Christianity, as most Americans have known it, is in its final death throes. Almost all denominations have witnessed dramatic reductions in membership numbers and fewer converts are entering the faith than at any time in its history. Many view this as a negative trend and in some respects perhaps it is. On the other hand, I firmly believe that something highly positive and creative can be birthed out of the current travail of the institutional Church.
This positive birthing, however, will require a major paradigm shift.
Robin Meyer speaks clearly regarding the current situation of the church and its seeming inability or unwillingness to feed those very people who are so spiritually hungry.
There is a deep hunger for wisdom in our time, but the church offers up little more than sugary nostalgia with a dash of fear. There is a yearning for redemption, healing, and wholeness that is palpable, a shift in human consciousness that is widely recognized – except, it seems, in most churches.
Strangely, we have come to a moment in human history when the message of the Sermon on the Mount could indeed save us, but it can no longer be heard above the din of dueling doctrines. Consider this: there is not a single word in that sermon about what to believe, only words about what to do. It is a behavioral manifesto, not a propositional one. Yet three centuries later, when the Nicene Creed became the official oath of Christendom, there was not a single word in it about what to do, only words about what to believe!
My friends, there is something wrong, drastically wrong, with this picture. Doctrine can do no more than guide our thoughts in one direction or another. It has no transformative power of its own, however. Today’s church is by and large an impotent institution and the sooner we get our minds around that salient fact the better. Only when we confront the reality of the situation the postmodern church finds itself in can we begin to make plans for any kind of effective, beneficial, transformational, and lasting change. Until we come to grips with the enormity of our problems, we are only whistling in the wind.
Over the course of the centuries since Christ walked the earth, we have gone about domesticating Jesus and his mission. In the process of doing so, we have lost something very important – in fact, the very source of the church’s life. By taming Jesus and toning down the revolutionary character of what he is calling for, we have lost contact with the vine. And the Master told us quite clearly what happens when such a thing occurs. Branches die when they are severed from the vine.
In the meantime, we have settled for a weak-kneed, timid imposter of a church. At the heart of the church is a fabrication, a weak-kneed imposter of a Savior that is a far cry from the revolutionary firebrand that set his world ablaze 2,000 years ago. Instead of the radical, world-changing Jesus, we have settled for a much safer version – a version that, in the words of Brian McLaren, is a:
…..popular and domesticated Jesus, who has become little more than a chrome-plated hood ornament on the guzzling Hummer of Western civilization…
It’s no wonder people are fleeing the church in staggering numbers. Robin Meyers continues:
The earliest metaphors of the gospel speak of discipleship as transformation through an alternative community and reversal of conventional wisdom. In much of the church today, our metaphors speak of individual salvation and the specific promises that accompany it. The first followers of Jesus trusted him enough to become instruments of radical change. Today, worshipers of Christ agree to believe things about him in order to receive the benefits promised by the institution, not by Jesus…..Christianity as a belief system requires nothing but acquiescence. Christianity as a way of life, as a path to follow, requires a second birth, the conquest of ego, and new eyes with which to see the world.
The Demise of “Christendom”
It is imperative that those of us who identify ourselves as followers of Jesus accept one salient fact: in terms of the West, the era of “Christendom” is over.” The church as we have known it, both in terms of actual numbers and cultural impact, is dead. The sooner we come to grips with this reality, the sooner we can get on with the business of birthing its successor.
It is important that we face facts here. The version of the Christian faith that has been dominant in the West over the past two to three centuries eventually evolved into something akin to what I call “Everglades Christianity.” I grew up in southwest Florida and later, as an adult, spent 15 years living in Dade County. As a result, I became quite familiar with the famous “River of grass.” The fact is, the Everglades is a river that flows south from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. It is about one foot deep and 50 miles wide. Everglades Christianity is a similar phenomenon. Our churches are filled will too many believers that are quite satisfied with big numbers and shallow substance. This version of the Christian faith is superficial, focused on belief rather than genuine spiritual experience, and more often than not, choked to death by legalism and rigidity of thought.
Increasingly, however, there are more optimistic voices being heard regarding the future of the Christian faith. Perhaps the passing of Christendom, especially as described above, is not such a bad thing. It is only when the old forms of a tradition are removed that room for something new and refreshing is created. Michael Frost, an Australian Christian writer and professor, sounds a more positive tone when he says:
….there are other voices that express real hope – not in the reconstitution of Christendom, but in the idea that the end of this epoch actually spells the beginning of a new flowering of Christianity. The death of Christendom removes the final props that have supported the culturally respectable, mainstream, suburban version of Christianity. This is a Christianity expressed by the “Sunday Christian” phenomenon wherein church attendance has very little effect on the lifestyles or values or priorities expressed from Monday to Saturday. This version of Christianity is a façade, a method for practitioners to appear like fine, upstanding citizens without allowing the claims and teachings of Jesus to bite very hard in everyday life. With the death of Christendom the game is up. There’s less and less reason for such upstanding citizens to join with the Christian community for the sake of respectability or acceptance. The church in fewer and fewer situations represents the best vehicle for public service or citizenship, leaving only the faithful behind to rediscover the Christian experience as it was intended: a radical, subversive, compassionate community of followers of Jesus.
I am of the opinion that future historians will look back on this period of church history and describe a rich tapestry of theological transition, eventually resulting in a new Reformation. These same historians will see that the polarization between the liberal/social gospel branch of the church and the fundamentalist/conservative/evangelical branch, spurred on by the Emergent Church movement over time led to a synergy that gave birth to a vital, comprehensive, service-oriented Christianity steadily grew in terms of both numbers and cultural influence. People who formerly beheld organized religion with marked suspicion were now among its most ardent and committed advocates. Many of you may be thinking right about now I have gone around the bend, but I trust my own insanity regarding this issue. I have great optimism for the church’s future and trust that just as the prophet Isaiah recorded long ago, God is once again telling us:
I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
The wild animals in the fields will thank me, the jackals and the owls, too, for giving them water in the desert.
Yes, I will make rivers in the dry wasteland so my chosen people can be refreshed.
(Isaiah 43: 19-20 NLT)
Am I being too idealistic? I hope so. It is only when the idealistic people in this world catch God’s vision and spread it far and wide does major and lasting change take place. In the words of the late John Lennon:
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one….
In a similar vein, Michael Frost continues:
I, for one, am happy to see the end of Christendom. I’m glad that we can no longer rely on temporal, cultural supports to reinforce our message or the validity of our presence. I suspect that the increasing marginalization of the Christian movement in the West is the very thing that will wake us up to the marvelously exciting, dangerous, and confronting message of Jesus.
The new Christianity that is taking shape comes in many forms and, in the long run, will appeal to a wide variety of spiritual seekers. It is difficult to accurately predict what the picture of the faith will be like twenty years from now, at least in the West. Whatever forms eventually coalesce and move forward, we can be sure, however, won’t be the “Sunday-go-to-meeting” variety of Christianity that dominated the past century. In and of itself, that is a step in the right direction.
© L.D. Turner 2010/2011/All Rights Reserved