[Three speakers at Fuller discussed how Christianity is changing and why. Using some of their statements and thoughts as a springboard I want to share my own beliefs on this issue]
Phyllis Tickle, to whom I will refer to by her rapping name of P-Tickle from here on out, suggested that every 500 years or so Christianity goes through an identity crisis; the old ways of going about Christianity are failing and something new must be done. P-tickle suggested that in these times Christians often look back to previous moments of crisis, idealize them and think, “If only we could get back to that, things would be great!” While I am unsure if this is what happened at the Great Schism or in the Protestant Reformation, it is certainly happening now.
Many Western Christians are dissatisfied with the current status quo. Additionally, other non-Western Christians, evangelized by Western missionaries, are waking up to the fact that the Gospel came to them wrapped in Western culture and they are trying to separate the two. As one Asian theologian put it, “We are searching for the Asian face of Christ.” Christians, especially Western ones, are looking to our past to come up with guidance for the future of Christianity.
Some jump back 500 years and are re-focusing on the teachings of Calvin and Luther and this has led to a Neo-Reformed/Neo-Calvinist movement. Some jump back 500 years as well, but instead are returning to the Roman Catholic Church or some of its doctrines and spirituality. Some, who are neither Greek nor Orthodox have gone back 1000 years and have joined the Greek Orthodox Church. Some are jumping back all over the map of Christian history and are hand picking snippets of spirituality that are most useful them.
Will this solve the crisis?
On one hand I want people to connect with the power and love Jesus Christ however they can. Humanity is a diverse bunch and I do not think there is one tradition or one type of spirituality that will prove effective for everyone or every culture.
So if people truly connect with God, see Him perform miracles, and come to know His love at Reality L.A. or a Greek Orthodox Church or Mars Hill or Mars Hill (that’s an intentional repetition) or at an urban monastic order, or some eclectic mix of traditions I am for it.
However, I fear a lot of this is quite simply missing the point because of how I understand the crisis we are faced with.
Why (Western) Christianity is failing…
While there are many aspects to the current crisis, I think there are at least three main deeply interrelated aspects of it:
- A confluence of the Protestant Reformation and the advent of Secular Humanism has rather thoroughly secularized Christianity. The heart of Western culture is Secular Humanism, a worldview which denies the existence (or at least relevance) of the spiritual realm. This message is communicated 1000 and 1 ways and has impacted all Westerners, including explicitly religious ones. Regardless of what we say we believe, most Christians do not live in a manner that acknowledges the spiritual realm. The miraculous movement of God and the Holy Spirit is limited to the past, the future, or personal salvation.
- Devoid of a meaningful belief in the spiritual realm, our faith has come to rest on our theology, not on a relationship with God. Because we have come to deny the spiritual realm, our faith must rest on something other than a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. Since the time of the Reformation, with the focus on sola scriptura and the advent of the printing press a variety of competing interpretations of the Bible have proliferated. Christianity has devolved from the Bride of Christ into a bickering harem of over 30,000 different traditions more invested in judging each other and arguing that their interpretation of scripture is correct than attending to the LORD and the work He has called us to. Because the Holy Spirit does not exist and God does not really interact in this world, many base their faith on the Bible. This is essentially placing one’s faith on the ability of your Church tradition to have come to the one correct interpretation of the Bible through highly subjective and contextual exegesis of select passages.
- All we have left over at this point, what most people have known as Christianity in the West, is a powerless shell of a religion that cannot deliver promises made in scripture because these promises are only accessible through a relationship with God. Because we deny the Holy Spirit and the spiritual realm we must find security and comfort through other means other than placing our trust in God or having a relationship with Him. I think this is why most of what is done in our churches is a religious copy of what is done in the secular world. We do not offer anything different that cannot be found in a variety of other places and we do not live lives that are markedly different from the non-Christians around us. For people who supposedly believe we have the Spirit of God within us and have a hope in the Resurrection through Jesus Christ, we find guidance and comfort in many of the same ways as our irreligious counterparts in the rest of the world.
What is the solution…
I do not think the answer to this current crisis is in the past, I think the answer to this crisis is at the beginning. I think Christianity needs to go back to the beginnings of our faith.
We need to re-read our Bible and read the rich history of the Church without the blinders of Secular Humanism and the powerless Christianity we were raised in because we need to re-think what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Christian community.
We need to return to a relationship with God, something we have made secondary to our theology.
We need to return to a belief in the spiritual realm, in miracles, and in the movement of the Holy Spirit, things we have for far too long denied.
We need to return to the radical nature of the gathered Christian community, something that we toned down to the gated Christian clubs we call churches.
In particular I think a return to the Holy Spirit is essential. Too many Christians could identify with my story in which the Trinity at the heart of my faith was “Father, Son, and Holy Scriptures” instead of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The lack of an openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit today is both a root and symptom of the larger crisis.
So in regards to some of the current attempts at solving the crisis…
I think Neo-Calvinism will fail. What this movement essentially suggest is that a handful of Reformers and a handful of Christian theologians since then have perfectly interpreted the Bible all that we need to do to resolve this crisis is align our lives with their systematic theology. Not only does this fail to address the crisis or be open to the Holy Spirit, this movement reinforces part of the problem: an absolute certainty in the veracity in a highly subjective and contextual interpretation of the Bible. This return to theology developed five hundred years ago in a feudal Europe that no longer exists makes as much sense to me as putting Buster Bluth, who was trained in feudal agrarian economics, at the helm of a modern business. (Do we fear a peasant uprising?)
However, it provides a very clear-cut worldview that eliminates mystery, relativism, or uncertainty. It therefore appeals to people who are not that disenchanted with Modernity, people who want a very rigid black and white worldview and people who want a sense of moral certainty, clarity and even superiority. Like many others, I think it is simply headed towards being the new Fundamentalism.
I think the Emerging/Emergent churches will also fail. Shane Hipps, a pastor at Mars Hill, used an analogy involving Windows and Mac to talk about Emerging churches. IBM created the PC but Apple created the Mac based on completely different principles and it was much easier to use. To compete, IBM invented Windows which is really just a cosmetic layer on top of the same foundational principles. Hipps compares true Emerging/Emergent churches to the Mac. They start truly afresh with a new foundation of Postmodern theology. Other churches are like IBM and are just slapping on pop-spirituality over the same old assumptions about church to appeal to a new generation.
I think Hipps is wrong. I think the Emerging/Emergent churches are not a radically new way of doing Christianity, I think they are just another layer of cosmetics. Emerging/Emergent churches are attempts at making the Gospel relevant and appealing to Post-modern culture. They look different from the Modern churches because they are not appealing to Moderns, but at the end of the day, they really are fundamentally the same. Modernity and Post-modernity are simply different modes of Secular Humanism. While Emerging/Emergent churches may deal with the problems in Modern Churches, they fail to deal with the Secular Humanism beneath that veneer. I fear in many Emerging/Emergent churches another form of pseudo-Christian Humanism is being promoted and while people are more open to spiritual experiences, I do not hear of a serious return to Holy Spirit or miracles happening in such congregations.
I think Protestants returning to liturgical worship services will fail. On one hand I appreciate the fact that as more Protestants interact with and study the Roman Catholic tradition many will come to see the good parts of that tradition. It has always troubled me, being raised in both traditions, that many Protestants, having never set foot in a Catholic Church much less the life of a Catholic person, believe Catholics are two-headed papist dragons bent on power and abusing children. I have heard many Protestants condemn the faith of millions armed with only a faint understanding of abuses that existed centuries ago. I hope that this recedes as people interact with liturgical forms of worship more.
However, I fear many Protestants are returning to these liturgical forms of worship with little understanding and for less benefit. Just because something is new, unfamiliar or mysterious to you, does not mean it will solve the wider crisis. Also, I fear much of the imagery, especially in icons and ikons, of these churches are being used simply because we are returning to an image based culture. Christians have a renewed sense of the importance of images and a full understanding of the Catholic and Orthodox use of these images in worship is one thing. Having an icon in your home because it looks cool is another.
While some Christians may protest that they have found new spiritual life pursing these or other paths that I would not suggest will resolve our identity crisis I want to ask one simple question. How many people engaging in these traditions were already Christians? Are people truly searching for the face of God and finding Him in these traditions, or are Christians, dissatisfied with what is on offer, looking for greener pastures and new experiences elsewhere?
Indeed, I think any attempt to resolve the current crisis will fail unless it addresses the impact of Secular Humanism in the West and is marked by a return to the Holy Spirit, something that is usually reserved for Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions.
So the Global South…
I believe the shift in power and numbers to the Global South and to non-Westerners is a sign of the new life the Holy Spirit is breathing into the Body of Christ. Many African, Latin American, and Asian cultures do not share the inherent denial of the spiritual realm the West adheres to. In fact, similar to the vast majority of cultures throughout history, these culture are more open to the spiritual realm. I think this default acceptance of the spiritual realm is what is helping them to recover from the anti-spiritual bias communicated when the Gospel came to them in through Spirit-less Christian traditions and has allowed for Spirit-filled Christian traditions (aka, the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements) to flourish.
This robust, powerful, Spirit-filled Christianity, that believes in God speaking today and God acting today is something else entirely. It can usher people into a relationship with God and impact their daily lives. This is the kind of faith that looks a lot closer to the Body of Christ than our churches. Their Spirit-filled faith is not relegated to a private sphere on Sunday, but is a deeply seated faith that impacts not only all of their lives but their communities as well. This is why, as Lauren Winner pointed out, many of our Latin brothers consider ministry training to include classes on the Bible and basic human and civic needs, such as water technology and agriculture. They are not looking for classes on systematic theology. From our scripture centered faith, where theological education is equated with preparation for ministry, where systematic theology has replaced the Spirit, they do indeed to be theologically “thin” as Tony Jones put it. But that is a good thing. Systematic theology has not worked out for us. If it did, there would be no crisis, as we are drowning in competing systematic theologies but still found ourselves here.
While clearly there are exceptions to everything I said and there are and will be abuses in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in the Global South (as there have been in all Christian traditions) I think this is really the way things are going to go. Christianity will become an increasingly non-Western, non-Caucasian, non-Theologically oriented faith, and this is a good thing. Phyliss Tickle suggested we have seen 2,000 years of a Jesus centered Christianity and we may be seeing 2,000 years of Holy Spirit centered Christianity. It think she’s half right. I think we have seen 500 years of a scripture and human centered Christianity and may be seeing 2,000 years of Holy Spirit centered Christianity.
As for Christianity in the U.S.A., I think the we headed towards one of three things. There may be a dramatic renewal in the importance and prominence of the Holy Spirit, possibly with the aid of non-Western missionaries coming to us. Or there may be a stalemate of “business as usual” where the Emerging/Emergent and Neo-Reformed traditions will replace the Liberal and Fundamentalist extremes, spouting rhetoric at one another in an ongoing culture war, Or it may be that the U.S.A. will become dissatisfied with Christianity all together and become, like much of Europe, a completely post-Christian society.