I often get a sense that as mainline Christians we don’t understand the significance of our work in the 21st century. Too often we get stuck as we look with dread at church decline and the growing numbers of “Spiritual but not Religious”, as if we are looking over a cliff with no way forward. Our response to this has been a series of reactions:
- Denial with a myopic focus of doing what we have always done within the walls of the church
- Making the church great again by claiming orthodoxy as ultimate morality
- Tinkering at the edges and trying harder with what we know that doesn’t work
- Micromanaging our limited resources of money and gifted leaders hoping that exerting more control will save the institution.
Not only are those responses unrealistic they are also very depressing because we end up wasting time and resources on things that no longer matter. We say we want to “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world”, but in all honesty I think it has become more of a rallying cry for saving the institution.
So really, why bother? Why is church so important anyway? And what would make it more relevant now than ever?
The Judeo-Christian faith tradition was birthed during a time in our history when we needed to counter the chaotic and oppressive systems of unchecked power. Monotheism in the form of the 10 commandments brought about stability, laws and discipline by enforcing a code of conduct that, among other things, builds character and moral fiber as well as provides a sense of safety and security. Many of the salt of the earth people who are anchors in our communities embody this traditional value system. And any healthy society needs foundational laws if they are going to thrive. We see this manifested in the protestant work ethic, and the trusted handshake deal, as well as the virtues of respect, follow-through, humility, civic duty and neighborliness. It is the good stuff that any major faith tradition can provide.
However, as more and more people are born into our post-modern, post-Christendom context they have not had the developmental shaping that comes with a traditional value system. Many folks in North America today are unmoored with little to no sense of ultimate meaning or hope. Without that traditional foundation they can easily fall into a narcissistic nihilism.
We need only look as far as the Internet trolls and the disintegration of our public discourse to get a glimpse of the damage this wreaks on our collective lives. We see this writ large in North America with more and more people falling prey to conspiracy theories, fake news and polarizing politics. The more complex and chaotic our world becomes with mass shootings, sexual violence, the effects of global warming, terrorism and mass migrations of people, the more we close down. We no longer hold a collective memory of resilience, hope and trust found in the gospel stories.
Currently the church has fallen prey to these responses as we unwittingly fuel the fear with our best intentions. We are caught up in our own identity politics, schisms and moral outrage in the midst of institutional decline. Instead of embracing the best of who we are, we are fighting each other for market share. When the world needs us most, we are stuck in our own self-defeating patterns.
What the world needs, what our country needs, is a church that can rise above these issues so that we can be a part of the solution on both macro and micro levels.
We need to move beyond the fear of failure and the tight grip of saving the institutional church. We need to follow the energy of new life. We need to live with kingdom eyes and see the possibilities of bringing healing and wholeness to our world.
This is not to advocate a turning back of time to make the church great again; rather, it is an embracing of the rich traditions of the past in a way that makes sense to the life conditions that we are facing today.
The progressive church can offer that way forward – a way of helping people to grow in the ways of love and peace. This is messy, but we actually know how to do this. We offer community for folks who feel lonely and isolated. We are on the front lines of justice living out our commandment to love one another. We are the hands and feet of Christ feeding the hungry, providing shelter, and healing the sick. But we can’t stop there. We need to move beyond the barriers of political correctness to bring people together to listen deeply to their joys and sorrows, their fears and hopes, and their stories of resilience and common humanity. We need to invite them into the larger story of faith that the church can uniquely provide.
As I reflect upon the stories of Jesus I am aware that he constantly brought up metaphors for a new way of being in the world – a way of living into the wholeness of God. He called it the Kingdom of God. When his contemporaries got stuck in the fear of the day he called them to live into that Kingdom that was always within and at hand. Can you not see it? It was a shift in perspective from fear into freedom, from scarcity into abundance. It is precisely this shift that we so need today. And the church is uniquely positioned to embody and proclaim it on earth as it is in heaven.