Russell D. Moore’s “Farewell, Cultural Christianity,” the Dones / De-Churched, and the Gospel

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A long-time reader, Robert, pointed out an excellent article in Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, “Farewell, Cultural Christianity” by Russell D. Moore, one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders and rising stars. As they say, read the whole thing.

The gist: Recent changes in American culture will shake the American Church but in a positive way, forcing out nominal Christians who drain the Church’s vitality, and leaving us with an energized remnant. While this is not a new idea, the article has some good insights. Moore notes churches have focused too much on delivering a Gospel of self-help that appealed 20 years ago to lost people but not today, which is true. He also notes that our past political engagement and “values voting” are obsoleted by an America that learned to value other ideas more. Again, worth the read.

I like Moore. He’s not afraid to say it like it is and to question sacred cows. But as much as the article makes good cases, it reveals blinders representative of many leaders in the American Church.

This passage is telling:

Those who were nominally Christian are suddenly vanished from the pews. Those who wanted an almost-gospel will find that they don’t need it to thrive in American culture. As a matter of fact, cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat released in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.

He’s absolutely right about nominal Christians. They’re dropping out. What he misses entirely though is that those who are leaving our churches are not all nominal Christians.Leaving, walking out of churchurch In fact, it can be argued that the exodus contains a frighteningly large percentage of those who are our most devout believers, the so-called Dones or De-Churched. You can read about them all over the Web.

These are not nominal, cultural Christians. These are the folks who worked in the nursery for years, veteran Sunday School teachers, elders, the 20%, seasoned missionaries, and even pastors. It’s not that they’ve lost their faith. It’s that the present way we do church in America became too taxing, stifling, lonely, frustrating, and debilitating, and it left them with no other choice than to walk away–for their own spiritual, mental, and physical health.

We must ask this: Is the empty pew a result of cultural Christians fleeing genuinely Gospel-centric churches, or is it the result of Gospel-centric Christians fleeing culture-centric churches? My bet is the latter is just as big, if not a bigger, reason. And doesn’t every church leader think his/her church is Gospel-centric? Who then will own up to the present exodus of Gospel-centric Christians?

It’s frustrating to read the Moore piece and think he’s ignoring the Dones / De-Churched or that he’s lumping them with the nominals and saying, “Good riddance.” But the lack of mention is telling. Again, this is someone who leads America’s largest denomination. The blame instead shifts to those who left, with little reflection on those who once led them. Convenient.

Moore ends his article with this statement:

The shaking of American culture will get us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?”

I think Moore is misunderstanding again.

While Who do you say that I am? was definitely a question for those who once had never heard of Jesus Christ, it’s one most Christians have resolved over the past 2,000+ years. (Whether they do anything with the answer is a whole ‘nother issue.)

But the real question, the one at the heart of the church exodus, whose mis-answering has plagued the American Church for the last 100 years or so, is this: What is the Gospel?

The term moralistic, therapeutic deism defines a good chunk of the central teaching of many churches in America. It’s Old Testament Law wrapped in an American flag and the Protestant Work Ethic, then blessed by Oprah Winfrey and Sigmund Freud. But it’s not the Gospel. Some may call it the Gospel, but it’s actually anti-Gospel.

Personally, I think the exodus of devoted Christians from the American Church is as much due to a failure to have the Gospel preached to them as it is with anything else. People have had it with performance-based Christianity. Grace, the very heart of the Gospel, may be the single most lacking element in American Christianity. That dearth ultimately drives away those who need grace the most.

Sadly, even churches and leaders who claim to be Gospel-centered fall back on preaching a moralistic melange when it directly benefits them. The resulting confusion further alienates the most discerning, those who can’t reconcile mixed messages, especially those messages proclaimed in the name of God.

If Moore wants to say farewell to the flee-ers in a way that honors God, as a denominational leader, he needs to own up to the American Church’s hand in creating not only the nominal, cultural Christian, but also the Dones / De-Churched. Until then, church leaders around this country will have no answers to stemming the exodus, continuing to preach a pseudo-Gospel to the self-justified for which they will one day answer.

The Communion of Apprentice Jugglers

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Over the course of 34 years on the Internet (that’s no typo, either), I’ve acquired a set of Internet friends, people with whom I’ve interacted regularly but I’ve also never met in person. It’s a phenomenon of our age.

A common thread among those folks is their contrarian natures. They don’t think like the crowd. They plunge deeper than others into deep topics. They ask harder questions. They don’t settle for simple. By being  this way, they rankle the complacent. As a result, the majority of them have struggled to fit in, whether in their local church or in what we consider “normal” life. Their work lives are almost always more challenging than the norm, and almost all have fought for years to find a place that suits their differentness.

The Apprentice Juggler, from _Tales of the Kingdom_ by David and Karen Mains, illustration by Jack StockmanMany years ago, I was asked to read a children’s book, Tales of the Kingdom by David and Karen Mains, as part of a job I had taken working with children. The book consists of a series of vignettes in the life of a young teen who flees a dystopian city of fire to find refuge among a rebel group living in the forest outside the city’s gates. Along the way, he meets a series of unusual people who are preparing for a great feast.

Based on The Story, Tales of the Kingdom is filled with biblical allusions and continues the tradition of Christian books such as Pilgrim’s Progress. My task was not only to read the book, but to find myself in it. Not surprisingly, I identified with the apprentice juggler.

Part of a troupe that entertained the king in the forest kingdom, the apprentice juggler hid a secret: his inner juggling count was off. He would throw at the wrong time. Tense catches didn’t happen according to expectations. When he performed the way that felt natural to him, his act teetered on disaster because it wasn’t smooth and didn’t conform to the standards of the troupe.

As a result, the apprentice juggler fell into despair and exhaustion at trying to hide his “broken” inner count and to please others.

In a performance before the king one day, fighting to act like his fellow performers, the apprentice juggler succumbed to his off-ness. Instead of jeering, though, both the king and the troupe master recognized him for having an unusual and rare gift as a clown juggler. He indeed lost his place within the troupe, but he took on another, more specialized role, one only he could fill.

At the time, I figured I was one of the few on staff who identified with the apprentice juggler. At almost 30 years later, I now understand that most people will see themselves in him. We all have our ways in which we fight to appear normal. We all have an inner count that’s offbeat, even if only by a fraction.

For some people, though, that unusual inner count comes by them naturally and defines them.  The square peg in the round hole, no matter where they are or what they do, their lives–in thought, emotion, and soul–are not like the crowd. And despite the truth that all of us have a count that doesn’t perfectly conform, for these folks the difference is all the more glaring, especially when they are on the stage of life, beanbags in hand, ready to throw.

But it is one thing to be the contrarian in the human. Being one in spirit is quite another.

In the story, the king recognized the distinctiveness of the apprentice juggler’s inner count. He could because he does not conform either.

Jesus Christ came to us with an inner count we could not recognize in any way. It manifested in a manner we could not comprehend. For this, and for how He made us feel about our own inner count, we nailed Him to a cross. Even the apprentice jugglers of that age, who had waved palms at his arrival, stood among the crowd later that same week and demanded death.

The way of Christ means taking on His inner count. Not simply by being a contrarian in natural practice or thought, but in the way we engage Christ’s life and manifest it in our spirits. To be one with this King–and to be for His Kingdom–our inner spiritual count must be at odds with the world. By necessity. To try to be normal by the standards of the world is to concede. To force the traditional inner count of the rest of the jugglers is to deny the King.

Some of us are apprentice jugglers by the very nature of who God made us. In truth, though, His remaking us by His Spirit should always lead to an inner count that causes tension in the complacent, joy in those expecting the unexpected, and peace for all who struggle to find what is true and who long to see it reign. For this reason grace exists, that we can walk in that Kingdom count without fear, to be the men and women Christ is making us, without a care as to what the world thinks or what it might costs us to be like Him in His inner count.

Some apprentice jugglers are born, but all who desire to be in the Kingdom must be born again to experience the natural rhythm of living in Christ. In this, we all must be apprentice jugglers in the Spirit.

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