Imagine this. A man arrives in a small, isolated village. He teaches the people a song. It is very beautiful and they sing it almost all the time, together and individually. Communications improve and people come from far and wide to hear the song. Strangely no one else learns to sing it except the villagers. But everyone loves to hear it sung and it plays continually on the radio, on the internet, in movies, on iPods, on planes. After a while everyone is so used to it that they forget entirely that it came from the villagers. They dispute as to which radio station or media conglomerate owns the rights to the song, and the disputes are never resolved. In the meantime the song continues gaining in popularity and people play it over and over. One day a Ph.D. student doing research discovers where the song came from. Her research is definitive and proves the song belongs to the villagers. Even more importantly she goes to seek out the village. But strangely she finds it deserted. There is no one there. Possibly they all died. Or, perhaps, they just dispersed and are now spread throughout the world. But to all practical purposes they no longer exist, so they cannot claim the song. To whom then does the song really belong?
In a recent blog Richard Beck--a featured speaker at our next T&P conference--said "many churches are jerk factories" (sic). A little later in the piece he softened his stance and said he was exaggerating of course.
In one of my own blogs about a year ago I compared Christianity to a bomb that had gone off in the world, changing everything, and the churches were little more than a cultural relic from a time before the bomb was fully exploded. As such they provided a kind of Sunday vacation from lived-world reality, which in fact no longer needed or wanted their institutional program. I found myself later telling a concerned pastor I had likely exaggerated.
Yet another magazine blog I came across asked why the Millennial generation seemed to be abandoning the churches, including evangelical churches. The writer concluded it was because when they go to church, "instead of hearing about how to live with those who’ve been kicked to the curb, how to be Christ to a world caving in on itself, they hear about how the church’s job is to maneuver itself into positions of power, respectability, relevance, etc". Along the way the writer had also reflected on an apparently more comfortable explanation given by some within the churches. The Millennials have been seduced by an essentially secular culture, their youthful passion and idealism now recruited by a world that sees itself simply on its own terms without the need for an outside meaning (i.e."transcendence").
I think in fact there is truth in both answers given and from a radical perspective. It is certainly more than possible to challenge Christian practice and its lack of human credibility, and this is Beck's point too. But in the background it is also undeniably true there is an entirely different set of cultural references for young people, and these are not the same as the ones traditionally relied on by Christianity to get people coming to church. The idea of eternal salvation, or its opposite, becomes less and less insistent when compared with the pressing concerns and possibilities of the actual world and actual human history. The reason why it was possible to be Beck's "Christian jerk" was because the major meaning of life in the churches has always been to get to a heavenly elsewhere, and if one way or other you had paid your way then you were golden, further discussion closed. But now that scenario is much less plausible or acceptable if progressively the sensed meaning of life is life itself--i.e. how to make life on earth succeed. And so the issue of Christian credibility comes round to join the issue of cultural sensibility. The culture itself demands a different kind of Christian.
But here is the kicker.
What if cultural change is precisely the effect of Christianity? What if the ability of our world progressively to condition its own meaning, without reference to a God of the afterlife, is itself the outcome of the gospel? What if over long years and on multiple fronts the worldview instilled by Jesus has set the earth free to be more and more its own authentic space of human life--even and paradoxically as that space builds up greater and greater threats to itself? What if we take the Lord's prayer at its word, that Jesus came to fulfill the project of creation through the Father's kingdom here on earth? Or the text of Daniel employed by Jesus, that the coming of the Son of Man, the Truly Human One, is dynamically opposed to all the false kingdoms of history which disfigure the human? What if our era is in fact a time when all this is becoming implicitly understood, when the space of the earth is implicitly embraced as the final space of God's design?
Of course the great majority of people do not see it as God's design in this way.
God is out of the equation. Philosophers have spoken, influentially, of the death of God, the flight of God.
But what if "God" has died, or taken flight, because really and truly our concept of God was terminally faulty, and little by little we've come to understand this, again because of the gospel? You can only get a jerk-factory church if God himself is a jerk. And he has pretty much earned the reputation: an alarming dual personality, with a sadist readiness to fry his creatures for all eternity, and heck, we all better get used to it; and, on the other hand, a mawkish sentiment of love for those on his good side. No wonder people like this God, and then rapidly go off him. He is entirely within our image, manipulable according to the deepest human template We can use him to hate, and then we can twist him to love.
John's gospel tells us "No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (John 1:18). Which suggests that really we have no categories for God except whatever is derived from Jesus, and that leaves the question much more mysterious and mystical. We are called to encounter our "God" as the endless gentleness of love, so profound and so radical we can hardly imagine it. In order to come anywhere near we must hang around Jesus continually. The incommunicable God is communicated only by the absolutely powerless one.
Which suggests in turn that the church is both less and more than it ever was. Less, because it does not have a privileged business line to the truth--it does not own the song any more. And more, because it can, against the background of a song sung by all the world, begin to realize the deepest human meaning of the gospel. The church may possibly learn to sing the song in and among its own members rather than simply listen to recordings which it claims legally to own. Instead of the factory churning out products people respect less and less, it might become a laboratory for the breakthrough of a new human life for which all are longing
The role of the christian is not to set up a church as place, as essential freehold for salvation, but to live more intensely than the world the change that is taking place in the world. The God of the new millennium is in the future, our future, because the past is always structured out of violence. Love (and the song it sings) always belongs to and gives birth to the future.