I am convinced we are on the cusp of a new Reformation in the Christian faith. I don’t think this is in any way over-stating the facts, no matter how much the more rigid traditionalists among us may wish so. Just as the Christian faith was turned upside down and inside out in the 16th Century, the same process is now underway. Like the Reformation that preceded it, this new time of radical change is revolutionary and it is part deconstruction and part creative construction – it involves a tearing down of the old and the emergence of the fresh and new. Deconstruction, although quite noisy, is the easier part.
As I have mentioned in other places, the church has a three-pronged task in terms of revitalizing itself and once again finding a place of influence in contemporary culture. The prongs are concerned with the church becoming: creative and progressive; transformational; and incarnational.
I am of the conviction that if the church wishes to make progresses in any and all of this trio of vital needs, it must return to the teachings of Christ in terms of “doing” rather than “believing.” It must return to look at Jesus more as a leader, teacher, and embodiment of wisdom as opposed to savior. I love these words penned by Robin Meyers in his provocative but insightful book Saving Jesus From the Church:
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!
Something radically wrong happened in those intervening centuries that ripped the real fabric right out of the heart of pristine Christianity. This tragedy was deepened in the creeds and doctrines of the church and was solidified in the Great Schism of 1054, when the Eastern Church split from Rome. The final nail was driven in the coffin with the Protestant Reformation, which had the potential to rectify a “belief centered” faith but instead, only served to widen the gap between the church and transformational spirituality. Robin Meyers speaks to the need for more than just cosmetic change in the church:
Christianity is now so fundamentally associated with the formula of fall and redemption, so focused on beliefs about Jesus instead of invitations to follow Jesus, that a new Reformation is needed. It will deal not with matters of doctrine and church order but with a recovery of the concept of transformation through the imitative wisdom of discipleship. It will reject once and for all the illusion that knowledge alone is redemptive and seek to restore the ancient truth that creation is blessed, not fallen…..The new Reformation will be about the very life and death of Christianity itself. We must first recover the original message and then be willing to interpret it for a new age. It will be a return to faith as praxis, grounded in trust, not intellectual assent, grounded in doctrine. Christianity was once, and must be again, about following Jesus, not worshiping Christ.
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 situation the postmodern church finds itself in can we begin to make plans for any kind of effective 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. 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 church as we know it will require radical change in order to survive. As I have stated elsewhere, it is difficult to see the final result of this process of change. However, I think we need to keep several key points in focus, lest we end up in a situation far worse than the one we are already in. For example:
- 1. We want to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The church is not all bad and in terms of its potential for service to the world is unlimited. Although many congregations are complaining about strained finances, as a whole the Body of Christ still has vast resources that are available.
- 2. As I have stated elsewhere, I see the future church as one driven by grace. The successful 21st century church will be creative, transformational, and incarnational.
- 3. The successful church will be one that is mission driven and service oriented.
The renewed and revitalized Body of Christ will no doubt take on numerous different forms, depending upon its location and the unique needs of its particular mission field. Still, I think we can identify a few key generalities in regards to the requirements for any successful Christian community in the coming decades. Jonathan Campbell addresses these issues by stating that:
God is bringing forth new wineskins for a fresh outpouring of wine, and it does not look like anything we’ve ever seen. So we must focus on Jesus and the wine he is pouring out, and not on the wineskin. Remember, the purpose of the wineskin is to furnish the appropriate environment for the juice of the choice grapes to ferment and season at just the right time. We should be open and flexible, like new wineskins, in order to have Jesus fill our hearts and communities. This new wineskin must be very simple and able to expand and grow with the new wine….Renewal is not enough. We all need to go through a conversion something like what the apostle Peter experienced in Acts 10 and 11. Peter’s conversion from an ethnocentric Jew to an advocate for Gentile missions was one of the most significant paradigm shifts in the history of the church. Likewise today, the church must repent of any cultural tradition that hinders the movement of the gospel across cultures. The current spiritual-cultural crisis calls for nothing less than complete repentance, what the Greeks call a metatonia, a transformation of the mind, a change of heart, and a new way of living. Just as Gentiles received salvation free of Jewish tradition, so all people have a right to follow Jesus without having to become Western or institutionalized.
Please, spend a few minutes letting that last sentence really sink in. Cultural bias can be a subtle commodity, seeping into our thinking and our methodology for conducting missions, service projects, and other Christian activities. Our cultural prejudices can be truly insidious, impacting not only our church programs, but also the way we walk out our faith as individuals on a daily basis.
Marcus Borg envisions a Christian faith that is transformation centered rather than belief centered. Its focus is on practical ways of “living the Way” as opposed to belief. In my own view, the belief centered paradigm has been much of the problem with the church for centuries and I couldn’t agree more with what Borg has to say regarding the need for a more practical, transformation-centered approach.
Borg sees this new paradigm as impacting the church in six major areas:
Compassion and a passion for justice
Living deeply into the Bible and the Christian Tradition
Commitment and intentionality
Personally, I find Borg’s take on all this both refreshing and inspirational. It is rare for either of these elements of the Christian tradition to be discussed from the pulpit in the modern church, particularly in evangelical circles. Perhaps it is time for these transformative themes to once again take precedent over the anemic practice of belief in correct doctrine. Perhaps then we might begin to see a vital church in which people’s lives are actually transformed according to the vision and the principles taught by Jesus.
When you think about it, trust and loyalty point to two critical elements that are at the heart of the Christian tradition. I’m talking about faithfulness and fidelity. In essence, these two concepts speak to the same issue, having faith in God and being faithful to God. In order for us to progress on the Christian path, we must be loyal to it, even when the going gets rough or doubt sets in. In this faithfulness, this fidelity of the spirit, we are able to dig much deeper in search of living waters. Rather than flitting about from path to path, tradition to tradition, teaching to teaching – we stay put out of trust and loyalty. We then are able to dig one hole fifty feet deep, rather than fifty one-foot holes.
Churches are notorious for resisting change, especially those churches that have been around awhile and have aging congregations. Yet change is essential if the church is to survive. Moreover, if it is to thrive, then in many cases radical change is called for. This process of change within a congregation is never easy and sometimes causes rifts and splits that are never healed. However, when a church is able to adopt an open mind and an attitude of flexibility, the possibilities of a bright and exciting future are great.
If the Christian faith is to experience a much-needed renewal, and I believe this is entirely possible, it must become less culture bound and less dependent upon institutional structures. The decline in denominational affiliation and loyalty, a cause of great concern to some, is a positive sign in my estimation. We must get away from programs, labels, and institutional restrictions and once again embrace the Kingdom message of the Master in its pristine form, before it was fenced, domesticated, and made manageable and predictable. Even more, given the trans-cultural nature of our global society, we must strip all vestiges of enculturation off the bones of the gospel. Jesus’ message had nothing to do with Western culture, nor did it have any political affiliation. Jonathan Campbell wisely relates:
Jesus is not bound by any culture or structure. His life and ways transcend all cultures. His body (the wineskin) is not to be culture-bound. Jesus calls his followers to undergo a systemic shift that goes to the root of our identity – one that questions all the assumptions of the Christendom model. What we really need are people living the life of Jesus in community, drinking the new wine of the Spirit and living as fresh wineskins in the world.
As stated above, it is hard to predict exactly what form the church will morph into, except to say that it is doubtful that there will be any unified version. Chances are, as we move through these transitional but formative times, we will see a plethora of new wineskins, some good and some not so good. The key to creating effective, missional, and inspirational new wineskins has little to do with “seeker-driven” programs and activities. Instead, the newly constituted Body of Christ will be “Christ-driven.” Our mandate in this age, as it has been since the beginning, is to discover where and how the Master is working and once we locate the epicenter, get busy doing our part.
It really is that simple.
© L.D. Turner 2010/ All Rights Reserved