I spend a lot of time thinking, writing and teaching on the current religious climate in America and how churches and individual Christians can thrive despite the seemingly downward spiral of decline. While practicing Christianity in the 21st century, especially organized Christianity in a traditional mainline church, remains a challenge and at times our witness seems more and more irrelevant when compared to the greater culture, I remain optimistic, and have learned that such optimism goes a long way.
I had the chance to communicate this to many of our senior adults recently during a retreat on the North Carolina coast where I had several conversations about our church and how we are going to beat current trends to once again become a thriving presence. The answer came one evening as we sat in a common area as good Baptists playing cards.
As we sat in that place enjoying one another’s company, I began to think that life and church, is a lot like cards. In the game of life we’re all dealt a hand of cards, and we have to play our own hand. We can’t use the cards of the person sitting next to us and we can’t put our cards back in the deck and deal them again. We have to play the hand we’re dealt and make the best of it, knowing that every hand of cards has the ability to win us the game if we’re willing to play correctly.
Some are dealt hands that are better than others. Some seem to have all the luck. Some come to the table with more chips than those sitting around them and sometimes it just doesn’t seem fair to have to play against them. But when it comes to playing the game, in the end it’s not about who has the most chips and the best hand at the beginning of the game as it is at the end of the game. And even those who may start out with a disadvantage can win any game if they play their cards correctly.
I returned home and quickly crafted a sermon out of this insight. As churches and individuals, we’re all dealt a hand to play. Some are easy to play, some are more difficult. It would be easy for us to focus our attention on the cards of those sitting to the left or the right of us, but all we’re called to do it play the hand we’re given even when we don’t think those cards are very good.
As pastors and laypeople, it may seem that we’ve been dealt a bad hand. People just don’t come to church like they used to and the culture no longer sees Christianity as a relevant voice to be heard. Thousands of churches close their doors each year while many more are subject to cuts in missions, ministries and staff. Sure, there are some churches who seem to have it figured out and sometimes we think that if we could only imitate their ministries, we’d be OK as well.
Yet in light of all of our present day realities, I cannot help but feel that the rescue we so desperately crave will come from the inside, and that we’re already holding it in our own hands.
Instead of framing our church’s discussion on all that has been lost since the denominational glory days, I try to point out what we have gained. Instead of mourning what once was, we celebrate what is. Things are different, perhaps even more difficult, but we also have much more now that we did not have then. Today’s climate has made new ministries possible that we never would have considered in the past and has made us aware of our church’s natural resources.
From a place of what felt like decline, our church is more active in our community socially and missionally than ever before. Instead of trying to draw masses to the church, we’re taking our church to the masses. We’ve looked at every aspect of our lives and ministry and, viewing them as cards in the game of life, we’ve gone all in, putting all of our chips on the table. We’re playing the hand culture has dealt us and it is making all the difference We’re discovering our niche, the ministry and witness only we can offer. And we’re beginning to thrive once more. We’re growing, numerically but more importantly spiritually and in unity.
When I consider the world today and the work all of our churches must do if the Kingdom of God is ever to come to earth as it is in heaven, I feel like we’ve been given a bad hand. There is so much to do, and it’s not going be easy. Still, we cannot run away from the table and we must not lose hope. We have given, as churches and individuals, the tools and resources we need to complete our work. We hold in our hands the cards capable of winning the game. So I encourage every church and every Christian to ask what they can bring to the table that no one else can, and go all in. Let’s play the hand we’ve been dealt.
Alex Gallimore ([email protected]) is pastor of Hester Baptist Church in Oxford, N.C.