In case you haven’t noticed, great rumblings of change are rocking the very foundations of the Body of Christ. It is difficult to ascertain exactly what shape this major transformation will take once the dust settles, but one thing is certain regarding this change: it is long overdue.
Interestingly, these changes are driven by the younger members of the church and encompass a broad spectrum of issues and themes. No longer content to be led around by the nose by the Religious Right, this new breed of Evangelicals have a broader perspective and realize that the older issues that defined the political landscape of conservative Christianity, although still important, are far from the whole enchilada. Jim Wallis, long-time Christian activist and founder of Sojourners, describes these new believers:
For those Christians, sanctity of life now includes poverty, war, genocide, and climate change. Healthy families are also still a top concern, but many Christians don’t see gay and lesbian rights as the primary cause of family breakdown. These religious voters refuse to the distracted by the culture wars of the previous generation. They are not the evangelicals the country is used to seeing and hearing about in the media, and they are already reshaping the future agenda.
I am cautiously optimistic as I see this increasing groundswell of positive effort on the part of the youth of today’s church. As with all movements that challenge the status quo, there is an inevitable backlash from those who cannot see past their own experience and personal prejudice. It is no different now as the more traditional, culture-bound elements of the Body of Christ see this new force for change as reeking of fire and brimstone. These folks tend to resist any attempt to tear down the old walls that separate different groups within the church; and these same folks beat loudly the drums of disharmony and discord while they erect new fences and see one of Satan’s demons behind every tree.
Even so, I firmly believe that this new force in the church, driven by principles and ethics laid down by Christ himself and energized by a genuine desire to become the effective hands, feet, and heart of the Master in this hurting world, will in the end impact the Body of Christ in ways both profound and far reaching. Wallis further describes the demographic of this emerging element in today’s church:
These are the churches I feel most at home in now and in which I see the future – congregations full of liberals and conservatives, old and young, many formerly unchurched but now committed Christians, suburban but involved in their cities, urban who make the city their “parish,” evangelical, mainline Protestant and Catholic, but comfortably ecumenical, full of families and kids, crowds of teenagers in the youth group, traditional and contemporary in worship, intellectual but warm-hearted, successful but humble, Democrats and Republicans who believe God is neither, becoming as colorful as the rich diversity of all God’s children, and most of all, fervently committed to a gospel that is both personal and social and refusing to divide the word of God or the Body of Christ. And they are churches who now want to reach out to their neighbors from all the other faith traditions in their communities and those of no faith at all for projects of “the common good.” It is a future for which I have been hoping and waiting – for a long time.
I, too, have been hoping, waiting, and especially praying, for these changes as well. As an institution in general, the church has been taking a beating for at least two decades and perhaps even longer. People have been leaving in droves. Yes, there are some denominations and independent churches that are doing better than most, yet the general trend has been one of a downward spiral, not only in terms of membership numbers, but also in relation to social impact. The Body of Christ, once viewed as one of the most important threads in the fabric of American culture, has been pushed increasingly to the periphery. In a word, the relevance of the church has been marginalized.
Many sincere believers blame the increasing secularization of our society for this reduction in the church’s cultural influence. They point wagging fingers at the removal of prayer from the public schools in the early 60’s as a factor, as well as the general trend since that time to erect firm barriers that separate church and state. The result, according to these finger pointers, has been a drastic erosion in the moral fiber of our nation.
The loss of our nation’s moral compass is without question. Most folks these days go about their daily rounds in a fog of ethical confusion that seems to become more pronounced as post-modern culture advances. When self-absorbed, self-serving principles like “if it feels good, do it,” or “ follow your bliss” become the moral guidelines of a society, the central fabric holding that society together frays and eventually degenerates all together.
I would agree that giving prayer in schools the old heave-ho is partially to blame for this phenomenon, as well as increased secularization. However, I think there are other factors at play here that are perhaps even more causative, especially when it comes to the loss of numbers and influence of the church.
The fact is the Body of Christ as a whole has done a significant amount of damage both to its witness and its reputation over the past 25-30 years. I don’t want to enter into a political debate here; that is not my intention. Both political parties have more skeletons in their respective closets than can be counted. However, a few things must be faced if we are to go about restoring Christ’s church to a position of effectiveness in post-modern culture.
The first thing that has to be tossed unceremoniously on the trash heap is our faith’s unthinking and almost mechanical marriage to the Republican Party. Since 1980 and the rise of the Reagan era, the fundamentalist, conservative, and evangelical wings of our faith has increasingly become in lockstep with the Republicans. This has done untold damage to Christianity as a whole and, if we are to find any degree of restoration and social impact, this unholy marriage has to end. Rather than a relationship that is built on Christian principles, this alliance has been more of a pact with the Devil.
Over the past four years I have been keeping an accurate count of the number of times this very issue has come up in conversation with genuine spiritual seekers who were increasingly desirous of becoming involved in Christianity. During this four-year time span, no less than 508 individuals, either in casual conversation, coaching sessions, or at workshops, lectures, and training programs, have made the following statement, or something very similar with an identical meaning.
“Well, I studied the teachings of Jesus and read the Bible almost every day. I visited a number of churches and actually found a few I liked and thought I might like to join. But I can’t make myself do that.”
“Why not? What’s stopping you?”
“Well, if I want to be a real Christian, I would have to be a Republican and I just can’t bring myself to do that to myself or my family.”
This sort of statement happened no less than 508 times. That’s 508 potential converts that never happened. That’s 508 real, genuine spiritual seekers who have not been able to find Christ due to an erroneous assumption. That’s 508 people who have never been able to get actively involved in the faith and discover how truly beautiful our faith can be. That’s 508 people that have not been able to utilize and share their spiritual gifts and talents for Christ in a positive, meaningful way.
That’s 508 people with eternal futures that are, at best, uncertain.
I think this misconception on the part of people occurs for several reasons. First, it occurs because our faith, as a whole, is overly identified with the Republicans. Secondly, it happens because the news media focuses just about all of its attention regarding matters of faith on the Religious Right, ignoring the reality that there exists a multitude of Christians who are either moderate or liberal in their political and religious persuasions. Lastly, it happens because too many members of the clergy attempt to control how their congregants vote. Take for example the moronic attempts a couple of years ago by a Baptist pastor in North Carolina to expel anyone in the church who voted for a Democrat.
It should be readily obvious that if we as a body of faith are to have any chance of healing our image, we have to become more politically discerning and independent. Marching in unison, lockstep with any political ideology is a recipe for failure, especially when it comes to the goals associated with the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.
A related way in which Christian involvement in the political arena has contributed to the dwindling influence of the church in our culture stems from the overly loose tongues of certain Christian leaders, especially televangelists. A recent study revealed that the profession of “televangelist” was the second most despised career category in America, ranking behind only telemarketers, and just ahead of auto salesmen and lawyers. Considering the various scandals and questionable fund-raising tactics of some of these personalities, the low ranking is not surprising. Even worse are some of the unbelievable statements that come of their mouths.
A few years back a well-known and politically active Christian television “giant” stated on the air that the United States needed to “take out” the President of Venezuela. Obviously, this same man has not learned his lesson about these absurd, off the cuff remarks. Just after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, he allowed as to how this pain and suffering was the result of a “pact with the Devil” made by the Haitian people in the 19th century.
These are not the kind of remarks that have the unchurched beating down the doors of our sanctuaries.
Personally, I think the most effective means of evangelism in this age involves stepping out of our sanctuaries and into the streets. As Christ-followers, followers of the man who washed the dirt and grime from his disciples’ feet, we need to get our knees calloused and our hands dirty. We cannot afford to wait for the hurting, oppressed, and confused to come to us. We can’t afford it, but more to the point, it is not to this passive type of service that Christ calls us. Instead, the Master stands with towel and basin, calling us to a task much greater.
In the new millennium, our service needs to become proactive rather than reactive. We need to look for ways in which we can help. Ideally, by studying patterns and trends, sometimes we might be able to see problems before they arise and take preventative measures. Even when we can’t do this, by being proactive we might be able to intervene in areas of need while they are still small, rather than waiting and reacting when they have grown to epic proportions. It is far easier to put out a fire when it is on a match head than when it has invaded a forest. This is what I mean when I speak of proactive service.
For those of us who dare to call ourselves Christian and really mean it, it is imperative that we understand that this particular path of spiritual endeavor is a risky business. You see, God is full of surprises and the radical Master that we profess to serve is highly unpredictable. If you treasure your comfort zones, it is much better to become a Buddhist. It’s a good deal safer to sit behind cloistered borders and chant a melodic sutra than it is to ask, “Lord, what would you have me do?”
Incarnational Christianity is a faith with a heart of compassion and eyes of discernment, which are able to empathize with those in distress and see a vital need where others see nothing. It is an incarnational Christianity that Jesus described in the 25th chapter of Matthew, in that moving section where he describes the judgment seat and the separation of the sheep and the goats. As followers of the Master, we should always keep these words inscribed on the tablets of our hearts:
Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me. (Matthew 25: 40)
© L.D. Turner 2010/All Rights Reserved