Rethinking Christianity

Thanks to Lois for this article on one perspective on what is happening with Christianity in America.

I think there is lots of good wisdom in this article.  For me it boils down to clarifying what is the purpose of the Church – is it self-perpetuation and maintenance, or simply the accumulation of followers of Jesus Christ?  If it’s the former, I think we are inevitably focusing on the wrong thing, trying to maintain a particular identity or way of doing things from some arbitrarily chosen time.  What is the Church?  Is it people huddled in secret to pray and worship as it was in parts of the first three centuries after Christ, or as it is for many Christians around the world today?  Is it the glitz and glamour of American mega-churches, or the near-empty quietness of European churches?  Is it simply what we’re used to, or where we’ve been going for 50 years?

It seems to me that the Church has always adapted its forms to the necessities of the time and place.  The content of what the Church focuses on shouldn’t change (though I’d argue in various times – including our own in America – it has), but how that content is communicated and celebrated has.  There are many in my particular polity who argue strongly for one particular form, seemingly forgetting that while this particular form is itself one particular form among many much older options.  But any discussion of form presumes an environment that will continue to support that form.  When this is no longer the case, then the forms have to change.

When early Christianity immediately began drawing in not just faithful Jews but devout Gentiles, the forms had to change.  When early Christians were finally driven out of the synagogues, their forms had to change and adapt.  When Christianity received state endorsement, the forms changed, and continued to change as Christianity spread to other lands and languages.  It is the hallmark of Christianity in many ways that the content remains the same while we have the freedom to express that content in a variety of ways.

One adaptation that we aren’t so familiar with is how to adapt as the cultural influence of Christianity subsides, and those who were Christian not so much out of belief and faith but rather habit slowly or quickly drop away.  But I think that’s where we are now.  We share the responsibility and privilege and duty of our forebears in the faith who have had to learn how to adapt in all manner of unexpected situations.  For some reason, we see the adaptations we are being faced with somehow as failure or loss or some other ignoble term.

I don’t see it that way.

And many congregations in the Church need to quit seeing it that way so that they can make the changes necessary to adapt to new conditions or to connect with people in the ways that are more effective now.  Once again, it doesn’t mean giving up the content of the faith, but it may require changing the form in which that content is embodied.  Doing this is faithful, not failure.  It isn’t easy, but neither have building programs and projects been easy for faithful people in the past.  We just assume that building projects and expansions are somehow qualitatively better and more faithful than adapting to fewer and older members and their particular needs, and ensuring those needs are met while ensuring that the Gospel continues to be proclaimed and made available after those older members are unable themselves to do so.

When we obsess about the forms, we forget that it isn’t the forms that create faith and draw people into Christian community.  That is exclusively the work of God the Holy Spirit – in, through, and sometimes despite ourselves.  That should be a relief to us, rather than a burden!

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