Writer and lecturer Phyllis Tickle has pointed out that the church undergoes a major shift every 500 years. The Protestant Reformation happened about 500 years ago, so we’re due. And I think anyone who pays attention would agree that it’s time for a major change. We’re too fractious. The world and our understanding of it has changed in really radical ways. The church really hasn’t adjusted well and it’s created an unsustainable gap between the world we live in and the church.
I’m hardly the first one to say this, but the state of the church is pretty similar to the state of Judaism during the time of Jesus. There were differing factions. Some wanted to accommodate or at least cooperate the Roman ruled world they lived in. Some wanted to fight it tooth and nail. Others just wanted to withdraw from the battles and set up their own pockets of faithful living. There were factions among the Pharisees who fixated on following the rules just so in order to curry God’s favor as a way to bring about change. Many were looking for the arrival of a Messiah who would just wipe the whole mess away and set things right. Over all of it were the various power structures of the religious establishment who argued among themselves while remaining largely oblivious to the needs of the people under them. Just like today, they weren’t all bad or wrong, but over all, it wasn’t working. And a real solution to the problems faced by the Jewish people seemed almost unimaginable.
Today, we have all the same dynamics at play. The church no longer controls society or culture – we’re living under occupation in our own way. Some parts of the church want to simply acommodate and cooperate with the culture. Others want to resist it tooth and nail. A few are busy setting up sub-cultures for themselves. We hear regularly that we need to get rid of abortion, gays, sex outside marriage, put prayer back in schools, resist science and so forth in order to return to God’s favor. A lot of people are waiting for Jesus to return, kick butt and fix everything for us. We have a church establishment which doesn’t readily empower people, but acts as a gatekeeper and expects to set direction and be followed. The real problems and questions of the people are ignored or met with hostility by the establishment. People are rejecting the church in droves or suffering quietly in the pews. There are good people with some good ideas struggling mightily against the tides. But real solutions seem almost unimaginable.
It seems to me that in a time so very much like the time Jesus lived in, Jesus still holds the answers to our problems. But perhaps not in the way we usually think. Rather, I think that Jesus offers a model we can look to for inspiration and direction. After all, it’s how he was able to bring about renewal among God’s people and in doing so, change the world. And isn’t that what we really want and need – to bring about renewal and change the world in doing so?
So, what exactly does the model which Jesus offers look like? I would propose that it includes the following:
1. It’s forward looking
Many Christians today would like to go backward to a time when the church basically ruled the world that Christians lived in. Likewise, many 1st century Jews saw the goal as going back to the days when Israel ruled herself. But God is a God of creation – things progress, but never move backwards. Stars blow up or peter out, they don’t regenerate. Life evolves ever greater complexity but never devolves back to more primitive forms except in a three steps-forward, half step back pattern. Going backwards to some better, more settled time is not the goal.
In fact, Jesus foresaw not the renewal, but the destruction of the Temple which was the very center of Jewish life, identity and its covenant with God. It seems to me that we’re facing something similar today. The church establishment has served its purpose as a vehicle for establishing and guiding the Christian faith. But I don’t think we’re going to see a renewal of the church as we have known it. It may even be that, like the Temple before it, what we know as the church will be destroyed in the process of the Bride to emerging.
What form Christianity will take going forward is hard to say, but I suspect it will be more diffuse. It will probably be just a part of how we live and relate with people in our everyday lives. The church as we know it may morph to act as a resource for those who need pastoring, resources or information. But its days as the place where you go on Sundays for teaching and worship are probably numbered. (Sorry, pastor friends!)
In the end, we ought to be looking for the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:33-34:
I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.
2. It will take place outside of existing church structures
Jesus did teach in synagogues and the Temple on occasion. But he wasn’t part of the priesthood. He didn’t have the official support of the religious establishment of the day. For the most part, he went straight to the people with his message rather than spreading it within the existing religious structures.
Today, seminaries, publishers, Christian TV, conference circuits and the like serve as powerful gatekeepers for anyone who would speak to the church. You could have the most anointed, God-inspired, true message in all of creation, but if you haven’t attended seminary, gotten a book deal, a TV hour, a regular spot on the lecture circuit and such, you will not be allowed to spread your message freely in the church. But with the internet, it’s easier than ever for someone with a message to by pass the existing structures and go straight to the people. The internet is for today like the hillside outside the city or the boat just off shore on the lake that Jesus taught from was in his day.
If you are looking for how God is moving in this time, the big name pastors, teachers and writers aren’t where you will find it. It’s going to be happening on the edges rather than at the center of the existing church.
3. The theology will be both simpler and more expansive
One of the things about Jesus which I think is grossly under appreciated is what a great theologian he was. If you immerse yourself in the New Testament and then go back and read the Old Testament, it’s almost shocking to see that virtually everything Jesus said came straight out of the Old Testament. It was all there the whole time for someone who had eyes to see.* The problem was that, as Jesus said, people have a tendency to strain at gnats and swallow camels.
Thus in his day, executing the rituals at the Temple perfectly and maintaining purity were objects of great attention and sometimes argument. Matters of the heart – forgiveness, avarice, lust for power, love for those in need, etc were a secondary focus. When we look around the church today, we see the exact same thing. Christians will go to battle with each other over why Jesus died on the cross while largely ignoring the implications of the fact that the cross reconciled God and man.
The way forward is going to entail pulling those camels out and actually looking at them. The result will be less reliance on complicated theories about atonement, church, salvation, etc. In its place, theology will be expansively focused on big picture issues; what is the nature of man’s relationship with God? What is the story we can take away from the bible and church history of how God works with us? What is our responsibility towards ourselves, each other and our planet? How do I live as if Jesus’ words were true – as if a shepherd would leave 99 sheep to retrieve the one, as if it were blessed to be poor, as if I were salt instead of the main course?
Like Jesus’ teachings, the theology will still be intensely grounded in scripture, but the focus will be on expansive matters of the heart, relationship, humanity and transforming the world. It will seek answers through the lens of God’s heart, will and purpose rather than through the lens of doctrine.
4. It will be God inspired, but lead by empowered human beings
I suspect that one of the big things we misunderstand about our relationship with God is the extent to which we are empowered by him. One of God’s first actions after creating the world is to bring each animal to man for the man to name. This is God empowering man to make choices, to have ideas and to take action.Unfortunately, all too often the church has lived as if God had brought each animal to man and told him what it was called instead.
We have utterly missed this truth, I’m afraid: this world belongs to us. Our lives are ours to live. We do have a say. We have full responsibility. And we have freedom to act. We’re not supposed to be sitting around waiting for God to tell us what to do all the time. (As my friend Carol sometimes says, we want a god we can have a co-dependent relationship with, but God wants a relationship that is empowering to us.**)
We see this played out in the model Jesus offers as well. Jesus left almost no instructions to his followers for how to carry on when he was gone. He said nothing about rituals beyond remembering him in the communal meal and maybe baptism. He didn’t tell them when or if they should meet. He didn’t tell them who should be in charge of what, what the rules should be, what to do with their money, how to dress, what to eat, what relationship to have with the old religious structures. Nothing. Much like God bringing each animal to man to name, Jesus left everything to his merely human followers to decide on their own.
Yes, there were specific revelations made – mostly about matters which required such radical changes that it probably would have been beyond the ability of his followers to find the courage to make them. But by and large, the way forward and the resulting church came about as the result of men and women making their own choices and decisions.
The church often teaches us that what we think, want, feel and believe outside of what is specifically allowed or taught by the faith is suspect at best, rebelliously wrong at worst. But this flies in the face of the model Jesus gives us. We have choices which need to be made about how to move forward with our faith. We have both a right and a responsibility to decide how we will organize ourselves, relate to each other, how to understand and grow our relationship with God, how to practice our faith in the world, etc.
Which means that we can’t just go back to scripture and look for instructions. We have to decide what understanding to take from scripture and how to act on that. No more battles over “what the scriptures really say” and what is “biblical”. This is our game to play and we have decisions to make on how to move it forward.
I’m sure there are aspects of Jesus’ model that I’ve missed. But this is long enough and I have a bunch of kids waiting for some attention from me. So, what do you see in Jesus’ model that I may have missed? Share! Share!
I believe that we really are at a crossroads. And what is at stake isn’t simply the future of the church, but the future of Christianity. I think that we are heading into a time where what has been the Christian faith is going to look and be practiced very differently than it has up until now. It may even be that what we know as Christianity is in the same position as the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus. It may well be that what looks like the church dying is in fact the labor pains of the birth of something entirely new and transformative. But whether Christianity simply morphs or gives rise to something new, the Bride is being called out and the world will never be the same.
*I do think it’s important to note that Jesus wasn’t the only one seeing what was in there. Contrary to our stereotype of the Pharisees as fixated on rules without regard for the real heart of God, there were many who did in fact recognize God’s loving heart at work. Hillel is probably the most famous example – he also taught that the whole of the law was contained in the command to love your neighbor as yourself. But he put that above loving God while Jesus put loving God first.
**Believe it or not, I think that this message of empowerment is actually what God was communicating in his words to Job. One of these days, I’m going to have to go back, rewrite my series on the book of Job and put it into an ebook. In the meantime you should go check it out and see what I’m talking about.
BTW, I’m still working on the next part of The Diamond and the Bride. It’s coming. For those who were waiting with baited breath for it.