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:
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.