It does no one any good to bury your head in the sand. Denying the situation won’t make it any less real. Let’s just lay the cards on the table, alright?
Church, you just aren’t that important anymore.
It doesn’t matter how rockin’ you can make the music, how many cappuccino bars you put in the lobby, or how much you buzz with words like “authentic” and “story”. All you’re doing is some sort of slow re-branding of your identity, cherry picking the most marketable parts of the North American culture, making hipsters and moguls your fashion advisers. No matter how much you spend on marketing research, leadership training, and advertisement campaigns, the bottom line is this: people just aren’t that into you anymore.
Look, society is over you. While you were busy freaking out about post-modern thought and trying to keep some element of relevance, the world around you changed, moved on, and became fully post-Christendom. Simply put, the church as an institution doesn’t hold the power, authority, and sway that it did at one time. People don’t grow up in Church then leave when they go off to college; people simply don’t grow up in any church now. Social circles aren’t defined by what congregation a person gathers with. Church, you aren’t a pillar of the community anymore. The default position you once had is no more. In fact, most of the time, people are suspicious of you. With all the scandal, abuse, lies, and manipulation that have come from the various pulpits, can you really blame them?
I’m not laying some fault at your feet. It’s not something you did wrong to lose the trust of the people, well not entirely you anyways. This is just a cultural shift that was bound to happen. Church, you have been tied with political power in one form or another since the time of Constantine. The entire spectrum of history we know as “the modern era” was born, raised, and died with you wielding power with the political entities. It was hard for us to see where Church ended and state began. But time changes all things, and now people don’t want you in bed with politics anymore. People don’t want your religion dictating laws, lifestyles, legal proceedings, and lobbying.
I know this is hard to hear, but it is important that you pay attention to this. Don’t get defensive and reactive. Just listen: people don’t want you, the Church, to be mucking about, uninvited, in their lives. People don’t want an institution to dictate a spiritual playbook to them. If they are interested in spirituality, religion, or anything of the sort, they want to find answers for themselves.
This culture is different from what it was twenty years ago. What I was given by you, Church, was a legacy of battling nominal or carnal Christianity. The assumption was that people just needed to hear the gospel, and then really believe, really become a disciple, and the “slow decline of society” would right its self. This mentality fueled the moralist thread that became second nature to Christianity. We were told so little of grace by you, Church. But you spoke much of obedience and diligence, of discipline and lordship.
Church, you clung to this mentality long after society around you moved on. Long after the issue stopped being about getting people to “renew the faith of their youth” you kept asking the same questions, frustrated by the ever diminishing results. At this point, there were two classic reactions:
- You began to insist that entrenching ourselves in the fundamentals of our faith would keep us from being corrupted by this new, “secular” mentality. Effectively declaring war on the culture, you grasped at straws of political power and media presence, effectively creating what is now a semi-thriving subculture of church culture. You disengaged from culture to the point of calling us post-modern children evil for thinking differently than you.
- The other track was to begin making faith sexy again. By challenging the classics tenants of faith, you hoped to change what we believed to fit this new society, thereby proving that the institution of church was flexible, adaptable, and always relevant to the culture around you. You wanted to fit in with the cool kids, so you changed your clothes, got a new vocabulary, got a hip hair cut, and tried to get people to come and believe in the new revelations of Jesus that now, for the first time, we were finally understanding.
Reacting to this post-Christendom society by either trying to get people to somehow be truly serious about their faith or by making faith into something people care about is continually asking the wrong questions.
I get these reactions Church. I know it was partly the best intentions and partly self-preservation. I get that at your core, you care about people knowing the truth. That’s partly what makes you the Church! But neither of these paths will help you flourish and thrive. Combining these reactions just leads to a marketing driven, event oriented, cult of personality that we now see now as the face of you, Church. Those of us that grew up with you, those of us who were present for all your reactions to the changing culture, we were the ones that inherited a Christian life that was all about “really believing better”. How crappy is that for the defining of discipleship? Both of these paths promote saving you, the Church, as an institution, and I don’t know if that’s what we should do.
Church, I love you.
I’m part of you. As I have said before, I grew up with one foot in your halls, your culture, your power struggles. I know you, and I am part of you. However, I have also grown up embracing the fact that times are not what they once were. I grew up post-modern, full of questions, doubts, and deconstruction. All of my searching for better answers has led me again and again to Jesus, and when I see Jesus I can’t help but see his people: the Church.
What I see now are people who believe, and not an institution to uphold.
Church, what would happen if you were content to let yourself die? What if the institution that you have tried to preserve needs to die? What would happen to the people of God?
I believe that we, the people of God would thrive on. I believe that in our friendships, our work lives, our families — I believe that in all of these place we would begin to find a God who is already at work, and we would find ourselves bound together with him and with each other, not as an institution, but as human beings seeking the Spirit of God and being used by the spirit of God. People gathering in various ways to listen to the scriptures, to pray, and to break bread together in remembrance of Jesus, his death, and resurrection.
Church, remember when that is what you were? Can you remember before you bought buildings before you got a budget before you had a staff and job titles and programs and guest speakers and book deals and CD releases and tee shirts and knock off product substitutions and some seminar event every week?
Church, do you remember that you are people?
Sure, society may have moved far away from any idea that the Church as an institution matters. Sure, we may live in a time when people’s stories and experiences count more than well-reasoned arguments to prove a belief system as right. Sure, there are a plethora of sub-cultures now making up society, with their own language and life rhythms. But Church, society is just like you: made up of people.
Church, if you keep fighting to be a big name, trusted institution, you are going to alienate people more and more. The harder you fight, the more full of pride, misinformation, and ego you will be. But, if you let the institution die, let the people out of the box, let them live their lives as witnesses of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit… this is getting back to your identity: the sent people of God gathered in a distant land to tell of God’s invitation to salvation for all who will hear.
This is entirely different from anything you have been for over 1,000 years. I know it feels scary. I know it feels like you are giving up. I promise, though, you are not. The way forward is a return to the roots: let the preservation of the institution cease so that the empowerment of the people can continue in new and powerful ways.
We can do this Church. Look around: the people who make up society and culture need to hear the invitation of salvation; they want to hear our stories, our experiences, our witness. Not our assumptions of privilege and authority. Fighting to keep some institutional form and function is only hiding the light under a basket. Let it shine; God and his people are up to the task.
With all the love in my heart,
This post is sparked by Chapter 1 of the book Prodigal Christianity by David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. They’re the first sign post for navigating a way through and beyond the neo-reformed Emergent/liberal tensions is acknowledging that we are in a post-Christendom culture. If we are going to admit the reality of the social climate around us, we have to admit that our “classic” concept of church as an institution is not adequate to thrive in this culture. This doesn’t mean that we hunker down and wait. Nor am I implying that we abandon orthodoxy for hip social activism. It also doesn’t mean that we simply need to balance the two reactions. We need a new way to be the people of God here and now. I really think that abandoning the church as an institution (and all the baggage that goes with it) is the best way forward.
How do you think the church should move forward to be a city on a hill, the light, and salt of the earth, in the cultures you find yourself in?