a bit monkish.
I don't usually post sermons on this site, and I don't typically preach topical sermons. So this post is a double-anomaly. Below is the full text of the sermon I preached on August 21, 2016 at Centenary United Methodist Church in Danville, KY.
"Life in a Post-Christian World"
Text: Romans 13:1-7
I’ve spent more time preparing to preach this sermon than any I can remember in several years. And to be honest I don’t really want to preach it. You see, it would be much easier to preach a sermon on how Jesus loves the little children than to tackle what we’re going to today. But I’m preaching this sermon today because I love you, and I feel we need to hear this message.
It’s understood by most folks that how we function as the church needs to be tweaked from time to time as the culture changes around us. However, in these changing times in the United States we need to realize that how we function as a church is changing in ways we’ve never seen before. That said, in the midst of this change, the timeless truth of the Gospel revealed in Scripture never changes, because God doesn’t change.
One of my favorite TV commercials is about a rental car company. In the commercial, some employees noticed that the lines to rent a car were extremely long and customers were getting frustrated. So a manager came up with a solution: Give the people in the line stress-relieving squeezy balls. That way, they wouldn’t be as stressed or frustrated as they stood in the long lines. While that company focused on squeezy balls and didn’t address the real issue at hand, another company eliminated the need for lines and allowed customers to go straight to their rental car. The first company was so focused on maintaining what they’d always done that they couldn't see shift in customers’ desires to eliminate lines altogether.
You see, there’s a shift happening in the United States like we’ve never seen before in our nation’s history. We are living in a post-Christian world. Let me explain what I mean by that. The United States isn’t a Christian nation, but we’ve been given the freedom to worship however we want without the government establishing an official religion like England has. However, we’ve had Judeo-Christian values in our nation since our founding. Throughout our history, the value of churches in the country has always been respected, and Christianity was the dominant worldview for much of our nation’s history.
However, we’re living through a major shift in our nation today. The role of churches in society is de-valued. Some studies now show that committed Christians who regularly attend Sunday worship have minority status in the United States. Increasingly, evangelical Christians are becoming the minority in America. We’re disrespected in the media. We’re being called narrow-minded and all sorts of other names. We’re ridiculed for taking our faith too seriously and for saying that Jesus is the only way to God. And my response to this? “Praise God. It’s about time.”
We’re living in a post-Christian world just as the first generation of Christians were living in a pre-Christian world. People in Paul’s day didn’t have any idea who Jesus was. Just like many people right here in Danville have no idea who Jesus is. If you don’t believe me, you haven’t been hanging out with pre-Christian people enough. At Camp in the City this summer, 2/3 of the children who participated weren’t Centenary kids. The counselors shared stories of children who didn’t know what a Bible was. They thought Jesus was the subject of a fairy tale. These are children from right here in Danville, and their ignorance about the basics of the faith indicate their parents don’t know God either. Yet this is why we hosted Camp in the City in the first place, so I’m thankful that by the end of the week, these children came to know Jesus.
Because we’re increasingly living in a post-Christian society in America, Christians have two options about how to respond to this phenomenon: 1) We can try to change society by electing Christian people we believe can bring the change we desire to see. 2) We can change the way we do things as a church.
As someone with a high view of the authority of Scripture (as is the historic Methodist norm), it’s important for us to look at the Bible to see how we should address this situation.
This morning we’re looking at the first several verses of Romans 13. In these verses Paul tells us that Christians have a responsibility to obey the government and its laws, even if we don’t respect the leaders or agree with the laws. We should do this 1) Because God placed them there, 2) So we don’t get punished by the government and 3) Because it’s the right thing to do as citizens. In these verses we find a separation between the work of the church and the role of the government. I’ve searched the New Testament and I can’t find a single verse that says the role of the church is to get Christians to run the country.
For example, Jesus says in Matthew 22 that regarding taxes we should give to the government what belongs to the government and to God what belongs to God. Notice the separation there. Jesus made it clear: the role of his followers is to focus on life in the Kingdom of God. Let the world do what the world is going to do. Let the politicians do what they’re going to do. We Christians have other, more important things to focus on. Paul writes in Philippians 3:17 that we’re citizens of heaven, not citizens of the earth. To me, that’s an important distinction.
I’m certainly going to vote this fall, and I love this country, but my time and energy will always be on issues related to the Kingdom of God. And I think we need to be honest: Kingdom of God issues crisscross the platforms of our 2 major political parties. We can’t honestly say that Jesus would have been a Republican or a Democrat because both he and the historic narrative of Scripture itself addresses issues that are popular with both parties. The truth is that no matter who wins in November, it’s not going to change the issue of what it means to live faithfully for Jesus Christ. I love this nation, and I’m thankful to live here. But I’m not going to stress, worry, or go on Xanax because of what happens in Frankfort or Washington DC. That’s because my love for the United States will never be greater than my love for Jesus Christ.
I scroll through Facebook and I see so many Christians obsessed over political issues and then get into messaged arguments with others about candidates and political issues. I wish they’d spent that much energy telling their next door neighbor about Jesus!
You can probably tell why I didn’t want to preach this sermon today! However, I feel that as your pastor, it’s my responsibility to address these issues because this has everything to do with our growth as disciples of Jesus.
Since we’re seeing a shift in America to a post-Christian age, and because our focus should be on life in the Kingdom of God, it’s important - no, essential! - that we do things differently if we’re going to be a faithful church. Just opening the doors is not going to get people here anymore. We can no longer have a big event and expect anyone to ever come back. We can’t just publicize ministries in the newspaper and expect anyone to take interest because we’re a church. We’re living in a different world now. It’s a world very similar Paul’s in the first century Roman Empire. That’s why Jesus told the disciples to go into all the world and make disciples. He didn't say, “Build a church building and when they come to you, make disciples out of them.”
Church family that I love so dearly, if we’re going to continue to be a faithful church, we’re going to have to go out and get folks. We’re going to have to focus on making disciples, not on recruiting members. When Peter, Paul, and other Christian leaders did this, by the Holy Spirit the church grew faster than they could keep up with it. Many were persecuted and even killed for their commitment to Jesus, yet they didn’t whine or complain about it. They didn’t say their rights were being violated. The persecution just made the church grow even faster. Within a couple of hundred years, Christianity was the dominant belief group in the Roman Empire. It was a movement of the Holy Spirit.
But then something happened that hadn’t happened before: the Emperor of the Roman Empire became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. And that Holy Spirit movement came to a standstill. Soon we entered the Dark Ages of our faith. The Kingdom of God that Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 13, and in other places had been replaced with the political power of an earthly nation. National politics came first, and the Kingdom of God was in the background.
Can you see why I’m excited about ministry possibilities in a post- Christian world? We finally have something in common with the Christians of the New Testament. We have proven, Holy Spirit strategies for making disciples.
However, it also means that we’re going to have to do things differently, because many churches are organized and have ministries that fit well in a Christian world, but not necessarily a post-Christian world. If we’re going to be relevant and faithful in our mission to make disciples in a post-Christian world, we’re going to have to rethink how we do everything.
I understand that Christians like change as much as Frosty the Snowman likes the beach. But we have to remember that our relationship with Christ isn’t for ourselves. The existence of this church isn’t just for us, but for the people who don’t yet know who Jesus is.
We’re here in this time in history, in this generation of Centenary’s long history, to share the love of Jesus with people in the greater Danville area. Our goal should be to bring them into our family and grow as disciples with us. Not ministries to people or for people, but ministries with them. If we don’t start viewing the world and the church’s context in the world with honest eyes, churches in America will become like churches in Europe: museums that reveal a past glory.
I’ll say it again: I’m excited about the opportunities for ministry in a post-Christian world. It allows us to focus on life the Kingdom of God as Jesus intended us to do.
Tomorrow night, the church council is going to receive a report from a 4-person task force that has been meeting since January. They’re going to present to the council a comprehensive strategy for how we as a church can be strategic in making disciples. If you’re on the church counsel, I prayerfully ask you to be at this meeting. If you’re not, I ask that you pray for us tomorrow at 7pm.
The world around us desperately needs Jesus. The world around us desperately needs Christians who will lead them to Jesus. Life in a post-Christian world is certainly different, but the opportunities for ministry are exciting. Our primary responsibility on this earth is not to be a good citizen or committed church member. It’s to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. So let’s make sure we don’t live our lives with an earthly focus, but with a heavenly one. Because our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God.
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.