, is to make sure we implement the right kinds of change, the ones that really matter, and not the ones that don’t.
Noted religion writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans puts it this way:
The assumption among some Christian leaders… is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates – edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall.
Evans goes on to say that the church not only misses the mark when they do this, but often makes things worse. As she puts it: What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.
Now that last little bit there – style and substance – that has stuck with me since I first read this article years ago. We know we need to change, we get that. We couldn’t stop change if we tried. The key is making changes of substance, not style. Because when we focus just on style, we unintentionally sabotage some of the best of what we have to offer – and not just for our own people, but for the Nones out there who, as we said last week, are looking for the church to just be church. If we in the church have indeed made the mistake of focusing on stylistic change over substantive change, is it any wonder that Greg might have learned more about Jesus elsewhere?
So what’s the difference between the two, you say? Recently a few of you have graciously invited me to come to your classes and book clubs to speak about NEXT Church, whose national conference in Chicago I’m leaving for later this afternoon. I’ve been sharing a blog post I wrote about three years ago, in which I dug deep into this “substance-over-style” thing as it relates to worship music, a sticky topic in a lot of congregations. I say that, for years, people on both sides of this conversation have operated under the assumption of a false dichotomy of style: that the older generation wants the organ and hymns while the younger people want a band and praise songs.
Here’s the interesting thing – I simply haven’t found that dichotomy to be the case. My experience has shown me that those “older folks” are often happy to sing some new songs, provided they’re “singable,” uphold the theological and biblical underpinnings of their tradition, and have a message they can connect with. We’ve actually been doing some of this during Lent with the responsorial psalms that Chris has led, and many of you have told me how much you’ve enjoyed it. I know I have.
On the other hand, as someone who frequently leads music for youth conferences, I’m always surprised by the response I get from the classic, old-school hymns. At the Montreat Middle School Conference I led music for back in 2011, we sang this one song that took on a life of its own – and I’ve led music long enough now to know that, when this sort of happens, you sing it some more. Which we did, throughout the week. It wound up being the very last song at closing worship and provided one of the more spiritually moving experiences of the entire week.
You know what song that was that became such a hit at a middle school youth conference? “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing.” Not exactly a recent entry into the sacred music genre! Did I mention the part about 600 11-13 year-olds belting it out with conviction and passion?
Here’s my point: too often, the church gets all wrapped up in conversations around the need for stylistic change, thinking that is what will bring people to church and better show them Jesus. But what we are learning is that isn’t the case. So the good news for the church is this: we don’t have to sell out to get people to come. In fact, that’s exactly what the Nones are begging us not to do. We don’t have to compromise our core identity in a cheap attempt to fill the pews on Sunday morning.
The bad news, or other news, is that we do need to talk about substantive change. And changing substance in the church is a lot harder than changing style. Anyone can stick a praise band at the front of a sanctuary. Anyone can plop a coffee shop down in a fellowship hall. Substantive changes, though, involve deep, meaningful, honest conversations among pastors, church leaders, and the entire congregation about its sense of identity and mission; and then daring greatly and thinking and acting outside of the box to bring about the kind of change that pushes the church toward being better representatives of Christ in the world – toward greater authenticity. The kinds of things, in my opinion, that you all are already in the process of doing – in session meetings, in ministry teams, in associate pastor nominating committees and Acts 16:5 Vision teams, in book clubs and classes, in casual conversations.
You are already doing the same sort of thing that the apostle Paul did in our second scripture today. I love this story. Paul’s mission journeys had brought him to Athens, the intellectual and philosophical center of the world. It was the golden age of Greece, a nation and culture formed by the greatest thinkers of human history. Plato. Socrates. Hippocrates. Cicero. Theologically speaking, the idea of just one God was unheard of. There were hundreds – Zeus, Hermes, Poseidon, Apollo, Aphrodite – the list went on and on. And shrines for every last one of them.
We are told that Paul was “deeply distressed” as he surveyed the scene. You think?! He must’ve been terrified, trying to figure out how in the world he was going to be missional in this context, when so much was so foreign and so strange. How could he ever share Jesus in a way they’d understand without changing the essence of the gospel?
And that’s when Paul had an absolute stroke of genius. He spotted something – a single statue with a curious inscription that read: To An Unknown God. The one they may have left out; the one they stuck there just to be on the safe side. It was one in the midst of hundreds. But one was all he needed. And so later he would tell those Athenians, When I arrived the other day, I was fascinated with all the shrines and found one inscribed “To An Unknown God.” So I’m here now to introduce to you this God you do not yet know.
I wonder. So often, it seems, the church, in an attempt to change, chooses style over substance and winds up looking more like culture than church. And I don’t think that’s what the Nones are looking for. I don’t think they’re looking for a new whole shrine. I think they’re looking for us to reveal what is already here; what has been here all along, right in their midst.
In an interview with the Religion News Service just this past week, Rachel Held Evans echoed this emphatically, saying:
Many church leaders make the mistake of thinking millennials are shallow consumers who are leaving church because they aren’t being entertained. I think our reasons for leaving are more related to deep questions of faith than worship style or image.
And then she said this – listen:
We’re not looking for a hipper Christianity. We’re looking for a truer Christianity. Like every generation before and after, we’re looking for Jesus—the same Jesus who can be found in the places he’s always been: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these. No fog machines required.
As we at Trinity Presbyterian continue to discern who we are and what our mission is to and with the Nones, it strikes me that we already have here what they need the most: an opportunity to experience a relationship with Jesus Christ in the context of the scriptural story; and the embrace of a community of faith that covenants to live into the ramifications of that relationship together.
We still need to change. Just not that. May God grant us wisdom to discern and perseverance to pursue. So that Greg and others will come to know church as the place they learned the most about Jesus, because they saw him among us.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!