A day or so ago, Ross Douthat had an op-ed piece published in the New York Times with the inquisitive title “Can Liberal Christianity Survive?“. The article looks at the continued decline of the Episcopal Church that seems to be a result of their ever progressing embrace of the social liberal agenda.
In response, church historian and author Diana Butler-Bass wrote a piece titled “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Reponse to Ross Douthat” in the Huffington Post. Butler-Bass’ point is that the question to ask is not whether liberal Christianity can be saved but whether Christianity itself can be saved in the US.
For the most part, I really enjoy this response because the reality is that both liberal and conservative/evangelical Christianity is on the decline in America. Yet Butler Bass points to a grass root movement taking place among liberal Christianity in which churches are “…growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation.”
Such renewal as Butler-Bass describes is certainly a turn in the right direction. But I wonder if this is enough. The article is just vague enough that I wonder, is this a return to the witnessing life that characterized the church that emerged as a revolutionary proclamation of God’s reign in the first century or is this just more or the same that flat-lined faith couched in different language. Of course, time will answer this question which Butler-Bass also recognizes too at the end of the article.
But I raise this question not just to question the liberal traditions within Christianity, for I believe liberal and conservative/evangelical Christianity is suffering from fundamentally the same problem. From where I sit, liberal Christianity has aligned itself with the progressive social agenda of Western democracy but her younger sibling, conservative/evangelical Christianity, has aligned itself with the traditional and nationalistic values of America. Though these may appear to be two different problems, they are actually only two different sides of the same coin because both sides have allowed (in varying degrees) the Christian faith to be co-opted by the modern culture of Western society.
If I am right in my assessment, what sort of renewal is needed among American Christianity as a whole. To answer this question, I believe there is a key biblical passage that needs to be heard again.
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
– Acts 1:8
This passage describes what these apostles and disciples went out and did by the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe renewal will come as Christianity returns to living as “witnesses” of Jesus Christ.
To live as witnesses of Jesus Christ requires to three fundamental. First, renewal is not a task that can be accomplished apart from the Holy Spirit. So it demands a return to prayer and other spiritual disciplines that allow the Spirit to form our hearts and minds to the heart and mind of God. Second, living as a witness of Jesus involves participating in the very way of life Jesus teaches us to live. We are, after all, followers or disciple of Jesus. So to live as a witness of Jesus, we must embrace a life that embraces the same beliefs and values Jesus lived his life by. Lastly, living as a witness of Jesus involves the proclamation of the gospel or good news. This is not the worn-out, you’re-a-sinner-and-you-need-to-trust-in-Jesus-as-your-personal-Savior preaching that has characterized evangelicalism. This is the proclamation that the Jesus was crucified but was raised by God and exalted to the right hand of God and now reigns as Lord and Messiah (the same apostolic preaching in Acts).
When Christianity embraces this call to live as witnesses of Jesus it becomes that church that rejects power of this world, choosing instead to love God, neighbor, one another, and even enemy. It does so by practicing hospitality, communion, justice and mercy, caring for the sick along with the “orphans and widows” and so on. But it also is the church that has the courage to tell the world that there is no other name by which we must be saved (cf. Acts 4:12).
This is not a church that is concerned with the progressive social agenda or the traditional-nationalistic agenda of America. It is a church that is concerned with the good news of the kingdom of God, just like Jesus. That is the church that reaches up, in, and out. I have confidence that Christianity embracing this call to witness can revive and survive because it has in the past.