How Did We Get Here? (The Journey to NLFC’s)

33-124414175732DU

If I asked you, how would you rate the health of the Church in America? It seems to me that  many communal expressions of the Christian faith in America (aka churches) are not doing so well. Some branches of American church have been going about things the same way for decades with little change. Some are on the rise. Others are on the decline. This is sad not only because the glorious Kingdom of God deserves more than paltry efforts and impending bankruptcy, but also because there is so much potential in every one of these expressions of Christ’s body.

How did we get here?

If you’ll allow me some sweeping generalizations and a few oversimplifications of historical time periods and intellectual movements, I’d like to take you through a brief history of American religious culture and describe to you where I think things are headed, at least for some people (myself included). I’m not really a trained historian, and most of this chalks up to my opinion so it’s likely going to be “wrong.” But it helps me to lay it out this way and maybe it will help you too.

Let’s start with church. I believe that the Church in America has gone through at least four stages in the past 150 years or so:

  • Revivalism
  • Institutionalism
  • Rebellion
  • Corporation

In the late 1800s, the young United States had no religious backbone. The country was founded largely because of the desire to have religious freedom, so there was not going to be any religious system enforced by the government. Because of the diverse melting pot of natives and immigrants of every sort, the colonies were a mission field ripe for the harvest. Enter guys like George Whitfield and John Wesley, men who dedicated their lives to seeing the gospel spread through this great nation.

Fast forward fifty years or so, and in the early to mid-1900s you start to see the church as an institution gaining strength. It was as if a bunch of church people got together and decided, “you know what, we have to stop meeting in barns and fields. We need structure, order, consistency.” So you have big brick churches with tall steeples that served as the architectural cornerstones in many communities.

Again, fast forward another fifty years and the nation has experienced a couple of really nasty wars and many people (mostly young) are beginning to lose hope in the institutions of government and religion. It was out of this rebellion against structure and formality that the “Jesus Movement” of the sixties and seventies was born, and all the hippies who played guitar and drums finally had a place to be Christians.

When we look another forty or fifty years down the road, these “charismatic” churches had experienced so much growth that they needed to organize and systematize lest they implode. Instead of returning to the “old ways” of stuffy committees, town hall votes and politics, they decided to embrace more of a corporate business model of the CEO, the org chart and the top-down decision making. This was something sleek, sexy and above all, successful. This is the megachurch, and many have embraced its “seeker” focus and efficiency mantra of “go big or go home.”

If we look at what runs concurrently with these four stages in culture, we can see that the early twentieth century enlightenment thinking gave way to the matter-of-fact dogmatism of Modernity, which gave way to the deconstruction of reality in Postmodernity, which leads us to where we are today, not really sure what to call ourselves.

There are of course really great things represented in all of these movements of time, both in the church and in the culture. But I believe that where we are today has opened up an amazing opportunity for us as Christian ministers of the gospel to embrace and proclaim the ancient, pre-denominational, mysterious and holistic living faith that the Western world so desperately needs. And we can see this in the rise of what Ian Cron calls “Neo-liturgical Faith Communities.”

People are returning to a faith that embraces Jesus as Lord and the Church as his bride; a faith that can be seen the colors and beauty of sacred space, smelled in the flowers and incense, tasted and touched in the bread and wine. Young postmoderns don’t want to be argued into faith (can you do that?), they want to be invited into the story. When we make worship our way of acting out the gospel in these ways, ways that people can see, feel, taste and touch, it communicates to the heart in deeply powerful ways.

So if you have friends or notice church leaders who are suddenly being drawn to the Anglican, Episcopal or Catholic church down the street, I believe that this is why. We’re tired of hanging all of our faith on the show, on pretending to follow the rules, or on the evidence we can somehow prove. We want to be wooed in by a Person who shares in our real, every day lives and redeems them for His glory. We want to see Christ’s victory lived out in community for the sake of the world.

There will probably be another “stage” that comes in fifty years, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we faithfully proclaim and live the gospel in the time that we’ve been given. This is where I believe we are, which is why this is the journey I’m on.

More to come as we walk the road together.

– JV

 

Solvent

article-new-thumbnail_ds-photo_getty_article_117_71_92572475_XS

In one of the houses we lived in we had a bathroom with a really annoying shower. It seemed like you had to enter it through a porthole: you duck down, try to see without much light, try to maneuver your body around and get clean. It’s like showering in Gollum’s cave. Suffice to say, this shower was not the most pleasant one to bathe in, but besides that it was a REAL pain to clean. It seems obvious enough to me: water + no air circulation = mold. Who designed this thing? And why did they want to torture me? This thing needed to be cleaned…often.

I won’t tell you the words and phrases that would often go through my head (or out my mouth) while I was trying to pretzel myself down low enough to clean under all the ledges and in the corners. But I’ll tell you what I learned quick: having the right cleaning product made life a LOT easier.

This got me thinking about the concept of solvents. Have you ever had hard water stains? Or rust? You may try your hardest to scrub those suckers off and they just won’t budge. But if you get the right solution they magically and effortlessly wipe right off. That doesn’t really add up, right? Usually we think more effort = more results. But what if it’s actually the right effort = the best results? Thus the principle of solvents. But in order to be useful to us we need to talk about more than just cleaning the bathroom. So what if you could apply the principle to other areas of life? It’s like the saying goes, “work smarter, not harder.”

When I think about having the right solvent I think about the Spirit’s role in our walk with Christ, especially in the most common ways we relate to God: Prayer and Bible reading. Sometimes praying or reading the Bible can feel a lot like trying to scrub off those hard water stains from the side of the shower. But there’s got to be a solution…pun not totally intended.

Psalm 46:10 tell us to be still and know that God is God. Or as one translation puts it, “cease striving.” I think this reminds us that our relationship with God, at its core, is not based on our efforts. It’s not an elbow grease kind of arrangement. God has the power, and we have the stains. If we want to see effective change (or cleansing, to take the metaphor further), we need to access his power rather than digging in and trying to make it work. Too much of that will scratch the finish right off.

A friend of mine uses the analogy of a windshield when talking about reading the Bible. If life is like looking through a dirty windshield, the power of the scriptures are like wiper blades that cut across the lenses of our lives and help us to see. But if all we have is wipers we end up with lots of smearing (bug guts are the worst). We need a solvent to help cut through the mess. Thus the Spirit is the windshield wiper fluid that breaks down the dirt and helps the blades to be effective.

So here’s the point: if you find yourself frustrated in prayer or study, try asking God to reveal to you how to get more tuned in to the Spirit’s leading in your life. If you’re like me, you may be just scrubbing away at your issue without pausing long enough to listen to how you should read or how you should pray. Galatians 5:25 tells us that since we live in the Spirit we have to keep in step (follow along) with the Spirit’s leading. Sometimes a simple prayer of illumination (“Lord open the eyes of my heart to understand your word”) is all it takes to have God break in and reveal himself in a powerful way. I don’t think God wants us to be beating our head against the wall in vain. Yes, he does require us to work hard (sometimes really hard) and to wait for things to happen. But even in those situations we can have peace if we pause, quiet our hearts, and listen.

(I’ll spare you the cleaning product tag line here that would make this an incredibly cheesy ending).

Blessings,
JV

New Beginnings

bridge-13307985005Fn

Today is a new day. It’s interesting how we don’t usually think of every new day as a truly “new” thing, full of the promise of endless possibilities. But a lot can change in a day.

A lot has changed for me recently, although it didn’t all happen in one day. No, this change has been a slow and steady change, the way God often does it, bringing you to places that make you wonder how you didn’t see it all along.

For the past couple of years, I could sense the beginnings of God’s stirring in me that change was coming. I couldn’t have said what it would look like but I knew it was there. Looking back it seems obvious, but hindsight is always 20/20. I have been very happy in my ministry work for the past five years, blessed to be in a place where I could see God moving and lives being changed. I’m grateful for the time I’ve been given but excited about what’s to come. God has moved our family from Georgia to Florida, planting us in a new community full of all kinds of possibilities.

Change is scary but change is good. We can choose to run and hide or embrace it with all we have. When we embrace change it gives us new opportunities to walk in the freedom of who God made us to be, and that’s a beautiful thing.

So you might notice a few changes here. For one, I’d like to start writing some of my thoughts on liturgy, a topic that has been growing in importance for me for a couple of years now. I believe that if you aren’t already, you will begin to hear people talking about the Church’s need to return to some of her ancient traditions. I believe this is true and I’d like to tell you why (later).

 

I’m also adding a new section to the blog and by doing so I’m confessing something that you might as well know: I have a special fondness for a couple of brewed beverages, specifically of the coffee and beer varieties. So much so that I love to talk about them with others who share my appreciation (if you know me this won’t surprise you). So, if you share my enthusiasm, you’ll see some of my thoughts/findings under the section above, appropriately called “brews.”

And lastly, you’ve probably noticed a new look to the blog. Every once in a while it’s good to change things up, especially when your whole life seems to be getting a makeover. I’m glad to have you along for the ride, and I appreciate you taking the time to journey along with me. Talk soon!