This is the third article of a three-part series called, “The New Era of Faith”. Monday we posted, “A Brief History of Fundamentalism” in which we looked back at how we’ve arrived at our current trajectory. Thursday we explored “The Greatest Generation (Gap)”, and discussed the current cultural forces that divide two generations of faith in very historically unique ways. Today, we’ll end with, “A Church in Transition, But To Where?” and try to bring it all together and explore the future of faith in America.
To talk about the future of the church, we have to talk about issues that are bigger than all of us. We have to find a gospel that is bigger than our sensitivities, frustrations, hopes, and dreams. Together, we must lay hold of a gospel that is sufficient to answer the most extreme conditions of human suffering and sin, loss and pain. Western society has created a bubble of self-absorption, entitlement, and a warped sense of success and the importance of influence. It has disconnected us from the broader world that Jesus came to save. The conversations we have, the things we care about, the trivialities that so easily entangle our imagination, expose us as shockingly shallow in light of the rising storm igniting in regions across the earth.
The challenges that face nations and peoples are, seemingly, beyond our own government to adequately answer. Every government seems insufficient in the light of the challenges of corruption, greed, violent religious fundamentalism, revolution and brutal suppression, and the overthrow of regimes. I am not comparing this era to other eras of history. I am simply wondering aloud: in our discarding of the old to embrace the new, in the midst of our arguments about which gospel to preach, and which expression of Christianity to embrace, will the church of America embrace a faith deep enough, robust enough, and powerful enough to answer the rising challenges of this present time of trouble?
I have tried to give a snapshot of where the American church has been, and where we are now. In order to think about where we are going, it is necessary to bring the wider world into view.
An African Story
The photo that accompanies today’s article is one that I found here. The photo brought back vivid memories. I traveled a similar road during my time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo working to serve the pastors and leaders in the eastern part of that nation. It took us almost twenty hours to travel fifty miles to remote villages populated by fervent believers experiencing incredible hardship. On one side were one of many rebel groups that plague the region, this one involving disaffected and violent ex-Congolese. They were burning and looting remote villages like this one all along the Rwandan and Ugandan borders. Entrenched within the village were both a small U.N. peacekeeping force and the Congolese army. The Congolese army could be as violent and depraved, if not more so, then the rebels they were fighting. Underfunded, living in poor conditions, unsure of victory or death, the drunken, angry soldiers were given to their own brand of looting and pillaging the villages they were stationed in.
We waited for a while within the village before taking a look around. Many of the villagers were taking their few possessions, climbing atop supply trucks, and fleeing. The Congolese army had recently suffered humiliating losses at the hands of the rag-tag rebel group now based only a few kilometers away. The soldiers, therefore, were even drunker and angrier than they had been earlier in the week. For many, flight to the U.N. protected city of Goma seemed to be the most logical option. None could have known that, in a few short days, safety would elude them there as well. For the Congolese in this region, justice seemed to be for other peoples in other regions. Mere survival was an incredible testimony for many of the Christians we met.
Once we determined that it was safe to walk around, we found our way to one of the main churches in the village. There, at the top of a steep hill overlooking the valley, was a large but simple hut next to the church. From out of the hut came continual, celebratory singing. It was astonishing. Amongst the East African nations, the Congolese were famous for being the most musical of the peoples in the sub-Saharan region. I saw the truth of that report first hand. Some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard was erupting out of a simple hut in some of the most difficult conditions I have ever seen. A simple charge had captured their imagination: “Night and Day Prayer for Speedy Justice“. This charge was new, and exciting to them. Fervent, sincere Christians, the believers of this village had previously only known the downside of the “prosperity gospel”. “If you have live a righteous life then you will live a prosperous life” was the mantra they were given by well-meaning missionaries. What were they to conclude, then, when life was not prosperous, but seemingly accursed?
Now, a new outlook had excited their holy imagination. They had taken hold of the promise of justice found within the gospel of Luke that accompanied the practice of night and day prayer with worship. They had heard about a different Jesus than the One that they imagined was angry with them and judging them for reasons that had been unclear at best. They discovered a Jesus that loved them and even enjoyed them despite their weakness and brokenness. They were enthralled with a Jesus that was displeased with the injustice and brutality that wicked men were visiting upon them. They believed a very simple promise: night and day prayer that brings, at the appointed time, the in-breaking of justice according to His incomparable power.
They immediately responded to this new vision to contend for breakthrough through prayer and singing. I was overwhelmed by what I saw, and what I heard. This small, remote village had the musical resource and heart to pray and worship all day, and through the night. It was amazing. The various relief organizations had fled this village long ago. The hope of victory, while bruised, remained undimmed and unquenched. Because of the terror that was about to break out in Goma, we were forced to leave the village to escape the chaos that was about to engulf the region. During our flight from the Congo into Rwanda, we ran into local and international workers from World Vision. I had no idea that, during this little trip, I was catching a small glimpse of the future of the church in the process.
I saw very little evidence of World Vision’s presence in any of the villages we visited. They were present, but for some time had been (as was every relief organization in the region) helpless in the face of impossible instability. The villagers had received a failed prosperity gospel, and the NGO’s (non-government organizations) had taken over the primary role of providing hope for many that we met in the region. In the face of unthinkable injustice, however, the NGO’s had been, perhaps, a bigger disappointment to the people than the false gospel. The prosperity gospel brought the promise of wealth connected to behavior that the NGO’s seemed to represent with their seemingly unlimited resources and finance. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the economic confusion these organizations represented to the poor of this region. At this stage, however, it made little difference. Only a few local stalwarts were able to touch the remote areas. Like us, however, the few workers that remained were forced to flee to the safety of Rwanda as the city of Goma exploded into war and chaos. The luxury hotels and million-dollar resort homes of the Rwandan city we found refuge in were occupied by World Vision workers.
My time in Goma had left me thinking about the complexity of the problems facing the villages of the region and how inadequate the NGO’s were in making even the slightest of improvements to their dilemma. In Goma itself, the city had been disrupted by the wealthy NGO’s, who paid locals exorbitant amounts of money for menial tasks, often ten times what they would be paid for the same tasks normally. The complex social dynamics that this economic inequity introduced were very troubling. The church in the city, also connected to these economic unrealities, was sleepy and completely unprepared and disconnected from the storm of war and death that was about to break in. I took it all in. It was very sobering for me.
World Vision and the Wrong Conversation
Recently, World Vision announced and then changed their policy on same-sex marriage. The firestorm of anger, disappointment, debating, and feelings of betrayal that followed were revealing. The fault lines of our current expression of faith have rarely been more clear. On one side, stood the “Old Evangelicals”, more than willing to invest their charitable giving elsewhere, to organizations that better reflected their values. On the other side, stood the “New Progressives”, angry at the lack of compassion that seemed to characterize an expression of bigotry they were eager to denounce. Both groups have a disdain for one another that is over a century old.
Both groups were conducting the wrong conversation. In the rush to condemn someone, the central issue was about which values to embrace. Do we, as a church, value doctrine and the kind of culture that honoring the word of God produces? Do we, as a church, value compassion and the kind of culture loving the stranger produces? Would we continually overreact – poorly – to non-Christians doing non-Christian things in a way that alienates the lost? Would we continue to excuse compromise and an erosion of core truths that waters down authentic, apostolic faith? Must we always self-protect when we sense an external threat to our beliefs?
These questions are healthy to ask about our present “family dynamics”. However, I suspect that, as long as the focus is on the kind of expression of Christianity that we want, related to what best represents our convictions and desires, we will continue to be “stuck” in the rut of a hundred-year argument. When we begin to think about Goma, and places around the earth like it, there is a chance that we can move forward incrementally as we hear one another and learn from one another and not react poorly to one another’s weaknesses. The right conversation is not about what we need, in other words. In the hardest and darkest places of the earth, what do the peoples there need most? How can the church best serve the peoples in dire need of hope, and effectively meet the seemingly insurmountable challenges ahead?
Growing Up Into the Head, Together
Bringing the gospel to some of the most extreme and difficult places on the earth – places where suffering, injustice, intolerance, and hatred of Christians are common – exposes what is lacking in our faith and where we need to grow as a church. What is needed in these contexts gives us a glimpse of where the church needs to go. This is not a comprehensive list. It is, again, just a brief glimpse:
1. An authentic gospel that answers an eternal need without ignoring the material need. This may be the least controversial point, as both the Catholic and Protestant missions movements throughout church history have excelled in this area. One area where the church has commended itself in the eyes of the scoffers and mockers is in its consistent, sacrificial love for the poor. At times, some within the church have not excelled at prioritizing the gospel in serving the poor and the broken, but the overwhelming missions thrust of the past two centuries testifies that the most have. However, what we have done in the past we must continue to grow in.
2. A powerful gospel that is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit to open doors, open hearts, and open eyes. Seemingly forgotten in the debates and arguments surrounding issues of faith is the role and necessity of the Holy Spirit in the everyday life of the church. Young people often address our need for the Holy Spirit in a personal, experiential sense. We need to discuss our need for the Holy Spirit in a ministerial and provisional sense as well. The power of the Holy Spirit is a central feature of the preaching of the gospel and our resource for expressing an authentic Jesus-obsessed, devotional faith. A robust prayer and devotional life, one dynamically connected to the Holy Spirit, must be a priority for every Christian. We want the power of the Holy Spirit to open doors for the gospel, open hearts to hear it, and heal the sick powerfully.
In the rush to leave behind the excesses and errors of their fathers in the faith, I fear that the next generation of Pentecostal believers may be in a hurry to leave the Holy Spirit behind as well. Throughout the evangelical world, more and more believers across denominations are beginning to experience the beauty of life in the Spirit. The New Progressives are asking some helpful questions and raising some pertinent challenges related to the Christian faith. However, we seem to be too far apart to have a deep conversation about prophecy, power, deliverance, or revival at the moment. This has to change if we are to meet the challenges of the hardest and darkest regions of the earth together.
3. A unified faith that loves the same Jesus with a common lifestyle. Our faith must flow out of the common experience of receiving the mercy and love of Jesus. The final destination of the church, just before the return of Jesus, is a unified expression of faith, hope, and love. How far can we go in this generation of faith? To find out, we need leadership that models humility, restraint, servant-heartnedness, and a heart overwhelmed with gratitude for the kindness and gentleness of Jesus in our lives. The church is waiting for the kind of leadership that reflects the of the heart and life of Jesus, both in courage as well as lowliness and hiddenness.
The promise of unity in Ephesians 4:13 is the promise of something far deeper than agreement over doctrinal details. The “unity of the faith” that Paul envisions is a love-fueled expression by friends of God that have experienced the depths of the love of Christ. Out of a common experience of the love of Christ transforming our hearts, that same love transforms our lives – both how we live it and why. The church – and the world – is longing for leaders that truly know Jesus intimately. The church will move forward as it is led by those who have been loved well by Jesus and are therefore settled about the things that truly matter. Right now, there are simply too many arguments that ultimately do not matter. Jesus-obsessed leadership cannot help but fixate on the Man more than the seemingly pressing issues of the moment.
4. A robust message of true justice. While serving the material need of the poor, the oppressed, and the broken is critically important, the hope of the oppressed is found in the promise of the gospel. The same Man that brings transformation to our internal brokenness is the Appointed Judge to bring justice to our external circumstances as well. There is an appointed end to oppression, suffering, and injustice. A more robust gospel is one that answers our need for reconciliation with Christ, spurs us to love and serve those who are estranged from Him, and gives the broken and the weary real hope with a clear vision of the culmination of God’s plans for humanity. We do not want to substitute expressions of compassion and mercy deeds for true justice proclaimed through the message of the gospel.
To do so is to invite future disillusionment, disappointment, and, possibly, the enabling of a new system of injustice to replace the old. This is what I saw firsthand in Africa. Serving the material needs of the people is beautiful, and a huge blessing. However, the message of the gospel in full, which brings with it the promise of justice for the oppressed, brings with it a hope that transcends material relief and sets affections on a day of vindication for the justified in Christ. When a steadfast hope empowered by grace burns on the heart, it is a very difficult fire for the circumstances of life to quench.
5. A vision for revival and breakthrough. While being perhaps the most controversial aspect of our glimpse into the future, this is also the simplest element of church life in the days to come. Historically, only a few young intercessors has been necessary to start a fire that confronts everyone. Disagreement throughout the body of Christ on the subject of revival and our need for it is, in other words, functionally irrelevant. All it takes are a dozen young people in a haystack to start one, and suddenly the entire church is having a very different conversation on the matter.
A vision for revival is a vision for the external signs of the power of God that a region of unbelievers must respond to in one way or another. There are seasons in which the Lord makes His case before a people group or region in a “face to face” way, and things are rarely the same after He does. We pursue this because we are pursuing a sovereign move of His hand that is bigger than we are. Such a move is bigger than our gifts, our strengths, our plans, our intellect. It is beyond what man can do and a clear witness of that which only God can do. He has done it before – many times. According to Peter in Acts 3:19-21, He wants to do it again – and again – before His Son returns to the earth.
As we grow together in these areas, we must lovingly address and grow by grace out of our areas of compromise and immaturity. In reaching for these things by grace that are burning on God’s heart, we can also bring necessary correction in a way that helps facilitate unity in the Spirit :
1. The Old Evangelicals must address our similarities to the ancient Churches of Ephesus and Sardis.
As the remnants of 20th century fundamentalism continue to age, leadership must face the loveless manner in which we have pursued authentic truth and biblical faith. A bold stand for our convictions is commendable, however, if we sound like a clanging cymbal to our brothers and sisters in the faith then we have gained very little. Jesus commended the church of Ephesus for their reach for the authentic. However, He called them to remember tenderness of heart, compassion and the patience of Christ Jesus towards them in their weakness, and His incomparable mercy and grace in loving them when they were lost and broken. We must learn to stand for truth according to our convictions in a way that still carries the fragrance of Christ arising from tender, humble hearts. We can love our enemies and pray for them far more than we renounce them.
The evangelical and pentecostal church must also work to strengthen that which is real in regards to love and devotion to Jesus. We must not be content with a name to protect, a reputation to uphold, and face to save. We must fight to love well because it moves the heart of Jesus. We must fight for hearts that are connected and growing in His love. We must truly be alive on the inside, preoccupied with Jesus, and not so easily turned aside by empty debates and small “threats” to orthodoxy. We have a name that we are alive, that we alone are loyal to the truth – and yet we are so easily distracted by the “storms” of controversy and threatened by the insignificant “attacks” on the fundamentals of the faith. We reveal, in our willingness to argue and self-protect, that we are not as alive on the inside as we imagine.
When a follower of Christ has a deficiency of love, they are often gripped and controlled by fear. Too often, the evangelical church reacts from fear instead of responding with love and mercy for the broken. We have been afraid, and it is sinful. We have self-protected. We must fight for the world and those whom Jesus died for, not against them.
2. The New Progressives must address the story of the ancient Churches of Pergamum and Thyatira.
On the “other side” of the fight for what the church will become, there are many that are tired of the political arena, the moral outrage, and the unloving behavior of brothers and sisters in the evangelical church. In their frustration with the protests, the political activism, and the irrational fears without compassion, the New Progressives must acknowledge that there is still much to learn from the wing of the church that troubles them deeply. The churches of Revelation are a good place to begin.
In addressing the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira, we see expressions of Jesus’ leadership that can be uncomfortable for some within the Progressive wing of the church. We see a Warrior-King who will not tolerate false doctrine – and will fight against those who do. We see a Holy God who will not tolerate immorality – and will fight against those who do. There is, within those pictures, a clear picture of an intolerant Jesus who looks very different than the partial picture at times presented to call the “other side” to greater compassion and social activism. There is a fuller picture of the God-Man that must be acknowledged with trembling. He is kind – kinder than we can imagine. He is also fearful, intolerant of anything that harms those that He loves, and a Shepherd that will fight for His people and their destiny.
The New Progressives must also address the historic fruit of liberal ideas: arrogance, intellectualism, and prayerlessness. When I speak of intellectualism, I am not condemning an intellectual. I am condemning intellectual arrogance and a false sense of superiority. I find it particularly loathsome when directed towards the “poor hicks” trapped in a more rural, simple expression of evangelicalism. We would do well to remember that Jesus chose to live with the rural, lesser educated Jews of the northern region of Galilee. He had much ire and sharp rebukes for the intellectually arrogant members of the Sanhedrin that opposed Him. The poor and the simple of the earth – the childlike, the lowly, and the humble – have always been His dearest friends.
A companion to intellectual arrogance is the fruit of prayerlessness. The more we are enamored with what we know and discover from others, the easier it is to slip into a quietly justified disconnect from the Spirit of God. Our conversation with Jesus from the word dims. Our intellect grows, but our heart shrivels. Very few want to arrogantly look down on a fellow Christian they feel superior to. However, the decline of the heart in compassion and humility is often so subtle as we grow in knowledge without discernment. We want to grow in knowledge so that we can grow in love for Jesus and for others, not love for ourselves. As John the Apostle exhorted, so simply, at the end of his life, I want my primary area of expertise to be in “loving one another”. We may not agree with one another, but we can love, honor, respect, and fight for one another all the same. This fight happens best in the place of prayer.
We have spent time exploring where we have been, where we are, and where we can go together. I am sure that I missed many important points. My main concern in seeing the storyline unfold is the ease in which Protestant believers still feel liberty to distance themselves from those we disagree with. I have noted a few times in this series that we do not know how to disagree. I have noted that we live in the era of the dogmatic overreaction to one another’s weaknesses and errors. Evangelicals take the truth seriously but do not always appear to take the broken, the weak, and those who disagree with them seriously. Progressives take compassion and the lost seriously but do not always appear to take evangelical concerns regarding doctrine, lifestyle, and matters of holiness seriously. Neither group listens well. Neither group loves the other well.
Most importantly in this era, it seems as if the Christian young adults of America are siding more with the Progressive wing of the church over the Evangelical wing for the first time in over a century. There are unforeseen consequences to this historic shift that must be honestly addressed. I have addressed some issues, and trust that many more will be lovingly addressed by many others in the days to come. Ultimately, both sides must acknowledge that the Church is bigger than all of us, is global in nature, and therefore the possession of Christ to lead and to shape. We must not view our job and our influence as a means to attempt to force others within the church to our point of view. Our job is to love Jesus. Our secondary job is to love them. His job is to help us do both well.