The world we live in is not a Christian world. The culture we live in is not a Christian culture. Christendom — the time when Christianity culturally prevailed — is dead. Perhaps we were once more Christian than we are now, perhaps we were never as “Christian” as some of us assumed or were taught.
In many ways, the American church, including our own, is in uncharted territory. Part of the loss of “cultural Christianity,” is that people (mostly) no longer order their lives around the church, or any community of faith. Schools schedule extra-curricular activities on Wednesday nights and even Sunday mornings. Perhaps we are naïve to expect people to be loyal to the institutional church — in attendance, in giving, in caring about the brand.
We are in uncharted territory in terms of how people perceive faith. While many aren’t committed to a church of any kind, spirituality and interest in spiritual things is through the roof. Sermons and weekend worship services may not be the best method of sharing the gospel with our community if people increasingly don’t come to worship. One of the surest church growth strategies has always been to “invite a friend.” While that certainly may still work, the reality is that many people in our area may never enter the doors of a church on Sunday morning, yet they still need the Good News of Jesus Christ. We can no longer place all our eggs in the Sunday morning basket.
I’m currently in conversation with pastors from around Virginia about these issues, and I’m not sure whether to be comforted or frightened to know that at least we’re not alone. City churches, and suburban churches, and rural churches like my own are all experiencing this shift.
In his book, Canoeing the Mountains — Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, Tod Bolsinger writes that “In a Christendom world, vision was about seeing possibilities ahead and communicating excitement. In uncharted territory — where no one knows what’s ahead — vision is about accurately seeing ourselves and defining reality.” How do we see ourselves as a church? How do we see our community? Mission begins with seeing and hearing, not only God’s heart and Spirit, but ourselves, and our neighbors.
Whatever vision and future God is calling us toward, it’s got to be more than naming a bunch of possibilities and then drumming up excitement. Maybe the vision God has for our church begins with some raw honesty about the reality of our own lives, and the reality of the communities we live in. When we’re truly honest, we become vulnerable, which is exactly when God begins to move in mighty ways.
Are we, however, truly willing to become vulnerable? Safety is always more comfortable.
“Thoughts and prayers,” after another mass shooting, seems safe, stale, vanilla. Anything but vulnerable.
“Poverty isn’t an issue in our town” masks reality for too many of us, who aren’t yet willing to look our impoverished neighbors in the face. That’s not vulnerability.
“They certainly don’t love Jesus if they voted for ______.” Divisive and small minded. Anger filled. Partisan. But not vulnerable.
“Racism isn’t a problem here. Everybody in our town gets along just fine.” Well meaning. Optimistic. Maybe even white-washed. But not vulnerable.
“We don’t need to change our programs. If people took God seriously they would come to us.” Naïve. Prideful. Christendom-driven. But certainly not vulnerable.
The beauty of the incarnation is that the God of all creation became vulnerable in taking on human form, taking on the image of ones created in God’s likeness. There is nothing more vulnerable than Jesus, laughing with disciples, weeping the loss of a beloved friend, or hanging on a cross to die. Out of love, not only did God become vulnerable to the pains of humanity, God became vulnerable to the fallen nature of humanity. Even while never sinning, Christ was impacted every day by living in a fallen world.
Where are the churches willing to model that vulnerability? I’ll tell you what they look like. They have given up on Christendom. They have given up on the notion that they hold some place of privilege in our culture. They have moved out of steepled buildings with gilded decoration and into neighborhoods. They are too few.
Christendom is dead. The sooner we all realize it the better. Until the church is ready to move from a posture of triumph and conquest to one of humility and listening, we’ll continue to sound tone deaf to the world.