Did you know that in the ancient Roman world, people would band together to form funeral clubs? Think of it as a bit like a first-century Costco—sign up, pay your dues, and you get to benefit from a wide range of spiritual goods and services, in addition to ensuring dignified ceremonies for life’s significant moments of transition (weddings, baptisms, funerals). Once Christians got in on the action, they gave everyone else a run for their money, and it’s continued to be a relatively stable arrangement ever since: join the club, and you’re guaranteed certain privileges.
The trouble is, it’s not such a stable arrangement anymore. It’s plain as day that what most churches are offering the world is not what peopse are desperately hungry for. But we seem not to notice this. We keep scratching our heads, wondering why nobody else is signing up for the club. And we seem not to notice the huge gap between our expectations for the Church of the Messiah and our willingness to participate in the life and ministry of the Church of the Messiah.
This sounds like bad news, but it’s actually quite good news! Jesus is freeing us up to do something much more exciting than manage a funeral club. He’s calling us to be more than passive consumers of religious goods and services. He’s calling us, each and every one of us (not just the clergy and staff of the church) to be the church and to do life-giving ministry in a world that has all but forgotten the good news of Jesus Christ.
I think that you know all of this and believe it. Let me offer some friendly guidance to you, dear reader, on how you can begin to live this out as a vital part of the Church of the Messiah.
1) Show up. Really, folks, most things in life begin with the most basic level of participation: parking your body in the place you ought to be, whether it’s work, your child’s dance recital, or in the room of an elderly family member. Certainly, it shouldn’t stop there. But our church cannot offer extraordinary worship, life-transforming Bible study, vital service to our community, or hospitality for our congregation’s guests on Sunday morning, when only 25% of our members are present. Be there, and we might be able to make something more out of it.
2) Talk to God and to our congregation’s leaders about what you would like to see our church be and do. What dreams is God giving you for ministry—and, just as important, how can our leaders support you as you work to make this dream a reality?
In all honesty, I hear lots of excuses about why our church “can’t” grow. Folks tell me that young folks just don’t go to church anymore, that liturgy doesn’t engage them, that we’ve invited folks before and they didn’t come, that people around here move a lot and we just can’t develop a stable base on which to build. I don’t buy it. I don’t believe these reasons are sufficient to explain our lack of growth—and the reason is this: I see the Holy Spirit at work in many churches just like our own, drawing in young adults, drawing young and old into beautiful and rich liturgy, transforming passive invitational churches into active missional churches.
Our problem isn’t money. Our problem isn’t our urban and socially-progressive neigborhood. Our problem isn’t our liturgical heritage. Our problem is this: our ministry at Messiah is not organized around one or two things that excite everyone. What kind of ministry would excite the people of Messiah, and excite the people of our community?
My firm conviction is that once we have talked to one another and to our neighbors, once we wrestled with God’s will for us, once we have struggled to discern what God is calling us to be about in this place at this time, we will begin to see transformation. Our call will be that place where “our deep desire meets the world’s great need,” and once we find it, we will be excited about it! I guarantee you, that excitement will be infectious.
But don’t just take it from me! Jesus said to those who would follow him: “Let the dead bury their dead,” What this means, in essence, is that you and I are called to be more like midwives coaxing forth new life, than like funeral directors, managing the process of death. That’s exciting to me. Moreover, Martin Luther reminds us: “Each shoemaker, smith, farmer and the like has his own office and trade, and nevertheless all are equally consecrated priests and bishops.” In other words, Christians are not passive consumers of religious goods and services. Christians are all those who take seriously their call to live as disciples of Jesus each and every day, and to do the work of the church alongside the “professionals.” Isn’t that exciting? Everybody’s a consumer. But we get to summon forth new life!
Friends, we are resurrection people, not funeral club people. We won’t find the living Christ among the dead. But we will find him where he already is—engaged in mission here in our community, inviting us to show up, to dream big, and to join him doing the life-giving work he has promised to do. Will you take him up on his offer?