|Redeemer sanctuary before Darren Wilson premiered "Holy Ghost Reborn" tonight.|
Any who do not have their head in the sand can see that secularism is growing and more U.S. Christians are not showing up on Sunday mornings. See, e.g., "Secularism Grows as More U.S. Christians Turn "Churchless."" Greg Kinnaman of the Barna Group says that "nones," the unchurched, and skeptics number 38% of the population. By Kinnaman's count, "roughly four in 10 people living in the continental United States are actually “post-Christian” and “essentially secular in belief and practice.”"
“We are far from becoming an atheist nation. There are tens of millions of active believers in America today. But the wall between the churched and the churchless is growing higher and more impenetrable as more people have no muscle memory of what it means to be a regular attender at a house of worship.”
That feels correct to me. I've seen this trend in my past 15 years of teaching hundreds of college students in my philosophy classes. How can it be turned around? I suggest by revisiting and returning to the Christian corporate distinctives of love, power, and knowledge.
Followers of Jesus must get radical and return to: 1) loving God, and 2) loving one another. I've met too many "ex-Christians" who left the church because of what they experienced in the church. We must get back to the root of our faith, which is God's love, expressed within the community of God's people (AKA "church"), and then love towards those who don't know Jesus.
Begin with community re-studying and re-meditating on the book of 1 John, which essentially is about abiding in Christ and having hearts of love within the community. Note that the word "love" (agape) is used 27 times in 1 John 4 alone.
It's time to rediscover and reclaim our true identity as deeply loved children of God. I John resolves our individual and corporate identity crises. This happens as we return to the John-thing of abiding in Christ (John chapters 14-15-16) and a life of praying, out of which relevant and authentic doing emerges.
We must not lose sight of the cultural fact that skepticism and atheism provides a weak life-narrative. Most of what I see in the skeptical community is a thin bond of what we are against (a-theism), not what we are for. I see the lack of community in secularism as being intrinsic to secularism. Community (koinonia) is our thing, and we must cultivate it.
Remember that this crazy big thing called "love" comes from us, from Christianity, and not the other world religions and definitely not from secular culture. Sheer atheistic materialism has no metaphysical place for "love"; the atheist's love-impulse is religious, whether they know it or not. As Jesus's followers we must own this and wear this and abide in this and understand that "love" is the DNA seed that God that has planted in our hearts (1 John 3:9).
When the apostle Paul talked about wanting to "know" the power of Christ's resurrection, he was using "know" in the Hebrew sense of an experienced reality. The early church knew, and therefore believed, that there was a power from God that was not only available for the emerging church but was foundational to its growth.
Demonstrated power, done in love and not showmanship, marks the true "seeker church." The sick person needs more than coffee and donuts and a band on a stage. Recently at one of our Sunday morning worship events a young man who was visiting told me, "I've been trying other churches. Another pastor told me to try your church. I am here this morning because I am hoping to find God. If I don't find God soon I am going to be in deep trouble."
I suggest that this is far from an isolated instance. People need the inner healing which secularism cannot provide. Where can today's growing number of young heroin addicts turn but to God, since our medical resources, as commendable as they are, lack an answer to the beast-addiction of heroin? The church must reacquaint itself with God's available resurrection power, administered in love. This is our arena, our distinctive. We must not let secular metaphysical naturalism overwhelm us in this area.
On Sunday mornings and throughout the week our people are praying with other people expecting to see God's transforming and healing power operative. God's power, exercised in love, is its own apologetic.
My experience with young people who rarely gather with the church but self-identity as Christians is that they are Jesus-illiterate. We must teach our young people and children about Jesus. We must teach them that they are the church. Be creative in teaching - yes! But forget trying to water it down or make Jesus culturally palatable. To reduce the biblical Jesus to a "safer Jesus" only fuels post-Christianity.
In my college logic classes I teach "critical thinking." The text I use states that knowledge is empowering. Thinking for yourself is good. Being able to formulate and evaluate your beliefs and the beliefs of others strengthens you. Secular institutions of learning focus on this. But note: there's a lot of literature out there pointing out the failure of high schools and universities to empower students with critical thinking skills. This syncs with my teaching experience. Most students do not because they cannot think for themselves. (See, e.g., Robert Arum, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.)
This means that a lot of the current skepticism and atheism and irreligion and the "nones" exists, not as a result of being examined and thought-out, but because it is trendy. Most of the "atheists" in my classes are sheep without a shepherd. It's not that they are cognitively incapable. They just have not been taught to think otherwise for themselves.
I predict that there will be an eventual cognitive backlash to post-religiosity. The religious and metaphysical impulse is never going to go away. We must remember that, as wonderful as science is, it cannot say anything about value (good, bad, right, wrong, beauty, truth, etc.). This is our turf. The church must teach it, go for it, and build disciples who know why they believe what they believe.
A final note: we must discover the church's distinctives and nurture them. Forget, to a large degree, trying to be relevant to culture. This will not entail isolationism, with the church hiding behind its walls, trying to protect itself from culture. Instead, it will be the church as it was always intended to be; viz., a culture-influencing movement of people call out to follow Jesus.
As Yale University's Miroslav Volf writes:
"Reconstructions of the Christian faith guided by the strategy of accommodation carry in themselves the seeds of possible Christian self-destruction. After they have accommodated, for the most part what remains for Christian communities to do is to appear after a non-Christian show and repeat the performance in their own way for an audience with Christian scruples. The voice of the Christian communities has become a mere echo of a voice that is not their own... (Ib., 85)
... Alas, in leaning over to speak to the modern world, we had fallen in. We had lost the theological resources to resist, lost the resources even to see that there was something worth resisting...
... Christian communities will be able to survive and thrive in contemporary societies only if they attend to their “difference” from surrounding cultures and subcultures. The following principle stands: whoever wants the Christian communities to exist must want their difference from the surrounding culture, not their blending into it. As a consequence, Christian communities must “manage” their identity by actively engaging in “boundary maintenance.” Without boundaries, communities dissolve." (Volf, Miroslav. A Public Faith, pp. 85, 81)