In his Newsweek cover story, “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus,” Andrew Sullivan dissects the crisis of American Christianity–it has become hypocritical and irrelevant to millions. Organized religion is collapsing; atheism is rising. The wounded, lapsed, and doubting seek shelter in spirituality, away from the buildings and traditions that once housed faith.
None of this particularly surprised me, as I wrote several weeks ago about the end of church, here on Huffington Post. My gloomy assessment of American religious life was drawn from my new book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, the first third of which covers the same ground as Sullivan. We come to the same conclusion: Christianity is flailing and failing. It needs to change–and fast.
Sullivan wonders what–if anything–might come next. He identifies a saint–Francis–as a model for renewal based on “humility, service, and sanctity.” But he also likes a philosopher–Thomas Jefferson–as one who charted a reasonable and moral Christian path. Weaving together spirituality and reason, Sullivan holds out for a resurrected Christianity.
However, he does not know how this might happen: “I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis.” He intuits that a new Christianity must arise, “not from the head or the gut, but from the soul.” That faith will come through a “new questioning,” by addressing concerns that initiate “radical spiritual change.” But his questions remain somewhat vague, and his answers vaguer.
What Sullivan apparently does not know is that some Christians, from pews, pulpits, and classrooms are asking the right questions–and are working toward a spiritually renewed and intellectually credible Christianity. These new questioners make up what I call America’s “exile” faith communities–the creative but often ignored Christians found in liberal mainline churches, emergent evangelical gatherings, and progressive Catholic circles. With growing awareness over the last two decades, they have been engaging this crisis, listening to the grassroots questions of American religious life, and constructing new patterns and practices of faith. For them, the questions are becoming clear–and some answers are emerging.
Three deceptively simple questions are at the heart of a spiritually vibrant Christianity–questions of believing, behaving, and belonging.
Religion always entails the “3B’s” of believing, behaving, and belonging. Over the centuries, Christianity has engaged the 3B’s in different ways, with different interrogators and emphases. For the last 300 years or so, the questions were asked as follows:
1) What do I believe? (What does my church say I should think about God?)
2) How should I behave? (What are the rules my church asks me to follow?)
3) Who am I? (What does it mean to be a faithful church member?)
But the questions have changed. Contemporary people care less about what to believe than howthey might believe; less about rules for behavior than in what they should do with their lives; and less about church membership than in whose company they find themselves. The questions have become:
1) How do I believe? (How do I understand faith that seems to conflict with science and pluralism?)
2) What should I do? (How do my actions make a difference in the world?)
3) Whose am I? (How do my relationships shape my self-understanding?)
The foci of religion have not changed–believing, behaving, and belonging still matter. But the ways in which people engage each area have undergone a revolution.
As Sullivan rightly points out, political partisanship has exacerbated the crisis of Christianity. But the crisis is much deeper than politics. Much of institutional Christianity is mired in the concerns of the past, still asking what, how, and who when a new set of issues of how, what, and whose are challenging conventional conceptions of faith. The old faith formulations were externally based, questions that could be answered by appealing to a book, authority, creed, or code. The new spiritual longings are internally derived, questions of engagement, authenticity, meaning, and relationship. The old questions required submission and obedience; the new questions require the transformation of our souls.
Far too many churches are answering questions that few people are asking. This has left millions adrift, seeking answers to questions that religious institutions have largely failed to grasp.
But this may be changing. Around the edges of organized religion, the exile Christians have heard the questions and are trying to reform, reimagine, and reformulate their churches and traditions. They are birthing a heart-centered Christianity that is both spiritual and religious. They meet in homes, at coffeehouses, in bars–even in some congregations. They are lay and clergy, wise elders and idealistic hipsters. Some teach in colleges and seminaries. They even hold denominational positions. Not a few have been elected as bishops. The questions are rising from the grassroots up–and, in some cases, the questions are reaching a transformational tipping point.
The crisis is real. Like Andrew Sullivan, I feel its sad and frustrating urgency. But I also know the hope of possibility, for every crisis bears the promise of something new. Endings are also beginnings. Indeed, without death, resurrection is impossible. Imaginative, passionate, faith-filled people are enacting a new-old faith with Jesus and are working to change wearied churches. It is the season of resurrection, and resurrections always surprise.