My friend Rachel Evans, author of the wonderful memoir Monkey Town, asked me to participate in a synchroblog project this week, September 12-18. The project is called Eighth Letter. I decided to post my letter to the North American Church on my blog and then link to the responses of a number of other Christian writers who are doing the same. I look forward to listening to many voices responding to this opportunity.
You undoubtedly realize that you’ve enjoyed hundreds of years of material and spiritual blessing. Yes, you’ve made mistakes but a significant number of you have truly loved Jesus and his church. You are to be commended for your sacrifice, your commitment to religious liberty, your love for mission programs, your investment in thoughtful Christian education and your innumerable charitable foundations and causes. You are also to be commended for building impressive institutions for the spread of the gospel around the globe, including hundreds of denominations and mission agencies. Your presence can be seen in every city and town in North America, though your churches are now declining in a significant way.
But I also believe that the six decades of my lifetime you have embraced cultural versions of Christianity that make your identity hardly recognizable as distinctly and truly Christian. Your individualism has given you a profound love for liberty but it has also gone terribly bad. Your churches actually look more like social clubs, designed for your pleasure, than like communities designed to serve the mission and kingdom of God. And now you have turned social and political ideology into Christ’s good news, thus losing your grip on the gospel in a way that precious few recognize. You have invested billions of dollars in causes and programs that have little or nothing to do with the things that are on God’s heart; justice, mercy and love for your neighbors. You live in comfort while God’s Spirit is actually moving on the margins of society just like he was in the time of Jesus and the Acts of the Apostles.
All of this has resulted in a terrible malaise with regard to Christ’s kingdom and mission. You have plunged into political and material projects that are almost always done better by secular agencies. Your now face a time of immense crisis. You have been on this course for at least forty years, maybe much longer if the facts are carefully considered. What now? More of the same or a new vision actually rooted in the teaching of Jesus?
There is good news. God is always graciously generating new beginnings. Crisis is the very place where opportunity and danger meet. Some of you see this opportunity and you truly love the church. Others of you are paralyzed and look for a way of escape, either through the end of the age or by the triumph of your ideas in church organizations and culture. Give up your attempts to gain and use human power and become a people seen and known as humble servants. Here alone you will discover both spiritual authority and personal freedom.
Clinging to yesterday’s images and institutions might give you some comfort for a time, even some job security if you work in the church, but this is not the answer. But embracing the values and ideas of late modernity is not a solution either. You must realize that Christ has called you to live in communities of “faithful presence.” This kind of living is never passive. It would be easy to jettison the past or condemn your ancestors. Don’t do this. It is arrogant and foolish. Courageously face the present time by embracing a multicolored mosaic that is both ancient and future in it orientation. This will frighten those who do not understand the present crisis. But remember, you have been invited to live inside an “epic story.” Make sure that you get this story right and you will experience his presence.
You need new frames of reference not a uniform solution. These frames of reference must be deeply rooted in what the late missiologist David J. Bosch called “the emerging ecumenical paradigm of mission.” Go back to John 17. Stop reading Jesus’ prayer for the church in the old ways you were taught. Ask everyone who will listen to you: “What is Jesus actually asking the Father for in verses 20-23?” Once you’ve gotten your answer do not allow anyone, or anything, to stand in the way of pursuing this vision. But understand this, it will cost you to follow Jesus in the prayer he prayed for his church. It always has and always will, especially when you live in a time of crisis. The church’s involvement in Christ’s mission will always be an act of true faith. There are no guarantees that we will get this right or that we will experience great prosperity by following this course. There is only one promise; “I will be with you to the end of the age.” That is enough.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann warns the church to never blend itself with the social and political culture of any time or we risk becoming identified with that culture and not the good news. He asks, “Can the church of the crucified man from Nazareth ever become a political religion, without forgetting him and losing its identity?” You know the answer. If you really see this present crisis then I plead with you to embrace this amazing opportunity and go forward with those who share your dream in the unity of the Spirit. There is work to be done and communities of joy to be built. You have a part, each of you. The authors of the New Testament employed a number of metaphors to describe our place in the world: “the salt of the earth,” “the light of the world,” “a city on a hill,” etc. If we seize this opportunity then we will again ponder these metaphors with great care. In doing so we will listen to the past, speak with conviction to the present and look with hope to the future.
John H. Armstrong
16th Sunday of Pentecost 2010