I have been pondering this question for a while. Recent posts and articles about the state of the Evangelical church two years into the Trump administration, the aging church, and issues within the megachurch world have only made the question speak louder in my mind.
It’s long been the thinking of those of us in the missional church world that the Church needs to change it’s thinking from being like the OT Jewish religion of the Golden Age of Israel to being more like that of the exiles who lived in a foreign land during the Babylonian exile. I remember one speaker at a denominational gathering citing the movement to remove toys from high-fat fast food kids meals as an example of now living in Babylon. This only made me wonder which god he was worshiping at the time (not to mention a little hungry for a cheeseburger and french fries). This implies that the American Church finds itself in a totally foreign land with foreign gods and little to no connection to the faith it once knew. This description gives the impression that all remnants of the civil religion we call Christianity have been removed from the cultural landscape.
There is no doubt that for many people, the institutional church no longer holds the center of influence in many sections of our country. I’m sure in some of the coastal cities it can feel like faith has been completely marginalized from halls of culture. Looking from this perspective, it’s easy to assume that the rest of the country is experiencing the same “exile.” For large sections of the country though (including the context I find myself in), it seems that our experience is more like those who lived in Jerusalem in the period after the exile. If the structures of Christendom have been torn down like the Jerusalem Temple was during the Babylonian invasion, most American Christians today still find themselves with a remnant of the civil religion that makes harkens of a bygone era (whether it be an era they want to forget or hold onto tightly as a form of nostalgia). For many of us, the civil religion is still there.
In postexilic Jerusalem, there were many submovements claiming their place of influence in an effort to institute the reforms they thought were necessary to bring back the “good old days.” Whether it was the Sadducees or Pharisees squabbling in Jerusalem over whose interpretation of the Law was correct or fringe movements such as the Essenes or Zealots, all were trying to recover the glory of the past that they perceived had been lost. All these movements had their own approach to restore the kingdom to Israel. Today we still find various movements labeled as either Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Mainline Protestantism, Liberalism, or Catholicism (and others) all competing for a place at the table and wanting to be the representative voice of the old civil religion. All have their pet issues that they believe will restore the prominence of the Church if they could just get everyone else to jump on board with their agenda.
In the midst of the religious chaos of postexilic Jerusalem, a quiet movement began to emerge. They claimed to have walked with God through their encounters with this man named Jesus. The movement became known as “The Way” among those connected with the civil religion. This movement was so impacted by what they had found in Jesus that they had a hard time fitting in any of the civil religious subcultures, though many had come from those various groups. They didn’t clamor for the seat of power like others would. They often found themselves more at home with the outcasts than in the places of power. They didn’t rely on the institutions of old for their identity. Instead, they formed a loose-knit organic community that met wherever they could to build each other up and encourage each other in their pursuit of the Way. They still engaged the remnants of the civil religion, though mainly to find like-minded seekers who wanted to enter into their growing organic community.
More and more I find myself looking at the culture this way. It seems the best guide for those of us who seek to live on mission with Jesus is to look back to the practice of that early organic community and seek the things they sought as much as possible. Seeking the seat of prominence comes with too high of a price while embedding as an organic community that seeks to live out a different story helps us stay authentic to our call and draws those who have been marginalized by the old cultural battles. If we are authentically following Jesus we will probably find ourselves never fully fitting in completely with any of the competing subcultures of the civil religion. We can still engage those in the seats of power when necessary to draw the like-minded into our extended “family” but clamoring for the seats of power will leave us tarnished and ineffective in our mission.
As we look around and get our bearings, I wonder if more of us who seek to follow Jesus will find ourselves looking at the culture this way.