Change the World
Yesterday when I pronounced the benediction at the end of worship, I told the congregation to gather all the courage they could muster, turn from the work of worship, and go out to change the world. Honestly, I didn’t think much about how I said it; I try to say something very similar every week because it’s what I believe: being the church should transform us so that we can be agents of transformation in the world.
But at the door immediately following worship a woman came up to me, clasped my extended hand, looked me straight in the eye and said: “The world will never change. Did you hear me? The world will never change.”
Her comment surprised me. In fact, it left me thinking hard about these past few weeks in worship, where we’ve been reading the Acts texts and trying to glean some qualities of the first church, those intrepid disciples tasked with the work of building a community that would embody and share the gospel message.
Maybe the woman at the door isn’t the only one who feels sure that our faith can’t offer hope for change in our broken world. This week the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life issued the results of a survey on the state of religious engagement in America these days. The results look pretty grim for the institutional church as we know it, with decline across the board and a sharp increase in folks who are happy to call themselves religiously unaffiliated.
This is not the first time we’ve heard statistics like this, of course. Most of us are actually living those shifts in real time as we watch our congregations grapple with a present that looks so much less vibrant by traditional standards than the past so many lament with relish.
But I’ve been preaching this whole Easter season about how to build a church that embodies the gospel message and lives it out in ways that transform the world. And I just don’t think I’m ready to let go of the promise of transformation offered by Jesus’ radical message of love.
In fact, I think institutional decline may be just the impetus we need to usher the church into a hopeful future.
So how do we build a church that can change the world? How did the first Christians, desperate in many ways, build the first church?
I noticed right away in the book of Acts that Jesus’ first disciples changed their minds. I mean, they changed their minds about some really important things, fundamental theological and practical changes about the inclusion of folks they never imagined they’d welcome into their inner circle. I suspect a gospel community convinced that Jesus’ message can change the world will always be ready to change an assumed perspective to more radically reflect the gospel message.
Those plucky first disciples were also perpetually put on the spot, interrogated in the city square, cornered by those who were curious. You can read all throughout the book of Acts many occasions on which members of the first church expressed clearly who they were and what they were about. It seems to me that a gospel community convinced that Jesus’ message can change the world will always be able to articulate who we are and why we’re gathered together.
The first church made a radical shift when it changed its mind to welcome Gentiles, but Acts is filled with stories that go beyond welcoming the stranger who wanders in. In the book of Acts, members of the first church went out to the margins, right to the very edge of acceptable society, and actively gathered in folks no one would ever have considered worthy. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, these marginalized folks were welcomed into full relationship with the community. Gospel community convinced that Jesus’ message can change the world will find itself on the margins, actively welcoming strangers, modeling radical justice in generous, lavish, even holy ways.
The Holy Spirit shows up over and over in the book of Acts, blowing into the gathered assembly and turning things on their heads. In response to her ongoing work, the first disciples created communities that were agile and nimble, ready to shift with the direction of the Spirit. It’s true that the first church presumably did not have leaky roofs or sanctuary carpet that needed replacing, so that perhaps they weren’t so preoccupied with institutional caretaking as we tend to be. But you can see it throughout the book of Acts: gospel community convinced that Jesus’ message can change the world will hold the past loosely and readily shift toward a future into which God’s Spirit invites us all.
Finally, a constant thread running throughout the story of the first church in the book of Acts is courage. Over and over again the first disciples faced a future they couldn’t see and took risks as if they had nothing to lose. In fact, they displayed the kind of courage many would call foolish, even crazy. Still, it’s clear in the story of the first church that gospel community convinced that Jesus’ message can change the world will act with courage.
Why? Why did they face an unknown future by building a church with such radical qualities?
They did it because they believed the gospel message could change the world.
I hope the woman I met at the door will visit again. If she does, I will tell her that yes, I did hear her fine the first time. But I’m going to beg to differ and instead stubbornly stick with my conviction that God is busy transforming the world.
Not only do I think the challenge to change the world makes a great worship benediction, I want to keep trying to build a church that will make it happen.