Is the Christian faith headed for the great museum of history?
These are the two questions with which Os Guinness opened his 2014 book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times (IVP – p.13). And quoting G.K. Chesterton ~ “At least five times the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs, and in each of these cases it was the dog that died” ~ Os Guinness answered them both with a resounding “no.”
Let there be no wavering in our answer. Such is the truth and power of the Gospel that the church can be revived, reformed and restored to be a renewing power in the world again. There is no question that the good news of Jesus has effected powerful personal and cultural changes in the past. There is no question too that it is still doing so in many parts of the world today. And by God’s grace it will do so again even here in the heart of the advanced modern world where the Christian church is presently in sorry disarray. (14)
Of course, Os Guinness understood that he just couldn’t say these things and then leave it at that, and so the rest of his book is a carefully reasoned essay about his continuing confidence in the Gospel in this age of church decline. With characteristic precision and insight, he mapped out the contours of the age and the crises of faith that they have fomented. But at its heart, Os Guinness’ book Renaissance is about how the Gospel continues to be the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, and how, so long as people still need saving, the Gospel and the church that consciously and consistently serves it will still have a place in the eternal purpose of God.
I’m so glad that I read Renaissance before the release of the Pew Foundation report on “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” just about a month ago (see: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/). Here’s the bottom line –
The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.
As you can imagine, the response to this report has been massive and intense. Lots of responses have been penned by lots of church leaders about what’s gone wrong with the church and her mission, and what needs to be done now to fix it. The progressives are saying that the fault lies with the traditionalists and their unwillingness to move with the times, and the way to fix this is for us all to become progressives. The traditionalists say that the fault all lies with the progressives and their failure to hold fast to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), and the way to fix this is for us all to become traditionalists. But either way, numerically the church – both progressive and traditionalist – is in decline in the west and the trend seems likely to continue. We are in what Robert Thornton Henderson calls a “liminal” space. Church as we have known it is going away, and church as it will next be has not yet arrived. And so, we are in that frightening and uncomfortable in-between. Things are changing.
We know this in our own experience congregationally, but it is not “our” problem alone. What we are facing locally is part of a much larger cultural trend. Now, knowing that doesn’t really “help.” We’ve still got to navigate these choppy waters ourselves. But that larger conversation does keep us from thinking that we are in this thing alone, and from making the big mistake of believing that cosmetic changes will somehow turn this trend around. There is not a program or a hire that will “fix” Northway. Success will not come by building a gymnasium, getting a band, opening a coffee shop or becoming more like that bigger church down the street.
Two recent intensive consultations with Auxano and Ministry Architects have been both encouraging and challenging. There are things we can do to better position ourselves for a different kind of future, but this won’t happen automatically or effortlessly. There are no quick fixes. George Mallone said that the renewal of a church is a lot like the remodeling a house. It will always take longer and cost more than you think. The good news for Northway is that we have the resources, leaders, circumstances and will to effect the changes that must be made, and we are getting some real clarity about the vision of that different kind of future for us as a church.
Years ago when Chris Kelley was writing for the Dallas Morning News he published a series of award winning articles about how major North American cities had reinvented themselves and experienced a kind of renaissance. One day Chris and I were talking about what he had learned, and something he said stuck with me. He explained that what all of these renewed cities had successfully done was to create the climate for change and then encouraged it when it began to happen.
It’s like a sailing ship setting its sails to catch the wind to propel it forward through the waves. We don’t control the wind. We can’t make it blow. Jesus was clear about this (John 3:8). The Spirit is going to do what the Spirit chooses to do and go where the Spirit chooses to go. There are parts of this thing that are completely beyond our control. But what we can do is trim our sails and orient our ship in such a way that it can take full advantage of any wind that might be blowing. And that’s what we are in the process of doing right now as a church.
As one of my favorite hymns puts it –
I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,
though heavy oft with drenching spray and torn with many a rift;
if hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at his behest, and brave another cruise.
It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years;
if cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be,
O let me feel your freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.
If ever I forget your love and how that love was shown,
lift high the blood-red flag above; it bears your name alone.
Great pilot of my onward way, you wilt not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift.
Those winds are blowing. It’s time to lift our sails. DBS+