This post is part of an ongoing blog series on Pomomusings entitled “(Re)Imagining Christianity.” To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that must die so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?
Am I limited to just one thing?
There are lots of little things I could list, and plenty of big ones too. But to sum up what I think needs to die in order for the gospel to truly make an impact in the world, I would kill or let die everything that makes Christianity an institution.
I’m not just trying to riff on Andrew Sullivan’s recent Newsweek cover story or the “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” guy. I’ve been thinking this way for some time—which is perhaps ironic coming from a pastor that works at one of the largest (and most institutionalized) Presbyterian churches in the country. But it is precisely this experience, along with the experience of being involved in denominational work at both the local and national levels, that leads me to think this way.
I should clarify, though: I really love my job. My call to do youth ministry at a large urban church is incredibly fulfilling and I definitely feel that this is where I should be right now. I also appreciate the good that can be accomplished through national and local forms of denominationalism. And I can’t deny that I enjoy the support and security of working as a religious professional in an established and resourced institution.
But, I’m not convinced that this is the only—or best—way for us to be church now or in the future. So I guess that what I’m really doing is dreaming a little here, which I think is what Adam is hoping to encourage in this series on (Re)Imagining Christianity.
My biggest concern about institutional religion is the incredible amount of time it takes to maintain the institutions, from denominational structures all the way down to local congregations. Even those who claim to be non-institutional seem to spend a lot of time making and defending that claim. And any congregation, whether it stands on its own or is connected to a denomination, takes a lot of effort to maintain.
When I think about the countless hours I have spent in meetings, committees, assemblies, and commissions at every level of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I wonder if I’m actually doing God’s work in the world or if I’m really just wasting the precious time God has given me.
Again, I know these institutions do a lot of good work for God’s kingdom. And, I do think that the gospel is proclaimed when people of faith struggle to live and work together for the common cause of God’s kingdom. But it strikes me that Jesus gave us a way of life, not blueprints for a new institution. In fact, it’s hard to make much connection at all between Jesus’ radical vision of God’s kingdom emerging in the world and the institutions Christians have built up around that vision.
Another concern in that the institutionalization of religion, at least as it happens in North America, results in the compartmentalization of religion as just one of many institutions vying for our attention, time, and resources. Again, Jesus gave us a way of life, not a set of programs to meet our consumerist needs or desires. Institutionalized religion inevitably becomes just one small—and often individualized—part of our lives. But it seems to me that what Jesus really intended for us was a way of being that encompassed our entire lives, not one isolated aspect of it.
Related to this concern is the problem of clericalization. In institutionalized Christianity, pastors become the primary doers of the kingdom work that the entire church should be involved in. We become both professionals that are paid to do the work of the church and vendors providing services for the members of our congregations. And, despite Reformation impulses to the contrary, Protestants maintain a divide between “clergy” and “laity” that only reinforces the overall institutionalism of the church.
While I still believe there should be people who devote their lives to theological study and proclamation—which seems to me to be the only meaningful distinction between clergy and the rest of the church—I wonder if Christianity could make a widespread transition from a religious institution to a way of being that shapes every aspect of our individual and collective lives.
It is already abundantly clear in North America that we have entered a post-Christendom era. The hegemony of the church in Western culture is a thing of the past. (Though echoes of Christendom clearly persist.)
What if we pushed this trajectory all the way to the end? What if the institutionalized church as we know it in the West is completely dismantled? How would Jesus’ vision of God’s emerging kingdom be expressed in that context?
What is one belief, practice or element of Christianity that we must hold onto and live out more fully so that Christianity can move forward and truly impact the world in the next 100 years?
In one word, what I think the church needs to cultivate is a sense of urgency.
I’ll admit that this may be more about my experience with progressive mainline Protestantism. I grew up in the kind of fundamentalist evangelicalism that at least preached (if not practiced) a sense of urgency about the eternal fate of humanity. As a young person, I was encouraged to be concerned about the eternal salvation of my family and friends. If you take that kind of thinking seriously, sharing the gospel becomes very urgent indeed.
I’m quite content now to be in a different place theologically. Like many progressive mainliners, I don’t think that what happens when we die is really the point of the gospel of Jesus (as opposed to the gospel about Jesus). I think that Jesus was much more concerned with transforming individual lives and the world as a whole in the here and now.
But, in the process of re-imagining the gospel in a this-worldly way, I think that progressive Christians have lost the sense of urgency that comes with pondering whether or not your loved ones (and total strangers) are going to suffer eternal torment in hell. While I don’t want to go back to that, I do want to reclaim the sense that our calling to live out the gospel of Jesus has real urgency. While it may not be about heaven and hell, the salvation of the world does depend on us participating in God’s work of redemption.
We don’t need to imagine an after-life hell in which God’s children might potentially suffer. God’s children are suffering in real-life hells right now, all around the world. People around the globe are hungering not only for food but also for peace and reconciliation. Why doesn’t the church—which is supposed to be shaped by the love of God and the love of neighbor—drop everything else and not rest until all of God’s children are saved from unnecessary pain and suffering? (It’s probably because we’re spending too much time maintaining our institutions.)
For the church to impact the world in the next hundred years, we need to remember that there is a lot at stake in what we do (or don’t do) with the gospel. We need to start acting like the church exists for something urgent—not the self preservation of our institutions but the salvation of the world.
John Vest: John is the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and blogs at johnvest.com. He is well trained in institutional religion with an undergraduate degree in religious studies from Rice University, a year of study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and an MDiv from the University of Chicago Divinity School. After continuing at the Div School to complete coursework for a PhD in Hebrew Bible, he changed his course of study and is now working on a DMin at McCormick Theological Seminary. He is passionate about BBQ and makes regular (though rarely kosher) burnt offerings on his Holy Smoker. He finished writing this blog post in a hotel room in Las Vegas en route to a much needed vacation from institutionalized Christianity in the deserts of Utah.