(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on January 22, 2016)
“[the chief steward] said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now” (John 2:10, NIV).
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman.
This is an exciting time to be a disciple of Jesus.
Some people will be skeptical or confused by that assertion. After all, there was a Pew Research Center study for Religion & Public Life that was published last year, which further shows that this country is becoming less religious, and specifically less Christian (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/). That study shows that between 2007 and 2014, all Christian traditions were in decline, and that the only group experiencing rapid growth is the “unaffiliated,” which is the amalgam of atheist, agnostic and “spiritual-but-not-religious.”
My short response to these increasingly frequent reports is that a.) the Church is a people, not an institution; and b.) the Church belongs to the God of the resurrection, not human beings. And so long as the Church belongs to a God like that, then it shall never perish until the kingdom comes. So the real question is not about the demise of the Church, but rather the evolution of the models for doing church. The social organizations of congregational life have served us well to a certain point, but as the world changes, the way we relate to one another has to change. Keep in mind that I believe that the Gospel never changes, but the way that we communicate it and live it out can and must change. And when you consider some of the church dysfunction still present, such as the extreme racial, ethnic and socioeconomic segregation in our congregations, change should not be treated necessarily as a bad thing.
And so my humble suggestion today is that if we are going to rethink how we do church life and ministry, we need not consult the latest business or marketing guru, but rather the Bible itself. Jesus gives us great models for ministry.
Each of the gospels offers a different scene of Jesus’ first detailed act of public ministry, which sets the tone and theme for the rest of his life and message. In Mark, the first act described in detail is to cast out a demon (1:21-28). In Matthew, it is the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:28). Luke offers to us, as Jesus’ first detailed public act of ministry, a sermon at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth (4:16-21). In that sermon, Jesus proclaims that he has come to bring “Good news to the poor.”
And then we have John. And do you know which of Jesus’ acts is chosen by John to list first? It is the performing of a miraculous sign at a wedding (2:1-11). A wedding. Isn’t that interesting? Jesus is at a wedding celebration and the wine runs out. And do you know what Jesus does? He transforms some 120-180 gallons of water into wine so the celebration can continue! And as the chief steward testifies, it’s not just any old wine. It’s the best quality wine you can imagine. This is the grace upon grace that is revealed in the glory of God in Christ.
What if we modeled ministry after this scene? Think about a wedding. A wedding is a party, full of joy, shared with loved ones, in which we celebrate something new that God is creating in our midst: a new family. And whenever God creates something new, celebration is the appropriate response. What the passage from John suggests is that when we gather to celebrate God’s new creation, God shows up. Which is a good thing, because when the wine runs out, God will provide an abundant quantity of exceptional quality, to keep the celebration going!
Now, if you have been doing ministry of any kind, serving the poor, working with children, leading worship, I am confident that you have had a water-into-wine experience when your own resources failed you. Last week, I visited the Serenity Center here in Shelbyville and found that place dripping with the abundant love of Christ.
So here is my humble suggestion, and the reason I think this is the best time in all of Church history to be a disciple of Jesus: let us stop worrying about whether the Church is going to make it. Let us stop taking cues from the culture. Let us quit trying all the old methods that stopped working 50 years ago. Instead, let us cultivate a deep spirituality and relationship with God, so that we better recognize where God is already at work in the world creating something new. And every time we see God doing a new thing: feeding a hungry people, helping addict break the bondage of drugs and alcohol, integrating black, white and brown people, let us throw a party around it. Let us celebrate where God is already at work. Ministry that is based upon joy, and not drudgery, is extraordinarily attractive. Ministry that is rooted in our passions is contagious. Ministry that celebrates the creativity of God is pregnant with hope and possibilities. I am certain that when we minister in such a way, God will show up and make sure the party doesn’t end. And we will come to see that God saves the best for last.