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Don’t go to Church, BE the Church 4

Date: 10/06/2016/Speaker: Susan Tang

First things first, are you confident there will in fact be a “church” in the future for us to BE one?

I have a feeling we want the answer to be ‘yes’. But suppose the answer is ‘no’, does that trouble us? The more we study the signs, the more we are led to consider that the answer could be ‘no’. I believe we could well be staring into the end-times. The end-times of not only the church (as we know it today) but of the Christian religion (as we know it today). The words in parentheses will keep us from despair, for I also believe there is hope that with the death of the church and the Christian religion, there will be the coming of a new creation!

So this morning you are about to hear a scary message from me. You can take it or leave it. I was asked to deliver today’s message and I must do it honestly – and these are my thoughts from my probing into the theme of this sermon series.

Truth be told, the Church has all but died in many places in Europe already. Most churches and cathedrals around Europe, as many of you who visit them know, have mostly become historic monuments or museums kept open only because they are government funded, tourist attractions. Church-going remains somewhat more common in the US, Latin America, some African countries and in Asia.
My colleague from France mentioned to me last week that no one talks about going to church in France, but everyone in Singapore seems to go to church! We all know that it is largely the charismatic and fundamentalist groups that are the largest and most active of all the churches. Which is not surprising as their commitment to the literal text of the Bible, and the emphasis on emotional fulfilment and security, meets the needs of people looking for certainty in a time of rapid change, and it comforts people caught in countries where chaos and anarchy, or poverty and doom rule the day. In fact data proves that religiosity is inversely correlated to a country’s prosperity and affluence. These mega churches also thrive on being largely theatres of religious entertainment, and the preachers of prosperity, where in my humble opinion, Christianity is largely trivialised and reduced to very simplistic ideas and slogans, where there is a flippant dismissal of alternative faiths to itself, and a constant harping of tired worn-out Christian clichés. But these churches draw people in by the thousands! Could it be that thousands of people are fools? Or am I the single fool?
For serious and thoughtful persons, which many of us are, we should be ashamed and embarrassed to be associated with this kind of very public and prominent but to me, a gross misinterpretation of our faith. The Christian faith (and for that matter every religious tradition) instead requires of us a great deal of study, reflection, listening, pondering … and most of all, it requires the carrying on of the unfinished work of Jesus which we more often do not do (I must admit) even though it is He whom we claim to follow.

For serious and thoughtful persons, it is no wonder that many do not want to go to church anymore, let alone BE the church.

If we want to be a sustainable church of the future, we must give up the church of the past. The church of that old-time religion. Give up the old, worn out ways of thinking and believing, give up pretending nothing has changed in the last 2000 years. Good God, Everything has changed!! I continue to take church leaders to task here. Just as it was religious leaders in Jesus’ day who were often called to task by Jesus himself, it is the religious leaders today that need to admit their complacency. Church leaders who refuse to consider new ways of understanding are not only blinded by their own lack of initiative, their fear and ignorance, and narrow mindedness, they are blindly leading others into blindness.

We just celebrated the freedom to love at PinkDot yesterday. Any church that does not uphold the God-given freedom to love is on the wrong side of history and will in good time be discredited, disregarded, and avoided by the majority of intelligent thinking people. Trust me, those churches and denominations that keep waging this war will ultimately lose and die.
And lest you think I am being rebellious by challenging the church, let me remind you that the reality is that Christianity originated on the margins of society with a small group of persecuted disciples within a Jewish society under Roman rule. Just as FCC has been labelled by the press in the past – as that “fringe” church, a church on the margins – so it was for the early Christians. Is that not a sign indicating our special calling? The early Christian communities had been intentionally living in a counter-cultural way to the dominant culture, for which they were often persecuted. You will remember how the apostle Paul argued for the right of Gentiles to express their faith in ways appropriate to their own socio-cultural contexts rather than having to abide by Jewish customs (e.g. laws regarding circumcision, food and drinking).

So do we want to lead or lag? The church is notorious for continuously lagging behind new innovations and new thinking. It took the Catholic church hundreds of years to admit that Galileo was correct when he stated that the earth revolved around the sun. So are we content to keep lagging behind social change, technological advances and scientific discoveries, or are we called to be harbingers of a new creation? The church is more likely to long for the good old days, for that old-time religion. I for one, have given up bothering with those who want to dwell in the past, those who want to live in the past will be the left behind – may they rest in peace.

We, on the other hand, have important work to do for the future. A new heaven and a new earth is not going to happen without our initiative. That’s an attitude I learned from my father. Many call him a man before his time, a prophet he’s been called, always looking ahead to the future, a future he may never, will never, see himself, but that’s not stopping him. The thing is though, nobody likes the prophets much. They are very upsetting souls. They interfere with our finance budgets, they make difficult the building of fancy churches with fancy equipment, they call our mission efforts to task; they challenge our misguided priorities – do not look to prophets to soothe you with sentimental pious ointment. Prophets have been expelled and banished from synagogues and churches, and it was so in the days of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah – Martin Luther, Wesley – and today many in the mainline church distance or disassociate themselves from my father. BUT when the prophets are silent, the church is made powerless.

So are you with me to BE this church of the future?

Okay, I suggest we start by giving up being “church” – the word that is loaded with the baggage of religious authoritarianism and unchanging traditions. And we won’t be the first ones, let me add. There are Christian communities and followers of Jesus who consciously avoid using “church” and call themselves:

A Collective – the IKON community founded by Peter Rollins in Belfast, Ireland
A House of Saints and Sinners – in Denver, Colorado
Solomon’s Porch – in US, UK, Hongkong
The Sunday Assembly – gathers in London, UK
Spirit Garage – in Minneapolis
And in Singapore we have … The Free Commune – that’s us (: we already have a name!

And what will this commune look like? Not that I can predict the future but there are signs, and I can dream. It will not only comprise people like us who call ourselves Christians, it will include all those who have left the church, or do not want to be affiliated to the church or religion, and it could potentially comprise people of other faiths, or no faith. How can I be so confident? Because if we look at the near future, we will see that it belongs to the millenials and soon the Generation Zs (those born in the late 90s to the 2000s) and there is much research already describing these generations.

Research shows that these young people are, and will be less affiliated with organised religion and will drive the growth of the “religious nones” – and if any of them are inclined towards matters of religion, they identify themselves as spiritual rather than religious. The Gen Zs have been shaped by the times in which they were born and raised. They are growing up in a post-Sep 11 time of uncertainty and a time of changing norms. They will be the most racially diverse generation (already we see kids whose parents themselves are of mixed parentage), with shifting gender roles (meaning their identities will be less constructed by gender). Gen Z is mature, self-directed, and resourceful. They know how to self-educate and find information – 52% use Youtube or social media for typical research assignments. They are known to be driven workers. A DIY culture and access to crowdsourcing shape Gen Z’s goals for work and self-employment. Social research further reveals that Gen Z are determined to “make a difference” and “make an impact.” They want careers that matter, they work to support social issues and they want to build communities differently. So it is not surprising that social entrepreneurship is one of the most popular career choices. This backs up studies showing that Gen Z tend to be ‘nicer’ young people than expected. They’ve learned traditional choices do not guarantee success as a result of witnessing the struggles of previous generations, and have resolved to make different choices.

They say they are not trying to live outside of the box, they are wanting to live like there are no boxes! So you can imagine why the traditional Church is not on their radar – on the reverse, it is a place that tells them what they can or cannot do — not a place where they can affect change or innovate or make a difference in any real way.

Can you not see that their values and aspirations are really close to Christian values and teachings? They resist the consumeristic ways of the world, building up material wealth for themselves. They want to avoid labels, and draw fewer lines around race precisely because they are already themselves so racially diverse – so there is no Jew or Gentile; gender roles are blurred so there is no male or female – so I am optimistic for the future. The millennials’ and GenZ’s very aspirations sound like what church should in fact BE in the first instance. And if we want to partake of this future we need to stop asking the next generation to come to us on our terms and be like us. If we become more like the community where the future generation can celebrate their work and values, where they can innovate and affect change, where they can challenge tradition, then we will be the community that will live on.

On Wednesday, the Straits Times reported Minister for Trade and Industry, S Iswaran saying, “Singapore must create a mindset and culture that embrace innovation in businesses and their staff in order to prepare for the economy of the future. The ‘mindset’ aspect is going to be very critical going forward, and it’s not something that (the Government) can just dictate. It has to be something that pervades all levels of our society.” (When will the innovative mindset ever pervade mainstream religion?) He asks, “What is the aspiration of the student? What is the messaging that the teacher (the pastor) gives the classroom? What is the tone set by the boss (the church leader) in a small business as much as in a multinational? What is the general tone in society when it comes to undertaking risks venturing into new areas? This is where a lot of the evolution needs to take place in our society.” (Yes, indeed!)

And the article continues quoting A*Star Chairman Lim Chuan Poh, who said he was “very optimistic about the future of Singapore because of the younger generation”. He recounted his experience interviewing candidates for the A*Star scholarship over the past decade, saying he used to encounter young people who craved job security. A*Star scholarship holders of recent times have changed, he said, citing one who said he was launching a start-up and hiring a professor who had tutored him.

The next day a member of the public responded in the Forum Page, “… tradition keeps us in our comfort zone and is often forced upon the younger generation. Younger minds may bring new ideas but the old cling on to the old ways. They need to know that new ideas can create NEW traditions. By all means, hold on to traditions that still make sense today, but let go of ones that are hindering progress. Those that change and adapt through the generations are the ones that will survive and thrive.”

They are all talking about the millennials and the generations that will make up our future. Is the church going to continue to lag behind new ideas and innovation, and wallow in the past? This is a church I would give up in two seconds.

At work I am involved in the planning of an alumni event (alumni of the Executive Master in Consulting and Coaching for Change program that I manage) and our guest speaker is a British psychotherapist, Christopher Bollas. The exchanges I have had with him on his workshops are nothing short of amazing. He says, “I will argue that almost all of our ‘old’ paradigms for thinking about organization, leadership, participatory citizenship, and even globalization are redundant. I will basically argue that whilst we created a “brave new world” (the IT-driven globalized universe) we unknowingly made ourselves redundant. We are not, in my view, even close to understanding (conceptually, organizationally, politically, and psychically) the world we have unleashed upon ourselves. What I want to do is to address the challenges the alumni face in facing something they have yet to encounter. How do you ready yourself for something you have never experienced; indeed, have not had time to even think about much less organize.” Again, is the church going to lag behind this sort of forward and far-sighted thinking? Which is taking place across all other disciplines. This is a church I would give up in less than two seconds.

After giving up “church” I believe we can even take it one step further and give up “religion”. There was an article in the New York Times last Friday captioned, “The British are losing their religion”. It laments the “poor parish priest”. Ever since Henry VIII’s reign, the Anglican church has stood at the nation’s core, where the titular head of the church is the monarch, and where the royals wed or die or are crowned. “But for how much longer?”, the writer asks. Immigration has broadened Britain’s definition of religiosity to embrace the faiths of erstwhile imperial possessions. And London has just elected its first Muslim mayor! The article continues … “For Christians believers, the most alarming news came in a report based on a British Social Attitudes survey, which concluded that, for the first time, the number of people in England and Wales identifying themselves as having no religious affiliation (49%) has exceeded those who cleaved to Christianity (44%). People raised in the faith but who do not practise it have ceased to identify with it. In other words, they are just being honest. Church attendance has been plummeting since the 1960s; hardly anyone baptises their kids anymore. The decline of Christianity is perhaps the biggest single change in Britain over the past century.”

This is the future, my friends, and we need to face it.

In fact, we may have already given up a lot of both the church and religion without even noticing. If we look around us in the modern, secular world, we find already there many of the elements that Jesus talked about when he spoke of the Kingdom of God. Remember Jesus never proclaimed the coming of the Church nor the coming of Christianity. The Kingdom of God has been coming, in spite of the church, and we haven’t even noticed it. It came when we fought for human rights for everybody. It came when we emancipated women from male domination. It came when the slaves were freed, when the hungry were fed, when the naked clothed. And it will come when all lgbt people are finally accepted as equals. No church or religion can claim credit for this coming of God’s kingdom. It was, and will always be, people of faith, of all faiths and not necessarily religious, for there are those who have faith in humanity alone – these are the people who can claim credit for social change. Faith separate from religion as faith simply means trust. Trusting one’s fellows and trusting the world we live in. Trusting enough to boldly lead the world into the unknown future.

We don’t have to deny our religious traditions if it sustains us but we need to make them secondary to a global community working together for its own common good.

As St Paul put it, “…old things are passing away. Behold all things are becoming new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And, not a minute too soon, let me add.
So don’t go to church, BE THE COMMUNE.
The commune –
· of diverse individuals and families
· that welcomes and is inclusive of all
· desiring a vibrant heart relationship with God
· a thinking mind relationship with the Bible
· not believing in easy answers
· that nurtures community
· and develops faith relevant to our times
Not only do we already have a name; our mission is already pretty aligned with the scenario of the future!
And our faith statement professes that we believe the “quality of one’s spirituality and relationship with God is determined by the visible results of healthy growth in relationship to God, community and the world through acts of love, mercy and justice in Christ.”
So we already know what it means to be the commune.
We have to just do it and we’ll be it!