It’s 1973, and I’m in my small-town high-school history class. My teacher asks, “How many of you are Protestant?” About a third of the students raise their hands, and the teacher exclaims, “Wow, that many of you are Catholic!” Jump ahead thirty-six years. I’m having a conversation with a friend about her commitment to raising her children outside the church. She explains, “What intelligent person would possibly look to the church as a moral compass these days?”
Things have changed.
In the early 1970s, a rural central-New-York history teacher could ask about religion and assume that most, if not all, of his students would be affiliated with the Christian church. That is not the case today. Contemporary Western culture is characterized by a religious diversity unknown in previous eras, but an even more dramatic change is an ever-increasing “unreligious diversity.” Numerous folk have intentionally opted out of religion and have done so for a wide variety of reasons. Few institutions are as affected by these changes as is the Christian church.
I have heard the laments of church folk, denominational leaders, and academics over the decline of Sunday school, the absence of commitment, churches closing, diminishing resources, and the church having been disenfranchised by the culture. As a Christian and a church professional, I share that sorrow and suffer those worries. Yet I find myself yearning to cry out, “This is not a time to indulge ourselves in whining and worry!”
This is a time for repentance.
Repentance begins when we admit that we’ve lost our bearings, veered off the path. The church today seems to see itself as a victim of the culture. We complain that the culture doesn’t give the church its proper place and that people have let the church down by not participating in church life. A victim mentality is crippling. It blinds us both to our role in our plight and to the possibilities that lie before us. Perhaps we need to ask “Does the culture hold more power than the God who called the church into being?”
My suspicion is that the church has been so dependent on its privileged place within Western culture that it has lost some of its essence, its lifeblood, which flows not from an accommodating society, but from the one who died on Calvary and rose again. I also suspect that the church is at least partially responsible for its current plight. My friend who has made the commitment to raise her children away from the church provides a vivid reminder that the church hasn’t always been faithful to its calling. I think it is possible that our privileged place made us complacent. If the church is a victim of anything, perhaps it is a victim of its own presumptions. We need to consider honestly our role in our current predicament if we are to be freed from the paralysis of a victim mentality and freed to embrace the possibilities that lie before us.
The second step of repentance is to take responsibility by turning from our old ways to embrace the hope that lies in a new beginning. I believe that this is a remarkable moment for the Christian faith, replete with possibilities. Within the former context of a church-friendly society, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish life-defining faith from comfortable religion. Against the backdrop of a “Christian” culture, it was challenging to live out Christianity as a phenomenon that creates radical community and transcends culture. Our current context provides a unique opportunity for us to shed the trappings of religion and “churchiness” and to dedicate ourselves to being communities of authentic disciples of Jesus.
A decade ago I attended a roundtable discussion about the future of the church. Responding to the question of where she saw hope for the future, Sara P. Little, distinguished professor of Christian education, explained that she imagined a future in which we would see arise small pockets of authentic, vibrant faith. Professor Little’s characterization reminded me of comments made by lay theologian William Stringfellow in the leadership tapes for his book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Stringfellow, an attorney who dedicated his life to serving poor blacks in Harlem, refers to the church as event rather than location. He calls us to consider honestly the history of the church in which we see not the static presence of the kingdom of God, but rather a transitory faithfulness, moments in which the church tangibly represents what the kingdom of God is like. He describes an institution of “here and there, and now and then authentic churchly character…not necessarily repeated in the same place or with the same people.”
I confess that I have often found the church to be a bitter disappointment, whether as a poor, “unchurched” child who experienced the judgment and scorn of church folk, or as the young pastor with naïve expectations whose days often ended in frustration and disillusionment. Borrowing the images of Little and Stringfellow and going in directions that likely exceed their intentions, I want to ask: Aren’t pockets and moments of faithfulness what we see in the church, historically and currently? As we review contemporary and historic church life, there is much to feel shame about; and yet, every once in a while, we see Christians acting in ways that make God’s kingdom real in the world, moments that say to us, “You can do this too!”
This is a time for hope.
The realization of that hope depends on how we respond to the day. Responses to the challenges of the current age seem to take one of three forms. One response is to reject all traditions and foundations of the past as hypocritical, restrictive, intolerant, and unsophisticated and to embrace instead a wide-open future that has tolerance for everything–except, of course, for the traditions of the former days. A second response seeks to retreat from the trappings, styles, language, and mores of the present and to return uncritically to the “good old days” of the recent past. A third response is one of recovering and reclaiming our foundations and reinterpreting them in light of present-day realities. This is the response that shapes my approach to discipleship, a perspective that was born out of my experiences in the church.
My calling to serve the church and my own repentance of a victim mentality require that I let go of my disappointments about the church. They require turning instead to embrace the lushness of opportunity that abounds in the present day. For me, as a Christian educator, that means wrestling with the question of how we can cultivate practices that nurture the emergence of pockets and moments of authentic discipleship within our communities of faith. The third response–that of recovery and reclamation–seems to me the most hopeful, the most connected to the essence of the faith while being open to a new day.
Before there was a religion called “Christianity,” there were people who staked their very lives on the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ongoing presence of Jesus. Before sanctuaries and belfries, before organs and offering plates, before pew cushions and stained glass, these followers gathered to celebrate and remember, and to learn more fully what it means to follow Jesus. Before Sunday school and vacation Bible school, before memory verses and flannel boards and even before the existence of a New Testament, formation, nurture, and instruction of believers happened within communities of faith. It is my dream that by listening together to those communities of faith that lived and bred nascent Christian discipleship, we might begin to reclaim ministries of education that are vibrant, radical, formative, and transformative.
Looking back to those earliest communities, we see that the companions of Jesus were faced with a crisis when he died. Without their leader, th
eir community collapsed and its members succumbed to fear and hopelessness. That crisis was resolved through his resurrection and ongoing presence in the Spirit. A scattered and disheartened community of disciples was brought back to life by the risen Jesus, and with that renaissance came a commission. Jesus’s followers were called to live out, as Jesus had, a prophetic-symbolic presence through which others could catch a glimpse of God’s dream for the world. To fulfill that commission, those who had walked with Jesus resumed his ministry. They established communities of Jesus followers that were spontaneous, enlivened assemblies of believers who were figuring it out as they went along.
As generations of Jesus followers worked out how to continue his ministry after his death, and later after the death of those who knew him personally, they took some very different paths. While sharing a belief in the ongoing presence of the resurrected Jesus, they diverged in how they lived out that belief and how they framed the message for new places and times. The early communities showed that the church remains or becomes strong by having deep roots and flexible branches, by holding on to what is essential and having the courage to adapt to new situations. As we seek to nurture the emergence of pockets and moments of authentic discipleship within our communities of faith, we have a compelling example to follow.
Adapted from Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities by Cassandra D. Carkuff Williams, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities
by Cassandra D. Carkuff Williams
In Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities, Williams explores early Christian communities and their practices in order to identify principles for discipleship formation. She then offers expert advice on how to approach modern-day issues of Christian education and discipleship formation based on the examples set forth by our earliest forebears in the faith. This book provides an overview of the past in order that we might take the proven example of early Christians and apply it toward our present and our future.
Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God
by John Addison Dally
As a post-Christendom church reorients itself toward the mission of God, what might preaching look like? Choosing the Kingdom offers concrete suggestions for a reconception of preaching for those whose imaginations have been captured by the possibilities of a missional identity.
Know and Be Known: Small Groups That Nourish and Connect
by Brooke B. Collison
As a counselor, educator, and long-time leader and participant in small groups, Brooke Collison knows their power to create meaningful bonds of friendship and support. And as small groups nourish personal relationships and connectedness, they also nourish churches. When members form close bonds with each other, the congregation as a whole becomes stronger and better able to carry out the mission God has called it to in the world.
Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation
by Anne Sutherland Howard
In Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation, Anne Sutherland Howard asks the questions, “What would the beatitudes look like today?” and “is it possible to live a beatitudes life in today’s world?” Through nine remarkable stories of ordinary people, we are introduced to a world where the beatitudes are not an unreachable moral standard, but a simple set of guidelines by which we should live our lives.
A New and Right Spirit: Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture
by Rick Barger
In a culture marked by a consumerist approach to nearly everything, it’s little wonder that there is much confusion about who and what the church is supposed to be. Barger argues passionately for congregations to reexamine what it means to be an authentic church in a culture where authenticity is hard to come by. He exhorts leaders to turn away from the story of our culture and to return to the story of the church, which is grounded in Christ and the resurrection.
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