What’s Wrong with Chris(tianity) in 2016?

After a midwinter break, Mark Pattie and I are preparing to record the next podcast in our series thinking aloud through the book we’re writing for InterVarsity Press, tentatively called Hope for Better Times: Pietism and the Future of Christianity. The structure of our book will mirror that of Pia Desideria, the 1675 booklet published by the Lutheran pastor Philipp Jakob Spener, the founder of German Pietism.

Memorial plaque for Phillip Spener
Memorial plaque erected in Frankfurt on the 275th anniversary of the death of Phillip Jakob Spener – Creative Commons (Flacus)

So as we move from our initial three-episode introduction into the actual outline of the book, we first come to our version of Spener’s chapter that begins with these words: (as translated by Theodore Tappert)

If, in accordance with our Savior’s admonition to interpret the signs of the times and their character, we observe the present condition of Christendom as a whole through Christian and somewhat enlightened eyes, we may well burst for with the plaintive sounds of Jeremiah 9:1, “O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people.” Even in an early golden age of the church a dear old father could say, “Good God, for what times hast thou preserved me!” In our day we have much more reason to repeat such words, or rather to sigh them, for the greater the distress the more one is at a loss for words.

Title page from a 1676 edition of Spener, Pia DesideriaMuch as Mark and I want to emphasize the virtue of hope… If we’re to follow Spener’s lead, we must pause at the outset to ask some version of his opening question: “Where is there an estate of which we can boast that it is in such a condition as Christian precepts demand?” Even if we don’t identify the same problems that he saw in 1675 (I’m sure we won’t join him in starting with an anti-Catholic invective against the “the anti-Christian Babel”), we wouldn’t be suggesting that a Pietist ethos offers individual Christians, the church, and the world “hope for better times” if we didn’t think that there was dire need for reform, revival, and renewal.

When we were divvying up the outline late last year, I signed up to be the primary author of this chapter. But I can’t say I’m all that excited to write it.

Chastened by a few blog readers who found my responses to two Christian college presidents to be harsh, self-righteous, and uncharitable, near the end of our first podcast I shared my greatest fear about this entire book project:

…we’re talking about the future of Christianity. And there are times when I wonder if that’s really a pulpit I want to climb into. It’s awfully easy to critique Christianity right now; it’s awfully easy to write a book or do a podcast saying here’s the solution… How do you do this in a way that’s appropriate to the kind of tone we want to set: that it’s irenic… it’s peaceable and it’s humble and it’s loving and it’s hopeful. And at the same time, I think there are things we need to critique…. At a certain point we’re going to have to stand in judgment on things that are happening out there in the church, in society, as Christians engage with politics and the culture wars. I’m always a little leery of taking that posture…

Now here we are, on the verge of recording a discussion of what’s wrong with Christianity in the year of our Lord 2016. And I’m still leery.

Fortunately, Mark (who is my pastor, after all, as well as my co-author) had responded to my first episode anxiety with this pastoral counsel:

It’s certainly something I think about. You talk about a vision for what we hope to accomplish, and ultimately that it would be helpful to all. But kind of scaling that all the way back to where I’m beginning and going to be living in many ways is: How can this be helpful to me? How can this be helpful… in terms helping my own children deal with a living faith in the midst of the social issues and complex challenges and polarization…? How do I help my children navigate that? How do I navigate that? How do I help our church navigate that? How do I help, to the degree I can, my denomination navigate that?

As I wrestle with those very real questions, knowing we’re not going to do this perfectly… that’s going to be my goal. I think when I preach, when I prepare my sermons, I’m always asking God, “What’s your word for me? And then, okay, what’s your word through me? What can I share with others that may be helpful, by the grace of your Spirit…?

…So even as I think about the judgment of God on the church, or as I think about what critiques we may need to speak about the church, they’ll come from that place… I’m a part of the church, I’m a part of this thing. I have that tendency, too. What is the word of judgment for me, for us?

So as we prepare to record our “What’s wrong?” podcast next Monday (to premiere on iTunes next Thursday), I’m asking God, “What’s your word for me?” Only then, once I can be honest about the present condition of Chris, should I attempt to be honest about the present condition of Christendom. Only then dare I ask what God might be speaking through me.

So pray for me, that I might be able to hear his word clearly — especially as it confronts me with shortcomings I’d rather ignore. But also, knowing that God sometimes speaks through others… Let me reiterate what I said at the end of our most recent podcast, and invite you to share your own concerns about the state of Christianity here and now. As you feel led, please leave a comment to that effect.

But let me suggest that you do so only after you yourself have first asked God, “What’s your word for me?”


9 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Chris(tianity) in 2016?

  1. I don’t know if this is what’s wrong with Christianity — but here’s a challenge, at least in the United States.

    Most older Christians are white. They have all the money and most of the positions of power.

    Most younger Christians are not white. There are more Christians of color among Americans 18-29 (and more Nones 18-29)
    http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/05/16/are-millennials-really-leaving-church-yes-but-mostly-white-millennials/32103

    How will these two generation co-exist in the church? How will they transfer power? (This is one of the issues underlying the Doc Hawk controversy at Wheaton.)

    The other issues for churches, at least as I see it – is the Walmarting of churches. Most churches in the US are small. Most people, however, go to big churches. How do those small church survive? How do those big churches become real congregations/Christian communities and not just large crowds? What happens if the megachurch bubble burst?

  2. For what it’s worth, Chris, I think the response to your previous article (two which you refer above) was the one that was being uncharitable–first by misreading your response and ascribing to it intentions that were nowhere in evidence in the text, and then by embodying the very problems of which it accused your article (i.e. it was all “conjecture and evil surmising,” engendered by nothing other than the respondent’s distaste for your point). I suspect that the vast majority of your readers found that respondent to be the one in the wrong.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I don’t regret writing what I did about Piper or Falwell, but in addition to the kinds of comment you alluded to, I did hear some concerns from longer-term readers whose opinion I respect. At the same time, I also know that I need to have a thicker skin, expect that even like-minded readers will disagree with me from time to time, and generally be a bit less prone to confusing “irenic” with “nice.”

  3. Perhaps its my own strange position around a very peculiar type of Christian conservative, but something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the loss of the Christian left. Patrick Deneen (almost gleefully) paints the picture in this article from a couple of years ago:

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/2014/02/06/a-catholic-showdown-worth-watching/

    My conservative colleagues tend to believe that loss of the Christian left is simply the logic of (small l) liberalism bearing fruit. After all, they say, the left has always wanted nothing but liberation at the expensive nature, the family, the community, etc.

    I don’t particularly find their account persuasive, and yet without a doubt, the church is losing its left wing, and with it a vital part of the way the church interacts with the world. To oversimplify, the left does orthopraxy well and the right does orthodoxy well. A healthy church needs both. Yet what I hear from my conservative friends is a retreat into communities focused on orthodoxy, with little to no attention to service. I find that especially in my generation (mid to late 20s), the interest is in the worship service, proper liturgy, music, and edifying teaching to prepare for the dark age ahead, rather than what a particular church community can do. Combine this with a paranoia about tyranny of liberalism and you have communities that see their mission as a spiritual one of preservation rather than one focused on the spiritual and material needs of neighbors.

    Though to be fair to the conservatives, it seems to be the left leaving the church rather than the right separating themselves out. Whether this is because of a discomfort with orthodoxy, a fascination with cosmopolitanism, the dastardly result of the 1960s, or a dissatisfaction of some other sort, I don’t really know. What I do know is that the church was a place where people of different political orientations could come together for a higher purpose, whether at the congregational or denominational level. Yet today, it’s another place where people go to find like-minded fellows and have prejudices reinforced.

  4. Hi Chris – nice play on words…Chris/Christianity. 🙂 One thing that always perplexes me is…the emphasis on ethos and history. I know there are historical roots of Pietism that have been well documented…but if there is also an ethos we’re tapping into, why must we be so committed to sticking with the history that *is* documented? What I mean is, I believe this same ethos or spirit fills lots of corners of the world and lots of corners of “time,” and if we stick so firmly to the history we know and can trace our own roots too…what do we lose? I think we lose the scope of global Christianity. The Christianity I hear discussed here is only one slice of a global spectrum of Christianity. So I find it confusing to talk about “Christianity” without qualifying it, especially since there is such a strong emphasis on history as well.

    I’m not sure what God’s word is for me, other than I’d like to help you out. I believe in you. I believe in this project.

  5. Chris,
    I have been noodling on this for a while.

    As a starting place I am not at all concerned about the church. It is God’s and he will complete the work he started: Making the church a spotless bride for His son. If He can preserve 7,000 in an openly rebellious Israel he can and will do the same with his church in the USA.

    That being said, I think in the USA that the primary difficulty in the church is mistaking ‘nice’ for ‘irenic.’ I think we follow the culture, but about 20 years behind, and as such always look out of touch and seem to be playing catch-up. Following the culture has cost us our prophetic voice and prophetic presents in our culture. The church is on longer the center of gravity for morals or ethics.

    We seem to have lost the ability and the will to say ‘No, we will not move. This is eternal and there is not room for anything other.’

    At this point, the church brings to mind Ben Pease’s sermon on Manoah. We don’t who we are and how we are supposed to live in response to God and His work in the world. We have lived at ‘peace’ for so long we have forgotten the joy of battle. The same joy that was set before Jesus when he was incarnated and crucified. We have also forgotten the price of being a people set apart by that incarnation, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    The more I think on this I believe that we have forgotten the story of God at work in the world. We have forgotten that we, the church, are God’s first plan for doing his work in the world and his only plan for work the world. This means that we matter profoundly and what we do is foundational to setting world right.

    Hope that was not too rambling, trying to write quickly and briefly on something so large is not easy. You and Mark have you work cut out for you. I’ll be happy to help in any way I can, prayers or reading your text as you get it written.

    Andrew

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