a couple of thoughts that jumped out at me this weekend, from “A New Kind of Christian”
At the time, I could see only two alternatives: 1) continue preaching and promoting a version of Christianity that I had deepening reservations about or 2) leave Christian ministry and perhaps the Christian path altogether. There was a third alternative that I hadn’t yet considered: Learn to be a Christian in a new way.
- I drive my car and listen to the Christian radio station, something my wife always tells me I should stop doing (“because it only gets you upset”). There I hear preacher after preacher be so absolutely sure of his bombproof answers and his foolproof biblical interpretations (in spite of the fact that Preacher A at 9:30 usually contradicts Preacher B at 10:00, and so on throughout the day), his five easy steps (alliterated around the letter P), his crisis of the month (toward which you should give a “love gift … if the Lord so leads”). And the more sure he seems, the less I find myself wanting to be a Christian, because on this side of the microphone, antennas, and speaker, life isn’t that simple, answers aren’t that clear, and nothing is that sure. (Paradoxically, at that moment I might consider sending him some money, hoping that by investing in his simpler vision of the world, I myself will be able to buy into it more. But eventually I will stop throwing good money after bad.)
- I preach sermons that earn the approving nods of the lifelong churchgoers, because they repeat the expected vocabulary and formulations, words that generally convey little actual meaning after hearing them fifty-two times a year, year after year, but work like fingers, massaging the weary souls of earnest people. Meanwhile, as the initiated relax under this massage of familiar words, as they emit an almost audible “ahh” to hear their cherished vocabulary again, these very massaging messages leave the uninitiated furrowing their brows, shaking their heads, and shifting in their seats. They do this sometimes because they don’t understand but even more when they do understand – because the very formulations that sound so good and familiar to the “saved” sound downright weird or even wicked to the “seekers” and the skeptics. These people come to me and ask questions, and I give my best answers, my best defenses, and by the time they leave my office, I have convinced myself that their questions are better than my answers.
- I do the reverse: I preach sermons that turn the lights on for spiritual seekers, but earn me critical letters and phone calls from the “veterans” of the church often because the expected fingers didn’t reach through my message to massage them as expected.
- I have counseling sessions in my office, year after year, during which many wonderful people, people whom I love, people who have a lot of Bible knowledge, Christan background, theological astuteness, and “pew time,” prove to have the same problems, make the same mistakes, harbor the same doubts (though more often unexpressed), indulge in the same vices, and lack the same “spark” that unchurched people often do, the only major differences being that a) the church people tend to use more religious language to define their problems, b) their problems are further complicated by guilt for having these problems in the first place, and c) these religious people nevertheless consider themselves superior to their non-religious counterparts. (I read recently that divorce rates among evangelical Christians – supposed guardians of traditional family values – are actually higher than those in culture at large. What?) After these counseling sessions, I am left troubled, wondering, “Shouldn’t the Gospel of Jesus make a bigger impact than this? And does pew time have to result in spiritual pride and inauthenticity?”
- I realize that as people come into our church, everybody needs conversion. The not yet committed Christians need to be converted to a vibrant twenty-first century faith, and the already committed twentieth-century (and nineteenth-century) Christians need the same, myself included.
- I realize, as I read and reread the Bible, that many passages don’t fit any of the theological systems I have inherited or adapted. Sure, they can be squeezed in, but after a while my theology looks like a high school class trip’s luggage – shoestrings hanging out here, zippers splitting apart there, latches snapping, clothes pouring out on the floor like a thrift store horn of plenty. My old systems – whether the Dispensationalism of my childhood, the Calvinism of my adolescence, the “charasmaticism” of my early adulthood, or even my more mature, mainstream “evangelicalism” – cant seem to hold all the data in the Bible, not to mention the data of my own experience, at least not gracefully.
- I read what other people who are having similar experiences are saying, including people writing outside the religious context – like this from Peter Senge – “In any case, our Industrial Age management, our Industrial Age organization, our Industrial Age way of living will not continue. The Industrial Age is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable in ecological terms, and it’s not sustainable in human terms. It will change. The only question is how. Once we get out of our machine mind-set, we may discover new aptitudes for growth and change. Until then, change won’t come easily.” As I read, I feel that “industrial age faith” faces the same fate.
- I pick up most religious books, like the one you’re holding, and know from somewhere midway through page one what the entire book will say, and I read on anyway to find out that I was right. I wonder: Doesn’t the religious community see that the world is changing? Doesn’t it have anything fresh and incisive to say? Isn’t it even asking any new questions? Has it nothing to offer other than the stock formulas that it has been offering? Is there no Saint Francis or Soren Kierkegaard or C.S. Lewis in the house with some fresh ideas and energy? Has the “good news” been reduced to “good same-old same-old”?
- I meet people along the way who model for me, each in a different way, what a new kind of Christian might look like. They differ in many ways, but they generally agree that the old show is over, the modern jig is up, and it’s time for something radically new.
Of course, my data isn’t numbers. My data is experience – my experience as a committed Christian and my specific experiences as a pastor. Experiences like these:
You see, if we have a new world, we will need a new church. We won’t need a new religion per-se, but a new framework for our theology. Not a new Spirit, but a new spirituality. Not a new Christ, but a new Christian. Not a new denomination, but a new kind of church in every denomination.
I’d have to become a Christian in a new way…