I've heard many theories. I would imagine some atheists are perversely overjoyed by the fact churches are suffering, and interpret this moment as a long-awaited human exodus from God. But that's not what's happening -- from what I understand, most U.S. citizens still believe in God and more than half of my country's population still considers religion an important part of their lives. However, I also understand that less than half of my country's population goes to church on a weekly basis. The U.S. mostly consists of folks who only go to church at Christmas and Easter, or just cut out church altogether.
I heard one of my fellow Fuller students propose that this is the most self-centered generation in U.S. history. I can understand where this person is coming from -- it seems like more and more Christians I know are adopting a "Jesus and me" philosophy, and a lot of people who do go to church are only interested in what's in it for them. But I don't know if this is true, either, especially after some other friends of mine promptly reminded me why Baby Boomers are said to come from the "Me Generation." As self-centered and individualistic as a lot of U.S. citizens are, I'd like to think this generation is doing a little better than that one.
After reading a book for my leadership and diversity class called "The Missional Leader," by Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, I think I have a firmer grasp on what's really going on. People are not opposed to liturgy or communion or even gathering inside a building with a bunch of potential strangers -- it's just that a lot of churches are not offering what modern-day disciples are looking for. Most people are no longer going to church in hopes that some trained, heroic super-Christian will absolve them of all their wrongs and show them "the way." I think most halfway-educated Christians already know "the way"; what many of them are looking for are opportunities to spread the transforming Christian message to the world in a sincere, meaningful and truly integrative manner. It's not about the pastor and other church staff carrying the torch anymore. It's about stimulating imagination, sharing ideas and acting upon those ideas so we can show people what Christ's redeeming forgiveness, generosity and love are all about.
To delve into musical metaphor -- which is kind of the whole point of this blog -- for the last several decades (and probably earlier), church leaders have operated their ministries like Christian rock bands. If you've decided you enjoy Christian rock, these bands' concerts can be a great experience. The lyrics carry a wholesome, uplifting message that the band's listeners connect with on a variety of levels. They are driven into spiritual bliss, closing their eyes, waving their arms in the air, singing along at the top of their lungs and maybe even crying. Facetious cliche-flogging aside, though the audience members are deeply moved, they don't necessarily act upon their revelations once the concert's over -- a lot of them simply head home with ears ringing and hearts singing, and within a few days life continues as it did before. In the end, they were merely spectators of a really good performance. (Of course, depending on the band's style, the music could be thrilling and poignant or unbearably dull; knowing the way most Christian rock sounds nowadays, I'm voting for the latter.)
I would suggest that these church leaders put down their guitars and pick up a conducting baton. Every single one of Christ's disciples is an instrumentalist performing a classic piece called "The Word." Composed thousands of years ago by Awesome God (read the previous post and you'll know what I mean), "The Word" is the most gorgeous, affecting symphony ever written. It does not highlight any particular soloist -- every player's motif is equally unique and essential to the whole. Awesome God even allowed for certain sections of "The Word" to be improvised by the players, as long as they avoided notes that would detract from the symphony's thematic beauty. Whether the piece is performed by a full orchestra or a string quartet, a conductor is necessary to ensure the musicians remain focused and in sync. Even if the musicians they work with are just beginners, this conductor must train and encourage them to develop their hands, feet, lungs, eyes and ears. The conductor should also warn the players about the only way "The Word" should never be performed: Solo.
Probably the most unique thing about "The Word" is that Awesome God apparently wrote a pretty killer ending, but thought it so good that they are declining to publish it until they feel the world's best musicians are ready to play it. Not even the Jesus Jam -- a group countless critics called the best Awesome God revivalists ever -- could figure out the symphony's final section. But so great is the promise of this grandest of finales that its musicians keep playing the piece's preceding sections over and over again. It's so beautiful that the musicians really don't mind the repetition. In fact, they've never really stopped playing it since its debut.
It is not enough for instrumentalists to merely rehearse "The Word" on their own. With the help of the conductor, they must seek large audiences -- not for the sake of profit, not for the sake of displaying technical skill, but for the sake of inspiring others through the power of music. Hopefully, any uninitiated listener will be moved to tears of joy upon hearing "The Word" and maybe want to pick up an instrument themselves. One doesn't have to audition for this orchestra, but they had better hone their chops if they want a chance to perform that big, elusive finale.
I could go on forever with this, but I think I've made my point. Missional leaders are the church's future, and as far as I'm concerned, it is closer to what Christ intends for discipleship. To quote a U2 song, no one wants to watch someone "play Jesus to the lepers in (their) head." Not that I'm saying all pastoral leaders have that intention -- I don't think most of them do -- but we must realize that all of us have the capacity to be lepers AND to be like Jesus Christ our Lord, regardless of theological training. Studied leaders are obviously essential to keep order among Christian communities, but it is no longer sufficient for disciples to just listen. We must boldly and gracefully play our parts in this great orchestra, and until Awesome God gives us our cue to finally perform that ending, may our symphony resound beautifully throughout the world.