Those of you who are interested in such things have no doubt heard about the latest Pew survey on Religion in America which was released last week. It shows an America which is deeply religious yet growing ever more open to other faith traditions and less and less dogmatic about their own. In particular, there is a lot of fluidity to people’s beliefs. 44% say that they have switched religions, denominations or gained or dropped faith in their lifetime. The mainline Protestant denominations are continuing their downward spiral while non-denominational churches continue to show modest gains. One of the studies co-authors, John Green, says, “It will become increasingly difficult to find people who share a love for distinct doctrine . . . firm beliefs and firm organizations are increasingly a thing of the past.”
Reaction to the findings have been mixed. Cardinal Francis George says that rampant individualism which leads people to “trust only their own spiritual experience” means that they are unwilling to follow church teachings. Eric Zorn at the Chicago Tribune lauded the supposed humility of Americans which “leads to tolerance, understanding and attitudes that promote true freedom of conscience in a multicultural world”. Others, like Erin Manning at Crunchy Cons lament “cafeteria-style religiosity that lets them accept what’s individually pleasing and reject anything that isn’t”. I think that John Green probably gets it most right when he says, “”Just because they don’t want to believe that there’s only one way to salvation doesn’t meant that they don’t take their religion very seriously.”
So what is going on here? No doubt there are a lot of complicated things at work which I could go on and on about. However, the one thing which I think many commentators aren’t fully understanding but which I think is probably the most influential development in American Christianity today is the death spiral of denominations. And not just denominations, but the death of any sort of faith in the value of denominational distinctives.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think that denominations are simply going to disappear. However, what I do think is happening and will continue to happen is that the teachings which separate one denomination from the next will become increasingly irrelevant. If you attend the local Presbyterian Church and you move, you may check out the nearest Presbyterian Church in your new town. However, if the pastor is creepy, the people unfriendly and the services dull as dirt, you probably won’t feel any compunction about visiting the Lutheran Church down the street to see what they have going on. The differences in teachings on creeds, baptisms and ordination probably won’t matter much to you unless you find that you want to do something that they don’t allow. The question this begs is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
There is the argument that an unwillingness to affirm and submit to the authority of a particular church is a sign of individualism run amok and cafeteria style Christianity. However, I think that is an argument which often doesn’t hold up in the real world. First of all, statistics tend to show that the churches which are showing growth are those which are more rigorous in their teachings and which often offer a strong sense of belonging. Meanwhile, the mainline churches which are depopulating the fastest are those which have moved towards an “anything goes” ethos which asks next to nothing of their members in terms of their personal beliefs, morality and loyalty to the group. Also, if you actually talk with people who have changed churches you hear complaints about nasty pastors, bad music, unfriendly cliquish people, management problems, a lack of community, etc. From my experience you rarely hear anyone say, “well, the pastor gave a sermon on sexual purity and I decided that I didn’t want to be sexually pure, so I left.” I’m sure it happens, but to be perfectly frank, most people are failing so badly at the hard teachings of personal morality that the pews would be empty if if was common practice to abandon churches which taught strong personal morality. Really, I would wager that any church which was able to offer the support needed for its members to live out a life transformed by Christ, including resisting the temptations of our culture’s moral free-fall, would be quite successful.
It can be tempting to blame the people, who are almost universally behaving in ways which are anathema to Christian teachings after all, for taking the wrong approach to church. However, I think that the real problem lies with a church which is so divided over everything from infant baptism to speaking in tongues to gay ordination and creationism that it is unable to play its essential role in supporting its people who are trying to function as people of God in a hostile environment. Many people have come to the conclusion that the church is divided over issues which are largely irrelevant to their faith walk, but without any other option, they do tend to end up as wanders simply doing what seems best to themselves. Which is a shame because the church, when functioning anywhere near how it was meant to, is wonderfully equipped to meet people’s needs in a way which pretty much nothing else in existence today can. We live in a culture where there is no community and families are failing, it is far easier to live immorally than morally, and a destructive nihilism runs rampant. A well functioning church community, which is actively bringing people into deeper relationship with God and man is uniquely able to counter all of these inadequacies in our culture.
This issue of church and what it ought to be vs what it is now has been on my mind for some time now. I’ve come to believe that we need to radically rethink our conception of church. Part of that means being brave enough to refuse to go along with all of the denominational divisions. I think we need to start by looking back at the early church and what it conceived itself to be. Before I lose some of you, I want to make something clear. Many denominations and divisions have come into being by people trying to harken back to the early church. However, they have almost always done so in order to try and figure out how to be more “pure” and find out the “right way” of doing things by imitating the early church. Rather than looking to the early church for some idealistic notion of returning to the “good old days”, I think we need to look back at the early church to better understand what the church was supposed to be in the first place.
We can start with the very word which we see translated in our bibles as “church”. (Pastor Mark Roberts has an excellent series on this issue which I am relying heavily on. I would highly recommend reading the whole thing.) The word we see translated as “church” is the Greek word “ekklesia”. It literally means gathering or assembly. Right here this offers a challenge to those of us who like to think of ourselves as part of the church when we never actually leave our homes to assemble with other believers. When the word ekklesia was first used to describe Christian believers, it was used literally as in “a gathering of Christian believers in Ephesus”. It did not have a mystical meaning of “any follower of Christ living in Ephesus whether they are present at the gathering or not.” Mark Roberts puts it this way:
To say, ‘I’m a part of a church but I don’t attend very often’ would be rather like if you invited me to a party at your house on Sunday evening, ‘I’m having a little gathering of friends on Sunday night. Can you come?’ and I answered, ‘Sure, I’ll be a part of your gathering, but I won’t be able to attend.’ You’d be downright confused by my answer, because being a part of a gathering means being physically present.”
Now, I’m not pointing this out to harangue anyone about attending church. While we should all be active participants in a community of believers, the unfortunate fact is that it can be very hard to find a church which is actually doing what church is meant to do. But my point is that if we are to properly understand the church, we cannot mystify it into some ethereal club which requires only spiritual attention rather than real life action to be a part of.
The use of the word ekklesia to describe gatherings of believers is even more significant than its literal meaning would indicate. Ekklesia could be used to refer to any gathering or organized assembly of people for a particular purpose. However, it was also the word used in the Greek world to refer to a gathering of governing officials and full citizens to discuss issues regarding governance and management of the city. It is particularly significant that Paul (who was the first to refer to a gathering of Christians as an ekklesia) chose to use this particular word. Pastor Roberts offers this thought experiment:
Suppose I were to move to New Hampshire in order to plant a new church there. I find a small town that has only one small, lifeless church, and decide to set up shop there. This town, Athens by name, is governed, in typical New England fashion by a town meeting that gathers periodically to oversee civic affairs. I begin my ministry with a Bible study in my home. After I have about twenty regulars, I decide to offer weekly worship services in the local school gymnasium. So I pass out flyers throughout the town. They proclaim: ‘Come to the Town Meeting of Athens in God.’
How do you think the locals would respond to the name of my church? It isn’t hard to imagine their confusion, and probably their ire. ‘Why are you calling yourself ‘the Town Meeting of Athens’ when we already have one?’ they would ask. ‘What are you suggesting about our local government? Are you planning to replace our official town meeting? Are you a subversive? Or are you merely rude? We don’t need your kind around here!’
Can you imagine the squawking about church and state issues we would hear if a local church started advertising itself as “The City Counsel of New York City in Christ”? There were other words which could have been used to describe their gatherings, but the fact that the early church choose ekklesia tells us something rather significant about how it conceived of itself. While the early church wasn’t indicating a desire to usurp the power of the regular ekklesia in deciding how the city should function, there was certainly something subversive in how the early church saw itself nonetheless. As Pastor Roberts puts it:
they were setting up an alternative society . . . The Christian ekklesia was not some little religious club off in a corner, or some innocuous gathering fit nicely into Greco-Roman society. Rather, it was a thumbnail sketch of the kingdom of God. It was a foretaste of the new creation yet to come.”
On rare occasions we might come across a church which sees its role as creating an “alternative society”, although these tend to be the more reclusive or extreme groups such as the Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Mennonite sects. However, when was the last time you came across a church which saw itself as “a foretaste of the new creation”? If we look at the ways the early church undermined the existing social order by creating an alternative society which reflected the ways of God, perhaps it can shed some light on how churches today can offer Godly alternatives to our culture:
in the ekklesia of God, Jews and Gentiles, so often separated in Roman society, shared life together as brothers and sisters. Slaves could also be full participants in the Christian gatherings, enjoying equality in Christ with non-slaves, even with their masters. Women could actively participate in the gatherings just as long as they didn’t engage in the scandalous behavior of the pagan cults. The theological truth that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female’ was lived out in the Christian assemblies (Galatians 3:28). They were, indeed, a kind of alternative society, one that implicitly rejected the domineering, separatistic, and elitist values of the Roman world.”
What is interesting to note is that the early church wasn’t in the business of trying to gain and use influence in order to change the existing societal structures to better reflect God’s ways. Their work began within their own ekklesia. Their alternative society provided both a better way of life for the believer and a powerful witness of the goodness of God’s kingdom for the outside world.
Today we live in a culture which is awash in materialism, radical individualism, a disregard for life and human dignity, immorality and mindless escapism. A church today which saw itself as “an alternative society” foreshadowing the new creation would be deliberately turning those cultural impulses on their head within their own church communities. Instead, many churches tactically, if not explicitly endorse materialism. There is little community and even less real, vulnerable community between members who must put forth their best “happy Christian” face at all times or risk being turned out for their lack of faith. They show a disregard for life and human dignity when they tie patriotism, war and God up together and denigrate the poor. Their pews are filled with people who engage in immoral behaviors at the same rate as the rest of the world. Their pulpits are too often filled with men who are addicted to porn, stealing or engaging in other immoral behavior. The services are often meticulously planned experiences where no human flaw or struggle is allowed to break through; as if airbrushed unreality is OK if done for a “Godly” purpose.
I have often thought that part of the problem of our age is a lack of vision. We have a hard time conceiving of how we can live in a way which respects individual rights and differences, is egalitarian, is positive about human potential, sexuality and creativity while still being Godly and moral. Of course, egalitarianism is a very Christian concept. Human potential for good is tied up with the fact that we are made in the image of God. Our sexuality is blessed because it bonds husband and wife together and allows us to participate in the Godly act of creation. Creativity itself is one of the characteristics of God. Yet, the church has largely failed to offer an alternative way to live because it refuses to radically reject what is wrong with our culture while often turning its back on very Godly things which would appeal to the needs of people today. If we are neither radically rejecting the problems of the culture or offering an appealing alternative to societal norms, then we should not be surprised that our churches are not particularly effective in helping people experience the transformative power of God, much less serving as “thumbnail sketches of the kingdom of God”.
Thus far I have argued that the divisions in the church are responsible for both the spiritual drift of people in our religious country and the inability of the churches to meet people’s needs for community, discipleship and growth. I have further argued that the church needs to adopt a view of themselves as active gathering where communities which offer and alternative way of life that reflects God’s kingdom are created. Which may bring us to the point of seeing the need of doing things differently, of wanting to do things differently and maybe even having some idea of how to begin to do things differently. However, there is still the very real issue of actually moving from ideas and desire to action. Like I said, I don’t imagine that denominations will go anywhere anytime soon. However, I do think that the time has come for people to begin thinking of ways to create alternatives for those people who are looking for an alternative to denominations and divisions.
Luckily for my poor readers who have headaches and are feeling faint from sitting at the computer reading this very, very long post, I have flat run out of time and will have to return to this tomorrow. And please excuse all of the various grammatical errors, missing words and gibberish which I am sure has made its way into this post. It’s a very long post and it’s very late and I’m very tired, so I’m afraid I’m just not up to proofing it all tonight. But hopefully y’all will be able to get the gist of it alright!