“American Christianity is entering the most exciting era in our lifetime”

19 08 2008

If you live in Dallas and picked up the Star-Telgram you may have read Christine Wicker’s story in the Editorial sction of the paper on Sunday, August 17th, titled: Religion: American evangelicals, once considered monolithic, are fragmenting.  Her article syntheses the research we have all been reading from the Pew Foundation, Willow Creek and George Barna.  She paints a pretty negative image of evangelicalism and her style is pretty cutting – but the reality is her assessment aligns with the data that all the major indicators (conversions, baptisms, membership, retention, participation, giving, attendance, religious literacy and impact on culture) are on the decline.

What I find encouraging and energizing about her article, however, is her conclusion about what these negatives may be indicators of – that “American Christianity is entering the most exciting era in our lifetime,” a “new awakening” or even another reformation.  The challenge is that such a preferable future will require much change – and change is rarely a friend of comfort which we have come to love so dearly: 

“That loud crack heard throughout the evangelical world when national research showed that more than half of American evangelicals believe people of other religions can go to heaven wasn’t thunder from an angry God.

This crack came from the rock upon which the modern American evangelical movement sits. It was splitting right down the middle.

There is both rejoicing and lamentation.

I am among those rejoicing.

The universalist/evangelical finding, which came from the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, was one more sign that American Christianity is entering the most exciting era in our lifetime. Some people believe a new awakening is at hand. Others believe a reformation is in the making. No one knows how long it will take or how far it will go.

What’s clear is that people in the pews are taking back their faith, wresting it from leaders who helped sell the idea that only the most fundamentalist brands of Christian belief could succeed and that their words alone represented that belief.”

Skipping a few paragraphs she continues:

“They’re admitting what their own studies show – that evangelicals almost never convert a native-born American who wasn’t raised in a church. That most evangelical growth comes from stealing the sheep from other denominations. And that they’ve stolen about all they can.

They’re also admitting that most evangelicals won’t evangelize. And if they did, it wouldn’t get them anywhere because the usual methods don’t work. They don’t work first because they usually rest on the idea that Christians are the only ones saved. In today’s religiously equalitarian culture, that assertion causes evangelicals to seem distastefully holier-than-thou.

Conversion tactics also focus on telling people the Good News as though no one else knows it. But most everyone has heard it. Again and again. The trouble is that they aren’t convinced. They aren’t scared of hell. They aren’t hoping for heaven. And Christians haven’t been good at giving anyone better reasons than that for following Jesus. They have reasons. They just aren’t telling them. They need to.

Christine Wicker has also recently published a book titled The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church that expands on her editorial.

Making the shift to small groups

15 08 2008

As we grow in our understanding and practice of relational spiritual formation (which is the intent of small group communities) we open up environments that provide the opportunity to experience something markedly different from what we experience in a programmed or teaching based methodology. David Augsburger in his book Dissident Discipleship provides some key questions for small group environments. For me these questions are certainly challenging but they also create a sense of hope. There are places God wants to take us that we have not been before – places where we are more connected with each other and the reality of what He is doing all around us:

How can I learn a spirituality that nurtures human wholeness unless I commit myself to do all I can and contribute all I can to building a community where we together are seeking ways to practice the imitation of Christ? Or will I have to be content with a spirituality of desirable but finally optional ventures?

How can I find spiritual co-travelers who are willing to invest time, give attention, risk self-disclosing, and jointly covenant for a life of shared responsible discipleship? Or will I have to go it alone and learn that part of spirituality that is possible for a self that is seeking to transcend itself by itself?

How can I learn a spirituality of accountability to God unless I have the opportunity to be accountable to significant others? How can I live a spirituality of accountability unless I participate in a community where my acts and their consequences are visible to all who are affected by them? Or will I have to settle for a spirituality that is answerable ultimately only to itself?

How can I learn a spirituality of humility and equality before God unless I live a community where hierarchy is unnatural, where dominance is not rewarded, and where superiority is neither desirable nor inevitable? Or will I have to claim my place in a spirituality of entitlement if I am privileged, or of disentitlement if I am not?

How can I learn a spirituality of immediate and reflexive concern for the needs of others that seeks to do something about the unjust distribution of resources unless I contribute to a community where sharing is meaningful because we agree to consume less, waste less, do more with less? Or will I have to follow a spirituality that costs me very little?

How can I learn a spirituality of dissident discipleship that takes risks in the imitation of Christ unless I join a community that offers support for maintaining a consistent and sensitive conscience? Or will I have to find a rationale for a spirituality that smoothes the contradictions and offers comfort for my unease before the call of Christ?

How can I learn a spirituality of deep reverence for the preciousness of persons unless I practice such honor of others in a community where we are persons, not roles, to each other? Or is the cost of all of this too high to consider in a world that allows self-realization as its highest good?