I stepped outside the other day and smelled smoke. Not someone’s barbecue, I know that smell. This was wood smoke, like a forest fire. I live within the town limits and I heard no sirens, so the fire must have been some distance off. Which got me to thinking – smoke is an indicator of a fire, but by its very nature, a nearly impossible means by which one could track a fire. All I knew was that, somewhere, a fire was present. But where that fire was, it was impossible to tell.
There are many such relationships around us. We see the results, like canaries in a mine, but are powerless to find the real cause and stop it. At least we have a warning.
So my mind drifted to church. Funny how that happens. There is a trend of declining church membership in the states. This is a trend that has been quantified and talked about for over a decade. Great research has been expended in studying it. What if it’s just the smoke? What if declining church membership is merely the smoke to some greater fire? What if all we can do is fan the smoke away, leaving the unseen fire either smoldering or raging some distance off? Not a comforting thought for those of us who think that the church, when functioning properly, has the answers to life’s greatest questions.
There is a fire. This fire was lit long ago. It smolders and rages at different times and in different places, but it is always the same – irrelevance.
Those of you who are biblical will remember the scene in the Gospel of John when Jesus gives what has been called the Bread of Life discourse. If you’d like, you can read it here. Note what happens at verse 66: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66, ESV). Wow. What was it that turned them off?
Jesus was no longer relevant to their lives. His words were, quite frankly, weird. In fact, if you have never read that passage before, you may be wondering, how weird are these Christians? Eating human flesh and drinking human blood? And that is exactly how these disciples felt. Jesus’ words were just too difficult. They wanted real bread, daily sustenance. Ultimately, they would have liked total freedom and autonomy from Rome as well. Jesus promised none of that. The fires of irrelevance sent out smoke plumes of disbelief.
After World War Two, the church in the states began to falter. In many communities, the church was still a pillar that held everything together. But not because of a relevance to God. It was more like a relevance to society. The church was the symbol of ‘goodness’ and those who ‘belonged’ were seen as ‘good’.
This is no longer true. Church membership no longer equates to ‘goodness’. In fact, in many areas, church membership is even seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Millennials are notorious for being ‘non-joiners’. And the world is filled with role models who are seen as ‘good’ yet whose faith, or non-faith, is not even a part of their story. The church is irrelevant.
That is a tough pill to swallow when your job is to pastor a church. The challenge for me and my kind is to make the Gospel relevant. We try all sorts of techniques – movie nights, contemporary music, flashing lights, relaxed dress, relaxed theology. None of it does any good. It fails because it is simply fanning the smoke away. The real question is, and always has been – Is Jesus relevant to your life? For anyone who does not recognize the eternal, that answer is ‘no’, in fact, it has to be.
Peter was gifted to see the eternal. He recognized, dimly at first, that Jesus was not a mere man, but something more and that something more was connected to the eternal God of heaven. Those of us who pastor can not gift to people that kind of sight, only God can. But friends, this is the challenge. People must be connected to the eternal before they can come to see Jesus for who he really is. Then that fire of irrelevance will be snuffed in their lives, replaced with the fire of the Holy Spirit.


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