If you build it, they will come (or How does the church grow?)

Hespeler, 11 September, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Zechariah 6:9-15, Mark 13:1-8, Psalm 48
L
isten, Heldai, Tobijah, and Jedaiah, we’ve got a problem and we need to talk about it. Our religion is in trouble. Yes, we have religious freedom and people are able to worship as they choose, but they just don’t seem to be choosing our religion anymore, at least not like they once did. Oh, there was a time when people would come together in places like this and lift up their voices in prayer and worship. It was the place to be and everyone felt like they were a part of something that mattered.
      But then the world changed. Now, all of a sudden it seems that people have other places that they need to be. Their lives are in other places like Babylon and Persia and they don’t seem to need the old ways of their ancestors anymore.
      But don’t you worry, Heldai, Tobijah and Jedaiah, because we have a plan. We’re going to get a bunch of supplies together and raise some funds and we’re going to build us a temple. And it will be the biggest, best and most beautiful temple that you have ever seen. And then we’re going to set up the best of worship services, festivals and sacrifices in that holy space. You’ll see, when we do that, people will come from all over the place to see and to be part of it.
      So, what do you say, Heldai, Tobijah, Jedaiah, will you give us a donation of, say, 20,000 talents each so that we can build it? If you do, and if we build it, they will surely come.
      That is essentially the pitch of the prophet Zechariah in our reading from the book that bears his name this morning. The issue he is dealing with is the same issue that we are dealing with in the church today: the general decline of traditional religious institutions.
      And, make no mistake, that is what we are dealing with. We are living in a time that has seen the fastest decline in affiliation to all religion that has ever been seen in Western society. The statistics and social science are undeniable. The decline is no longer seen just in certain denominations or certain theological points of view. All are declining. It is not just so-called liberal churches for example. In fact, for about a decade now the fastest declining denomination in the United States of America has been the ultra-conservative South­ern Baptist Church.
      Some people don’t see the decline, of course, because there are, always have been and always will be significant exceptions – specific churches and groups of churches that see dynamic growth. You can definitely find those churches in most cities and we ought to study them and learn from them.
      They are not all, by the way, churches that have the same theology. Some of them are extremely conservative and some extremely liberal with all the shades in between. The defining characteristic of a growing church is no longer its theological bent, but there are certainly other factors that do matter.
      This decline is made all the more dramatic because it is part of a generational shift. The incoming generation, often called the “millennials” and the generation that is coming up after them (that nobody has named yet) is the least engaged in religion ever.
      I don’t tell you all of this because I think it is a reason to despair or give up on the church. I actually feel that, more than anything, these are hopeful signs and that God is using these sorts of cultural changes to renew his church so that it will be strong and ready to meet the challenges of the future. But, in order to find that strength, one thing is necessary. We need to respond to these challenges in the best ways possible.
      What we read this morning from the Book of Zechariah is one possible response to a very similar situation. The prophet is concerned because of the decline of the traditional religion of the people of Israel. The reasons for this decline are different – have come mostly because of a major disruption of the entire society and culture by an enforced exile of the people to Babylon. But the challenge is very similar.
      Zechariah’s response is to say, “We need to build something really impressive here.” He is trying to rally the people to build a temple. And he encourages them to do so by making a promise: “Those who are far off shall come and help to build the temple of the Lord; and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. This will happen if you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God.” The promise is a promise from God through the prophet and the promise is, “If you build it, they will come.”
      And that seems to be the solution that people most often go to. If the institution has fallen on hard times, people’s automatic response is to say, “Let’s build up the institution and make it beautiful and impressive and that is what will make everyone want to be part of it. And I will admit that there are times when that kind of approach is the one that works. It seems to have worked (at least to a certain degree) in Zechariah’s time. People did return and there was a renewal of the faith of Israel. I suspect that the terrible cultural loss that was the Babylonian exile left people hungry for the stability that a new temple institution promised.
      Of course, there were complaints, there always are. “This new temple just isn’t like the old one.” People got nostalgic for the “good old days.” That is something that always seems to happen whenever you try that “if you build it” approach to institutional growth. Nothing ever seems to measure up to the “good old days.” That is definitely the kind of complaint that we hear all the time in the church to this very day. But, when the conditions are right, it certainly can be true that, if you build it, they will come.
      I don’t believe that we are living in such a time, though. In our gospel reading this morning, we catch Jesus at a very interesting moment. Jesus, we are told in the first verse of the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, has just left the temple. This will be, by the way, the last time that he ever leaves the temple in this Gospel. He will never enter it again. And he clearly does not leave it on the best of terms. He has already effectively shut down the temple’s revenue stream by stopping the people who are buying and selling and changing money. And he only just finished expressing his disgust at the hypocrisy and the favouritism towards the rich that he sees in the place.
      His leaving the temple institution at this moment is not just a matter of stage direction. It is an act that is full of meaning. In fact, his leaving the institution of the temple is analogous to the exit from the church of some people in our own day because they have become disillusioned with the institutional church due to the failings or hypocrisy that they have seen.
      And the disciples see what Jesus is doing. Of course they do. And it is distressing to them that this man whom they love and respect should turn his back on the central institution of Jewish religion and culture. So what do they do? They try to give him a reason to stay around, just like we try to do when we see people drifting away from the church.
      And what is the reason they offer? “Look, Teacher,” they say, “what large stones and what large buildings!” Take careful note of what they are doing here because it is the very same thing that we do all the time. They think that the way to get Jesus to stay within the institutions of the Jewish faith is by drawing his attention to what has been built and how impressive it is. They are saying, “They have built it, you should come.”
      Obviously this approach doesn’t work with Jesus. In fact, it sets him off on a rant that will go on through the rest of the chapter – a rant in which he basically says, “Stones? Is that the best you can do? You think that stones will impress me? I’ll tell you something, in no time there won’t be one stone left on top of another in this place.” His message is that the “if you build it” approach may even lead to the fall of the institution and that even more than that will fall apart.
      The passage in Zechariah does teach us that there are times when you can accomplish a lot with an “if you build it, they will come” approach. It is a necessary approach when you are living in times, like Zechariah was, when the basic cultural infrastructure of a society has been taken apart. But Jesus was not living in such a time. The issue in his day was that abuse and hypocrisy had called the institutions themselves into question. This was something that Jesus specialized in pointing out. In such times, people will not come just because you build it.
      I believe that we are living in such times today. Certainly many people have the same reaction to institutions as Jesus did. When they begin to lose their relevance and luster, the impulse is to leave and to predict that the stones will not stand for long one on top of the other. One thing that that means for the church of the present and the near future is that we cannot count on people coming just because we build it, which is a problem for the church because that seems to be our biggest growth strategy.
      Jesus didn’t grow the movement around him by building anything. Did you ever think about that? He built no buildings and didn’t even establish any sort of formalized structure. He didn’t even establish any rituals or worship liturgies apart from the two very simple sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and baptism) and one prayer. He established some leaders but no power structures. All of those trappings of institutionalism came later as the church struggled to create institutions out of what Jesus had begun.
      But, while Jesus didn’t have any real “building project,” he still managed to get people excited about being part of what he was doing and involved in working towards changing the world. That is why I do not think that we ought to be worried about the future of the church. Yes, it is true that people will not come to the church these days just because we have built it, but that does not mean that they won’t come. We need to approach the invitation more like Jesus did.
      We will look deeper into the approach that Jesus took next week, but the basic idea is pretty simple. Jesus could have waited for people to come to him, but he just didn’t. Do you remember the time when Jesus made a big splash in Capernaum. He healed a woman in the synagogue, cast out a few demons and by the end of the day people were lining up at the door of Simon Peter’s house where Jesus was staying to see him. He could have stayed there and waited for people from all over Galilee to come to him. Peter’s house could have become the church that he built. That was even what Peter was expecting him to do and when Jesus disappeared the next morning he hunted Jesus down and angrily demanded that he come back and stay.
      But Jesus said no. Jesus said he had to go out to where the people were, he and all of his disciples. He had to take the kingdom of God to where they were and not wait for them to come to where he had built some institution of the kingdom of God. He had to invite them to come and see.
      I know that the other approach sounds so much easier to us. If we could just build it – you know, maintain this beautiful building and our amazing programs and activities and people would just come. We wouldn’t have to engage them. We wouldn’t have to tell people where were were and what we did on Sunday mornings, those who were so inclined would just come on their own. But we are not living in a time when it works like that. We are living in an age when some churches grow but none of them grow just by virtue of being there. We are living in the age where it falls to all believers to let others know that they can come and see.
      #140CharacterSermon “If you build it, they will come.” Not how church growth works in an age when people view institutions with suspicion.

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