Most Americans (including this one) live a highly coordinated, fast-paced existence. Life is a complex machine. There is very little down time. Weekdays are filled with work, school, sports, car-pools, and heaven forbid if the car has to get the oil changed and tires rotated. If a car does break down, or a child gets sick, or someone has to travel, the efficiency of the machine takes a serious hit. At that point, we do everything in our power to get the machine repaired and humming along again.
In increasing numbers, Americans are eliminating church from the design of their machines. Over the course of the last generation, the church has been pushed to the margins of influence and participation. The public image of Christianity is about political power and shaming society’s ills. The Bible is not taken seriously as a source of authority for modern life. Pastors make great punchlines. If God is alive, and the common thought is that he very well might not be, he is far too silent and mysterious to actually place serious belief in or more importantly, follow.
The machines of most 21st century Americans are running fine without God. We now have the tangible wonders of science to heal our bodies and technology to dazzle our minds. Soon our organic machines will be enhanced in unimaginable ways by robotics and artificial intelligence. But in spite of the progress, there are still massive problems facing the world. Since we Americans generally have enough food to eat and disposable income for craft beer, it follows that we should care deeply about how to fix these problems for the rest of humanity. If you are a rational person, it is not difficult to see that there is a tremendous amount of work to do for the good of the world. Who has time to waste on God, religion, or church? And those are the rational ones! Everyone else has been swept along with the tide of the new civil religion – worshiping the god of self. And that kind of worship does not mix well with the God talked about in church.
If you are a church-going Christian, pastor, or church leader, this is all very disconcerting. From a broad perspective the situation seems hopeless. The temptation is to up the stakes with loud rhetoric condemning evil and pandering to a base of believers already convinced. Or pump money into advertising and initiatives to get people to return to church. Or become content with being pushed further and further into the margins. None of these responses seem to be working.
I believe, quite simply, the answer will not be found by church insiders. No offense to anyone reading this who is a pastor, church planter, or a good church-going family. Your churches do wonderful things in your community and lives are being changed. But, you won’t get God back into the 21st century American machine. That ship has sailed.
The answer will come from where it is least expected. Cultural outsiders. Immigrants. Sinners. The unclean and uncouth. Fatherless and motherless. Those longing for acceptance and community. Those who desire mercy yet receive none. Somewhere, sometime, within this soup of people who are loved by God (who Christians affectionately call “the Lost”), the Holy Spirit will stir. It may have already happened. An outsider meets Jesus and is set free. Like the woman at the well. Or Mary Magdalene. In the rush of that freedom, Jesus is shared with another, and another, and another. Signs and wonders will happen. The kingdom of God will be discovered. The beauty and wealth of God’s Story in scripture will be read and treasured. “Church” in its essence will happen in broken yet beautiful ways. But at the center will be Jesus, as King, leading his movement and shepherding his family as he has been from the beginning.
The answer we are looking for is a recovery of the Jesus Movement. Not a revival of the Jesus Movement from the 60’s and 70’s. Not a charismatic or pentecostal renewal. Not a return to the church holding a position of power in culture. It is the purity of Jesus changing hearts and minds and lives, setting people free from the bondage of self-idolatry, self-hatred, and the false promise of humanity saving itself without God.
Let us pray and watch for such a movement. I’m praying, and waiting.