Gandhi famously said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Those who have drifted away from Christianity often express similar sentiments to explain their irreligion. The reasons for leaving are diverse – moralistic preachers caught in sex scandals, hatred espoused by those extolling God’s Love, inaction by people claiming to care about justice – but a frustration with the hypocrisy of the Church and its members underlies each. Such justifications may be theologically suspect to Christians believing in a fallen world and the reality of sin, yet the Church ignores them at its own peril. This indictment demonstrates that the challenge facing American Christianity in general, and Mainline Protestantism specifically, has little to do with demographic trends or changing cultural tastes. It is a fundamentally a spiritual crisis. Our faith is being put to the test by a world in need but the witness offered in response lacks the vibrancy and integrity demanded by this moment.
Hypocrisy and corruption within Christianity are not new phenomena. It is the world American believers inhabit that has changed. Political scandals, reality television, and economic globalization now define existence. Given the excesses of individualism, people hunger for authentic community. The uncertainty and fear created by the impersonal machinations of the global free market causes the human soul to yearn for love and hope. The triumph of money in politics and the growing wealth and income gaps heightens the demand for justice. Many have turned to the Church to meet these needs, only to find little in they way of sustenance. Mercifully, the disappointment caused by its failures can become an opportunities for transformation and renewal.
I recently relocated to Washington, DC. Many young professionals here describe the city in alarming ways: competitive, cruel, intense, cold, transient. Nobody can survive, let alone thrive, in such an environment without the support of a strong community. Friends are needed to stay rooted in principles when the temptation of unacceptable compromise arises. Colleagues offer perspective when one’s focus becomes too narrow. Social groups offer us a chance to be known and to know others. Upon my arrival, I was blessed to discover a young adult community within National City Christian Church. Through social outings, devotional studies, and random meals, I found both a support network and a spiritual home. Nothing about this fellowship is particularly flashy. The group’s success in fostering community is rooted in a few basic assumptions, which are deeply theological, though not formally articulated. Inclusiveness is paramount, with this open invitation to participation mirroring the communion invitation offered on Sunday morning. The only requirement is authenticity; pretenses are dropped so real relationships can be formed. Finally, intentional investments are made in each other, ranging from a quick text offering birthday wishes to larger interventions in moments of personal crisis. However imperfectly, this is a group striving to make God’s love real in the world.
The quest for authenticity cannot end with re-imagining our ideas of community. It must also enlarge our understanding of Christian practices, such as evangelism. Despite it’s biblical roots, many Christians have ceded this word and concept to conservatives for fear of guilt by association. This is a faithless response. Embracing alternative ideas of evangelism is imperative, while doing so with the qualification that authentic approaches to evangelism depend on specific contexts and take diverse forms. Two examples from two different congregations will suffice to prove this larger point. Many churches have excess land that is an underutilized resource but that could be transformed into an asset for evangelism and service. Recognizing this, an urban Disciples congregation has started a community garden. In doing so, it has provided a real contribution to its neighbors, while also inviting the community into the church. Similarly, a suburban Disciples congregation turned a lot adjacent to the church into a dog park that is now heavily used by local pet owners. In both instances, the congregations met a real community need (space for growing vegetables where open land is at a premium or an enclosed area where pets can safely play). The church’s actions clearly showed investment in and concern for the community in which the congregation is located. That’s a powerful statement; and it’s not surprising to know that people, whose first interaction with the church was either through planting tomatoes or walking their pets, have ended up joining the congregation. These congregations lived out their commitment to Christian service and their witness was compelling to spiritual seekers looking for authentic faith.
Finally the integrity of witness requires the Church to be political. This is an extremely controversial statement and clarification is needed. No single political party has a corner on God; and all party platforms, policy alternatives, and politicians will fall short, relative to the Divine demands for justice. Yet, the acknowledgement of this is not a justification for silence. Christian Scripture, the history of Christian theology, and the tradition of the Church all speak loudly against oppression and injustice. Fidelity to the Christian faith requires speaking up for the poor and helpless, watching out for the widow and orphan, and working toward justice. Silence on such matters is sinful and becomes an obstacle to faith for those looking for a community witnessing with integrity. The Church cannot avoid political judgments; it must speak for justice and against oppression. What must be avoided is partisanship. The Church should never become the handmaiden of any political party or ideological agenda; it should never baptize a party platform.
If my initial assertions that the numerical challenges facing much of contemporary American Christianity results from a spiritual crisis and the solution is to be found in recovering and maintaining a vibrant, faithful, and authentic witness are correct, then the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) may be uniquely positioned to renew our communal life and articulate a compelling vision of life before God.The early impulses of the Movement that would later result in the formation of the Disciples of Christ were restorationist and ecumenical. For intellectually justifiable reasons the Disciples placed greater and greater emphasis on the ecumenical foundations of the Movement, while downplaying the restorationist aspects of the tradition. My thoughts here should not be misconstrued as a call to reverse this trend or deny our ecumenical principles. Rather, my claim is that fostering authentic community, cultivating practices of integrity, and formulating a faithful witness are all efforts at rediscovering the fundamentals of Christian faith. This is a challenge Disciples should welcome and the world desperately needs us to take on.