My 14 year old has a bad habit of trying to engage me in conversations which he really ought to be having with his peers rather than his parents. Because, really, only a teen wants to spend hours sitting around talking about their favorite bands, watching weird, nonsensical videos online and complaining about their teachers. Although I do appreciate that he insisted in introducing me to The Room. Because some sorts of genius idiot disasters do transcend generational lines.
Anyways, last summer, he was trying to regail me with yet more information about the bizarre genius of Trent Reznor which quickly started sounding like, “whaa-waa-waa-whaa-wa-wa” to me. So I stopped him and said, “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you go and learn everything there is to know about the character of King David and his influence on Jewish thought through the ages and then have a conversation with me about it? Tell me something new that I might care about.”
To which he responded, “see, religion is your thing. I figure that what you’ve taught me makes sense and I believe it. I pray and live by what you’ve taught me. So I don’t have to spend my time worrying about it or trying to work it all out. Which leaves me free to learn about all sorts of other things. Like Stockhausen. Noah and I have this theory that maybe his mother fed him live tadpoles as a child and that’s what turned him into a scary lunatic.”
And I kid you not, something very deep in me said, “this is the future of the church you are looking at.”
Which sounds odd, but stop and think for a moment; what would it be like if an understanding of God, morality and spiritual matters were just a given. If we all pretty much understood and agreed on them and weren’t continually arguing or preaching or fussing over them? Maybe there would be a few of us who were vocationally drawn to studying and thinking about such things who would continue to do so. We could be a resource for people when they needed help or wanted to deepen their understanding. But otherwise, people would be free to spend their energy on other things, secure in the knowledge that they were living in right relationship with God, self, others and creation. Wouldn’t that be something?
Now, the idea may seem far-fetched or even undesirable. Yet this is actually the new covenant which God says is coming:
“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “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,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
~ Jeremiah 31:34
This passage is also quoted in Hebrews 8:10-12 and 10:16 which is a long discussion of the forgiveness of sins through the new covenant established in Jesus. Hebrews 8:13 says that the old covenant is “obsolete” and is in the process of “disappearing”. Paul explains that at this time Jesus is “waiting for his enemies to be brought low and put under his feet.”
As always, we need to be wise about enemy language in scripture. Ephesians 6:12 says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms“. The enemies of Jesus and of believers are not people. They are spiritual forces.Like say the spirit of violence, greed, hatred, condemnation and will to dominate.
So, God has told us that there will come a time when such enemies are brought low and placed under the feet of Jesus. And when that happens, the new covenant will come to fruition. Meaning that once things like violence, greed, hatred, condemnation or a will to dominate are no longer seen as valuable or tolerable or acceptable in light of the call to love, serve, heal, free and elevate each other, the new covenant will take the place of the old, dead one.
And you know what? I think we are seeing the first signs of this happening now. We certainly aren’t there yet, but there are fewer and fewer groups of people who are set aside as acceptable objects of hate. There is a growing awareness that declaring a country an enemy doesn’t turn its citizens into subhumans who we can kill at will. There’s less and less tolerance for treating women as inferior to and under the rule of men. Greed is certainly still rampant, but there are powerful, wealthy men and women who have made it their life’s goal to improve life for others. We’re still a hot mess, but bit by bit, in the hearts of people, we are putting those old enemies under the foot of Christ.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that as this happens, more and more people are walking away from the church. For the most part, they are not walking away, as some religionists imagine, to live lives of debauchery and selfishness. Rather, people are seeking ways to be good without anyone trying to teach them to “know the Lord”. Whether they realize it or label it as such, more and more people are embracing what our faith says at the outset – that their heart is made in the very image of Love. And they are looking to see what Love has written on it.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that we’re just a half step away from some progressive utopia where everyone follows their own heart to their own bliss. In fact, I suspect that humanity’s about to explode and it’s going to be a hell of a storm before we get to calm. But that’s a story for another day. All I am saying is that when I look around, I am seeing the first dawning of new light. Candles being lit to provide light through the storm, most likely.
It seems to be my lot lately to tell you things you won’t hear taught in church. And what I’m saying most certainly isn’t being taught in any church which hasn’t decided to use a nautilus shell in place of some recognizably Christian symbol. But let me ask you something. How do you suppose the church will react when the day comes that God’s law and word is written on each person’s heart and no one will teach their brother to “know the Lord”? Do you really think they’ll be pleased? Do you really think they will be quick to say, “follow what God has put in your heart, not what man (including our pastor) teaches”? That seems very unlikely to me.
It seems much more probable that there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Hangwringing over the death of Christianity. Attempts to condemn and guilt those leaving into coming back under their control. Endless attempts to lure people back, figure out where it all went wrong, staunch the flow of those leaving, etc, etc, etc. As Paul said in Hebrews 8:13, when something becomes obsolete, it begins disappearing. It’s dying. And dying hurts.
Now, am I saying that we are seeing the beginning of the death of the church? Um . . . kind of. But it’s a spiritual death, not destruction. Like all death, it’s not the end. It will eventually give way to new life. What that might look like is what I’ll be discussing later this week.
In the meantime, I know that there are a lot of people who have left the church, although they certainly have not left God. And I know that there are a lot of people who are very concerned about what appears to be decline in the church. But this is really what’s supposed to happen. We’re not going to be teaching each other and telling each other “know the Lord” forever. And we shouldn’t be too alarmed to see it start to happen.
I’ve seen the future of the church in my own living room and it looks like a kid who hasn’t been in a church in 7 years, is secure in his identity as an image bearer, who loves God and seeks his ways, has read his bible and just doesn’t worry too much more about it. It’s what freedom in Christ looks like, it seems to me.