Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

Groping For God (Sep-Oct 2002)

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by Rubel Shelly
September – October, 2002

I don’t preach in Elizabethan English. Neither do I write church newsletters in the formal prose of academic journals. And, you may have noticed if you have heard me preach in the last five years or receive The FAX of Life, my sermons and teaching pieces tend to be simple stories rather than Aristotelian proofs. Here’s why: 21st-century folks don’t talk, think, or otherwise process information in the ways I was trained to deliver it.

So who cares about one man’s style of preaching, writing, and teaching? Hardly anyone, I’m sure! But my struggle to communicate the inspired, saving message of the gospel to place and time is probably typical of the one you are facing too. So you don’t preach, but you teach a class of teens or thirdgraders. So you don’t teach Sunday School, but you have friends who aren’t Christians. And you need to think about the communications method that best conveys the story of Jesus to them.

People are groping for God today. No, the events of September 11, 2001, didn’t produce a long-term rise in church attendance. On the Friday following those terrorist acts and for a scant few weeks thereafter, numbers went up. But things are now back where they were before that fateful day. Why? Our defensive mindset may have us answering this way: People got over their first-blush fear and panic that drove them to God and have now gone back to their materialistic, godless, self-willed ways. Maybe. But what if there is another answer?

What if people rushed to churches to have their spiritual questions addressed and got only the dry husks of tired religion? What if they went there hoping that church was somehow different than when they left it five or twenty-five years ago–only to find it still as irrelevant as it was back then?

George Barna says that half of all church-going adults say their churches have done nothing to help them process what happened more than a year ago when America was attacked by terrorists. If church-goers haven’t found help in making faith relevant to life, we shouldn’t be shocked to find that unchurched people haven’t found us helpful.

They came to church buildings after 9/11 and heard language that didn’t speak to their questions. They came for fish and got rocks. Or, leaving metaphor for plain prose, they came looking for the connectedness and relevance of the Christian faith to their lives and heard nothing that gave them hope or even enough reason to keep coming.

Forget 9/11 for a minute. People are sent “groping for God” by all sorts of things. Life breakdowns from drugs and alcohol, job loss and financial strain, or health problems and terminal diagnoses send people in search of God. But so do success, wealth, and comfort; people know there is supposed to be “something more” to life than creature comfort. And what do they find when they come into a Christian assembly? Too often they find boring irrelevance–and sometimes leave before their first hour of contact with us is finished.

You’re right! Some people come wanting the comfortable, familiar rituals of childhood. They want the same smells, same sights, and same words. But such people are few and far between. Most of them want something helpful. They want to hear it in their own language. And they want some reason to think it would make a difference to embrace what is being offered. We will eventually reach these people with the message of Jesus through a children’s program that enriches their family, a small group that provides a much-needed sense of community and belonging, or a ministry that scratches a particular itch in their hearts. In those settings, they will see Jesus modeled and be taught the gospel. And they will receive it gladly! But the first contact we will have with most of these people is in a worship assembly. If something doesn’t happen there to give them a glimpse of God?s presence, they’re through with us. Hopefully, they will try another group in another place and see the Glory of the Almighty there. More likely, however, they will judge the pursuit hopeless and abandon it altogether.

So what should worship be like? How do we praise, pray, and share a prophetic word so that these holy activities can be meaningful to pre-Christians who are searching for God? And how do we help them understand that corporate worship grows from personal worship? Will we need to do some things we are already doing differently? Will we need to do some things we haven’t been doing?

The writers in this issue of New Wineskins don’t have all the answers. But we think the question is worth asking, worth sharing some ideas, and worth much prayer for divine wisdom. If we ask, He will give wisdom.New Wineskins

Rubel Shelly is preaching minister for the Family of God at Woodmont Hills, a church of Christ serving in Southeast Nashville, Tennessee

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