Thursday, January 27, 2011

From Self-Preservation to Self-Sacrifice (Dialogue Column 1.25.11)

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Joseph, MO.)

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  (James 2:14-17)

            At First Christian Church’s Administrative Board Retreat ten days ago, I shared with our church leaders an article about the changing religious demographics of America by church historian Bill Leonard.  The article noted that one of the fastest growing segments of people listed in recent surveys of religious affiliation are people who claim “none”—now at 17% of the total American population in one survey.  Previously people might have claimed to be a Christian, Jew or an adherent of another religion even if they were not regular practitioners, but now it appears more socially acceptable to say “none.”  Among the “nones” may be atheists, agnostics or others who consider themselves “spiritual but not religions”, but even though their numbers are relatively small compared to adherents of Christianity, the fact that they are showing up in the numbers they are is significant. 
            Commentators credit this rise in “nones” to any of a number of factors: general societal immorality, hypocrisy and partisanship among institutionalized religions (especially Christianity), and the failure of churches to adjust their evangelism to the changing times, etc.  What I liked about the article I shared with the board was that it did not offer simple explanations for this dramatic societal trend, but rather it offered questions for churches to ask themselves. 
  • What is our most essential calling and how do we actualize it in our community?
  • What does it mean to turn from self-preservation to self-sacrifice as a community of faith?
  • What are the most pressing needs around us and how do we address them even if some people choose not to join us in that response?
  • Does our witness in a given community foster energy for or indifference to the dynamics of the gospel?
If a church such as ours wishes to reach out to an increasingly secular culture, these are questions worth considering.
The second question stuck out at me in regards to First Christian Church: What does it mean to turn from self-preservation to self-sacrifice as a community of faith?  I believe that the work our church did last year through the capital campaign to repair our historic building and remain downtown, the work we will have to do this year regarding church finances and stewardship, as well as the many new members who have joined our church will ultimately not amount to much unless we as a church figure out a way to move from a position of “self-preservation” to one of “self-sacrifice.”
            Since we claim to follow Jesus, sacrificial living should not be a surprise to us.  I must admit, however, that even though I am the minister of FCC, I would much rather shirk the responsibilities of self-sacrifice that come along with being a Christian.  I much prefer life to be convenient, easy and inexpensive; who doesn’t?  Yet, that kind of life is not the Christian life.  There is a reason we have a cross in our sanctuary after all.
            In the Letter of James, the writer offers striking words that declare “faith without works is dead.”  I do not believe James is arguing that we must earn our salvation or do enough good deeds to merit going to heaven.  Instead, I believe James is arguing that faith, if it is real, results in acts of service to others.  If we claim to follow Jesus, then we will learn ways to sacrificially give of ourselves to others.  Perhaps then we will have earned enough credibility in our increasingly secular culture for our message to be heard.
            I know that many of our members give of themselves sacrificially in all sorts of worthwhile ways in our community and I certainly do not want to diminish any of that good work.   I believe, however, that one’s church should be one of the main ways, if not the main way, a Christian carries out service to others.  At First Christian, we have a number of opportunities to serve our community: Open Door Food Kitchen, Royal Family Kids Camp and Faith in Action, etc.  (In fact, I invite you to attend Faith in Action’s annual meeting this Sunday to learn about ways to serve people in need.  FCC still needs someone to organize our church’s work with FIA.)  If we wish to be a vital church in our community, then our theology of justice and service must match our actions.  In addition to the ministries we currently participate in, we must develop new ones.  Our goal should be nothing less than all of First Christian’s members involved in service to others; otherwise we may have to start checking “none” on the next religion survey that comes our way.

Grace and Peace,

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