laserjesus2.jpgWe have begun the Lenten season today. The word comes from the English term lengthen, referring to the season of the year where we have the lengthening of the days.  The church has made this a season of prayer, fasting, repentance, reflection in preparation for Easter.  In some church traditions, there would be no weddings or other sorts of celebrations held during this time in order to focus on penitential practices and getting one’s life in order, and one’s relationship with God back in shape.  If you would like to see some of the Beliefnet features on Lent here is a link to a Lenten calendar and quizzes—-  and here is a link to some suggestions about Lenten fasting— finally here is a link for more content on Lent—-


My concern in this post however is with the latest Pew Forum on Religious Life which suggests that young adults are less likely to go to church than they used to be. Dividing up the time period as follows– Greatest Generation (born before 1928), Silent Generation (born 1928-45), Baby Boomers (1946-64), Gen. X (1965-80), and Millenials (born after 1980), the survey says that when asked whether they have any religious affiliation or not only 5% of the Greatest Generation, 8% of the Silent Generation, 13% of Baby Boomers, 20% of Gen Xers, and 26% of Millenials say they have no religious affiliation. This of course does not mean they do not believe in God, nor does it mean that they may not be ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ in various ways. The survey is basically measuring self-identification when it comes to more traditional forms of being religious. For example, only 18% of Millenials say they attend worship nearly every week or more often, 21% of Gen Xers, and 26% of Boomers. Does the situation change as Millenials and Gen Xers get older? Its too soon to tell about Millenials and most GenXers but if we judge by Baby Boomers in the 1970s 39% of Boomers said religion was very important to them, but by 2000 some 60% of them said so. Or again 47% of Boomers asked in 1980 said they prayed every day, but in 2005 some 62% said so.

One of the real problems with this type of survey is that the word ‘religion’ in the new millenium has become something of a dirty word or at least a less preferred term in various circles. You often here people say ‘I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious’ by which is usually meant not involved with organized traditional religion of some kind. This kind of survey however does not adequately take into account what I will call ‘sheep shift’. What has happened, especially with the growth first of megachurches and then of Emergent Churches of various sorts, is ‘sheep shift’ not decline in church attendance. More of the young are going to alternative worship experiences instead of traditional ones, although a good number of post-modern kids prefer worship that actually has liturgy and sacraments and some mystery involved as opposed to the happy clappy praise crowd.

‘Sheep shift’ however, it should be remembered is not church growth if we are talking about the church as a whole. The fact that large churches are gaining members regularly tells us more about sheep shift, and declining loyalty to denomination brand names than it does about over all decline in worship attendance. My own anecdotal survey of things shows the following trends: 1) as rural and small town areas decline in population and the young move to cities where there are jobs, it is perfectly understandable that churches will shrink and close; 2) urban churches in older downtown areas that have not gone through urban revitalization and are not near to the increasing number of condos for ‘Yurbs’ (young urban condo dwellers) tend to experience decline along with their environment; 3) church plants in suburban areas of big cities tend to do much better, except that what they are mostly capitalizing on is the increasing willingness to change churches ‘to find a better fit’ for one’s self or family. When it comes to the young much depends on the social networking, the programs available and the degree of aggressiveness in recruiting; 4) because of the increasing application of the consumer mentality and ‘star’ mentality of our culture to the church, people pick churches like they pick new cars– they are attracted to the shiny popular ones, with the charismatic pulpiteer or music program, or adult and young programs etc. I have commented at length with the problems these sorts of approach to worship bring with them in my new book We Have Seen his Glory now available on Amazon.

What this survey reminds us of, just in time for Lent, is that the church cannot afford to be either a glorious anachronism nor unresponsive to the cultural situation in which it finds itself, if it wants to continue to recruit new members, especially among the young. I am simply waiting for the day for the cellphone church, where everyone is encouraged to bring their cellphone, dial up their favorite praise song, and instead of singing all play it simultaneously while holding up their phones towards the altar! Or perhaps we could have a twitter service where during the sermon, the young are being tweated or texted repeatedly by the youth ministers while the sermon is going on, with more ‘relevant’ content for millenials in the appropriate jargon.

What is clear is that the general American culture is no longer strongly supportive, or in some cases, even tolerant of orthodox and traditional Christianity. Unless the American church recaptures the spirit and modus operandi of the church in Acts, which was a missionary movement that also did discipleship on the side, rather than being a nurture institution that has a mission committee, we can expect these sorts of gloomy trends to continue in this country. Perhaps we could start a new slogan—- ‘I’m not spiritual, I’m saved’.  Below you will find an Ash Wednesday sermon of mine.



Text:  Lk. 18.9-14


term Lent comes from the English word Lenten which in turn comes from the
English word lengthen, referring to the season of the lengthening of the
days.  Ash Wednesday is the first day in
the Lenten season, and has traditionally been a day of repentance, of remorse
for sin symbolized by the imposition of ashes, but in that imposition is the
sign of hope, for the ashes are imposed in the sign of the cross–the means by
which our sins were atoned for.  Ash
Wednesday falls exactly 46 days before Easter and of course it moves around in
the calendar because it is linked to Easter which moves around in the
calendar.   Why?  Because Easter is in turn linked to Jewish
festival of Passover, when Jesus was crucified, in all likelihood on April 7
A.D. 30.   The Jews followed a lunar
calendar which of course made the months shorter, and so Lent and Easter are
moveable feasts. They are linked as beginning and end of a process of
repentance and forgiveness.

above all days, is the time to talk about repentance, which means ever so much
more than just saying one is sorry, or even having regrets.  The Greek word we translate repentance metanoia refers to a volte face, an
about face, a complete change in direction or behavioral pattern, and from the
very first Jesus associated this concept with the Good News of the
Kingdom–“repent and hear the Good News, for the Kingdom of God is at hand”  (Mk. 1.15) seems to have been a summary of
his early message, and as such it was much like John the Baptizer’s message as

During a normal
Ash Wednesday service you will hear the words–‘dust you are, and to dust you
shall return’ or even ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.  These words are also part of the funeral
ritual.    Why this somber reminder about
our mortality?  Well for the very good
reason that we will one day go to meet our Maker, ready or not, and it would be
better to be ready, than not!  The reminder of our mortality is meant to
help us renounce our immorality, to repent of our sins, and as the old Southern
sign bluntly said–‘Get right with God, or get left by God’.

in our current culture we would like short-cut salvation— forgiveness without
repentance, salvation without a change of life, grace without gratitude or a
change in attitude. In a God-forsaken life, there may even be an attempt to
atone for one’s own sins.   We like to
say “let me make it up to you”, but alas that is seldom possible, even with
ordinary mistakes, and totally impossible if we are talking about sin.   One of the most powerful movies I have seen
in years is the recent Oscar nominated film–‘Atonement’.   It is a truly post-modern film, all about a
young girl with a vivid imagination who is rather jealous of her older sister
and her relationship with her boy friend who works on the English estate where
the girls live, but who is ‘beneath the station of the girl’s family’. 

It is a typical
class clash English drama in some ways, but there is much more too it.  For the younger sister Bryony would like to
have this young man for herself, but when she is spurned, and something goes
terribly wrong on the estate (a teenage girl is raped)  Bryony imagines that she saw the young lad
doing it,  she accuses him, and he is
carted off to jail, ruining her older sister’s relationship and hopes. 

The rest of the
movie is consumed with the tale of atonement, or shall we say attempted do it
yourself atonement.  Bryony becomes a
nurse during WWI, thinking she can work her sin off by good deeds.   She attempts reconciliation with her sister,
but this does not work.   She attempts to
wash her hands of the affair, but this does not work.  She writes a clever novel in which there is a
happier ending to the story than there was in real life, ‘to make amends’  ‘to make it better’ as she says, but alas,
the sin is still not atoned for.  Like
Lady MacBeth trying to get the blood off her hands from a murder and crying out
in the night ‘out out darn spot’, there is, and can be no self-atonement! 

Let me be
perfectly clear—neither good intentions, nor good efforts, nor good deeds can
atone for sin–only repenting, turning to God who has atoned for sin in the death of his Son Jesus, and receiving
forgiveness from Him can break the endless cycle of futile and fatal attempts
at self-justification and self-atonement.  

It is more than
fitting that at the beginning of Lent we would repent, in reminder that at the
end of Lent our means of forgiveness shows up in the person of Jesus, and
through his atoning death on the cross. 
Only God in Christ can not merely forgive sins, but make the sinner
whole. Only he has the grace which can change a sinner into a saint.  So as we have the ashes imposed we remember
or mortality and our immorality and realize that ‘tempus fugit’ and there is
need that we get right with God before we go ‘gentle into that good night’ as
Dylan Thomas put it. 

In our text for
this evening we have the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, an
appropriate story as April 15 is coming. 
The story is a story of contrasts between a pious Pharisee, who is no
hypocrite, and a penitent tax collector, who knows he is a sinner. The problem
with the Pharisee is not merely that he measures himself by comparing himself
with other less moral human beings, thus not measuring himself by God’s
absolute standard.  The problem with the
Pharisee is that he is a good pious person, whose piety is getting in the way
of his repenting, as he thinks his relationship with God is just fine. The
Pharisee knows his need for God and for repentance, and does not make a show of
listing his many good deeds, as if to impress God.  This word just in— God is not easily

The tax collector,
who knows he has defrauded many, and must come to God ‘just as I am without one
plea’ throws himself on the mercy of God, and shows all the signs of true
repentance.  Notice the difference in the
posture of the two men–one stands near to the altar with hands uplifted looking
up to God, the other stands at a distance beats his breast and dares not look
up into heaven, in remorse for sin, daring not to look into the face of the
Almighty.  One prays ‘I thank you God I
am not like other people–evil doers.. or even this tax collector’  The other prays, ‘God have mercy on me a sinner’.
One reminds God he fasts and prays more than required, the other comes without
one plea to the throne of mercy and grace.    

Jesus concludes
the parable by informing us that it is not the former man, who is no hypocrite but thinks his piety has established his
claim on God’s
blessing and mercy, but rather the latter man who goes away
set right or justified in the sight of God. 
True repentance and a turning around of life and behavior, leads to
divine forgiveness from a merciful God. And the miracle is not merely
reconciliation with God and forgiveness, 
but one begins to become either for the first time, or once more,  one’s best self.

Today is the day
to repent of your sins and be shriven and forgiven.  Today is the day to confess you have sinned
and fallen short of the glory of God, you have neglected to do things you ought
to have done (sins of omission), and you have done things you ought not to have
done (sins of commission). All of us, all of us, as Paul says have sinned and
fallen short of God’s highest and best for us. Today is the day to repent and
receive the Good News that in Christ you are both forgiven, and given a chance
to be a new person, make a new start.  Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and
he will lift you up.  And may I just
add,  for our nation as well, in the
throws of a war, and on the cusp of a crucial national election, we as an
American people need to get our house in order, and kneel once more before the
throne of grace and receive mercy and forgiveness from Almighty God.  Now is the appointed time and needed
hour.  AMEN

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