Over the course of its 2,500 mile trek, CrossWalk America has met with over 11,000 Christians, been hosted by nearly 150 churches, and stayed in over 200 homes. We have listened to literally thousands of faith stories. What we’ve discovered from these encounters is that Christian faith in America looks very different at ground level than what is commonly assumed by media pundits and religious leaders. Specifically, the classic stereotypes of “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative” simply do not apply to most Christians. They tend to obscure more than clarify.
For instance, what do you call a Christian who is against abortion but works tirelessly on behalf of the poor? How would you describe a biblical literalist who believes in full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people? Are these people conservative, liberal, or moderate? What about a Christian who prays in tongues and calls upon Jesus Christ as her only Lord and Savior, yet also believes God creates other paths for humanity besides Christianity?
A New Way of Understanding Christianity at Ground Level
In our travels we’ve noticed a certain coherence between groups of Christians that has been commonly overlooked. While any generalization suffers under the light of particularity, it is nevertheless helpful generally to understand Christianity in America as orbiting around three basic circles of influence. These circles interlock with one another, with each circle influencing the beliefs and activities of individual Christians and their faith communities. The influence of these circles is neither static nor equally balanced. One circle may dominate a person’s response to a particular situation while an entirely different one may take the lead in another. However, individuals and faith communities tend to gravitate around one circle or another as their “home base,” particularly when under stress.
We at CrossWalk America find it most helpful to describe these interlocking circles metaphorically in terms indigenous to the Christian faith itself rather than political categories. We often refer to the circles as “Good Friday,” “Holy Saturday,” and “Easter Sunday.”
Christians orbiting primarily within the influence of Good Friday are not hard to spot these days. Whether labeled by others as “conservative” or “liberal,” these Christians are loudly decrying the decline or loss of their particular understanding of Christian faith in America. What unites Good Friday Christians is not their place on the theological spectrum but the intensity of their fear and anger toward those they blame for their loss. These Christians are so busy trying to crucify those they deem to be crucifiers that they fail to shed much light and life on the world.
In Ohio we found these Good Friday voices among fundamentalist Christians calling for a spiritual army to “track down our adversary, defeat him valiantly, then stand upon his carcass” (Rev. Rod Parsley). They characterized their mission as “a battle between the forces of righteousness and the hordes of hell” (Rev. Russell Johnson).1 In Illinois we encountered Good Friday voices among mainline Christians who withdrew an invitation to preach after CrossWalk America was deemed to be too nice to Christian “conservatives.” They were quick to remind us that the last Great Reformation in Christianity sparked the Thirty Years War and were apparently disappointed that we weren’t interested in starting a new one.
Despite the fact that Good Friday Christians tend to radiate more heat than light, it should also be noted that the basic energy of Good Friday is sacred. In essence, Good Friday anger is like salt in a stewpot. When used in appropriate quantities, it focuses and enhances the flavor of all the ingredients. If you keep pouring the salt, however, the dish quickly becomes inedible. Pouring still more turns the dish from food to poison.
On our journey across America, we have encountered plenty of Good Friday Christians, yet we have found even more who orbit around the circle of Holy Saturday. On Holy Saturday, Christ’s disciples locked themselves in upper rooms afraid to come out lest they be identified as followers of Jesus. Surely they experienced a deep crisis of faith, wondering if they had been mistaken in their beliefs all along. Likely, they felt lonely, scared, and isolated, questioning the future of the faith they had grown to love so much.
In our day, many Holy Saturday Christians may be found in traditionally mainline churches. These Christians have experienced a dramatic loss in numbers and societal status since the mid-1960s. They express strong concern regarding the future of their churches and denominations. One of the most persistent comments we’ve heard from these Holy Saturday Christians is that they feel like they or their churches are the “only ones” who believe the way they do. They feel marginalized and out of sync with society.
Many of these Holy Saturday Christians are laypeople who feel insecure about their ability to articulate their beliefs adequately in the face of opposition. Yet we have also encountered a surprising of number of pastors who feel too intimidated by negative voices within their congregations to openly proclaim what they believe from the pulpit.
This fear is not limited to ministers or laypeople from mainline traditions alone. We have regularly encountered Christians from evangelical and fundamentalist churches, for instance, who believe in the full equality of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons, or who believe that salvation has been made available to those of other faiths. While they are afraid to discuss these views within their faith communities, they frequently approach us quietly saying, “Thank you. You’re walking for me.”
Like the Good Friday circle of influence, the Holy Saturday one is, at base, sacred. One can no more blame Christians today for fearing to speak out in the face of opposition, or for doubting the future of their faith, than one could blame Jesus’s first disciples two thousand years ago. Holy Saturday is a time for silence, for quiet contemplation, for doubt, and for experiencing the dark night of the soul. Without regularly experiencing the draw of Holy Saturday it is doubtful that any of us would come to know a God about whom the psalmist wrote, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12).
An Emerging Christian Faith
What has been perhaps the most remarkable discovery in our journey across the country is the presence of so many Christians who appear increasingly to be less influenced by Holy Saturday than by Easter Sunday. These Christians tell us they are in the process of discovering a faith that is more vital, fresh, and profoundly transformative than they have ever known before.
Many insist that God is quietly stirring up something wonderful despite what outward appearances might suggest. Time and again we’ve heard comments like, “Something’s in the air,” or “I can feel it. There’s a growing movement out there. These Christians act like a crowd of people excitedly milling about an empty tomb in the first light of a new day. Some say they have seen Jesus walking about, others have not. Yet all are excitedly claiming that something big has happened. God is doing something new.
In our experience, Easter Sunday Christians are not Pollyannas choosing to look only on the bright side of their faith. In fact many are heavily involved in struggles for justice and difficult issues of Christian witness. They are not necessarily optimistic about the outcomes of their struggles, either. They have simply let go of their fear and anger toward their opposition, drawn instead by a sense of joy and compassion.
We’ve found many Easter Sunday Christians associated with the so-called Emergent Church movement—those twenty-somethings who grew up as evangelicals for whom ma
jor tenets of evangelical faith such as biblical literalism no longer makes sense. Having failed to gain a foothold in the churches of their youth, these twenty-somethings are striking out on their own, forming small house churches all around the country to explore their faith.
We’ve also found Easter Sunday Christians amongst the traditionally liberal, mainline denominations. They tend to be older than the Emergent crowd but, like them, many have formed house churches or fellowship groups either in place of, or addition to, their involvement in traditional churches.
While these Easter Christians may differ significantly from each other politically or theologically when single issues are all that are in focus, they are a remarkably cohesive group when the view is pulled back and the forest is discerned from the trees. The recent success of groups like We Believe Ohio to rapidly organize hundreds of Ohio clergy to take a stand for justice for the poor, diversity of religious expression, and separation of church and state is a case in point. While this group is distinctly interfaith in nature, the Christian clergy involved come from a broad range on the theological spectrum.
Why is all this stereotype-defying activity happening? Because Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday exert a stronger influence on Christians than do political or theological labels like “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative.” Understanding these influences is important not only because they help clarify what the traditional labels obscure, but because history shows a dynamic pattern or flow to Christian faith. Move the clock ahead slightly and today’s Good Friday Christians become tomorrow’s Holy Saturday ones. The Holy Saturday Christians of today become the Easter Christians of tomorrow. What is in the process of emerging is the early church of the twenty-first century.
Eric Elnes is copresident of CrossWalk America and Senior Pastor of Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ. He is author of The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christian Faith.
1. Both quotes from The New Yorker, July 31, 2006, pp. 29-30.
Copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to our permissions form.
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