Sunday, September 27, 2009

I wonder as I wander...

Ahh, the wanderings of Summer. I walked the streets of Portland and Vancouver, BC this Summer, taking in the sights, watching the people, observing culture. Of course, this was in addition to the more regular visits to the nearer cultural (or maybe counter-cultural is a better description)centers of Seattle and Olympia, plus a random visit to the Midwest, reconnecting for a few days with my small town church roots. And I wondered as a I wandered about the future of Christianity in North America.

First, the urban environments promptd me to note that, as the culture at large in the U.S. has shifted over the past decades to an urban focus, Christianity has gradually followed suit. Think about the cultural perceptions: there was a time when TV shows like The Waltons and The Andy Griffith show presented us with the small-town environment that was thought of as typical, classic American life. But when the mainstream TV shows became focused on people living in apartment complexes in downtown (fill in a city name here), the cultural shift was becoming more evident. I think of Seinfeld, Friends and King of Queens as examples, but I acknowledge that I'm about ten years behind and I don't know half of what truly hip people are watching on hulu these days. But in visiting cities, I have seen where urban revitalization projects have brought fine downtown living in cities across the continent. And in each city officals are proud to point out the success of their redevelopment projects (as they busily work to shuffle the poor and transient populations to different fringe areas that will be out of the eyeline of visitors and upscale residents).

Christians have caught onto the fever, it seems: community transformation and reaching the urban poor have become trendy ways to do ministry - although, if we really follow the demographics, it may be that white, suburban Christians who have become missionaries to impoverished urban areas may simply be taking the place of black, urban churches that were fixtures in those neighborhoods for years, and gradually saw the next generation of members gain wealth and move away from the poverty and crime that their parents struggled to help them overcome. So this shift may involve trading places more than adding urban numbers.

Churches are not focused only on the urban poor, but also are trying to crack what has been a tough nut: the urban, educated, professional and artistic crowds. Pastors like Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller, in Seattle and New York, respectively, have developed a bold new image of the intellectual, culturally aware preacher at the head of a church that appeals to university students, creative minds, culturally diverse audiences, and the kind of crowd that takes for granted the idea of getting a master's degree. The modernist takeover of universities, public education systems, governement and the arts sent Christians reeling at one time, pulling back to develop their own Christian institutions. But now in cities where many neighborhoods are reputed to have more dogs than evangelicals, a fresh energy has arisen to move eagerly into these environments and give an intelligent presentation of Christianity, working in the face of the hubris of a skeptical elite.

Does this attitude seems to me to reflect an acceptance of the idea that Christianity is quickly losing cultural dominance? Skepticism and vitriolic rejection of any role for Christian beliefs and ideals in the public square are not new attitudes. But if you look at what Barna and books like Unchristian are finding in their research, this outlook seems to be gaining popular momentum, . Perhaps some are adapting to the idea that building Christian institutions for education, entertainment, and every area of life may not be as possible in the changing climate, but hanging on to the call of the church to speak and live the gospel, no matter how dark the environment is essential. But the overall numbers of evangelicals have not actually had a significant decline in the American population at large, only in younger age brackets. If this trend continues, then the dramatic changes will take place.

But these changes may appear more dramatic because of a different concept of how the church should affect culture. TO use a metaphor, its as if one generation gathered all their wood together and built a big bonfire, bright enough to be seen from a distance. Some accepted the invitation to join the party; I grew up in the fire's warmth myself. Others outside the church simply complained about the noise the group around the campfire makes, and stayed as far away as they could. The bonfire crowd gives ideas like, "If Christians would all have six or seven kids and raise them right, and if Christians would move their kids out of the secularist education system, the public system as it is would crumble, and we could take back America." Building Christian education institutions, a Christian music industry, Christian publishing houses and political action committees were very important - there must be rival institutions for the liberal, secular edifices.

But I see a number of people who have decided to instead take their flame and carry it, even if it is only a small, flickering candle, into a very dark place, delighting in the contrast of light with darkness, even while enduring the chill of the climate around them. The candle crowd says, "If only we would step into the broader culture, be a part of public institutions and organizations, and pair active witness with work for the good of those around us, we can see lives transformed in even the darkest of situations." This crowd wants to have their kids in public schools so that their voice is heard in the education system, to see Christians influencing both political parties from within, and to be Christian in their neighborhoods and homes, without having Christian activity confined to brick and mortar structures or have their work categorized, labelled and marketed as Christian. Christianity will show from a genuinely changed life without the labels, and it's not expressed in knowing the right phrases and niceties of organizational culture, but in simple and sincere love in a hateful world.

So will the demographic trends play out to make us a "post-Christian" society? I can only hear so many alarmist appeals before I start to wonder whether it's rhetoric rather reality. How many other times have people sounded the alarm? Perhaps people in my age bracket are absent because they are walking away from their faith and imbibing skepticism. Or perhaps they just envision Christianity very differently, and so aren't on the radar of what have been the institutions of Christianity in our culture. There's probably a lot of both.

But if we do truly become post-Christian, I think that could bring about some good things in the life of the church. Here are a few things I would love to see from a marginalized church in our country:

- More efficient Christian institutions: more money invested in people who speak and live out the gospel and make disciples, rather than self-help books to use Jesus to make us feel better and clean entertainment for Christians to passively consume.

- More sacrificial giving, as we stop relying on a lot of people dropping $5.00 in the plate ever Sunday, and have to really think about what we can give up to keep the important Christian works alive.

- More expressions of Christian faith that say why we believe what we do and how we hold to it in the face of the pressures and criticisms of the world. Feeling good about amen-ing cultural assumptions and blindly affirming catch-phrases without having any clue what they mean probably doesn't change many lives.

- More awareness of historical and cross cultural communities of faith, as we are willing to look to other sources and gain a broader perspective on our own faith. Urban settings foster multicultural exposure, and minority status makes us more willing to look outside ourselves for answers.

- More focus on essentials beliefs and behaviors of the faith - the things that distinguish us from the world - rather than traditional American culture packaged in religous language.

- More emphasis on faith through good works that shows the world Christianity brings something good in people. Rather than measuring devotion by attendance and knowledge alone, calling people to play a meaningful part in something worthwhile, so that they have a commitment worth considering.. If all we are asking people to do is show up, what reason do they have for showing up?

I am speaking in broad generalizations about things I have seen in cultural Christianity, and don't intend my words to be harmful to the many people who are already working hard to bring these changes about in their churches and ministries. I am drawing conclusions from what I have seen of various slices of Christianity, knowing that others have seen some very different things. I want to hear your perspectives in the comments or in response blogs. But here you have the musings of this Impoverished Sage, wondering about what's next as I wander through life.


faithbornfromdoubt said...

Dude, good writing. It's a shame more people won't read this. Only, you would have to watch some TV if you were going to publish this considering Friends and Seinfeld are pretty ancient.

Although I could focus on the ideas within, which are good, I just wanted to encourage you that this is really well-written, both accessible and thought provoking.

Good Job.

aaron said...

I think there is also a large problem with comfortable, well-off people merely doing a mission trip into impoverished areas for the "experience" rather than living in it. It's not so hard to do when you can drive your sedan back to the suburbs at night. For the first time in history more people live in cities than rural areas and the Church really needs to see this as legitimate mission fields.

Also, directed towards the previous post: Seinfeld is timeless.

Anonymous said...

this is so good. i am afraid that if i start to talk abt my own observations, i will just come across as a real negative nellie, so i will refrain and instead focus on myself. i can't say that i'm not guilty of doing some of the things you list at a different time in my life, and i definitely feel i have much room for improvement in really engaging society today. thanks for the excellent suggestions/ideas. i hope that one day those things will actually come to fruition and become more prevalent than it is today. i pray that i would be more willing and prepared to make the gospel known, rather than a hindrance or a dead weight to it.