Sunday, April 03, 2005

 

Back to the Future

(This is a hopeful vision of how future generations may recount the current state of affairs in the Church one hundred years from now…Thanks to Pseudo-Polymath for the inspiration for this idea.)

Looking back on the state of the church at the start of the 21st Century, we should really consider it a blessing to be where we are now. It’s easy to forget the severe trials and infighting the Church was experiencing 100 years ago…

It would be futile to attempt to pinpoint an exact moment or turning point for the Church. Instead, the turnaround is attributable to a combination of events that culminated in a spiritual renaissance and new birth for Christianity. What is indisputable now, with the aid of hindsight, was the necessity for a shake-up of the status quo and the resulting change to the shape of the church.

Before we look at the positive impetuses that encouraged the transformation, I’d like to briefly assess the primary dilemmas facing the Church circa 1960 – 2010. Keep in mind these are broad characterizations and certainly not indicative of the entire state of the faith at the time.

During the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, it had evolved into very much of a spectator type of religion. Congregants wanted entertainment and they wanted to feel good. They came to church service (if they came at all) largely for a self-centered doctrine focused on their own wealth and health. The “spectator” mindset was also a result of the overall lifestyle at the time.

You may recall this was the era of “suburban sprawl” at its peak. As a result of frequently long commutes to work and church, there was often a sense of detachment. The spiritual experience was less an integral lifestyle component and more a “destination” given a 1-2 hour allotment on Sunday mornings and thereafter relegated conveniently to its appropriate box until next week.

But then something internal started to change. People became more engaged in their own spiritual formation. There were a number of contributing factors and surely there will be something I am neglecting to mention. The first factor credited for the transformation was the brutally honest critiques offered at the time. Without some trusted authoritative voices first addressing these shortfalls and the need for change, we would have had only more of the same.

One seminal work I’d point to is Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Published in 1994, it provided a timely, thorough, and often disheartening examination of the status of the evangelical community at the time. The book spurred on an intense dialogue that, in turn, did much to facilitate the creation of a cohesive Christian worldview. In the process, he helped to repudiate the anti-intellectual leanings of the fundamentalist movement. The discussion of ideas, doubts, and theology was no longer dissuaded, but encouraged, and the intellectual framework for Christianity was strengthened as a result.

(Given what we know now and how far we’ve come, it’s hard to image the extensive dearth of Christian intellectual contributions in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Attributable largely to the fundamentalist boom during that same time period, an anti-intellectual, anti-scientific viewpoint dominated the evangelical Christian landscape. It was much more about reactionary disapproval than it was about proactive idea generation.)

So once the right questions were asked, where did the discussion actually take place? I would credit blogging, still in its early rudimentary form at the time, as being a significant impetus in empowering Christian thought. That emerging technological medium helped bring Christianity “out of the box” and into the realm of public discourse with relevant and doctrinally sound opinions.

The final factor to be credited for inspiring the change of heart in the Christian Church was the emergence of the “community-based” model that not only drew more outsiders into the church, but also strengthened the relationships and spirituality of those inside.

So how could you detect the transformation in terms of the nature of the Church?

Churches began to promote dialogue rather than monologue and participation rather than performance. Rather than spoon-feeding members, they encouraged spiritual development. Churches welcomed questions, avoided simplistic answers and verified the dimension of mystery in authentic spirituality.

Those were all important characteristics of the Church as it evolved into its current form. But perhaps the largest was in coming to grips with the importance of our Earthly mission. As believers, we finally came to realization that the resurrection of Christ signified the beginning of God's new project. It was not to take people away from earth to heaven, but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

There was a fundamental change in terminology and attitude that took place. Instead of focusing on changing the culture, our Christian brethren focused on communities and changing hearts. This was a significant shift of focus away from the "effect" (culture) to actually dealing with the "cause" (community). No longer was it a "cultural war" we were waging. The battlefield was transformed into a mission field.

As such, the Church went out into the community to provide for people where they were, as opposed to sitting back and expecting folks to come to them. Whether it was helping to provide forums for dealing with alcohol and substance abuse, free tutoring for children and medical services for the elderly, or hosting of sports and leisure groups in the community, there was a huge outbreak of outreach.

While it is instructive to analyze the aforementioned darker periods of the Church, it is admittedly with a sigh of relief that I step back into our current situation. Whereby throngs of previously disillusioned citizens have come to know the Lord through the humble, loving examples set by their neighbors, co-workers, or random strangers.

The petty squabbles and infighting between over denominational differences have been largely vanquished by a desire for achieving the common good and aspiring to "Mere" Christianity. While we understand that doctrine is important, the example set forth by our actions and how we live is much more so. Having come to that realization, the Church and the Kingdom of God have thrived ever since.

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