American Christianity is at a crossroads — again. It’s the latest in a long string of crossroads.
In the run-up to revolution, American branches of European denominations — such as my Anglican ancestors — had to declare loyalty to the crown or to an emerging rebellion.
In the 1830s, congregations throughout the restless nation had to decide whether they served whites or all people, including Native Americans.
In the mid-19th century, denominations were forced to choose between continued slavery and a commitment to freedom.
On it went. During each era of change and expansion, Christian communities had to decide what they stood for and what the gospel meant to them. Would they serve immigrants who spoke a certain language or all people in the community, one class in the emerging industrial society or all people, enclaves of status and like-mindedness or whole communities?
Whatever choice was made, each congregation and denomination found a way to justify it. The choices themselves didn’t flow from Scripture. Rather, in stepping up as theologians for slavery or abolition, for white rule or open access, for changes in women’s place or perpetuation of patriarchy, preachers wore out their Bibles and seminary training looking for rationales to do what they wanted. They claimed absolute authority for what, by any reasonable standard, was simply their preferred way of doing things.
Now Christianity in America faces a similar crossroads that turns on the question: Do we serve only ourselves and people like us, or do we serve the larger community, especially its outcasts and vulnerable?
Up to now, the church has focused on who crossed the threshold into our pews and who had leadership roles within the fellowship. Now the challenge is to go out into the world, see what the needs are, and rethink how we do things in response to those needs.
For example, do we still need worship-centered facilities costing up to 90 percent of our revenues? One outward-facing church discovered that its community needed affordable preschool for at-risk children, affordable housing for seniors, and affordable health care. Responding to those needs is taking that church far afield from the typical Sunday-worship paradigm.
Our history — as communities that own property and align themselves with denominations — tends to have an inward focus. We try, before all else, to keep our doors open, as if our facilities give us our reason for being.
We respond to those who enter our doors, rather than seek out strangers. It’s easier and less threatening, and it guarantees a certain continuity, as opposed to the disruption that strangers bring.
Speaking from our self-assigned pulpits of certainty, we tell the world how to live. Many Christians want to establish a theocratic state, even though our history as rulers is tragic.
We argue about right opinion and take to all available media, now including social media, to denounce divergent opinions. We would rather be right than respectful.
As a result, a world in need turns away from us. It doesn’t trust our goodwill or good behavior. It doesn’t see succor or meaning in our moralizing or institutionalizing — just judgment and pride.
Christianity has many self-sacrificial communities and individuals. But on the whole, I think we are at a crossroads: Will we try to stay alive a bit longer by focusing on ourselves, or will we go to the edges of our property, look outward, and ask, what does the world need from us? What does God need us to do in that world?
Inward-looking, self-serving congregations tend to be angry and suspicious, and short-lived.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.
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