By Bob Hiller –
Well, my NCAA bracket is a complete wreck. Guess who picked Virginia to be in the championship…stupid Izzo…glad you’re happy Joel. It does, however, feel good to get one right every now and then because. I did pick UCLA to go to the Sweet 16. The Bruins topped the UAB (University of Alabama at Brimingham) Blazers 92-75 and punched their ticket to the next round. Now I am totally boasting about making that pick when no one else would! Truth be told, it was just blind luck. Blind luck…like UCLA getting to the Sweet 16.
As I watched that game slip away from UAB into the paws of the Bruins, I noticed something interesting in the demeanor of the losing squad: they began to fear losing. As UCLA lead increased in the second half, the Blazers became more desperate in their shot selection. They began to force more three-pointers. They over-thought every play. They got to the point where the only way they could get back in the game was by playing perfect offense and fouling UCLA. Though it may sound like a strange distinction, instead of their play being aimed at victory, it looked like they were motivated by the fear of losing. Desperation trumped confidence. The time clock and the scoreboard took away their hope and filled them with fear.
As I hear the statistics and trends taking place in the American church, I get to feeling like the UAB Blazers. If statistical projections tell us anything, it is that the church in America will be dead in the next so-many years based on the rate of decline. The institutional church is dying, the local congregation is depleting, and, (here is my new favorite depressant) the most involved members of our congregations will only be in church, on average, twice a month. Commitment to the church is down. Membership is down. The clock is ticking and, according to church analysts like the Barna Group, we are losing.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and so the church starts lobbing threes. We begin to operate from a place of fear. How are we responsible? What must we do differently? Should we re-brand ourselves? Should we redefine church altogether? Should we try to look more like the culture? Or, should we pretend to be the early church and meet in homes, thus abandoning the local congregational “model” of gathering? Should we preach more culturally savvy sermons? Should we hunker down and just do what we’ve always done, culture be damned? The clock is ticking and we are losing! What should we do?
I say we should all just shut up and look at the scoreboard. Whenever there is a debate over who has a better team in any given sport, the discussion is often settled by directing everyone’s eyes to the scoreboard. That is all that matters in a game; who had more points; who won. I remember when the Denver Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers to win their first Super Bowl. Bronco haters kept saying, “Green Bay gave Denver the last touchdown.” “Green Bay is still a better team.” To which I simply said, “Scoreboard.”
Dear church, look at the scoreboard…or better, the empty tomb (sorry to jump the gun, fellow church calendar freaks)! You won! You are winning! You are more than conquerors!
Sure, this victory is hidden under membership decline, institutional irrelevancy and a disinterested culture. (That is actually rare, by the way. Typically, the victory is hidden under violent persecution.) I say: Fear Not! Jesus has conquered the grave! And, He has baptized you, His church, so that you who were united with Him in His death and have been raised with him to a new life. Dear church, you are crucified and risen with Jesus. The gates of hell cannot prevail against you! Your sins cannot defeat you, Jesus has taken them away. The world cannot destroy you, it is subject to the judgment of your Savior. Death doesn’t have the last word over you, Jesus has slammed death’s mouth shut. The devil cannot overwhelm you because his head is stuck between Jesus’ nail-pierced foot and the ground. Not even the Law can condemn you for there is no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus! The gates of hell cannot prevail against the church, and neither can Barna’s fear mongering statistics.
This is my problem with a lot of what I read these days about the current state of the church. I know things aren’t good. Things won’t be good until Christ comes back. But, He’s coming back. Which means there is no reason to fear! This next week we are going into Holy Week where our eyes will be fixed on the death and resurrection of our Lord. This is where the church should have her eyes fixed at all times as she walks in this world. For here we see God’s sacrificial, resurrection love for His church. There is no fear in love. So, beloved church, fear not, for He is with you!
Can you imagine what the church would look like if she stopped operating out of fear? It would be like the Harlem freaking Globetrotters! The risen, crucified One has us in the palm of His nail-pierce hand…we can’t lose! Being set free from the shackles of fear, we can be bold to proclaim the cross of Jesus! We could “laugh at Satan’s rage and face a frowning world” (Isaac Watts). We could radically hand over forgiveness to broken sinners without fearing they’ll never change…and keep doing it when they don’t! We could ignore the latest fad in church weight-loss programs or sex-ed sermon series and, instead, baptize babies and teach disciples everything Jesus commanded. We could stop talking about the blood of Jesus being shed for us in some abstract sense, and actually serve it to His church every Sunday morning (and then some…). We could do evangelism over a beer in an edgy Bible study at the bar or help our three-year old stumble through the Lord’s Prayer. We could preach the gospel, and when necessary, use deeds. We could be free!
Unless, of course, Barna puts out another book. Then we’ll just do that.
Scoreboard, Barna! Jesus lives, the victory’s won! Go be free!