An Eight Letter to the Church in N America

The good guys over at Epiphaneia held a conference last year in Toronto entitled Eighth Letter and asked numerous people to communicate in 15 minutes or less their most urgent message to the church in North America. Recently I took the time to write mine down. They’re coming out with a great book next year with all these letters in it. I think hearing and listening to all of these letters from various points of view was a good exercise (they’re available on their website here). I wrote mine in under 2000 words. It touches on many of the main themes I been speaking on these past six months. It covers the gist of what my latest book on political theory is about – The End of Evangelicalism? So I thought I’d share it. Here goes.

To All the Christians in North America,

The North American church is in a credibility crisis. We find ourselves in a culture which no longer sees Christianity to be true, relevant or, for that matter, interesting. Yet we keep doing church the same way as if nothing has changed. We continue to do Sunday morning (and Sunday evening) services, put on Christian rock concerts, do outreach events and hang out in the fellowship hall. We do it all seeking to reach the world with the gospel, but discover that only Christians are showing up. Meanwhile our neighbors and our world go on oblivious to the good news of Jesus Christ. We are looking more and more like a people having a conversation with ourselves that no one else cares about.

We compete with each other on producing better Sunday morning services. This usually means excellent music, the best video technology or the most charismatic and easy-to-listen-to Bible teacher. Yet we know, by and large, these kinds of services change little in our lives and communities.  Few remember anything from the morning sermon. The so-called worship experience with its wonderful music and playful dramas serves to excite us but rarely affects us beyond the moment. Instead the “show” seems to distract us from noticing the ways our lives don’t make sense as followers of Christ. Yet we keep on doing them because it reinforces us in thinking that we are doing something significant.

We keep counting what we call “decisions for Christ” in our churches. Yet we know most of these decisions don’t mean anything. Statistics continue to show that only a small percentage of our recorded “decisions” are made by people who will still be following Jesus a year later. And yet, like the teenager who keeps going forward in the Baptist church service week after week “making sure” of his decision one more time, we keep doing this. We intuitively know this ritual is making no connection to the way people live, but we can’t stop ourselves.

The progressives among us do the same thing with justice. We create enormous energy around justice issues in the name of God. Some impressive money is raised and some good works are done in the name of Jesus. But often, too often I suggest, the word “justice” becomes a bumper-sticker-like rallying cry that makes us feel better rather than accomplishing anything that actually takes root in our lives. Sadly we participate very little in actual relationships with the poor that live alongside us in our churches or near our church buildings. It is much like buying fair trade coffee at the Wal-Mart. Nonetheless we keep doing it.

When someone keeps doing the same things year after year even when the reason for doing them is gone, we say they have lost their sanity. The grieving husband who keeps bringing coffee to his wife years after she has died, and the shell shocked soldier who keeps asking if the war is over years after his discharge, have lost touch with the reality they are living. Like them, the church keeps doing the same things we did fifty years ago even though it has little or no connection to our everyday lives. In many parts of the country, where Christendom society is all but gone, we are conducting church as if we are insane.

And so, in this time of insanity, we need to take a look at ourselves.

I contend that one of the best ways to understand what we’re doing is to study ourselves as an ideology. Ideology has been called “false consciousness” because it can keep us doing the same behaviors over and over again while covering over the contradictions that would make us question what we’re doing. By studying ideology, we can help people see the contradictions. When it becomes apparent we are saying one thing while doing something quite the opposite, the emptiness in our way of life is revealed. We end up manufacturing justifications and even enemies to keep the church going. Contradictions appear. Lies get revealed. Our ideology loses its credibility and it goes into a crisis.

There are reasons to suspect that this is what is happening among us as the church in N America. For instance, sadly, over the past twenty years we have become known more in N America for our duplicity, judgmentalism and dispassion than the gospel. Whether it is because of “the evangelical right” and the various NY Times bestseller “hate books” written towards it or the mega church pastors that get caught in sex scandals, evangelical Christians are now a people who are best known for our fighting against gay people, fighting against those who don’t believe in absolute truth (read as “those who don’t believe like we do”) or the liberal political agenda. We are living in contradiction to the gospel. Whatever is to blame, our way of life as evangelicals has failed to make the gospel compelling in the society we find ourselves in. We’re looking very much like an ideology that is losing its credibility and in a crisis.

This process of ideologization does not happen over night. It kind of sneaks up on you. What started out as a gathering of people around something very real gets compromised over time. There are new situations that challenge the status quo. Perhaps there is a grasping for power that seeps in and wants to use the gathering. Change is needed. Yet, over time, instead of changing our behavior, we develop reasons to keep things going. Our beliefs, together with the way we practice them, become an ideology that effectively works to keep the majority comfortable and certain people in power. Soon we lose touch with the reality that brought us together in the first place.

Is this what has happened to N American Christians?

When an ideology enters a crisis, its leaders get defensive. We find enemies to rally people over against in an effort to keep the system going. Unfortunately, the church in North America is now defined more by what we are against than who we are or what we are for. This kind of ideologization happens all the time in our churches. We notice it when someone says “Oh that church is the Bible preaching church – they believe in the Bible” implying the others don’t. Or we’re the church that believes in community. The others somehow don’t. That church? They’re the gay church and that one is the church that is anti-gay. We’re the church that plants gardens and loves the environment and “oh” by the way you‘re the church of the SUV’s. On and on it goes as our churches get identified by what we are against. We get caught up in perverse enjoyments like “I am glad we’re not them!” or “See I told you we were right!” In the process we get distracted from the fact that things haven’t really changed at all, that our lives are caught up in gamesmanship, not the work of God’s salvation in our own lives and His work (missio Dei) to save the world. This cycle of ideologization works against the church. It is short lived and it breeds an antagonistic relation to the world. In the process we become a hostile people incapable of being the church of Jesus Christ in mission.

And so today, this week and in the months that lie ahead, we must join together as Christians to break this cycle of ideological church. I suggest we can do this by “going local.” We can resist the ideologizing of the church by refocusing our attention on our local contexts. In going local, we inherently refuse to organize around what we are against and instead intentionally gather to participate in God’s Mission in our neighborhoods, our streets, among the peoples that we live our daily lives with. Here we gather, not around ideas extracted from actual practice in life that we then turn into ideological banners, but around the participation in the bounteous new life God has given us in Jesus Christ and His Mission. We participate in His Reign, the Kingdom, by actually practicing the reconciliation, new creation, justice and righteousness God is doing and made possible in Jesus Christ. Here we become a people of the gospel again. It is only by doing this that God breaks the cycle of ideological church.

Christ has already given to us many practices by which His life is birthed in us in an actual time and place. To name a few, Christ and his apostles have taught us how to inhabit place humbly listening, eating with, inhabiting and bringing peace (Luke 10:1-16). He (and his apostles) has taught us how to practice reconciliation in conflict and discernment (Matt 18:15-20), participate in the Eucharistic meal (Matt 26:26-29, 1 Cor 11:17-33),  proclaim the good news in a place Luke 4, minister to the poor and broken (Matt 25:34-46), share fellowship in the gifts of the Spirit (Eph 4), shape a new economics together (1 Cor 11:1-22, Acts 2:44-45). These are sacraments of place. They are sacraments because Christ extends His presence into the world through them in us, thru us and into the world. Christ extends His reign into each new situation. The gospel is proclaimed situationally. We cannot ideologize this. We can only discern and cooperate with Him and move forward in the Mission.  As we do these practices we participate “in Christ” the new world coming. We become birthed into a local expression of the Kingdom of God in concrete life. The apostle Paul calls this form of communal politic “the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13) where such a plentitude of love and reconciliation is birthed that it bleeds seamlessly into the whole world.

As we look at the church in N America, it appears that “the world” can no longer make sense of what we assert to be true by looking at our lives. This is the crisis in our way of life, which is another way of saying “this is our ideological crisis.” In these urgent days therefore, let us stop everything and figure out what has gone wrong in the disparity between what we say and how we live. Let us return to the basic practices of being his people together in the places where we live. Let us pay attention to the Eucharist and the daily reconciliation we must practice in life with one another in this place. By reading and hearing the Word, let us pay attention to what God is saying and calling us into in our neighborhoods and responding with simple obedience. Let us pay attention to conflict and disagreements and see them as times to submit to one another in fear and trembling seeking God’s voice. It is out of these times that we shall see more clearly what we must do to cooperate with God’s work in the world for His salvation. Let us minister and proclaim the gospel to the poor, to those who can teach us how to receive the gospel for our whole lives. Let us minister the gifts of the Spirit to each other seeking the renewal of all things in our lives and in our neighborhoods. Let us seek the good of the city through the proclaiming of the reign of Jesus Christ as Lord.  And in so doing, the gospel shall take root in us and our neighborhoods. The ideologization of the church shall be resisted and God in Christ shall take on flesh in us and come humbly into the neighborhood.

This push toward place is already happening all over N America. Amidst all the noise and busyness of N. American life, it is the manifesto of the gospel anew. Will we all join in? I see it already happening. Praise be to God.

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