|Linda's vocal students, caroling at Honeycomb Creative in Monroe. (Photo by Tristan Curry.)|
American Christianity is, for the most part, a bunch of individuals who "go to church." This is the cause of its increasing irrelevance, and will be the cause of its eventual demise via its full absorption into our individuated culture. Unless...
Unless Jesus' vision is recaptured.
This will require a major paradigm shift that will be countercultural. Call this the Return of the Church. The Resurrection of Community. It's been happening in non-Westernized cultures. It can happen here, but we will have to be de-Westernized to a significant degree.
Miroslav Volf argues that we must emphasize our distinctives, rather than try to be "relevant." Our great distinctive is that we are a body made of people, united and empowered by God's Spirit.
James K.A. Smith identifies the problem:
"Within the matrix of a modern Christianity, the base “ingredient” is the individual; the church, then, is simply a collection of individuals. Conceiving of Christian faith as a private affair between the individual and God— a matter of my asking Jesus to “come into my heart”— modern evangelicalism finds it hard to articulate just how or why the church has any role to play other than providing a place to fellowship with other individuals who have a private relationship with God." (James K.A. Smith, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? The Church and Postmodern Culture: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, p. 29)
The solution to this problem is to "go ancient." Smith writes:
"Unless our apologetic proclamation begins from revelation, we have conceded the game to modernity. On this score, I side with an even earlier Parisian philosopher and proto-postmodernist, Blaise Pascal, who adamantly protested that the God revealed in the incarnation and the Scriptures— the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus Christ— is to be distinguished from the (modern) god of philosophical theism. But even more importantly, this new apologetic— which is, in fact, ancient— is one that is proclaimed by a community’s way of life." (Ib., p. 28)
The Pauline "fruit of the Spirit" and "gifts of the Spirit" are essentially corporate (body; korpos) things. We have individuated them, and thereby emasculated and disempowered them. R. Scott Smith writes:
"The New Testament emphasis is on living morally in community (i.e., the church ). In his writings, Paul does not have in mind the rugged individual. Rather, he addresses the body of believers, as do the other apostles. Christians are to love one another, even as Jesus loved them (John 13: 34-35), which cannot be done in isolation." (Smith, R. Scott, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, Kindle Locations 334-336)
Christianity spread because of community formation ("See how they love one another"). Westernization creates a "cocooning" culture where people are more and more isolated from one another. Over the years I've talked to many recovering alcoholics who testified that they found more real community in Alcoholics Anonymous than they did in any church.
Mary Eberstadt, in her brilliant How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, establishes the connection between the slow demise of the American Church and Western individuation with its decline of the family community. Eberstadt writes: "Family and faith are the invisible double helix of society—two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another." (Eberstadt, p. 22) The loss of loving, committed family communities is a cause of independence from, and disbelief in, God.
Eberstadt's analysis can be extended to larger "family" communities, such as the Church. This is sad, because people (even atheists) are still looking for community. See, e.g., the Facebook phenomenon as essentially a search for community (in It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, by Danah Boyd).
When the Church tries to be "relevant" to Western culture it will be yet another de-communitizing thing. Sadly, social media, while not intrinsically bad, has moved into the vacuum left by the Church's de-communitizing strategies.
What can we do?
1. Return to the ancient Scriptures, which speak to and establish empowered corporate realities.
2. Begin small. Like the early church. Form small communities, which are more influential than mega-communities.
3. We must emphasize our distinctives, two of which are: a) "See how they love (agape) one another) and b) the manifest presence of God empowering the community with "fruit" and "gifts."
The secular world will take us seriously when the Church takes community seriously.
My two books are
Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.
Leading the Presence-Driven Church