Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
June 2, 2019
Matthew 5: 13-16 (CEB)
“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. 14You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.
Just about every Tuesday morning, I sit down and have coffee with some other pastors in the area. Most of us are United Methodist, one is Lutheran. Most of us are active in our work, a couple are retired from ministry. I’ll never forget one morning soon after one of the retired pastors started meeting with us. Someone was sharing a particularly difficult challenge she was facing at the church she was serving at the time, and my friend Paul, the retired minister, said, “You know, I just don’t know if I could do it anymore. Being a pastor was hard for me, but it’s even harder for you all, and I just don’t know if I could do it.”
Maybe pastoring is harder today that it was 30 years ago, I don’t know. I wasn’t pastoring 30 years ago so that I can make any comparison. But what I do know is that the world has changed a lot in recent decades and people’s perceptions of the church along with it. Yesterday, our Church Leadership Council met over at Christ UMC for a few hours to do a visioning retreat. Our purpose was to imagine what this church will be five or ten years from now, and to set a path for the coming year by which we might achieve that vision. One of the first things we talked about was the changing landscape of Christian ministry.
This morning is the last sermon in this series we’ve been working through called “Jesus Speaks Today.” By diving in to Jesus’ words and Bible passages, we have explored what Jesus might say if he were here, among us today, in response to the matters that fill our news and make up our headlines. We end this morning by thinking about what Jesus might say to our church. Obviously, we are not really in the news or headlines, but I think in our rapidly changing world, Christ would have a message for us to—a message of both encouragement and challenge. So I’m going to do again what I have done a few times in this sermon series and share some data with you.
What do I mean when I talk about the changing landscape of Christian ministry? Here’s a little data to help everyone understand. A recent Gallup poll found that 52% of Americans self-identify is non-religious or nominally religious. Nominally religious means they identify with some religion, but are not active in practicing their faith. You also have to keep in mind that if 48% of people are self-identifying as religious, that doesn’t mean they are only Christians, they might also be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and so on. So 52% of the U.S. population says they are non-religious or nominally religious. That means that over half of the people living in the U.S. are not going to a Christian church and are not connected with God in the faith right now. Another important fact, which I shared with the Leadership Council yesterday, Generation Z (which is the generation born between 1996-2010), “is the first generation in the United States that will have been raised in a context that is post-Christian with a worldview without the Christian faith at its center.” In the last 50-60 years the number of people who identify as Protestant Christians has declined from 70% to 39%. And since 2000, those who identify as “Nones” (meaning having no religion) has increased from 2% to 20%. This is the changing ministry field.
Today, the Christian Church worldwide celebrates what is called Ascension Day. It is the day we remember Jesus’ ascension into heaven after the resurrection. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, one of the things he said was, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is what Paul had in mind, I think, when he told the Corinthian Christians, “The Church is the body of Christ.” If Jesus were here among us today, if he were standing here in this pulpit preaching to us this morning, I think one of the things he would say to us would be something like this: “Look, I know that the world is changing, and it’s really different now than it was 2,000 years ago, but I’ve given you the model for ministry, I’ve taught you all you need to know. I have confidence you can do this and I have commissioned you to continue my work. You can do it, just do what I did.”
Just think about Jesus’ ministry for a minute. Jesus is driven always to connect with the non-religious and nominally religious people—the sinners and the tax collectors. He ministers to the drunkards, the prostitutes, the lost. This was the entirety of his ministry; over and over and over again. He went to people outside of the so-called church, outside of the faith. And so often, he sought them out, right? Think about the woman at the well. At that time and place, a man was forbidden from speaking with women in public unless it was his own wife or a family member. Yet, Jesus just strolls up to this well in Samaria, asks the woman for some water and strikes up a conversation. The end result is that the woman is converted and most of the town soon after because of her testimony. Or think about the story of Zacchaeus, with which we are all pretty familiar. Zacchaeus is a small guy, so when he hears Jesus is coming through town, he decides to scope out a good spot along the route, and ends up climbing up a tree so he can see Jesus walk by. Zacchaeus never called out to Jesus or anything, but Jesus saw him there and walked over to Zacchaeus. And he says to Zacchaeus, “Come down, I’m having dinner at your house today.” Zacchaeus became a follower of Jesus, too.
The Samaritan woman, Zacchaeus, the lepers, the outcaste. These were the “nones,” the non-religious and nominally religious people of Jesus’ day. Still, they became the foundation of the Christian church because Jesus sought them out, and Jesus built relationships with them. In fact, Jesus was willing to die for this mission of reaching people who don’t have a relationship with God. I think if Jesus were here today, he would challenge us a little bit. He would ask us, “Why aren’t you doing more? Why aren’t you out there in the world reaching out to the people who don’t know me yet? Why aren’t you giving all of yourselves for this mission?”
The answer to that question, we all know, is that it’s too hard. It’s too hard to be in ministry the way that Jesus was in ministry. We are afraid to move among the outcastes. We are a little too protective of our reputations, and so we don’t really want to be caught up with all the riff-raff of society. Or, and this is the one I hear all the time, “All my friends and co-workers go to church.” So we settle into this not quite comfortable existence where we show up at church on Sunday mornings and secretly hope that is enough. But let me give you just one other piece of data. In the area around this church: along East Brainerd road from here to Gunbarrel and over to Igou Gap, the percentage of the population that is NOT religiously involved has grown from 59.8% in 2012 to 66.2% in 2017. Seven percentage points in five years. And just in case you didn’t catch that stat: more than two-thirds of the people living right around this church have no church and no faith. If we’re not meeting these people and building relationships with them, it’s because we’re not trying, we’re not following Jesus’ mandate.
Earlier we heard some of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet.” This world needs the seasoning, the flavor, of Christ. People need a life-giving relationship with God in Jesus Christ, and if the church isn’t doing that ministry, then who is? Jesus continues, “You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.” As Wesley Memorial dreams about ways we can be a long-term force for the good news, we ground that dreaming by remembering why we are here. We are called to be the body of Christ, the light of the world, people through whom God’s light illumines the dark, hurting places around us. And all this is for God’s glory, not ours!
So what would Jesus say to Wesley Memorial if he were here with us today? I think first, he would tell us he loves us, each and every one. Then, I wonder if he wouldn’t start asking about some of the people in the neighborhood. So where’s Melissa? And what about the Jones family? And you know, the Garcias, they’ve really been having a rough go of it lately, where are they? Then, I think Jesus would say, “There’s all these folks right outside your doors who need you. Please. Please. Go to them. Get to know them. Let them know they are not alone. Just do what I did. God will take care of the rest, God always does.”
“You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! Let your light shine before others!”