Being Faithful in a Post-Christendom World

As best as I can figure, the Christian era ended during my lifetime. When I was eight years old in small-town Alabama, there was nothing to do on Sundays but to go to church. Everything else was closed, because decent people observed the Sabbath and removed temptation from those who did not. All my friends wore mustard seed necklaces and most of us owned child-sized New Testaments bound in white leatherette, given to us by our parents at Easter. In school we prayed to God as routinely as we pledged allegiance to the flag, and we memorized the Ten Commandments alongside our multiplication tables.

By the time I reached high school, God was dead. Pictures of Kent State and the My Lai massacre were tattooed on people’s minds, and they turned their outrage on what they had been taught about God. God was not good. God did not answer prayer. God, for all practical purposes, was dead….

Organized religion remained one of the many choices available to human beings in their search for meaning, but it was a lame one. On the college campuses where I spent the early seventies, my peers let me know that only the unimaginative still went to church–the stuck, the fearful, the socially inept–while those with any sense committed themselves to more relevant causes, like the anti-war movement, or the environment, or the arts. Church-like communities formed around such causes, giving their members identity, purpose, and support….

That was almost twenty years ago, and while there must be a dozen different explanations for what went on in those days, the trend has continued. Faith in God is no longer the rule; it is the exception to the rule, one “option” among many for people seeking to make sense out of their lives.

Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, pp. 5-7

In seminary I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Christian minister in a post-Christendom world. Barbara Brown Taylor hit the nail on the head: The Christian era is behind us. Unlike our parents and grandparents, people today no longer feel obligated to go to church. And nobody today goes to church because there’s nothing else to do. On the contrary, people who do attend worship regularly these days are forgoing any number of other opportunities and opting instead to be in church.

I don’t lament the demise of Christendom. The people who worship alongside me today aren’t churchgoers by default but people who have deliberately chosen to be there. With so many other forces competing for our time and attention, you need a good reason to show up in church on Sunday mornings. You need to be convinced that it’s worth your time. Otherwise, why bother?

Unfortunately, most of us Christian ministers haven’t done a good job of making the case for church. Finding that the old models of ministry won’t cut it anymore and uncertain of the way forward, many pastors spend their time longing for the good ol’ days when people went to church because they were supposed to rather than adapting to a world where people have to be persuaded to make an appearance at worship. Meanwhile, backwards crazies like the Westboro homophobes and the Qur’an torchers of Florida are providing plenty of reasons to run from the church and stay far, far away. Maybe even abandon religion altogether.

Despite all that, I think there are good reasons not to give up on religion. In her book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells why she makes her son go to church against his will:

The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want–which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy–are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians–people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from the Jewish Theological Seminary that said, “A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of a great meaning.” Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food (p. 100).

What keeps me coming back to church week after week? The Christian story helps me to make sense of my existence. Even more, it challenges me to imagine and live into new ways of being in the world. There are certain themes running through scripture that have made a significant impact on me. Here’s one: God is always doing a new thing, surprising us and upsetting our human expectations. Here’s another one: God is active on the margins and works through those accustomed to rejection. Another: God wills abundant life for all of creation. Scripture dares us to envision a new kind of world. It’s a world free from the forces that would perpetuate injustice, decimate the earth, and sow fear, hatred, and division. In the church I have found people who read these same scriptures, who recognize these same themes, and whose lives are shaped by this alternative vision for our world. That’s why I keep coming back.

And I hope others will join me in this re-visioning process. Still, I know that other stories help other people to make meaning of their lives and to reimagine their way of being in the world. These people are, as Anne Lamott says, part of something beautiful, people following a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle. This is what religion has to offer: a path and a little light to see by. Religion helps us to make meaning of and find our way in a world that can seem devoid of meaning and utterly hopeless. It’s the Christian story that has claimed me and helps me to make sense of the world. That’s why I remain in the church.

The featured image for this post, “The Immaculate Conception” is copyright (c) 2014 fusion-of-horizons and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license.

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