Over the past 10 years or so I have been following closely the Emergent movement and have devoured the plethora of books written to address the past decade’s growing dissatisfaction with organised religion. Books like They Like Jesus But Not the Church (Dan Kimball), Christianity After Religion (Diana Buitler-Bass), Leaving Church (Barbara Brown Taylor), Rising from the Ashes and Jesus Died for This? (Becky Garrison), The Hopeful Skeptic (Nick Fiedler),The Future of Faith (Harvey Cox), Church in the Inventive Age (Doug Pagit), and A New Kind of Christian series (Brian McLaren) litter my bookshelves and clutter my Kindle.
(Don’t get me wrong: the books in my library have been a great source of personal and spiritual growth for me and most of them have in some way challenged me to be the true Christ-follower I claim to be. I am in no way thinking of having a book-burning or a giant book sale.)
Because of my over-indulgence in this genre (and I think we can safely call it a genre—let’s call it ‘Church Cynicism’), my Amazon ‘Recommended for You’ page is made up of numerous new books that encourage people to rethink Church and study contemporary culture and faith as detached from—and many times in antagonism towards—the Church.
So when I see how many new and upcoming volumes are being written with the premise of ‘Leave the Church but keep following Jesus,’ I wonder to myself if these books are pouring off the presses for the right reasons. Frankly, all I ever needed to know about this subject, I have read in the rather lengthy aforementioned list. In fact, I could probably boil it down to two or three books (I highly recommend Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian trilogy and the follow-up book, A New Kind of Christianity).
Thus I have become one step higher of a cynic in that I am not only cynical of the Church’s ability to remain true to its mission, but I am skeptical of the Christian authors in the ‘Church Cynicism’ genre to put following Jesus over the desire to wring a little more air time out of this topic before its time is well and truly past.
I wonder how much good is now being done by such attempts to hang out the Church’s dirty laundry for all to see. I ask if any individual, when all is said and done, would be found to have done better in following the Saviour of the World than the collective of individuals that makes up the local congregations, national denominations, or worldwide Body of Christ.
There certainly are a huge number of problems in the organised Christian Church. I do not deny that scandals, hypocrisy, greed and politics have messed up this Institution immensely, especially over the last 50 years. The worldwide Church has been tainted by many uniquely American flavours and has, by virtue of media and missionary zeal, inherited a Stars-and-stripes-branded Jesus culture. Local and national churches and Christian organisations must accept responsibility for this and move towards being the community of faith that only they can and should be in their time, culture, and place.
That said, I, like Nick, am a hopeful skeptic with the hopeful (for the moment) outweighing the skeptical. When congregations, and the servant-leaders of those congregations, accept responsibility to be the Church of Jesus within their own context, I am filled with hope that these Churches can indeed make a difference in the world. When those who claim the name of Christ truly follow him—in compassion, grace, love and justice—spectacular things happen; lives, families and communities are transformed.
I could dwell on all the problems I see around me and in my religious world. I could spend all my life doing this and even write a handful of books telling of my own thoughts and experiences. If Amazon is anything to go by, I might even make a few quid along the way and enjoy a rather comfortable life in professing Christendom. That is one way I could go.
For now, though, I am choosing to take the best of what I have read and seen and pursue a life of connection wholeheartedly, fully hopeful that the Church I know and to which I belong can rise above the naysayers, the cynics (like me), and the politicians and be the change, as prophets of hope and agents of Christ, in our world.