Yesterday, I spent my day flying back from West Texas, where I had spent the weekend visiting with a great congregation. When flying, I am used to being ignored by the busy, scared and harried travelers surrounding me. I usually wait patiently for the attendant to give me permission to use “approved electronic devices” and put my ear buds in and dive into whatever I’m reading on my Kindle.
I was especially eager to dig into my current read on the last leg of my trip between DFW and Tallahassee. I’ve been challenged by the author’s thoughts, and had an empty seat to my side and the row at the front of our little commuter jet – you know, the one with all the leg room. But just before takeoff, one of the men behind me said to his row mate, “I think I’ll move up to this empty seat in front of me and give you a little more room.” Up he moved, to my row, and before we had even taxied to our runway, he and I had struck up a conversation that lasted until we landed in Tallahassee.
It was an interesting conversation. We quickly disclosed that I was a minister in the churches of Christ who grew up in Tennessee. He was a devout Catholic from Chicago who had spent some time in a Franciscan seminary before deciding to go a different route. We talked about religion, spirituality, architecture, art, worldviews, philosophy and travel. As we talked, I noticed several other people around us trying not to be obvious as they listened in on the conversation. (One woman, who sat across the aisle from us, struck up a conversation with me in the baggage claim based on what she had heard on the plane.)
As we talked about the general state of Christianity in the West – from all angles, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Restorationist – one thought bounced around in my head with a little more purpose than others. The Western world is in a time of profound change. Europe and Canada are a little ahead of the curve on these changes, and I think we are just getting to the painful part in America (at least the painful part for Christians). As the West continually moves into whatever post-modernism will become, it means Christendom, with all its synchronistic ties to Constantinianism and the post-Enlightenment project, will find itself wandering increasingly alien terrain. This already is, and will continue to be, a time of profound pain and challenge for the American Church as Christians struggle to know what it is to live faithfully in a new world.
Practically speaking, this is already playing out in some significant ways. First, the church is struggling to discern how to be faithful to its perceived mission without power. (Of course, we might seriously question if the dominance Christendom has wielded in the West since Constantine constitutes faithfulness to a crucified Messiah in the first place.) Christianity is no longer the dominant voice in a nominally “Christian” nation. Whereas, in the past, certain segments of Western Christianity have exercised considerable influence in silencing their opposition, we now find those same groups increasingly effective at silencing Christian voices in the public square – at least, in contextually significant ways. Christians must (and will) learn how to be a kingdom that doesn’t have the loudest voice, most votes, fattest coffers and biggest stick.
Second, and this is a gross generalization, conflict within the church will continue to play out along generational lines for some time yet, unless Christians young and old make serious, preemptive commitments to mutual listening, learning, graciousness, submission and patience. The generational divide is an effect of the deeper changes within our culture. It might be more fair to say, Christians beholden to post-Enlightenment modernism struggle to understand and work with a new generation with allegiances to post-Modernism. In too many cases, such allegiances on both sides go unnoticed and unaddressed, and thus we talk in circles. That is, we are too quick to condemn the other without realizing we are in basically the same position – “Post-Moderns are wrong!” says the person who has yet to realize how deeply he is indebted to an equally flawed Modernist philosophy. The answer, of course, is not a return to Modernism with all its flaws, nor a willy-nilly acceptance of post-Modernism. Both have much to offer, but neither are complete in and of themselves. There are no solutions there.
Rather, we can find our way forward (slowly and carefully) by returning yet again to the narrative and teaching that stands at the heart of our commitments as Christians. We must renew and continue in our commitments to read Scripture as it is written, rather than how we might wish it to be. We must continue learning to let it answer the questions it wants to address, rather than forcing it to address our agenda. And we must do so fearlessly and faithfully, trusting in God’s sovereign ability to mold us into what he would have us be.
The path does not end with this. Scripture is meant to be lived, after all, and in that respect, we have a long and interesting journey ahead of us. But it must begin there. We all have a lot left to learn, and I count myself as foremost among those who need to learn. The question is, for those of us with a Restoration heritage is this: Are we willing to continue what we started? Are we willing to accept our limitations and continue on toward a deeper faithfulness?
I have no doubt we are, and while the road ahead may very well be difficult, I am confident and hopeful in God’s ability to continue to work through his beautiful, broken and redeemed people.