Lyle Schaller was one of the gurus of church life and ministry effectiveness 40 years ago when I was just starting out. I bought and read all his books back then, and one of the things that he liked to say was that churches need to read the “election results.” Every Sunday morning is a referendum on your church, he explained, and the way people vote for or against you is by attendance and giving. “Nickels and noses” — that’s what you have to count if you want to know how you’re doing, and by those metrics the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has lost this election in a landslide.
When I was ordained 40 years ago, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was a denomination with a reported membership of 1.2 million people. We are now a denomination with a reported membership of 450 thousand people. This means that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has lost 750,000 members – three quarters of a million people – over the last 40 years. We’re not even half the size that we were back when I became a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1979.
We’re not alone in this. Every church in America is in numerical decline these days, even the Catholics and the Baptists. We just happen to be better at it than anybody else. No American denomination has lost more members in recent history than has the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). There are lots of reasons for this, and we ought to be thinking seriously about them, but that’s not what I want to talk with you about this morning on my last Sunday as your Interim Minister. No, what I want to talk about this morning instead is hope. It was the great 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who said that hope is a citadel built on the brink of despair. It’s that citadel of hope that I’m interested in talking about this morning.
I knew a minister in one of our tall steeple churches back in the day who, when his church was building their annual budget, after all of the pledges had been calculated, and all of the revenue streams had been fully taken into account, and they had a good fix on their projected income for the coming year, insisted that another 10% be automatically added to the bottom line. He called that extra 10% “the faith quotient.” He liked to say that he didn’t become a minister to raise churches’ budgets but to grow people’s faith, and he said that the added 10% “faith quotient” was just a concrete way of reminding himself ,and his people, that God was able to do things in them, and through them, that they couldn’t even see yet. So, what do you think? Was this a foolish or a faithful thing for him to do?
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29) is what the Risen Christ said to “Doubting” Thomas in the Upper Room just one week after Easter Sunday. Jesus had been there before. On Easter evening Jesus had come to His disciples in that same room to give them a special endowment of the Holy Spirit to empower their ministry after He had gone back to the Father. Jesus said –
“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-22)
Thomas was not there when Jesus showed up, and when the others told him that they had seen the Lord, Thomas told them that “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). This is how Thomas got his reputation as the “doubter.” He wasn’t going to believe what he couldn’t see. Peter Marshall, the famous Presbyterian preacher who became the Chaplain of the United States Senate in the mid-1940’s, called Thomas a “Palestinian Missourian” — a “show-me” kind of Christian, as are so many of us. In fact, I’ve heard it said that “Doubting” Thomas just might be the Patron Saint of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Oh, we may walk by faith and not by sight as the Bible says (2 Corinthians 5:7), but that doesn’t mean that we like it! I don’t imagine that there’s one of us here this morning who wouldn’t welcome the opportunity that Thomas was given.
“His disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (20:26-29).
So, is faith just a leap in the dark? Is the invitation of faith that we’re extended an invitation to jump without looking, to commit ourselves without there being sufficient evidence for doping so? The spiritual tradition of which First Christian Church of McAllen, Texas, is a part has always been very clear about this. “Faith is belief in the testimony of credible witnesses,” that’s what our Founders said. We’ve always been a thinking church, a church that starts by presenting facts to the head, believing that those facts, when fully considered, will, in turn, sweetly distill into the affections of the heart, and eventually issue in the movement of the hands to do what it is that we know to be true and feel to be right. That’s the flow chart of faithfulness that our founders championed – from head to heart to hands. And because it starts with the head, as one of my teachers in Christian College liked to say, we should never let our hearts embrace any ideas that our heads have not first fully considered. And the way that our heads come to endorse an idea is by establishing that idea’s trustworthiness and truthfulness. “Faith is belief in the testimony of credible witnesses.”
Now, Thomas heard the testimony of credible witnesses. People he knew and trusted told him that they had seen the Risen Christ, but that wasn’t enough for him. Thomas told them that he wouldn’t believe that Jesus was back until and unless he could see it for himself. When the Risen Christ showed up again a week later to see Thomas, his doubt was instantly turned to faith. Looking the Risen Christ full in the face, Thomas confessed “My Lord and my God!” and you won’t find a higher confession of faith in Jesus Christ anywhere in the Bible, but John didn’t linger over it for very long. Instead he pushed the decision of faith forward.
“Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe” – Jesus said, and that’s us. That’s you and me. We’re numbered among those who do not see but who are nevertheless asked to believe. The question is, on what grounds are we asked to do this? Well, I’m pretty sure that part of the reason why John tells us Thomas’ story is because it was his seeing gives us a basis for our believing. We may not be able to see, but that doesn’t mean that nobody ever saw, and what each one of us is asked to do now is to believe on the basis of what people like Thomas saw back then.
John, the very same John who wrote the Gospel from which our Scripture lesson this morning was read, wrote three letters that were included in the New Testament as well, and he began his first letter by explaining that he had some things that he wanted to tell his readers about Jesus, and that they should believe what he had to say about Jesus because he had actually been there with Jesus. He had seen Jesus with his own two eyes. He had heard Jesus with his own two ears. He had touched Jesus with his own two hands (I John 1:1-4). And this means that the question for us is, “Will we believe him?” “Can we trust him?” This is the decision of faith we face every single time we open our Bibles and read. Do we find the witness of Scripture credible?
Francis Schaeffer, the first theological influence in my life and on my faith, explained the choice we face as clearly as anyone ever has for me.
“Suppose we are climbing in the Alps and are very high on the bare rock, when suddenly the fog rolls in. We know that the ice is forming and that if we stay put that we will freeze to death, and so to keep warm, we keep crawling further and further out on the rock face until we have absolutely no idea where we are. That’s when we begin to wonder – ‘Suppose I just let go and dropped? There might be a ledge somewhere below me in the fog where I could get out of the storm and survive until the morning.’ And so, with absolutely no reason to justify it, you hang and drop into the fog. That’s what some people mean by ’faith.’ It is an illogical leap into the darkness.”
“But imagine that after working your way out onto the rock face, in the midst of all the fog and ice, you stop and hear a voice saying, ‘You can’t see me, but I’ve been watching you, and I know just exactly where you are. I’m on the ridge across from you. I have lived in these mountains since I was a little boy. I know every foot of them, and I promise that just ten feet below you there is a ledge, and if you will hang and drop, you will land on it and you can make it through the night there, and then I will come and get you in the morning.’ You ask a couple of questions to help establish the credibility of the one who is speaking, and then, once you are convinced by the answers you are getting, you hang in the fog and drop. That’s what the Bible means by faith. There’s still a risk, to be sure, but there are good and sufficient reasons for taking it.”
Why am I so hopeful about the future of First Christian Church, of McAllen, Texas? Why am I convinced, despite the decline, that God is not finished with churches like this one, congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)? Is this just wishful thinking on my part? An ungrounded optimism? Or, does my hope have “good and sufficient” reasons? Well, at least part of the reason why I believe that First Christian Church of McAllen, Texas, has a future is because I’ve gotten to know you. The election results that Paul “read” to take stock of his churches’ well-being in the New Testament were not Lyle Schaller’s “nickels and noses,” but were rather the familiar triad of “faith, hope, and love” (I Corinthians 13:13; I Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4; Colossians 1:3-5; Ephesians 1:15-18)., and I’ve seen all three in you this year.
Paul told the Philippian Christians that his fervent prayer for them was that the marks of spiritual well-being that he saw in them – their faith, hope, and love – would “abound more and more” (1:9), and this will be my prayer for you too in the coming days. It’s as faith, hope, and love continue to grow in you as Christians and a church that they will carry you into the future. But as important as this is, my real confidence about your future as a church does not rest on your own faith, hope, and love at all, but rather on who the God is that you believe in, and in what it is that He has promised, and on just how much He loves you.
In his influential 1925 book The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton observed that “at least five times” before in church history it has looked like Christianity was just about to “go to the dogs,” but that each time “it was the dog that died.” Here’s what G.K. Chesterton saw so clearly – “Christianity would have perished had it been perishable.” But Christianity is not perishable. Christianity is not perishable because Jesus Christ Himself said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). And Christianity is not perishable because Jesus Christ Himself said, “I am going to build my church and the powers of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). And Christianity is not perishable because Jesus Christ is “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).
There are days when the church struggles to be sure. We’re in the middle of one of those days right now. There are seasons when “the whole soul seems to go out of Christianity,” and to all appearances the church looks like its dying. But that’s when, “almost as unexpected as Christ Himself rising from the dead,” Christianity has gotten back on its feet and gone on to do even greater things for Christ. The church in her history has had to face one challenge after another, and there have been many times when it has looked like Christianity just might die. But it never has, and it never will, because, as G.K. Chesterton put it, the God of Christianity is the God “who knows His way out of the grave.”
Resurrection is stronger than crucifixion. Salvation is stronger than sin. Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness. Reconciliation is stronger than hatred. Light is stronger than darkness… Hope is stronger than memory. (Callahan)
“Blessed are those who do not see… and yet believe.”