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?
A lot needs to change for Christianity to continue to impact the world in positive ways, but one that stands out for me is the anchoring of worship, spiritual enrichment, formation, and service in the physical church building. Of course, lots of Christians are doing lots of amazing, healing things all over the world, but these practices are rarely integrated into local church practice other than as a periodic program (e.g., youth mission trips, monthly homeless shelter dinners) that happens outside of worship. This makes the engaged spirituality of Christians largely invisible in the wider world and separates it from the normative practice of faith.
The effects of this on in both in our churches and in the wider culture are powerful. In the latter case, people see and hear all kinds of name-calling and condemnation by people who call themselves “Christian” in popular media. But they rarely see, either through media or in other everyday spaces, self-identified Christians acting out of the obligations of discipleship—radical love of neighbor, care for those in any kind of trouble or need—in local communities. Indeed, sociologist Paul Lichterman has shown that Christians—especially moderate to progressive ones—have difficulty communicating religious identity in public spaces even as they are doing work motivated by their faith commitments.
This creates perception that “Christian compassion” is more of an event (a hurricane fundraiser here, a soup supper there) than a life practice. It’s not difficult for people to come to the conclusion that Christianity is, at best, an antique approach to personal spiritual enrichment and, at worst, a disengaged, exclusivist social group that periodically attempts to repair its public image by engaging in acts of service while wearing modest church t-shirts.
Yet my concern has to do with much more than the perhaps irredeemably tarnished images of Christians and our Church in the wider world. I’m not concerned about better marketing. I’m concerned that people in our own communities—especially kids—don’t understand Christianity as a holistic life practice—as a way of being that informs every part of our lives. When the practice of faith is seen as located primarily in church buildings, it becomes functionally invisible and more or less irrelevant in the larger portions of our lives that take place outside of the Sunday service.
Now, there are lots of ministries that are beginning to address this issue. In my new book with Lutheran pastor Keith Anderson, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible, we profile ministry leaders across the country who have moved ministry well beyond the walls of the local church to be present where people are throughout their lives—Adam Copeland at Project F-M in North Dakota, Jodi Bjornstad Houge at Humble Walk in Minnesota, Emily Scott at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in New York among them—including in the digital communities growing across the internet. Likewise, the Worship in the Wilderness hiking liturgies Jon Anderson began several years ago in New Mexico have found their way to Northern California and elsewhere.
These are all great starts, the effects of which have been amplified to a certain extent in the past year by the participation of mainline churches with other religious and spiritual groups and individuals in the Occupy Wall Street movement. But so long as these ministries continue to be seen as experimental, as provisional, as adjunct to “real worship” in the “real church,” their significance and real transformative power will be diminished, if not lost entirely. These are among the creative, mobile, engaged expressions of church that simply must become normative practice if the church is to continue in its mission of serving God’s people, showing them the nearness of the Kingdom, in the decades ahead. While we need not necessarily close the doors on our church buildings and other property, we do need to shift them from being the centers of our worship and service to being resources that support more widely distributed ministry in our local communities and global networks.
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?
Given all the great needs of the world—feeding the hungry, tending the sick, caring for those otherwise in trouble or need—a spiritual practice like regular, shared prayer might not seem like the most important thing we could be doing as Christians to impact the world. But I believe that it is.
Taking time to acknowledge the presence of God that is always with us and offering our lives—our joys, our hopes, our needs, our sorrows—into that presence is at the very core of the faith embodied by Jesus. Again and again, Jesus steps away from the active work of healing the sick, comforting the downtrodden, advocating for the poor, and speaking sacred truth to power in order to pray. Our focus in Matthew 14 tends, understandably, to be the miraculous feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’s walk across the Sea of Galilee. But the pivot in the chapter between Jesus’ miraculous abundance and Peter’s fearful doubt, is prayer: “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain himself to pray” (14:23).
In Mark, likewise, prayer is the hinge between one miracle and another. The healings in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-34) and throughout the Galilee are punctuated with prayer: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
I could go on, of course, what with the Gospels serving as pretty much as a guide to prayer. (See, e.g., Matthew 6:5-15, 19:13-15; 26:38-39; 26:42; Mark 14:32-33; Luke 5:15-16, 6:12-13, 9:28-29, 11:1-4, 24:50-51; John 11:41-42, 17:1.) Indeed, Jesus final human words are a prayer: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
The thing I try to remind myself—especially as I’m railing about how we need to move out of the church more, to be among all God’s people more, to practice an activist faith over one defined by self-indulgent spiritual enrichment—is that prayer is the key to discipleship. It is the one practice available to every believer and seeker at every moment, regardless of what technology is at hand. Prayer makes clear that we live out of relationship to God—that our service is not just goodhearted charity, but work we are called to by a loving, compassionate God who has invited us into an enduring divine-human partnership.
“Up up up up up points the spire of the steeple, but God’s work isn’t done by God, it’s done by people,” begins one of my favorite Ani DiFranco songs. Well, yes. But, as Christians, we believe that the work we do in God’s name is ultimately made possible by God, not by people. Prayer is the practice of remembering this basic Christian truth. Without it, we can do much good, but we give up the source of our passion, courage, and strength.
Elizabeth Drescher, PhD: Elizabeth is the author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011) and, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. She is on the faculty of the Graduate Program in Pastoral Ministries at Santa Clara University. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.net.