Witness

What Will Keep Us from Building a Church in the Ruins?

I recently re-read my chapter “Building a Church in the Ruins” in the recently released book When the Universe Cracks (NavPress; edited by Angie Ward, featuring a number of authors in whose company I was honored to be included). The chapter was written in the heart of a pandemic ennui, seeking a gospel hope for a renewed church in the US. But I couldn’t help but notice how it felt a bit dated, although it was written less than a year ago. So much has happened since then to test the faith expressed in that chapter.

We went through a traumatic transfer of power in the US—many people in the church are still fighting the results of that election. With the nationwide rollout of vaccinations and infection rates decreasing, by the beginning of summer we hoped the pandemic would be over soon, only to realize with a collective sinking feeling by the end of summer that the pandemic was not going anywhere just yet. Wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and record-breaking heat waves have marked the onward march of global climate change. Those of us in urban communities have been living through an unprecedented level of violent incidents that have too often resulted in deaths. Anti-Asian racism took a dramatically sharp upward turn during the pandemic.

These are only a handful of the events that took place within the US; I will quickly run out of space if I turn my attention beyond our borders.

All of these have piled onto a growing catastrophe fatigue, both within me and around me. It is tempting to seek out the easiest possible route to equilibrium, to resort to the rule of “status quo bias” (a term I used in my chapter to describe what can happen after a crisis), and turn away from any talk about crises as gateways of possibilities to a new life. I have had concerns that the US church may not receive these crises as opportunities to pivot and rebuild anew—these concerns have only been growing with the multiplication of even more crises, some of them caused by those in the church itself.

What are the manifestations of this status quo bias for the church right now? What would keep us from seeing in our crises a new horizon of opportunity opening up, and instead of taking this opportunity to reshape the church for mission in the post-Christian West, heading back to the broken old normal? I see at least three ways reform efforts could get undermined by status quo bias.

What would keep us from seeing in our crises a new horizon of opportunity opening up, and instead of taking this opportunity to reshape the church for mission in the post-Christian West, heading back to the broken old normal? Click To Tweet

Culture War Reflex

When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything seems to be a nail. In the same way, when crises compound, old battle lines seem to get even more entrenched, at least in our present-day culture war that much of the church has been drawn into, even though the real front has moved, or was never where the culture warriors assumed it was. In the church, as in the rest of the country, we are all too accustomed to blaming “the liberals” or “the fundamentalists” for the crises we are experiencing; the solution, it appears, is to ratchet up the feverishness of the attack when crises mount and react in opposition to “the other side” (even our language has been deeply malformed by partisan politics). Whatever they do, we will do the opposite.

But a time of crisis should be a time to pause in a rare moment of clarity, receive this moment as a gift, and reorder our priorities. For the followers of Christ, the priority of first order emerging out of the fog of war is the mission of God. We are to love God and love neighbors locally, concretely, not abstractly; we are to form a mission community of that future world, the kingdom of God, and live as its witnesses and its foretaste for the sake of the world. We are to live and share the gospel, in our words seasoned with grace and hope and in our actions to serve the cause of the most vulnerable neighbors in our communities. We are not called to market the church or grow the church for growth’s sake; to squabble for more power and privilege for Christians and their institutions; to take back the country for God (God doesn’t need his people to take anything back for him), or to commit ourselves to a conspiracy theory-fevered culture war that the Prince of Peace would never call us to fight. The Israelite exiles found themselves in Babylon, and the word from God was, “Seek the peace of the city” (Jer 29:7).

The culture war is a massive distraction from the church’s first priority of missio dei—and this is surely an understatement, for we are not even mentioning the casualties of this war—pastorates that couldn’t contain the divisions; a gospel witness torpedoed by political death fights, and  innumerable souls whose faiths have been shipwrecked on alternative truths.

I wish I could say the crises of 2020 was a large-scale wakeup call to a renewed racial justice work, a departure from a consumeristic Christianity, and a reform of the attractional church to a church that is incarnational and missional. While there are surely exceptions, I have been troubled to see culture warriors in the church falling back to doing culture warrior things; but even more so, enjoining ever-deepening skirmishes over the elections, vaccinations, masks, Critical Race Theory, and on and on.

I have been troubled to see culture warriors in the church falling back to doing culture warrior things; but even more so, enjoining ever-deepening skirmishes over the elections, vaccinations, masks, and Critical Race Theory. Click To Tweet

It’s time for kingdom seekers to move on. What the church should be about is clear. We need to grow out of the reflexive combative habits formed by the culture war, and embrace new gospel habits of community, peacemaking, and service. The pandemic and the crises of the past year should be that time of pivot—but I don’t (yet?) see this happening at a widespread scale.

A Nostalgic Theology (and Structure) of Power

Like everyone else (so it seems), I’ve been listening to the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. As I did so, I’ve been steadily getting new news of spiritual leaders whose abuses have come to light, and I’ve been grieving.

What I’ve reflected on over and over is that the church and its leaders has too often loved the empire of Caesar and not the kingdom of the crucified Christ in the way they handled power. To be fair, more often than not, this has been unwitting, but when a narcissist or an abuser comes along to take the reins, the system is not equipped to identify the danger, because the system itself is narcissistic and breeds narcissistic leaders. (See Chuck DeGroat’s When Narcissism Comes to Church, and Diane Langberg’s Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church.)

The unstated but nonetheless real goal of many churches is to be relevant, visible, influential, wealthy, powerful, “for the sake of Jesus,” of course, but the means have a sneaky tendency to become the ends rather quickly. Such systems are not interested in reinvention of the church for the sake of mission in our time; they are interested in protecting the systemic status quo and those in positions of power. They often pine for the days when the church used to be powerful and respected; they often misremember those times as times when the gospel was believed and lived. The reality, as Black Christians remind us, was quite different.

These theologies and systems reflexively take us backward and resist new opportunities for mission and transformation. Crises should reveal that these systems do not work, at least not to serve kingdom purposes, and we need reform. Our nostalgia and commitment to these systems keep us from seeing this and hold us back.

Mission Aversion

When the early church was being led into Gentile mission, there was violent resistance from those already in the church. Mission meant rethinking everything the early church had assumed to be God’s ways; mission meant giving up their positions of cultural and ethnic power and privilege and sharing power with cultural and ethnic others—not merely to have them assimilate, not merely to colonize others in the name of Christian mission. This approach is imperialistic and triumphalistic. But the Spirit’s call to mission was rather a call to kenosis and a “second conversion,” as Peter had to undergo in Acts 10. This was the stumbling block of mission, and precisely what the religious system in the early church resisted. The resistance was so pitched that Paul was nearly killed.

We are living through the same story today. Most American churches would be in favor of missions. They give to numerous projects in Majority World that do much real good. They send and support numerous missionaries across the world to be gospel witnesses in many difficult places. But many have not been challenged to be transformed themselves because of their deepening journey of sharing the gospel with an “other.” In the face of clear revelatory moments of God’s call to racial justice, how have churches responded? There were moments of penitence, then back to business as usual, or even resistance to racial justice by propping up a bogeyman of Critical Race Theory.

Yet because of the realization that we are living out the story of the early church being led into mission in spite of itself, I remain hopeful. The mission of the early church was not a popular endeavor, yet it endured. The gospel crossed oceans and mountains and was planted in cultures and nations all around the globe in spite of the ethnocentric and mission-resistant church. The name of Christ is confessed and called on in countless tongues; communities of Jesus followers are rooted in countless cultures around the world. The Spirit of God oversees, enlivens, and protects the mission, and the church will continue to be led into mission and the transformation that it entails, though this might be happening away from the spotlight.

The gospel crossed oceans and mountains and was planted in cultures and nations all around the globe in spite of the ethnocentric and mission-resistant church. Click To Tweet

Hope in the Present Moment

The church in the US has this wonderful opportunity to do away with its culture war reflex, nostalgic theology of power, and mission aversion. I still remain convinced that the pandemic and its accompanying crises represents such an opportunity for the church to lean into the mission of God. I am hopeful that the Spirit is at work, and that the mission will continue with those who follow the lead of Christ: along the way, they will wrestle with the transformations the mission demands, but they will also be surprised by its joys.

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