A few weeks ago I was in LA for a panel discussion with Christian Piatt, Peter Rollins, Bart Campolo and Trip Fuller (as part of Christian’s Post-Christian book tour), where we discussed all things having to do with the future of Christianity now that the era (error) of Christendom is over. It was a great discussion with far more diverse opinions between us than what I had anticipated, and is a discussion I think we (as in all of us) need to keep alive as Christianity transitions out of Christendom and into whatever era is unfolding before us.
When I survey the current and historical Christian landscape, it strikes me that the era of Christendom has seriously damaged the church, perverted the faith, and locked Jesus in a supply closet in the church basement. As a result, many have simply given up on “The Church” (or are standing at the door). I’ve been there too, but simply cannot walk out completely.
Now, there’s plenty of the old era worthy of giving up, I’ll agree– and enthusiastically enjoin my voice to a host of others in that regard.
Certainly, “Church” as an institution that colludes with the world power-holders and empires to get their piece of the power pie, is worthy of giving up.
“Church” as an institution that travels in parallel to culture instead of a transforming agent running against culture, is worthy of giving up.
“Church” when expressed as a hollow, consumerist, and separatist gathering, is worthy of giving up.
“Church” as a force of oppression and violence instead of the hands and feet of the Jesus it claims to be named after, is worthy of giving up.
There are plenty examples of mistakes of “The Church” that are worthy of setting aside, disassembling, and repenting from.
But here’s where I think we’d be good to use caution: quite often, responses to broken ways of doing things can sway too far in the other direction. Reactionary movements without their own internal prophetic voices, tend to create all the same problems of the movement they’re reacting against, but simply from an opposite vantage point.
So, yes– there are plenty of areas where it’s time to give up on old models, expressions, and behavior of “The Church”… I too, have given up on much of the old ways of Christendom thought and practice.
However, it’s one thing to give up on an individual, local church that won’t conform themselves to Christ-likeness, but then there’s “The Church”, with a capital C. The truth is, “The Church” isn’t a building with a little white steeple and an American flag waiving out front. It’s not supposed to be relegated to an impersonal weekly gathering, where we sit next to a stranger for an hour and go home. It’s not that force that colludes with empire to solidify power over culture and governments. It’s not any of those things.
“Church” is simply the word that refers to all of the Jesus followers in the world– people who sometimes get it right, and often get it wrong. And, from that perspective, I won’t give up on “The Church”– and here are 5 reasons why:
5. “The Church” is a term that refers to people, and I won’t give up on people.
It’s easy to let go of church when one thinks about church as institution, church as power, or church as oppression, but true Church is just… people. People who, while broken and screw things up, bear the divine image of God and have infinite worth and value to God. Since God himself will never give up on people, and scripture calls us to be imitators of God, I can’t and won’t give up on people either.
4. I am part of “The Church”, and part of why it is often broken, and I don’t want people giving up on me.
Like it or not, if you’ve accepted the invitation to follow Jesus, you are part of his “Church”… the Church. It’s part of the deal. For me, this causes me to realize that I have also been complicit and contributed to many of the Church’s problems, because I’m as screwed up as everyone else in the club. And you know what? I really don’t want anyone to give up on me. I think, by God’s grace, I might have some potential. It would be hypocritical to give up on them when I secretly hope they won’t give up on me.
3. I am unwilling to give up on “The Church’s” mission of spreading the Good News.
The mission of Jesus’ Church is beautiful: spread his Good News that the curse (death) has been overturned, that you and I can be reconciled to God, and that he’s returning to make all things new. As we spread that Good News, we’re invited to be agents of reconciliation– reconciling people to God, reconciling people to each other, and reconciling the earth (environment) to God. That’s the mission– and I still believe in it. It’s beautiful, and I’m not giving up on it– or “The Church” tasked with carrying it out.
2. Jesus promised that even the gates of hell would not defeat “The Church”, and I’m not willing to give up on Jesus.
When Jesus recommissioned Peter, Jesus promised that he was going to build “The Church,” and that it would be on a rock so sturdy that nothing would ever be able to stand in the way of “The Church” ultimately accomplishing the mission. To give up on “The Church” as if it is broken beyond repair or a failure, would be to completely discount the promise Jesus made. Instead, I’ll walk forward having faith that Jesus will help to reform his people into an image that looks more like himself– and that there’s still hope for all of us.
1. Giving up on “The Church” presents an alternative reality that I don’t like: a church of one.
My friend Frank Schaeffer once told me that “there’s only one alternative to being part of a church where you have profound disagreements: join a church of one.” And, Frank was right– to give up on the global Church, to even give up on the local church, is to embrace life as a church of one person– and that’s not a comforting reality in my book. In fact, my hunch is that I’d really have some issues with the one member in that “church” too. Instead, we’re called to be participants in a diverse body… one that includes both tender grandmothers and crazy uncles, but has room for us at the grownup’s table. I’d rather be a part of that family, quirks and all, than to be a family of just me.
As the days, months, and years pass, we’ll probably still be talking about what Christianity should, and should not look like in the Post-Christendom era. There’s a solid mix of traditions to uphold, errant theology to dump, and new mountains to climb. The one thing that cannot be on the table however– at least for me– is giving up on “The Church.”
For better or for worse, I am a part of it– and so are you. Let us then join hands as a diverse and usually dysfunctional family, and journey through the Post-Christendom era together, without giving up on each other… because “The Church” is… well, us.