Salvation and the Church
"The biggest problem facing the church in the twenty-first century," she said, "is who can be saved?" We had gathered together in a banquet hall for the sake of ecumenism in our region. I had never experienced the phenomenon of a sea of gray gathered in a room with wall-to-wall carpeting and a cash bar to talk about the future of the church. It was altogether surreal. As the woman continued her address, or sermon - it's hard to say, I found myself surveying the room, looking for signs of hope.
We were four hundred or so in number, by my best estimate, which I thought was hopeful in itself. Although there were only a dozen or so my age (41) or younger. That there were this many at such a gathering was modestly hopeful. Yet as I listened to each speaker, I began to wonder what the church really has to offer those who would never gather in such a space for such an event, who are actually going to be the future of the church.
"Salvation," she said, continuing with greater emphasis, "Salvation is the biggest issue the church will face going forward." After she was done talking about what she had come to say, an old preacher's trick, the evening continued with what could only be described as the "Christian Ministry Awards." People from every church in the city, at least the ones represented in the room that night, were being recognized for their contribution to spreading the Gospel. It was as if they were being inducted into some ministry hall of fame. I had never witnessed anything like it. Each person was invited to stand at the center of the room as a much older looking Vanna White read their bio and list of accomplishments, many of whose bios remarked that they enjoyed doing their work for God in quiet. The individuals were then given a certificate and a fake candle as the room filled with applause.
The first thing that came to mind while watching this situation unfold was that passage in Matthew's Gospel where Jesus says, "Beware of practicing your piety before others..., for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." Here were all these faithful, unassuming Christians, laboring in God's fields, storing up treasures in heaven, who were invited to exchange it all for a certificate of Christian valor and a battery operated candle you can buy at any Dollar General.
"Who can be saved?" That's the church's greatest issue it faces heading into the future? Never has it been more abundantly clear to me than it was that night that mainline churches are out of touch with reality - out of touch with God. And it's not the sea of gray that's the problem. There's a good deal of wisdom in many Christians who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday. The disconnect, however, with the Jesus of the Gospels and the Body of Christ in the world - the church - among too many Christians remains far more problematic than our petty concerns about who's getting in to heaven.
For example: I don't recall in any section of the Gospels Jesus handing out awards to the best disciple. I do remember James and John asking for a reward and Jesus saying, 'You just don't get it' (Mark 10). And there was that church in Corinth that thought they were pretty high and mighty, only to receive a letter from Paul telling them to cut it out, that they were betraying the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 11). Although, there is that one instance when Jesus sends out the seventy, and upon their return they tell him all the good stuff they had done, how even the demons listen to them, and Jesus responds with calm admonishment: "Do not rejoice at this..., but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10). In other words, stop congratulating yourselves.
The real miracle that Jesus calls the church to today, yesterday, and tomorrow, is that God has made God's home among mortals, so that we might become more than mortal. I wonder if the greatest challenge facing the church in the future is really just the same challenge the church has faced even before it came to be, and that is our tendency to think we are the agents of grace, rather than its bearers. It is not for us to be concerned with who gets grace; rather, we are to let grace carry us to those who need it most, and direct their attention to the God who is all merciful and forgiving.