During the time in this ministry I have had opportunity to visit hundreds of congregations and visit with thousands of leaders. It has been a joy to hear the stories of the congregations along with the stories of the leaders. I have felt the hurt and pain as both struggle to make their way in the current landscape of culture to be vital and growing. As you might guess some similar stories and concerns have emerged. The reality I find is deeply connected with the Scriptures, and not a portion that is often at the forefront of increasing the vitality of congregations.
The Book of Revelation is filled with all kinds of images and messages I do not fully understand. There are however a few items that seem very clear to me. The words of Jesus given to John from chapter two seem relevant,
"These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Revelation 2:1-5 NIV)"It feels too simplistic to be a real solution. After all we are highly educated through schools and life, we should be able to figure this all out. There has to be more to increasing the vitality of the church than returning to Jesus. There are certain systems and practices needed, however there is nothing more important to the future of the church than to return to our first love. I fear that we have forsaken Jesus!
Some will begin the debate at this point about what that means. Debate will rage about who Jesus is and was. Others will argue over what it means to turn to Jesus, or what version of Jesus are we talking about. The fact that we would rather debate than repent reveals the challenge Jesus is offering the church in Ephesus and to us today. All too often I want to sanitize Jesus so that he will fit into my paradigm or life. Great effort is given on my part to define and shape Jesus into an artifact of faith that affirms my beliefs and desires. Repentance has me give up pursuing Jesus created in my image and begin the work of conforming my life to the life Jesus is calling me toward. A return to simply following after Jesus instead of complicating the journey with all my thinking and rationalizing.
Whether terms like conservative, progressive, centrist, or any other problematic label are applied, churches that are centered on the person of Jesus Christ and invite others to join them in the journey of being centered in Jesus, vitality shows up. Theological ideology has replaced and relentless pursuit of Jesus, we have forsaken our first love.
As I urge the cursor across the screen with letters we are on the edge of the single most important remembrance of the Christian church. Today we remember when Jesus gathered for the meal we now celebrate as Holy Communion. Tomorrow we remember Jesus giving his life on the cross so that we could experience forgiveness of sin and have a full relationship with God. Sunday morning we celebrate the crowing moment as the tomb could not hold Jesus, Resurrection. May this resurrection be more than a calendar celebration. May this resurrection be a repentance moving us to return to our first love.