Friday, February 3, 2023

Jesus’ Vision for the Church

It seems like every other month I am reading about the demise of the Christian Church in the United States. The most recent article was in The Guardian, entitled Losing Their Religion: Why US Churches Are on the Decline.  They all say pretty much the same thing: the Christian Church is losing members rapidly, and the pandemic accelerated this trend.

Some Christian leaders are asking tough questions about what Christians can do to stanch the flow of members and church closures. My longtime friend, Dwight Moody, has been asking such questions regularly for the past couple of years. He has a podcast and YouTube channel called The Meetinghouse, subtitled Conversations on Religion and American Life.

He is very concerned about the influence of extremist forms of Christianity. He is searching for an authentic form of Christianity that will counteract this trend and revive the Church. In a recent email to me he phrased it this way: “What version of Christian faith and practice will present to the modern world (or even to the Christian community) a coherent and compelling vision for human life?”

Jesus has such a vision for the Church. My recognition of this vision came after my departure from evangelicalism and subsequently going beyond progressive Christianity into a mystical spirituality rooted in the teachings of Jesus. It is the ancient and eternal gospel. It is a gospel of union with God.

Christianity is declining because it is old and sick. It is deathly ill. It has a terminal illness. The stench of death is evident in the Church’s never-ending scandals, noxious rhetoric, and the cancerous growth of Christian Nationalism. The death knell of the church rings in the anti-intellectual dogma and culture-war mentality of Pentecostals and Evangelicals.

That is why younger generations are abandoning the Church at an increasing rate. Americans – young and old - are spiritually hungry, but they are not finding spiritual nourishment in the church. When they step inside a church they find either tired traditionalism or mind-numbing fundamentalism, so they turn elsewhere. 

They look to other spiritual traditions or to nonreligious philosophies. They look to meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism, and yoga. They look to humanism or atheism. Meanwhile the Church conducts business as usual as if it were the twentieth century, doubling down on outmoded forms of evangelism or gimmicky outreach programs.

There is a way back from this bleak picture of Christian stagnation. There can be a resurrection of the Church, but only if it is willing to die to be reborn. What is needed is a fresh look at the spiritual core of Jesus’ message without the later centuries of tradition. A “red-letter” Christianity, a gospel based on the words – and spiritual experience - of Jesus rather than endless words and doctrines about Jesus.

This fresh approach to Christianity is centered on direct spiritual awareness of the Divine that is willing to offend traditional religious sensibilities, just like Jesus did. It is willing to pay the price, just like Jesus did.

Spiritual experience was the original attraction of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. That is why they were successful. But that was before they sold their souls to emotionalism and anti-intellectualism. Likewise Evangelicalism was originally founded on a personal encounter with the living Christ. Now it has devolved into a dogmatic religion with a secondhand belief in an imaginary friend.

Christianity only has a future if it lives in the present - in the presence of God that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ message was a call to the transformation of the human being through union with the Father. We see his vision for his Church voiced in his prayer offered on the night before he died. He prayed:

“that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. “

That “oneness” with God and each another is Jesus’ hope for the church. It is firsthand communion with God and Christ that manifests in tangible Christian unity. This can only happen when the Church proclaims an authentic message that originates from genuine spiritual awareness.

Then God will pour out the Spirit on “all people.” “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” That is Jesus’ vision for his Church.


Deb Hoffman said...

Amen! So well written (as always)...just like anything else that can start out pure and good, it can be twisted into something it was never meant to be...I loved especially the part of dying to the old to be reborn to the new...thank you Marshall for your wise and powerful words.

Unknown said...

I’m exactly in this place! I want to WANT TO resume regular church attendance. But even though our services are not “offensive” (political for example), they are so predictable in form and substance, there’s nothing outside the “evangelical box”. A lot of urging to join in activities, studies, groups, singing songs that no longer express my vision of who and what Is “God”, and just a narrow expression of Christianity, that is dual and replete with certitude. I don’t live there anymore. Thanks in part to you, dear sir!

Kimberley McKaig