Building Bridges (1) — The Great Chasm

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matthew 5:13)

He went on to say, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

I want to begin this morning by boring you with some statistics. Over a period of seven years, from 2009-2016, Barna Research did a very extensive survey. They surveyed over 75,000 adults across the United States. What they found as a result of their survey was this:

43% of Americans are “un-churched,” which means they have not attended a church service in the past six months.

Many of those people (34%) are “de-churched,” which means they used to go to church, but they don’t go anymore. Maybe they grew up in the church, but they don’t go anymore. Many of these people regard the church as hypocritical, judgmental, boring or irrelevant. Some of them have had bad experiences with church members or church leadership. In any case, the typical de-churched person has a sense that they have been burned and they don’t want to get burned again.

That means that about 9% of Americans have never stepped foot in a church building. Many of those are the young people of today. Our younger generation is much less familiar with the church than their parents and grandparents are. Baby boomers have often been portrayed as rebelling against a church they grew up in, but the younger generation typically has not grown up in the church at all.

What that means is that going to church is no longer a normal part of American life. It used to be. But gone are the days when everybody went to church on Sundays. Fewer and fewer people have any interest in going to church, and, as a result, church is becoming more and more unfamiliar to millions of Americans.

David Kinnaman, the president of Barna Group, has said, “To many faithful churchgoers, the unchurched seem increasingly alien and difficult to understand, while the churchless feel ever more comfortable outside a faith community.”

Now, all of that paints a pretty discouraging picture. And it might lead you to want to just throw up your hands and give up. I mean, if the world around us doesn’t have any interest in church, then why bother. Why waste our time on people who don’t even care?

But I have a vision. A vision of how things can be different in Spring Lake.

Last month, I went around to a couple of the low-income housing units in Spring Lake to share with them some information about our food pantry. And when I introduced myself to the manager of one of those units, she said, “You must be that preacher I’ve been hearing about.” I said, “I don’t know. What have you heard?” She said, “The one who’s always helping everyone.”

I told her that there were a lot of preachers in Spring Lake doing that, but I hoped that I was one of them. Now, to this day, I have no idea if she was talking about me, or if she thought I was someone else. And besides, I understand that it’s not what I’m doing to help those who are in need; it’s this congregation, it’s the Cruciform church. I just happen to be the face that people see the most.

But I’ve been thinking about what she said — “You’re the ones who are always helping everyone.” And it made me proud to think that maybe, just maybe, she was talking about this church. And so, I have a vision.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could be the kind of church that the community in which we live is genuinely thankful for our presence?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the city leaders in Spring Lake valuing this church’s friendship and participation in the community?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the people around this church building talking behind our back about “how good it is” to have this church in the area because of the way we demonstrate the love of God?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see this community actually changing because of the impact of our church’s involvement? As Solomon said in Proverbs 11:11, “By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted…”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have people in Spring Lake who were formerly cynical and hostile toward Christianity, actually praising God for this church and the positive contributions we are making here?

You see, I have a vision of those things actually happening. And I believe that this vision can become a reality, so that we not only connect with the people and the needs of our community and act as “salt and light” as Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13-14), but we also connect with the part of our Christianity that believes that Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) is just as essential to the spread of the gospel as the Great Commission.

In his book Center Church, Tim Keller says there are four different kinds of churches that exist within a city:
• Church in the city – This is a church that merely exists within the city limits. Nobody really even knows it’s there. This church meets together, gathers for worship, and creates all kinds of programs for its members. But apart from ministering to the people who are in that church, this church has little to no effect on the city around it.
• Church against the city — This is a church which is known predominantly for being against what is happening around it. This church has an “us vs. them” mentality. In other words, the church is good, and the city is bad. The people of the city are bad, while the people of the church are good, and the church people therefore need to be kept isolated from the evil people around them, and they reach out only to tell the community what they’re doing wrong.
• Church of the city – This is a church that changes its beliefs and behaviors so that they can blend in with everyone around them. It’s a church that looks no different than the city it lives in. They no longer have the influence of being salt and light in the community. Rather, the community is the one that influences them.
• Church for the city – This is a church that is known for supporting the flourishing of a city, a church that exists for the good of the community. This church seeks to influence the community and bless the community for the glory of God and the exaltation of Jesus Christ. Because we are called as God’s people to love our neighbors, but that love must always point others to the one who first loved us.
I want Cruciform to be recognized as a church that is not just in this city, but a church that is for this city. A church that is connected with the community around us in such a way that we have a positive influence – on families, on the leaders, on businesses, on everyone. And so, this morning, I want to begin a series of lessons that I hope will help us to connect with our community more than we already do.

And I want to use an image throughout this series that I have borrowed from Robert Lewis’s book The Church of Irresistible Influence. In that book, he uses the image of a bridge and he says that we need to be a bridge-building church in our community.

And so, let me share with you the story of a bridge. In 1851, many of the engineers in this country thought that James Roebling was out of his mind. That was year that Roebling started to try to do the impossible – he wanted to put a bridge across the Niagara River Gorge.

Everyone predicted that it would be a disaster. For starters, there was the sheer mathematics of it – the gorge was 825 feet across, and, even more terrifying, it was 200 feet down. Straight down.

And then there was the fact that Roebling’s proposed site was just upstream from the great Niagara Falls, where 45 million gallons of water fall over the edge every minute.

But Roebling believed that he could build a bridge that would cross this gorge, a bridge that could carry a train. He knew that he couldn’t put any bridge supports into the water because the water was flowing too fast. The only possible solution, to Roebling, was to build a suspension bridge.

And that was what had people worried. You see, suspension bridges in that day were not very sturdy. They shook in the wind, and after a few years they twisted and crumbled into the waters they were designed to span. In England and France, suspension bridges had collapsed under the mere weight of humans crossing, killing hundreds. In America, a number of small suspension bridges—mostly for the movement of livestock — had collapsed.

And so, when Roebling proposed a suspension bridge across that great Niagara Gorge that would carry a train, it’s not surprising that most people were skeptical and said it couldn’t be done. In their minds, the chasm was simply too great.

I understand how they felt, because as the church seeks to connect with the community around us, we also face a great chasm. There are so many differences between the church and the world.

• The church recognizes the authority of God. The world recognizes no authority higher than itself.
• The church seeks to take on the attitude of a servant like Jesus Christ. The world lives with a selfish attitude that constantly wants to put “me first”.
• The church is focused on spiritual matters. The world is focused on material things.
• The church is guided by the moral standards of God’s Word, the Bible. The world has no morality other than “doing what is right in their own eyes”.

The apostle John summed it up when he wrote, “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19). And so, we have to admit that the chasm is wide, and sometimes it just seems to be impossible to bridge that gap.

Is even possible for the church to make an impact on the world? Most of the world doesn’t seem to think so. Six out of ten Americans believe the church is “irrelevant” (George Barna, “The Frog in the Kettle”). In the Barna Research that I mentioned earlier, when the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive contributions of Christianity in America, almost half of them, 49%, could not think of one single favorable impact of the Christian community.

And if we’re not doing anything to leave a favorable impression on the world, then we shouldn’t be surprised at the growing amount of cynicism and hostility toward the church. And while you may be tempted to blame the people in the world for just being negative and refusing to acknowledge all the positive things that the church is doing, the truth is, most Christians don’t believe that the church has an influence on the world. Again, from Barna’s research, only one out of three preachers believes the church is making a positive impact on the world around us.

David Kinnaman said, “Our research suggests a growing indifference toward churches among the unchurched…The gap between the churched and the churchless is growing, and it appears that Christian communities of faith will struggle more than ever to engage church outsiders in their neighborhood, town or city.”

I don’t think we can dispute the fact that there is a huge gap that needs to be bridged, but it’s got to bridged in the right way. I think sometimes the church has gone about it in the wrong way. Let me suggest a couple of what I think are some poor approaches

1. “Be culturally relevant”

This is a term that’s been tossed around a lot in recent years. The idea is that the reason the world can’t relate to us because we look too different from the world, so we need to appeal to the world by doing things that look more like them.

And I understand that, to a degree, there is some truth in this call for us to be culturally relevant. The message we share with the world can never change. But, we live in an ever-changing culture, and if we want to reach people for Christ, our methods for reaching people must change. That’s why I’m sharing my sermon notes with you this morning on PowerPoint slides and not on a big bedsheet (and only those of you who are really old will know what I’m talking about). As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “…I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

The problem comes when cultural relevance becomes the motivation for everything we do. Let’s just find out what the world likes, so that we can do it like they want us to do it, and that way they’ll feel comfortable being around us. It sounds like a good theory, but there are two big problems with it. First and foremost, God specifically tells us not to be like the world – “Do not be conformed to this world..” (Romans 12:2). One of the themes of the Old Testament was God telling the Jews over and over again – don’t be like the nations around you. “Be holy as I am holy.”

Far too often, the idea of being “relevant” has become a code word for compromise, and whenever we seek to make the gospel more palatable by watering it down and removing its offensive elements, we are going to fail as a church.

Looking at this from another angle, if Christians throughout the ages had put more emphasis on relevance than obedience, they would not have been mocked, rejected, imprisoned or killed for their faith.

Jesus said to them (and to us), “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19). I don’t hear Jesus saying, “You guys just need to be culturally relevant and fit in better. That way everybody will like you and they’ll want to join with you.”

But there’s a second problem with trying to be culturally relevant, and that is that it just doesn’t work. Some of you may remember an old TV sitcom called Third Rock from the Sun. It was a show about a group of aliens who were sent to Earth, disguised as a human family, to experience and report what life was like here on Earth.

There was one episode in which these aliens tried to blend in with earth culture by doing what was most popular. They watched only the highest-rated TV shows, wore the best-selling clothes, ate at the biggest chain restaurants, and so on. They didn’t do what they enjoyed, they only did what was popular. And, as a result, they were terribly unhappy. By the end of the episode, they decided that being themselves was better than just blending in.

And I think that’s an important message. It’s an important message for our young people. It’s an important message for those of us who are older. And it’s an important message for the church. Being ourselves is better than just blending in. A church that is trying to be culturally relevant will turn the church into a group of followers instead of leaders. We are not called by God to imitate the world. Rather, we are called by God to show the world what it means to live like Jesus.

So, there are some who want to bridge the gap with the world through cultural relevance. But there are others who go to the opposite extreme and say…

2. “Let’s just do what we’ve always done”

They want to stick with the same methods they’ve been using for decades. “All we have to do is just preach the word, and if we preach the word faithfully, that will reach the lost.” And again, I believe there is some truth to this approach. There is great value in expository preaching and I admire those who do it well. Paul said in Romans 10:14, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”

But we’ve got to be honest and recognize that great preaching alone will not reach our world and transport unbelievers across this Great Chasm. Rick Warren has accurately said, “[There are many who say] if you’ll just stay doctrinally pure, preach the Word, pray more, and be dedicated, then your church will explode with growth. It sounds so simple and so spiritual, but it just isn’t true.”

Many of us are old enough to remember a time when the unchurched were reached by knocking on doors, holding gospel meetings, showing Jule Miller filmstrips. I heard about one preacher who said, “If the 1950s ever come around again, my church will be ready.” Those methods of reaching people were very successful in their day. But they were created to work in a specific time and context. Some of them were no doubt considered radical departures from the norm of their day. But doing things the way we’ve always done them is not going to bridge the gap today. I think Charles Chaney was right when he said, “America will not be won to Christ by establishing more churches like the vast majority we have now.”

We are especially bound for failure if we think that all we have to do is just preach the right message. Barna’s research has shown that there is not a big difference between the lifestyle of most Christians and non-Christians.

Why would the world ever want to connect with church if what they see when they look across the Great Chasm is a people who look no different from themselves. Henry Blackaby once said, “Our gospel is cancelled by the way we live.”

I don’t mean to be overly harsh, or to paint the church as a whole in a negative light. But I think we need to admit that the church as a whole is not having an impact on the community around it as it ought to. Several years ago, I heard someone ask a question that has stayed with me because I think it’s a good guideline for measuring our success as a church. The question is this – “Would anyone notice if our church ceased to exist?”

If tomorrow morning, everyone woke up and there was no Cruciform Church of Christ meeting in this building, would anyone notice? Now, I know that you would notice. Many of you have poured your heart and soul and strength into this ministry, so if this church ceased to exist tomorrow, you would certainly miss it.

But the more important question is this — If this church ceased to exist tomorrow, would the people of Spring Lake notice? How long would it take this community to miss our presence? Would anyone feel like an important part of this community was missing? Would anyone cry with regret? How would people’s lives be impacted by our departure?

It’s just another of asking whether or not we are bridging that gap. And I’ve got to say that I think we’re on the right track. I think we’ve started to build that bridge, but I also think we’ve got a long way to go before that bridge is completed.

We are followers of Jesus Christ, and Jesus was a bridge builder. He not only built bridges in his own life, but he imagined a bridge that would be able to connect his people – “my church” he called them – to a disbelieving, disinterested world.

He said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)

This is the bridge that Jesus imagined – a connecting church, a bridge of influence. And it’s important that we rediscover our role as bridge builder. For the world’s sake. For the church’s sake. For God’s sake. We can’t afford to simply stand on one side of the Great Chasm and shout at people who are on the other side. We have to connect with them, so that we can draw them to Jesus Christ.

I think one of the biggest dangers that the church faces is the temptation to view ourselves as a sort of “Christian club” that exists only to keep its members happy. Whenever that happens in a church, that church becomes focused on itself, pre-occupied with themselves, their facilities and their own needs. And when that happens, it will cease to be a church that reaches out to a lost world.

In Ephesians 4:12, Paul says that one of the goals of church leaders is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” As leaders, we are to help all the members to figure out what their gifts are, and to help them to develop those skills.

But I think there’s one question that we often fail to consider – we know that Christians are supposed to be equipped, but equipped for what? If we’re not being equipped to reach out to a lost world and bridge the gap, then what exactly is it that we’re supposed to be equipped for?

Someone has compared many churches to a basketball camp. They train people, they teach them, prepare them, develop their skills, but nobody ever actually plays the game. They get equipped, but they never practice what they were equipped to do.

I believe that the church must be in the bridge-building business. We need to build this bridge and travel across this bridge to show the love of God to a disbelieving world. Only then will the world reconsider its skepticism and its hostility. Our community needs to experience the same kind of influence that the first century world experienced when Jesus Christ bridged the Great Chasm and became flesh and blood. And over the weeks ahead, we’re going to talk more specifically about how we can make that happen.

But for now, I need to finish telling you about James Roebling and his dream to build a bridge across the Niagara River. Roebling was a man of faith. He believed that if great chasms failed to be bridged, it was the fault of the engineers, not the structures themselves. He firmly believed that suspension bridges that were designed and built properly were safer than any other kind of bridge.

Roebling’s bridge was completed in March 1855. It had two levels – a lower level for horse carriage and pedestrian traffic, and an upper level for a railroad. On March 16, the first train crossed over. They put together the heaviest possible train – an engine weighing 28 tons pulling 20 double-loaded cars. It crossed safely, and from that point on, the people on one side of that chasm were no longer separated from the people on the other side.

God has called us to build a bridge to the community. There are many who say that it can’t be done, the chasm is too wide. People just aren’t interested. But, like James Roebling, I have a vision that a bridge can be built, and it’s what Jesus has called us to do.

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