Hope for a Post-Christian Era

We in the USA, live in a ‘post-Christian’ era. This refers to a movement over the last 40 years away from organized Christianity. There are many reasons including a growing distrust of institutions in general and religion in particular.  Some of the distrust is deserved i.e. systemic cover up of decades of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church; conservative churches being co-opted by right-wing politics; liberal churches who’ve lost their spiritual mooring.

The results are seen across the nation and readily evident here in New England.  According to the Massachusetts Council of Churches on any given Sunday only 25% of our neighbors are attending a house of worship of any type.

Churches for the most part are growing grayer and in time becoming smaller. For millennials approx. 30% nationwide  say they identify with ‘no religious tradition’. This %  is increasing at a rapid rate.

Some say ‘good riddance’.  Not surprisingly, I don’t agree.  For all the imperfections of the church, I still love it.  I love that it is one of the few places where diverse ages and backgrounds gather.  I love that the wisdom of Jesus continues to cut to the heart of what is good, lasting and true.

I see many churches looking in the rear view mirror.  They aren’t looking back to Jesus but rather to a fading memory of the way church life was practiced 20 -40 years ago.

Such churches focus on comfort, familiarity and being in control.  They become hospices, lovingly overseeing the comfort of the beloved until the doors eventually close.

Last week I attended a reunion of the seminary that nurtured my call to ministry 30 plus years ago, Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS).   ANTS recently sold its campus and is affiliating with another seminary. Bottom line the number of students has shrunk as the churches they serve have grown smaller and grayer.

Looking at the religious landscape, one might think that all is lost.

Thankfully, there is a timeless quality to the Christian story.  Easter is all about life over death, hope over despair, love over hate, courage over fear.

Let me offer one such story:  In Sahuarita, Arizona, 40 miles from the border with Mexico is Church of the Good Shepherd.  My friend Randy Mayer serves as the pastor http://www.thegoodshepherducc.org Good Shepherd is a multi-cultural, growing congregation deeply rooted in the story of Jesus.

Good Shepherd on a daily basis sends a small fleet of trucks into the Arizona desert.  The trucks drop off water for migrants fleeing poverty and often oppression. On average 300 bodies are found in the southern Arizona desert each year.  Their bodies have no identification and are buried nameless.

photo-of-water-in-desert

The people of Good Shepherd know that these travelers have names.  They know them as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Such a bond transcends government policy and the threat  to build even higher walls.  Their compassion is rooted in a story Jesus told in Luke 10: 25-37.  A seemingly simple story with profound cultural and political implications.

photo-good-samaritan

Jesus was never about building an institution. He was all about a movement.  A movement of the heart that builds bridges of understanding.  A movement that restores us to health and harmony with God.

The antidote to irrelevance for the Christian church is in remembering the story of the One who brought us into being.  It was true then.  It’s true now.

 

Moving Out

Elizabeth O’Connor was a co-founder of Church of the Savior, a radical church formed in the 1950’s in Washington D.C. She along with Gordon Cosby put into practice the core words of Jesus in Matthew 25: 40 “Whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers you do unto me.”

Never focused on brick and mortar this church opened free medical clinics, summer camps for inner city kids, workshops on leadership development, a hospice for street people, micro loans, and the list goes on and on. Always their work was rooted in the radical teachings of Jesus to love and include those of us on the margins. For this church, works of compassion and advocacy became a mystical place for meeting the risen Christ.

Evelyn O’Connor wrote: “When the church starts to be the church, it will constantly be adventuring out into places where there are no tried and tested ways. If the church in our day has few prophetic voices to sound above the noises of the street, perhaps in large part it is because the pioneering spirit has become foreign to it. It shows little willingness to explore new ways. Where it does it has often been called an experiment. We would say that the church of Christ is never an experiment, but wherever that church is true to its mission it will be experimenting, pioneering, blazing new paths, seeking how to speak the reconciling Word of God to its own age.”

It’s been said that we live in a post-Christian era. In part this refers to our increasingly diverse culture that finds meaning in many places both religious and secular. The church is just one of many voices competing to be heard. In many ways this is good. It is easy to become complacent even arrogant when you are in the majority.

In many ways for the Christian movement the twenty-first century is similar to that of the first century. First century Christ followers like Paul, Peter, Lydia and Silas realized that they were but a minority voice and fueled by their passion went out into the public realm to share their story.

Two thousand years later we are once again a minority voice. The question is will we stay hidden away in isolated enclaves? Or will we like the early church, (and like Church of the Savior) be willing to let go of what is comfortable and familiar and become a part of the wider community where we can serve, learn from and share with a wonderful mix of perspectives and traditions.

photo of church aisle with open doors

It takes courage to leave the familiarity of what is. It means having clarity that you have something of importance to share. But it also requires a spirit of humility, that those with a different belief have something of value to offer as well.

In the fourth century, a bishop in the fledgling way of Jesus, Augustine of Hippo in North Africa said this:

“Do not think you must speak the truth to a Christian but can lie to a ‘pagan’. You are speaking to your brother or sister, born like you from Adam and Eve: realize all the people you meet are your neighbors even before they are Christians; you have no idea how God sees them. The ones you mock for worshiping stones … may worship God more fervently than you who laughed at them…. You cannot see into the future, so let every one be your neighbor.”

For those of us who love what the church can be and love the way of Jesus, this is a challenging and exciting time. The days of waiting for people to come to us are over. Are we ready to leave the safety of our buildings? Are we clear on what we have to offer? And, are we open to the blessings, the wisdom that other traditions and voices have to offer to us?

To say ‘yes’ is to be open to being changed. To say ‘yes’, is to know that we don’t journey alone. It was true in the first century and it is true today.