A growing body of statistical evidence reveals that Christians in their 20s and 30s are disenchanted with a faith that is culturally antagonistic and closely aligned with partisan politics. Is a growing sea-change sweeping across the church? I am one who believes the answer is very obvious. But how will this change impact what the church, and our mission, look like in the next twenty years? Author/blogger Jonathan Merritt, whose father is a mega-church pastor whom Jonathan clearly loves and respects, believes large numbers of Christians are seeking to discover a faith worth believing (and living) in the twenty-first century. I concur with this broad perspective. Why? I have the amazing joy of meeting these young Christians almost every day for more than a decade and I have spent countless hours listening to them share their hearts.
Various authors have written about these seismic changes and what they believe these will mean for the future, but very few have done so with as much grace, wisdom and winsomeness as Jonathan Merritt in his new book, A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars (FaithWords: Hatchette Book Group, 2012).
Each generation must answer the question our Lord posed to his first followers: “Who do we say Jesus is?” Merritt rightly says, “Our answer cannot be drawn from what others are saying about Jesus or what our parents taught us about him. We must stare Jesus in the face and offer our own response” (3). Even though Jesus is the “same yesterday and today and tomorrow” each person, and by extension each generation, must follow him in their own way. “He is unchanging and so are His precepts. We must have an encounter with this ageless Jesus for our own time” (4). Merritt rightly notes that “first-century Christians in Israel wrestled with Jesus the Jewish rabbi and Messiah. Second-century Roman Christians preached Jesus as the King of Kings who, unlike Caesar, was Lord of all” (4).
While each age has wrestled with who Jesus is Christians have very often allowed culture to define their faith, not the Christ of the Gospels. Merritt says, “The Christianity I often witnessed growing up seemed to be engaged in a political struggle for control of a nation in ‘moral decline.’ The answer to ‘Who do you say Jesus is?’ was pietistic and political. Jesus wanted us to take back our country for Him rather than leave everything behind and follow” (5). That sums up a great deal of what I’ve seen since 1976.
America celebrated its two hundredth anniversary on July 4, 1976. That date fell on a Sunday. I still recall my warning to my congregation (I was 27 at the time) that we were a nation that seemed to be in search of a politically shaped “religion” that would redefine the role of the church in the coming decades. Some months later I preached a sermon from 1 Peter and cited a TIME cover story about Jerry Falwell and the rise of the Christian Right. I was concerned in the late 1970s and nothing has prompted me to change much of that concern since.
Christian philosopher Jacques Ellul once said, “It seems as though politics is the Church’s worst problem. It is her consistent temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the Prince of this World” (5). Merritt suggests that Ellul is only partly right since it is really “foolish participation in politics that gets the church into trouble. It divides a community for which God desires unity and forces us to lose site of the reason we live and move and breathe” (6). I believe the church must discuss politics seriously but not embrace partisan political stances that can never unite us in following Christ. This may seem impossible but, as we shall see, it can be done in a way that lines up with the church’s true mission in the world.
Merritt believes young Christians are really looking for a more “Jesus-shaped faith” and that “they aren’t leaving the public square altogether, but Christians of all ages–particularly the younger ones–are now rediscovering their faith and the One upon whom that faith is built. They are weary of the partisanship, the struggle for power. They want to go beyond the ballot box and do something concrete about our many problems” (6). I believe that observation is spot on. Young Christians are not about to quit expressing their faith publicly, they just do not want to do it through cut-and-dried ideological solutions that translate into election-centered politics every two years. They are searching for a faith that transforms; both people and communities.
I’ve had the great joy of seeing this first hand. I’ve seen it in groups like CharlotteONE and PhoenixONE, where my friends David Hickman and Jeff Gokee lead dynamic movements of unity and oneness that direct young urban adults into worship and mission that is not like what I witnessed in my generation. These younger Christians, and their leaders, understand what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr meant when he wrote in the middle of the twentieth century: “The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism.” These leaders have seen my generation claim God as “an ally for our partisan value” and they are fed-up with the fanaticism that they’ve seen as a result. They believe the mission of Christ invites us into what I’ve called missional-ecumenism. This way is one of collaboration and relational partnership where love trumps ideology. It is not passive. It is a new kind of activisms that focuses more on us as the people of God than on elections and voting blocks.