I noted here on LifeBrook back in 2009 that I was undertaking the Lenten tradition of giving up something for the season leading up to Easter, albeit with a bit of an intangible bent. That year I vowed to give up something that fed a longstanding stronghold in my life: negative thinking. As I look back on my journals from that period of time, I saw that this was quite a struggle. There were more than a few days that this chronic negativity had a life and a momentum of its own. Yet, at the same time, I did see that there were also more than a few days that I became less prone to negative cognition and even when I did have a pessimistic thought, I immediately became aware of it and was able to, as that wise sage Barney Fife told his friend Sheriff Andy:”Nip it in the bud.”
I mention all this because this year I have once again taken on this anti-negativity challenge as part of my Lenten practice. It is not so much that I have slid back into chronic negative thinking – no – in fact, the Holy Spirit has helped me immensely in this area. It’s just that I realize that this issue is one that has been a powerful force in my life and I want to take yet another step in getting on top of it. I will let you know from time to time how things are going.
I would be most interested in hearing what sort of things you folks are considering dealing with this Lenten season.
Yesterday I ran across these profound words by Max Lucado, in his excellent book Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make a Difference. I think we all might benefit from spending a bit of quiet time prayerfully reflecting on the message here:
God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.
Just look at the motley crew of hillbilly net casters, crooked tax collectors, and treacherous treasurers he assembled as his first disciples. Jesus said he would build his church on the foundation of a hot-headed blowhard that denied even knowing him when the going got rough. There was nothing about this band of simple folk that screamed “I am qualified to face every kind of hardship and carry your message to the ends of the earth.” Yet that is exactly what they eventually did. With the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the called were qualified.
Does Christ do the same today? You can take it to the bank. Friends, if you feel a calling, stop doubting, questioning, and stalling. Just step out in faith and take positive action. You may well be quite surprised at what happens next.
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 that 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.
As the new century begins to unfold, we often hear many so-called and often self-proclaimed “experts” on culture and religion predicting the extinction of Christianity. If one listens closely to these pundits, it would seem the faith is already in its death throes, gasping vainly for its final breath. Are these doomsday prophets correct? Is the ancient and once-vibrant church universal on the cusp of being relegated to the dust bin of sociological irrelevance?
The answer is clear: Yes and no.
If one is speaking of the Church in its traditional form and structure, securely anchored to its dated and increasingly ineffective methodology of encountering the world, then the answer is a resounding yes. The Church of yesterday is rapidly becoming just that – the Church of yesterday. Stubbornly clinging to a Jurassic vision of its mission, function, and structure, the traditional church is incapable of successfully navigating the shifting shoals of the post-modern world. To make matters worse, people outside the Church have an increasingly negative view of Christianity in general and Christians in particular.
There can be little doubt that we are living not only in the post-modern age, but the post-Christian age as well. Some of our more cocooned brothers and sisters may be in denial of this fact, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. And now hear this, things are not going to go back to the good old days. As the old saying goes, once it’s a pickle, it ain’t gonna be a cucumber ever again. Don’t just take my word for it, take heed of these statistics, culled from the research of several prominent church historians and sociologists, as well as renowned researcher George Barna.
Historians postulate it took from the beginning of the church to the year 1900 for followers of Jesus to make up 2.5 percent of the world population. In the seventy years beyond that, it more than doubled. By 1970, the number of committed believers in the world expanded to over 6 percent. From 1970 to 1992 the number doubled again. So right now, in the world it is something like 12 or 13 percent. These are flowers of Jesus Christ, people who say, “I am born again.” Here’s what’s really interesting. Seventy percent of this growth happened in the last fifteen years. All of that sounds pretty good, Turner, so why are you waving all these red flags in our faces? Well, here’s why:
Seventy percent of that growth is happening outside the United States.
The trends on our shores are just the opposite. In America today, over 85 percent of the churches are stagnant or dying. And while the appearance is there is an abundance of churches, the truth is most are nearly empty buildings with an average attendance of fewer than seventy-five. Every week more churches close their doors. Even in Nashville, the buckle of the Bible Belt and home to numerous large para-church ministries, churches are being turned into storage buildings, office complexes, and strip joints. Some downtown churches are more famous for the architecture than for the person and purpose they were built to glorify.
“America is fast becoming the land of empty church buildings and hollow religion,” said David Foster, founding pastor of one of Nashville’s largest congregations. “Out of 450,000 Protestant churches, we lost fifty thousand churches in the ‘90’s. I heard a denominational leader say recently roughly 5,000 ministers are leaving the ministry every month. These are obscene and sobering numbers.”
Not such a pretty picture, is it? I live in the heart of the Bible Belt, where people still go to church in large numbers and Christianity remains a strong force in the cultural mix. We have no real shortage of churches and, except for several crisis-driven denominations, few churches are actually closing their doors. Still, the trend of declining numbers is more apparent in the larger cities in the Bible Belt, like Nashville, Memphis, and Atlanta. In other parts of the country, entire denominations seem to have on foot in the morgue and the other on a banana peel.
Denominational leaders and church leaders tend to react in one of four basic ways: outright denial; panic-fueled tail chasing, like a dog running in circles; blaming everyone but themselves; or trying to find new, creative ways to fix the mess. Only Number Four has the proverbial snowball’s chance.
A significant section of the Body of Christ has arisen, showing not only signs of life, but also a freshness of vision, a flexibility of methodology, and a contagious optimism. Often referred to as the “EmergingChurch”, this proactive, mission-driven force in the Church is proving that the demise of the Christian faith is, to echo Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated.
In my mind’s eye, I often see Christ standing before the fetid tomb of Mary and Martha’s brother. With a calm, reassuring voice, Jesus spoke:
Lazarus, come forth!
Some of those assembled there initially expressed concern:
But Lord, he has been dead four days. He stinketh.
In spite of the odor, Jesus called his friend back to life and Lazarus responded. Still wrapped in his burial cloths, the once-dead man now walked with new life. As the vision progresses, it is no longer Lazarus who I see resurrected at the Lord’s call, but the contemporary Church. Particularly, I see the revitalization and renewal of the old Mainline denominations, so rich in tradition and resources. These denominations have experienced the greatest loss in terms of numbers and influence, yet it is these very segments of the Church that have the most to offer.
When Christ was here on earth, He was limited to performing His ministry in one place and at one time. He was one man, walking beside one sea in one little corner of the earth. He healed whatever He touched, but His touch was necessarily limited by time and space.
Now, does it make sense that the Father would send His son for this limited ministry? I don’t think that is tenable. He made provision to carry on the work through the Holy Spirit: we are to complete His mission. We are his multiplied hands, His feet, His voice, and compassionate heart. Imperfect and partial to be sure, but His healing Body just the same. And it is through the Holy Spirit (Christ’s love which is everywhere at once), that we receive the power to carry on the work of the apostles. It is a challenging and sobering thought: when we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives, we receive the same urgent and life-giving force that led our Master.
Set your eyes beyond the stratosphere and see a Christ who confounds the mind. This Christ is – present tense – the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus Christ displays God’s image visible in the invisible realm, where He is seated in heavenly places at the Father’s right hand. To look upon the carpenter of Nazareth is to discover God in totality. To know the Nazarene is to know the Almighty, the one true Creator – He who was, is, and is to come.
But that’s not all.
This Christ is the firstborn of the entire cosmos, the first person to appear in creation, and He is preeminent in all of it. All things visible and invisible were created by Him, through Him, to Him, and for Him. He is the Originator as well as the Goal – the Creator as well as the Consummator.
But that’s not all.
This Christ existed before time as the eternal Son. He is above time and outside of time. He is the beginning. In fact, He was before the beginning. He lives in a realm where there are no ticking watches and clocks. Space and time are his servants. He is unfettered by them.
This Christ is not only before all things, but the entire universe is held together in Him. He is the cohesive force, the glue and gravitational pull that holds all created elements together. He is creation’s great adhesive, the hinge upon which the whole cosmos turns. Remove Christ, and the entire universe disintegrates. It comes apart at the seams. Remove Him, and creations wheels come off.
But there’s still more.
This Christ is the very meaning of creation. Eliminate Him, and the universe has no purpose. Remove Him, and every living thing loses its meaning.
But more than all this, the One who created the universe watched it fall. He saw the cosmic revolt in heaven and the wreckage on earth. Under the caring eye of the Father, the Lord looked upon His own creation as it morphed into an enemy – His own enemy. And then he did the unthinkable. He penetrated a fallen world.
This Christ pierced the veil of space-time. He became incarnate and took on human flesh. As such, He was touched with the same temptations, the same infirmities, and the same weaknesses as all mortals, only He never yielded. Christ entered into His own creation to reconcile it back to Himself and to His Father. The Creator became the creature to make peace with an alienated creation.