Something really, really small – the church in America

April 10, 2009

church / culture / ministry

Recently, in both Christian and secular settings, there has been a lot of talk about the predicament and future of the American church in general, and evangelicalism in particular. It seems that it has finally begun to emerge into the broader culture (aside from some who are doing more harm than good) that we are not a Christian nation.

I’ve been interested in and talking and reading about these things for years, so it’s nice to see it get some broader conversation. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of the church (as well as the future of these other things), pondering the moves of the Spirit in the people of God and in the broader culture, and how the Spirit can respond to the moves of the people of God and the broader culture. Both of these are equally important to this discussion.

It is clear that evangelicalism is, very possibly, in for a beating. The general consensus is that the movement has aligned itself too closely with theological ignorance, political conservatism and its accompanying agendas, culture war, and in general causing non-Christians to dislike it to endure with the relative strength that it has in recent decades.

The failure of the economy will certainly contribute to this decline, though how much remains to be seen. Regardless, large numbers of churches, schools, and other institutions will likely be forced to close their buildings, reduce their paid staff, get used to a lack of influence, and reshape their existence in the world.

In spite of, and really because of, these things I have hope for the future of the American church. Europe has been post-Christian for decades, and yet many of the most innovative parts of the broader emerging church have thrived there, largely without buildings, paid staff, or political/societal influence. I have taught and prayed for this to come to the States, and I think these kind of things will be the catalyst for the church to move forward, rather than a lot of the more flashy, expensive, “relevant” trends that currently get a lot of attention.

I have hope from the various streams of new monasticism, neo-Anabaptism, the parts of the underground church that have continued to reshape themselves, and the general potential of the values of creativity, worship, hospitality, prayer, and loving activism that have shaped and continue to shape these streams, and I have been greatly encouraged by their impact in Europe.

I believe that the American church has stood at a crossroads for the last few years, in which it has a choice of total irrelevance and exile, or a reshaping into a more organic and decentralized shape. This will equal “something really, really small,” though a lot of really, really small things do become a very large thing, as we can see in various networks that work along these lines.

That reshaping is my greatest hope for the American church. Many of my evangelical relatives would be shocked and dismayed, were the church to reshape itself in these ways, either out of choice (as I had hoped) or out of necessity (as seems more likely). But really: it is the post-Christian version of the Apostolic church that, for the first three centuries of Christianity, gave its life in love of God and love of those around it, refusing to give up on the kingdom of God.