Years ago I recall attending a pastors conference at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky. At the table where I sat a pastor of a Baptist church in Louisville expressed his frustration at having lost almost half his membership to the Christian megachurch there that was growing numerically in leaps and bounds. Churches that are growing are largely doing so at the expense of other churches. And don’t let the numbers of Southern Baptist churches fool you either (the pastor I just mentioned was a Southern Baptist). Many of them like to re-baptize Christians who they think didn’t get it right the first time. As far as institutional Christianity goes we are mostly just reshuffling the deck or, even worse, rearranging the chairs on a sinking ship.
The church-at-large is not reaching non-religious people, nor is the church drawing into its ranks spiritual persons who have given up on religious institutions. There are some perfectly good reasons these folks walked away from institutional religion, and are not eager to return. And in the larger churches that draw Christians away from smaller churches, once you get beyond the loud praise bands, worship as emotional release, multi-staff, multi-opportunity consumer driven programming for all ages, the extravagant Christmas and Easter pageants, the coffee shops and ark-on-wheels — what do you find? In many cases (not all, of course, but many) you find the same petty, punitive God of traditional Western Christianity who demands tit-for-tat retributive justice, tortures people in hell, and cares more about what you believe than what you do.
If Christianity is to be a force for good in the world by helping to heal our deep psychic, personal brokenness, to restore estranged relationships often marked by betrayal and contempt, to transform us into more loving, compassionate persons who care for others, to empower us to confront social and structural injustices with courage and integrity, and to inspire us to work for the common good and a more just society, then Western Christianity, and American Christianity in particular, must undergo a new reformation.
This is no easy task. Richard Rohr says, “Two thousand years after the revelation of Jesus, many people still seem to prefer a punitive, threatening, and violent God, which then produces the same kind of people and the same kind of histories. … It is largely a waste of time to tell people to love generously when the God they have been presented with is a taskmaster, loves quite conditionally, is easily offended, very needy and threatens people with eternal torture if they do not ‘believe’ in him.”
This new reformation will involve both deconstruction and reconstruction, and both processes must happen simultaneously. There are reformers doing this work — the late Marcus Borg was committed to this, and now engaged are reformers like Rohr, Brian McLaren, John Philip Newell, Rob Bell, Bro. David Stendl-Rast, John Shelby Spong and many others lesser known. From a historical perspective this process is just beginning and will take a long time.
Its success, however, will depend, not on the big names who travel across the country giving presentations and whose book sales and public appearances are able to sustain their freelance work. The success of the movement will depend on pastors in small towns and urban centers across the country preaching and teaching the good news. But this is not likely to come about through the work of professional/vocational ministers like myself who depend on the church institution for their livelihood. For it is highly unlikely the institutional church will permit their pastors to engage in this kind of work.
I’m fortunate to be able to do what I do as a vocational Christian pastor. But it has not come without personal and institutional cost. Most professional ministers who do what I do would lose their jobs and have to find a new career. This work of reformation will largely have to be done by lay ministers and bivocational pastors who are not dependent on the institution.
Whenever I have an opportunity to talk to young men and women who feel called to do this work, this is what I tell them: I encourage them to find a career they can enjoy to earn a living, and then give their lives to the work of reforming Christianity. Only a new kind of Christianity, a Christianity that takes the life and teaching of Jesus seriously, a Christianity that is inclusive, gracious, generous, compassionate, merciful, truthful and committed to restorative justice and the common good will be good news to the world in which we live.