Friday, June 24, 2011

The Need for Christian Identity

A vision for a step towards church revitalization…

Note: This is a rough draft of a much larger document I am working on, but I wanted to go ahead and share my initial thoughts. Any ideas are welcome. Keep checking for more updates to this particular post

There are countless numbers of voices in our culture that affirm the church needs help, needs reform. To be a little more specific, most of these voices are referring to the American Church, which is simply a portion of the church, but a portion in need of help nonetheless. The voices are certainly not speaking of the Global Church, for it is in light of what the other churches of the majority world are getting right that we can see what we are not getting right. However, we must not assume that the majority world would not benefit from a revival of the American Church. It most certainly would. The stronger the church is across the globe, the stronger our impact will be. The voices are not really speaking about the local church either. However, as I see it, it will be revival in local churches, spurred on by awareness, that will change the overall American Christian culture that is in such desperate need of change. However, just as there exists countless voices crying out for change, there are countless suggestions on how this change needs to happen, and here I sit, wanting to add my voice to the confusion, to a conversation in which that “thing” that needs to change has yet to be agreed upon, because the problem has yet to be fully identified. All we see are the symptoms, the decline of Christian adherents and social morality and the rise of pluralism in an emerging, postmodern culture.

So, why do I think that what I have to say has any more merit than what is already our there? In short, I do not find my ideas any more or less profitable than many voices that are out there. I am sure that there are some that are quite better and others that are not. However, since I have a voice and vision, a voice and vision that I truly feel comes from beyond myself, I need to speak and raise awareness where I can, for what I know does not belong to me, but to the church. I do not find my ideas to be new, but they are ideas passed through my filter, a filter that no one else has, and, in that way, God, through me as His instrument, gives them new life. For what if I, repeating what has already been said, say it in such a way that it finally finds the ears of those who have unwittingly ignored before. Whatever the case, we cannot be idle when we observe problems, especially when we have ideas that we find might be beneficial to the discussion. If we have ideas, we must find a way to give them strength and life, blood and sinew. We must find ways to give feet and hands to those ideas in our minds, even when we as individuals do not find within ourselves the right hands and feet for the job. If the idea is worth anything, there will be someone suitable for the task.

The true key to the issue of our church malaise will be solved, not primarily by words, but by actions. There needs to be a group of people, perhaps a local church somewhere, that gets it right, whatever “it” might be, and in turn wants to share their success with others, not for the benefit of their own local church and its notoriety, but for the benefit of the American Church as a whole. While words are not the primary solution, they may be the catalyst, the fire, to ignite the process, and right now, all I have are words. My hope is to share my concerns with as many as possible, so that someone or some church body will put hands and feet to the ideas given me, that they will take my words, refine them by removing any me that I might have inadvertently left behind, and live them in truth. So, maybe, just maybe, the words to follow will help some ball somewhere to begin rolling. By God’s grace alone…

Time will tell.

I do not imagine there exists one person who has complete knowledge and vision for every aspect needed for growth. Some have more clarity than others. I have quite a little, so that, what I do say should not be heard as if I am giving a full treatise on church revival. There is always another side to any given coin and issues and needs that I will never consider on my own. But, what I do know I do believe in as a means to assist the conversation, and what I do know is this:

The starting point for positive church life is developing and sustaining Christian culture. For people to operate well, they need identity, and one gains identity by relating to his or her own community and culture. The Christian Church cannot merely be part of a culture. It must be a culture itself, a community with its own unique story and purpose. The church has always had the story and purpose; this is not something we need to manufacture. Simply put, the American church just has not paid enough attention at all to the story and purpose of faith, for if we did, church would never be something we merely do, but it would be the primary identity of those who rightly call themselves Christian. For so many Americans, church is something that we happen to do, but the reality should be that for so many Christians, America is somewhere we happen to live. We have not negotiated this reality very well, often times moving to one extreme or other, either hating the world and those in it, or being so much a part of the world that we become indistinguishable from the world.

“Christian culture” denotes that Christians should share in a bond, a bond beyond mere apostolic affirmations (although these affirmations are crucial), but also a bond that lends to true brotherhood through true brotherly love, one for another. In a world that does not share one’s cultural habits or convictions, people find great comfort when they happen to find another who is also an alien from his or her common land. There is something energizing about such discovery, such as when I might find a fellow American while visiting places of the Middle East. The two of us might have never met before, and he might be from Boston while I am from rural Georgia, but, somehow, when we cross paths in a foreign land, we do not feel so alone anymore, as if we have a friend with us now. Our only bond is a common culture, but what a bond it is, and it is a bond that many Christians lack when they, walking as strangers and aliens in the world, cross each other’s paths.

For Americans, it is not an effort to be part of American culture, to know what it means to be American (or to at least have an opinion of what it means). We grow up knowing our identity, learning it as soon as we are able to learn. This is not as true for the Christian searching for a Christian identity, and this is understandable. Before becoming a Christian, what it is to be Christian is completely foreign. Therefore, the convert must learn. It is imperative. There is no other way about it. We must be taught our identity, but this is not as big of an issue as we might at first assume. People long to be a part of their community, even if the community is a new one. People want common identity and brotherhood, and so college students leave their colleges calling themselves by the name of whatever the schools mascot might happen to be and knowing much about the history of the school. When alumni happen to cross paths, while they might have never met before, they often recognize each other by the patriotic colors they happen to wear as part of identifying themselves to their alma mater, and they are not without much to discuss with one another.

The key to all of this, helping the church discover its identity, is information. We must be taught our identity. It does not merely come to us when we receive Christ; we are to grow and must be made into disciples. In other words, and as Dr. Timothy Tennent so succinctly put it in a title of a recent blog post, “The First Step in ‘Making Culture’ is Catechesis.” Too often seekers approach ministers, church leaders, or other persons of vocational ministry suggesting they want to accept Christ and the minister’s response is to pray and send the person on his or her way, maybe adding something about the need to get involved, as an afterthought. However, the primary thing that should be on our mind, and the primary thing upon the minds of the early church fathers who instituted catechesis, should be explanation and clarity. What the seeker really needs is honesty and clarity about what it is that he or she is truly accepting, and this cannot happen in an hour-long counseling session. Christ told us that the way to make disciples is by “…teaching them to observe all things I [Jesus] have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). This does not seem to be optional. If we want to make disciples, which should be our goal for any seeker ready to accept Christ, we have an obligation to teach them. If they are not ready to learn, they are not ready to accept.

When the seeker comes, have them pray for Christ’s salvation. We need not make obligations to becoming Christian that are not there, but, at the same time, we need them to know that it is an expectation of the church, even our local church, that they grow through learning. It is imperative, and we have let way too many people slip through the cracks. Our churches are full of persons that at one point in time expressed the want to know Christ and yet have never once been to any sort of class or received any sort of true instruction, and they have led mediocre Christian lives, maybe even content in their ignorance. We do not want to tell those in our congregation who do not care to be a part of something completely new, a new culture, that they must leave, but we do need to do a better job explaining the reality of the church to those who attend our local congregations each week. If enough people begin to align themselves with our true identity and culture, then those who are sitting on the fringes content in ignorance will begin to see the movement and will react, maybe not always for the positive, but things will be change for the better overall. People need to be brought out of their ignorance. It is crucial to culture that Christians gain identity.

I have yet to explore how this learning that I suggest is at least part of the solution to the issue of church malaise should look, and I do not think this post is the place to do such. The point of this post is not to give a concrete “how to,” but to cast a vision for the need of proper education within the church. Of course all learning of Truth needs to be understood as coming from God, knowing that it is God that even prepares the hearts of others to learn, but we have a responsibility as well. We are commissioned to make disciples by teaching. The point to all of this is to say that I see a need, and while there are surely many other needs that I have yet to perceive, the need to instruct is imperative and can be enacted at any time, even if we do not have all the other kinks worked out. Teaching (catechesis) does not need to be an afterthought of the church. It must be a top priority for it is Christ’s commission to us as disciples. While it might be true that we change lives, we see conversions, one life at a time, this does not mean that the church does not have a social agenda, a part of this agenda being the uplifting of its own society, its own culture, so that it can be more affective in the world. People need identity to operate effectively, and the church is made up of people. Therefore, go and spread the vision.