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

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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

 

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2 Replies to “How Did We Get Here? (The Journey to NLFC’s)”

  1. Dear Jonathan,     That was more than a blog. Yes, it was a history lesson, but to close us out with ‘the deconstruction of reality in Postmodernity’ was intellectually difficult. I think your education is trying to peek through and raise its deserving hand to be of use. You may be over our heads, but you may need to be there. This was brilliant, but very troubling because you are scratching on the surface of reality – which is why you needed to leave here.     When you talk about making worship our way of acting out the gospel you are onto something that only the few, and the Great, have realized. As I often quote Melville, I think you are on the verge of ‘striking through the pasteboard masks’. However, I worry for you because you are so intellectually gifted, emotionally driven, and spiritually servanted. No one can do all three, but you are trying because you won’t let go of God’s Ideal. It’s just that we men have difficulty measuring up to God’s ideal. I constantly battle with the imps inside me and the spirits above me. It is a very real battle. Let me give you an example.     Last week I was asked to be the main speaker at a huge AA function where in Bob Meehan (millionaire and Bestselling author of Beyond The Yellow Brick Road – and , yes, lead endorsement on the cover of High Catcher) was to receive his 43 year chip. That’s virtually unheard-of, forty three years of sobriety. Anyhow, I’m up there doing my thing. It was crowded, probably over 100 folks, and they’re laughing as I present AA wisdom with my own brand of humor, and as an aside(this is all true) I said, “You know, we get messages in all kinds of ways. This morning I’m reading my email and a news bulletin pops up that they are going to make a movie about Dolly Parton’s life story and she is going to star in it herself. Then, below was a questionnaire – “would you go see this movie?” So, I check the block ‘Yes’. Somebody yells out from the audience floor. “Why would you go, John?” and, without thinking I say, “Because now maybe we can find out who’s tits those are.”     I looked down at Audrey who is now hiding her head in her hands. The place went wild with laughter, but somebody shouts, “Don’t you think your priorities area little screwed up?” And that’s my point. I didn’t have my priorities screwed up at all. It’s just that they were socially unacceptable.     I think you are walking right next to a new road which nobody sees but you, and it may be socially unacceptable because it seems radical. That road is the road which recognizes that Worship is more powerful that words alone. In my manuscripts I tickle my readers with the true concept/theory that heaven was originally organized and headed up by three arch-angles who reported directly to God. Gabriel was responsible for all Communication, Michael was responsible for Justice, and Lucifer was responsible for Praise and Worship. I try to make the point that if Praise and Worship was important enough fully have one third of heaven devoted to it, why should we here on earth be so surprised at the power of music.     You are cruising along that invisible and dangerously divided road where few have feared to tread. Be careful, and be brave, because you are listening above your register. Blessings, John 

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