Originally posted April 10, 2012, at Nachfolge. Republished with permission of the author.
In addition to being Holy Week, last week saw the annual publication of articles from major newsweekly magazines addressing faith, the church, God, etc. Andrew Sullivan’s piece for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, “Christianity in Crisis,” was a valuable contribution to the conversation about the end of Christendom and the new reality in which we who profess faith in Jesus find ourselves. But I was dismayed by one sentence in particular:
“For their part, the mainline Protestant churches, which long promoted religious moderation, have rapidly declined in the past 50 years.“
In an article dedicated to exploring the ongoing collapse of Christianity, particularly in North America, this was the only mention of mainline Protestantism. One sentence. Either Sullivan is particularly myopic on what constitutes American Christianity, or the mainline folks (ELCA, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and others) have failed so colossally that we honestly don’t warrant any mention beyond this paltry nod to a church (or churches) long dead and just now beginning to realize it.
I’d wager the truth encompasses both, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s studied Lutheranism. We have a long-standing tradition of finding a dialectical position and working to live in the tension between opposing polarities. We confess we are simultaneously sinners and saints. We believe the kingdom of God is already at hand in Jesus Christ and not yet fully arrived upon the earth.
We believe salvation comes by faith apart from works of the law, yet faith without works is not faith. In that fine tradition, I’d argue that Sullivan has prematurely relegated a vast swath of American Christianity to the grave; I will also argue that there are many places and assemblies within this vast swath of American Christianity that are already dead and just haven’t realized it yet.
In her excellent book “Almost Christian,” Kenda Creasy Dean explores the development of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the “Church of Benign Whatever-ism” which most of us my age and younger perceived as the real “deus ex machine” in the congregations who raised us. To wit:
If teenagers are members of the Church of Benign-Whatever-ism, it is because we are too … we need to ask before going further: Do we practice the kind of faith we want our children to have? I think the honest answer might well be, “Yes, we do.” The simple truth seems to be that young people practice an imposter faith because we do — and because this is the faith we want them to have.
It’s that not-too-religious, “decent” kind of Christianity that allows our teenagers to do well while doing good, makes them successful adults without turning them into religious zealots, teaches them to notice others without actually laying down their lives for any of them. If this is the faith they see lived out by their parents, their pastors, and their churches, how would they know it’s a sham? (“Almost Christian,” (c) 2010 Oxford University Press, p. 39)
The mainline Protestant churches have turned out some incredibly gifted, deeply faithful leaders for the 21st century — but these have been the exception. What we’ve turned out by the truck load are precisely what Dean describes: nice, moral people who mostly get along with each other and tend to be well-educated and successful enough that the deeper questions of life and existence just don’t matter. With the social and cultural pressure to which our baby boomer parents succumbed removed, most of my generation, and the mainline Protestants in particular, just doesn’t see the point of actively pursuing a life of faith within the church. And based on my experiences in this mainline church over the past 17 years or so, I can’t say I really blame them.
As Tom Long put it in a sermon not so long ago, quoting someone who used to go to church, “When I got on the inside in the church, I began to see that there was more jealousy and back-biting and rage than I had ever believed … I fell away. I get enough of that at (work). I don’t need to get it at church.” We’ve taught ourselves that a ”good” life is the point of faith, and then we go and act like the flawed, not-so-always-good people we actually are at church. Is it any wonder no one believes we’re worth more than one dismissive sentence anymore?
And yet …
Sullivan describes his new vision of Christianity later in the article:
In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere — from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.
Here’s the thing: I see this in my church, too. Sometimes it’s individuals who are lotus blossoms among the muck of extremely average congregations; other times it’s entire assemblies who have been swept up by the Spirit and are learning how to live and love well with one another and for one another. It does happen in my denomination, and I know it happens in others as well. It deserves more than a sentence, but likely that’s too much to ask from a national news magazine needing to plumb the polarities to move copy.
I believe God is at work in my church. That simple faith is the thing that’s kept me going through some rough times. I have a feeling many of you feel the same way; otherwise, why would we bother? My prayer this Easter season is that we might find ways to embody this simple faith for one another, not so that we’ll be successful, but so that we might be faithful to the God who continues to call us in, gather us together, enlighten our very beings with forgiveness, sanctify us in faith and send us out into the world. Perhaps in the future we’ll garner more than a sentence, and perhaps we won’t. The only one that matters in the end, though, is this one: “You, child, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever, are my own, cherished, forgiven and beloved. Enter into the joy of your Maker.”
Find a link to Scott Johnson’s blog, Nachfolge, at Lutheran Blogs.
You might also want to read or watch:
Jesus vs. religion: a death match
The Millennial generation and religion
Be the change. Be the gospel. Freed in Christ to serve.