Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Christianity is in decline in the western world by all accounts. From progressive mainline churches to evangelical mega-churches, most institutional religious bodies are experiencing precipitous drops in attendance and giving. Meanwhile, the Christian voice in the civil and political conversations is also giving way to other perspectives, be they Jewish, Muslim or secular humanist. It’s no longer a dark mark on one’s social character to say they don’t go to church, or even that they’re not a Christian.
For many leaders within organized Christian circles, this is all a call to arms, a warning shot across the proverbial bow to wake us up from our slumber and engage the impinging culture war with renewed commitment.
But as I suggest in my new book, “postChristian: What’s Left? Can we fix it? Do we care?” It’s actually good news. Granted, it may not slow the decline and closure of churches anytime soon, and we Christians will likely continue to lose some degree of political clout, but I argue that this isn’t the point. It never was. and in fact, our numerical, political and even financial success in recent generations has taken us far off track.
Following are several ways in which this current shake-up is the best thing for us, and actually promises to liberate the Gospel and its adherents from some of the false idols we’ve often come to worship, mistaking them for God:
Humility is necessary. Having become the dominant voice in the room, so to speak, for so long, Christianity has fallen victim to its own hubris in some respects. We’ve assumed that our way of thinking is the ‘default’ for everyone, and that we automatically know what is best for others. We’ve talked more than we’ve listened. We’ve changed others, while not being as willing to be changed. In short: we’ve become too comfortable with an imperialist attitude toward our faith. But Jesus consistently challenged such top-down power plays, and in as much as we’re to imitate the Christ-illuminated path to realizing God’s kingdom vision for the world, we’re well advised to do the same. More over, we’re to approach it with the humility of a servant, rather than with the bravado and arrogance of a dictator.
Friction is good. Back in the “old days” of the Hebrew Bible before Jesus came along, there was a spiritual practice of discernment among religious scholars and leaders called midrash. This approach to scripture presumed that everyone would reveal or resonate with a different dimension or meaning of any given text, and that, by debating or even arguing about it, God’s deeper, more complex and nuanced wisdom would emerge. The wisdom, then, came from the points of conflict, and the potential for the coexistence of multiple truths. It was never assumed that all present would agree on one, single and absolute interpretation.
And yet, we’ve come to lean on a ‘The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it’ way of approaching scripture, suggesting that there even is such a thing as literal interpretation of scripture. But such absolute approaches to the Bible and our daily living out of our faith actually stifles the spirit’s movement within and among us, rather than forcing all into some uniform mold dictated by God for us to fall into.
We’re worshipping religion, not God. It’s hard, when we’ve been endowed with these amazing buildings, these historic legacies and these time-honored traditions, not to mistake them for the thing we’re supposed to really focus on. To paraphrase the recent TV show, ‘Halt and Catch Fire, ’ religion isn’t the thing; it’s the thing that gets us to the thing.
Organized religion, and all that comes with it, is a means to an end. It’s intent is to facilitate community, spiritual growth, mutual accountability, worship of God and transformation of the world around us. But so much of our energy in recent decades has gone into propping up aging, hollowed out institutions and preserving empty rituals for the sake of themselves that we’ve turned them into the golden calf, taking precedent over God and the Gospel at the center of our hearts. We’ve fallen victim to mistaken assumption that we have to resurrect dying religious infrastructures in order to reveal God to ourselves and others. But in doing so, we’ve run the risk of losing connection with God’s call all together.
We need to know who we are independent of Church. I’ve suggested in my “postChristian” book that Christianity is undergoing both an identity crisis and a credibility crisis. One the one hand, we have to re-imagine who we are without being propped up by the religious systems into which we’ve invested so much of ourselves, our resources, and therefore, much of our egos and identities. So when those fade or weaken, what does this mean about us as people, or as Christians? We can’t rely on tradition to tell us who we are; rather, we have to listen with fresh ears and an open heart for God’s call to something new. To what, we’re not entirely sure.
Christianity has a PR problem. As for the credibility crisis noted above, it’s simple as simple as this. The world beyond our doors doesn’t tend to take issue with God or even Jesus; it’s Christians they can’t stand. As Gandhi famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” And so it goes today. In a survey of hundreds of Christians and non-Christians alike my wife, Amy, and I did a few years back, the words principally associated with God included “loving, ” “forgiving” and “merciful.” However, the words most commonly associated with Christians – even by other Christians! – were ‘judgmental’ and ‘hypocrites.’
If we’re to be the body of Christ in the world, and in so much as Jesus is the embodiment of the God of our understanding, then we have some work to do.