The two most read posts on my blog last week seem to go together as Trump continues to protest his defeat.
- The relationship cut-off: 10 reasons it is so common these days – Will we be permanently divided, right down to our Christmas dinner conversation?
- Jesus on the narrow way through the power struggle – Since the most notable Christians in the country backed the loser, will they be permanently discredited in the eyes of spiritual seekers?
You and I could blame all the troubles we face on Trump, and many do, but I think he is just the wicked weed flourishing in the garden of post-Christian philosophies that have been ascendant for a long time. The unholy alliance between Trump and the Evangelicals, fronted in the media by Jerry Falwell Jr., may have sealed the deal on the demise of influence Christians have long had in the public square of the U.S. [Read Jonny Rashid]. We’ll see. But what my generation has contributed to the next is resulting in some very unchristian skills that may wreck their spiritual growth. People are polishing two self-destructive skills, if my blog stats make any difference: 1) power struggle, 2) relationship cut-off. The two often go together and they are rarely, if ever, associated with the way of Jesus.
A student exemplifies what is happening
A student in one of my classes posted something so indicative about the next generation’s feelings about the church, these days, I want to paraphrase it for you. I don’t know their personal situation, and their identity is confidential, anyway. I only reference them at all because of the pathos and eloquence of their entry, which I paraphrase:
2020 has been full of pandemic issues, maybe it caused my feelings. Maybe it was the political climate and how it related so much to religious alignments/movements. When the class provided place for me to reflect I realized just how much I have changed this year and just how much I differed from many of my fellow classmates and evangelicals.
My journey was gray and chillingly clear, empty. I saw a lack of God where I would’ve expected to see consolation. I saw inauthenticity in so many believers—so many attempts to assuage fear, guilt, anxiety, political failures; by using spiritual phrases and religious words.
I wish I could say I believe the spirit has “guided me or met me” this year, but it feels a lot more accurate to say that I found guidance outside of evangelical institutions and circles way more than in them. I found the spirit in the BLM movement. I found the spirit in political candidates who are striving for change to bring justice to the citizens of this country. I found the spirit in the freedom that deconstruction has brought me—freedom from the conservative/fundamentalist ideals that kept a veil between myself and the reality of life on Earth.
I’m not sure what the spirit is anymore, but I didn’t find it/him/her/them in spiritual and religious practices or studies this year. I found the spirit in stepping out of those places and joining the rest of the world in what they are going through. I found the spirit of Jesus in being extremely honest with myself about what I think, believe, desire, and who I am in general.
I’ve seen and met with many people in the last four years who could write a similar report.
It’s not as if every twentysomething in every era doesn’t have a lot to face; I did. And it’s not as if everyone, in all parts of the globe are not exploring new places inside and out—humanity is a creative, searching bunch; the Chinese planted their flag on the moon last week! But even though life always presents a lot to face, this time in the life of the church in our fracturing nation seems uniquely difficult to most of us.
I admire the student’s courage and openness in the middle of their turmoil. I also lament how they got caught in the power struggle and how they cut-off relationships.
We can live and act according to a “third way”
Our pastors are always talking about these aspects of society and the church:
- power and division
- demands for agreement and dismissals of love.
Sometimes they are tempted into power struggles themselves and some of our members and even pastors have cut us off. It is a generally painful time to be alive. I spoke to the pastors about one aspect of the person’s story to highlight how it is sort of a parable calling us to follow the “third way” Christianity that is emerging all over the word. Here is the gist of what I said.
The student is on an increasingly typical ex-evangelical path, aren’t they? I think there will be many more of these refugees and, while they are unlikely to pile into churches, they will have a narrative that will continue to undermine churches and the way of Jesus, itself. Cutting off is a common trait these days, so ex-anything probably applies here, including ex-Third-Way and ex-Circle-of-Hope.
Everyone in the U.S. tends to have an American-privileged way of seeing the world. The student looks at the church through the lens of that privilege, I think. They can’t imagine Christianity according to the “third way” of the early church before it was co-opted by the Roman Empire (or before it adopted a place of power as preferable to its earlier Jesus-reliant condition).
Many authors have written about the revival of this third way of love—not owning the empire yet fully influencing it with a unique message and with the signs and actions to back that message up. The student is offended by the corrupt church so they cut it off. They find their community in emergent institutions free of the past narrative and supplying a new one. This ever-changing of the guard, the ascendancy of the new power structure, is the predictable way of the world we can trace throughout history. What the student missed was an honest third way that is not the either/or of the ever-warring world.
The third way was, and is, Jesus-centered, community-based, discipleship-oriented, generously connected but not subject to the ways of the world, in awe of the goodness in people and the planet but not idolizing them or it—all the things our pastors regularly teach. The third way just does not claim the privilege of fighting for power, because, for one reason, it does not have it. For another reason, it is generally despised as a rival to most institutions. And, for the main reason, it has eschewed power as a means it deserves to have under the Lordship of Jesus. (People write books about this, so I won’t keep going).
I think the student is probably on a good path. They are learning, just like all our twentysomething friends are learning in similar ways. We are all learning what to do in a divided world in which people cut off their loved ones if they fall on the wrong side of politics, in which we wake up to a power struggle every day. I think perfecting, describing and discipling for our successful “third way” approach in our relatively hostile spiritual environment as Circle of Hope is a great service to people jumping ship as well as to those discovering they are drowning.