By Alan Bean
This marvelous essay by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove captures the spirit of our times perfectly. I grew up within a mild form of Canadian evangelical Christianity that prided itself on being neither fundamentalist (like the Bible Schools that dotted the Canadian prairie) nor liberal (like the compromised United Church of Canada). Try as I might, I have never been able to whip up much enthusiasm for conservative evangelicalism, liberal Protestantism or the bland halfway house religion that wanders, lost, agitated and afraid, between these two poles.
Like so many others, I loved Jesus but didn’t care much for his Church.
Wilson-Hartgrove’s reflections immediately brought to mind a slim volume called The End of Christendom, Malcolm Muggeridge’s Pascal Lectures at the University of Waterloo in 1980 (the year Nancy and I began our first pastorate in Medicine Hat, Alberta).
“Christendom,” Muggeridge assured his audience, “is something quite different from Christianity, being the administrative or power structure, based on the Christian religion and constructed by men. It bears the same relation to the everlasting truth of the Christian revelation as, say, laws do to justice, or morality to goodness, or carnality to love . . . The founder of Christianity was, of course, Christ. The founder of Christendom I suppose could be named as the Emperor Constantine.”
In short, “it is not Christ’s Christianity that is now floundering. You might even say that Christ himself abolished Christendom before it began.”
Neither Muggeridge nor Wilson-Hartgrove despises the churches that are currently struggling to keep the ancient fire from utter extinction. Terrific things, and people, flourish amid the tedium and intolerance of normal church life, but even a cursory reading of the Gospels in the New Testament creates a great impatience with business as usual religion in Christian America. Have we not missed the point? Are we not reaping the whirlwind precisely because we have sewn the wind?
The rise and fall of American Christianity should not alarm true disciples of Jesus. As Muggeridge wrote a generation ago, “Let us rejoice that we see around us on every hand the decay of institutions and instruments of power . . . For it is precisely when every earthly hope has been explored and found wanting . . . that Christ’s hand reaches out sure and firm.”
I read with great interest Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” While Douthat doesn’t share many sympathies with those who consider themselves liberal, he did honestly acknowledge that “the defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life.” Though he seems to think Mainline Christianity doomed, Douthat holds out a prayer that liberals might find a “religious reason for their own existence.”
Of course, there is another side to the story of Christendom’s decline in America. Diana Butler Bass, who conducted a study of thriving Mainline congregations for the Lilly Endowment, responded strongly both to Douthat’s question and to his assumptions about liberal Christianity in a piece titled, “Can Christianity Be Saved?” If you pay attention to the numbers, Bass noted, it’s not just liberal Christianity that’s in decline. Save the influx of Latino and Asian immigrants over the past decade, conservative Christian churches would be posting greater losses than some of their Mainline neighbors. Even with the influx from elsewhere, many conservative Christian organizations are cutting staff and trimming budgets. Despite the old dividing lines of the Culture Wars, we have more in common than we think, Bass insists. “Decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity.”
When resources are scarce, people tend to fight. But we also get creative, stepping outside our conventional assumptions and daring to imagine new possibilities. By the numbers, the institutions of American Christianity are in bad shape. Truth is, they have been for some time. But this doesn’t mean that Christianity is lost. Across the spectrum of denominational divisions—and quite often in outright defiance of left/right divisions—Christianity is getting born again in America.
I do not think we can understand the great transition that faith is experiencing in America apart from understanding how Constantine changed the Christian movement 1700 years ago. 2012 is an important year, for it was this coming October, in the year 312, when the Roman Emperor understood his victory at the Milvian Bridge as the blessing of Christ. In short order, Christianity moved from being a persecuted minority movement to become the official religion of the Empire. Though we’ve been through significant political changes in the West since then, Christianity has held its place of privilege. Until recently, that is.
Of course, some people note that Christianity began to crumble when it turned out that Galileo was right and the earth was not, in fact, the center of the universe. Others point to Darwin or to the alliance of Germany’s Reichkirche with Hitler’s evil regime or to dozens of other turning points. Christian dominance has, no doubt, suffered many blows for several hundred years. But the big change that Douthat and Bass are arguing about—the transition we are all caught up in—is the empirical evidence that says Christianity as we’ve known it is done.
As scary as it might seem, this is good news. For if Christendom is dead, then followers of Jesus can dance because a new way of being Christian has been getting born for quite some time. The “immensely positive force in our national life” that Douthat longs for and the “awakening of a more open, more inclusive, more spiritually vital faith” that Bass points toward is real in thousands of communities that have committed themselves to practicing the way of Jesus day by day, come what may. These are the communities that inspired me to write, The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith. Because seeing is believing for so many of us, my friend Shane Claiborne and I went to these places of hope, interviewed some of their saints, and created a DVD to go along with the book—a sort of “Alpha Course” for a new kind of Christianity. Throughout the month of August, you can join a conversation about The Awakening of Hope at the Patheos Book Club.
America has a tradition of Great Awakenings—times when we remember the Spirit blowing across our land and demonstrating God’s power in people’s lives. These revivals have traditionally renewed the church as we know it in our culture, giving rise to new denominations and swelling the ranks of the faithful. Within a Christendom framework, we learned to pray for these renewals because they kept the ship afloat.
But the Great Awakenings also pricked the conscience of our nation’s soul, sparking reform movements from the abolitionists of the nineteenth century to the “What Would Jesus Do?” campaign of the early twentieth century. Douthat is right to note that this is an extremely positive force. If it’s old forms have died, we still need to know where this power is being born again. Lord knows the winds of change need all the help they can get these days.
But the awakening that happens when the Spirit blows across our lives does not have to be “great”—at least, not if great means crowds of people filing into stadiums to hear golden tongues articulate the good news for our day. When Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” testified to God’s power in the early days of the Christian movement, he wasn’t noticed because of his communication savvy. People listened to Peter because they saw signs of hope in the new community he and John were part of. What they noted was that he and his friends had “been with Jesus.” They had been given power from on high to live a different kind of life (see Acts 4:13).
So maybe we’re not waiting for another Great Awakening. Maybe we don’t need another George Whitfield or Charles Finney, a Dwight Moody or Billy Graham. Maybe the Spirit is already breathing new life into the church and into God’s good world through the everyday awakenings that are happenings all around.
In thousands of little communities that are mostly overlooked, people are being stirred by the Spirit to lead a different kind of life. It’s a life that doesn’t make sense if the gospel isn’t true. But because these people have been with Jesus—because they’ve somehow gotten the truth of God’s story deep down in their bones—their life does make sense.
Indeed, for these people the way of Jesus is now the only way of living that makes any sense at all.
To see your life from this vantage point is to see a whole new world of possibility. It’s like waking up from a bad dream to realize the thing that most scared you—the thing that just a moment before was as real as the rising price of gas—was only an illusion.
The way things are is not the way things have to be.
There is a new creation all around us.
It’s an everyday awakening that can happen anywhere. When it does, you know you’ve found what you were looking for. You don’t have to go somewhere else to find the answer. Your desperate search is over because God has met you where you are.