Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a Christian congregation located in the heartland of America in St. Joseph, Missouri.
God is shifting the church from one seasonal platform to another. Are we ready?
Western Christianity is at a critical juncture. Those who care deeply about the church are aware of this. Things are not as they once were. Things are changing. Dramatically so. Even if we don’t understand what is happening, we can certainly feel it. There is an uneasy feeling throughout evangelicalism that everything is changing. Long-held certitudes are being challenged from both within and without the Christian faith. The way things were even ten years ago is no longer the way things are today. It’s easy to be disconcerted by it all.
In the midst of pronounced uncertainty it is tempting to succumb to nostalgia and pine away for some point in the past that we identify as the “glory days.” But we cannot go back. The healthy practice of recognizing the contributions of the past and building upon them is not the same thing as a regressive attempt to return to a bygone era. This is the problem with revivalism. Too often it is a naive attempt to recapture a particular past. It’s like a Renaissance fair—nice entertainment for a Saturday afternoon but you can’t live there. An idealized memory of the past is not a vision which can carry us into the future. Nostalgic reminiscing about the past is for those who no longer have the courage to creatively engage with contemporary challenges and opportunities. All of this is related to the critical juncture we have come to in the course of Western Christianity.
There is a sense in which we have come to the end of the line—not the end of the line for Christianity, but the end of the line for the track we have been on. We are like people on a subway who have taken a particular train as far as it will go. We now find ourselves sitting in the terminus. We have two choices. We can sit on a train that is going nowhere, or we can disembark and find our way through the confusing labyrinth of the terminus and locate the proper platform to catch the train which will take us farther down the line.
It reminds me of the times I’ve been in Paris and traveling across the city on the metro system. If I want to travel from Notre Dame to Montmartre I can’t do it on one train. At some point I have to disembark, find the correct platform and catch another train. If you’ve never done it before it can be confusing. This may be a prophetic analogy for the confusion evangelicals feel in the first part of the twenty-first century. We’ve reached a terminus. We need to find another platform. We need to catch a new train. And we’re not quite sure what it is. But of this we can be quite certain: the train we have been on will not carry Christianity into the twenty-first century in a compelling and engaging way-no matter how enthusiastically we sing “give me that old time religion” while we sit on a motionless train. What is this train stuck at the station? I think it can be summed up as “Christianity characterized by protest.” We need to face the reality that the protest train has come to the end of the line.
Five hundred years ago Protestant Christianity boarded the protest train. It was a way forward from the moribund corruption of medieval Catholicism. But for all the good the Protestant Reformation did (and reform was necessary) we must understand it for what it was. The Protestant Reformation was an argument within Christendom. It was a debate between Roman Catholics and Protestant Reformers concerning the theology and practice of the medieval church. The Protestant Reformation was a debate among Christians within Christendom. Which is all well and good. But we no longer live in a Christendom where Christianity is the default assumption of an entire age, continent and culture. We now live in an era that is, if not post-Christian, certainly post-Christendom. Yet we make the mistake of trying to engage our post-modern secular culture in the same way that the Reformers engaged medieval Catholicism: through protest. This approach doesn’t make sense and is no longer tenable.
The Protestant Reformation, though it brought necessary reform, also placed us on a trajectory to become angry protestors. Protest is deeply engrained in our identity. Protest is in our DNA. But after five hundred years the protest train has come to the end of the line. Protestant reform is no longer the issue and is not the problem. The problem is our uncharitable and ugly protest attitude. To attempt to engage a post-Enlightenment secular culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ by protesting their sin and secularism is madness—a method guaranteed to fail. It is simply not the way for the church to move forward in the twenty-first century. We are in danger of being reduced to angry protesters sitting in the station on a train going nowhere and shouting at people who long ago stopped listening to us.
If we are going to persuade a skeptical and secular world concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ and make a compelling case for Christianity in the twenty-first century, we are going to have to do so on their terms. We can no longer pretend to be living in medieval Christendom or frontier America. Simply citing chapter and verse and shouting, “the Bible says” is going to be largely ineffective. Telling a secular world that does not possess an a priori acceptance of scripture that Jesus is the way because John 14:6 says so is seen as circular reasoning and unconvincing. In order to persuade postmodern westerners that Jesus is the way we must actually demonstrate the Jesus way as a viable alternative lifestyle—a lifestyle characterized, not by angry protest and polarizing politics, but by faith and hope and most of all by forgiving love.
Because of our tradition of protest inherited from the Protestant Reformation and American Revolution we have an ingrained infatuation for the angry dissenter who can “tell it like it is.” Whether it’s a pundit, politician or preacher, the rant has become something of a contemporary art form. But this kind of populism only plays well with those who already agree with us. It really is preaching to the choir. It’s cathartic and can “energize the base” as we say, but in the end the angry preachers stuck in a paradigm of protest only further alienate an already disinterested culture and deepen the destructive “us vs. them” attitude endemic in American evangelicalism. In our frightened response to uncertainty and a shifting culture, have we embraced an angry “Ann Coulter Christianity” and made apostles of Rush, Beck and Hannity instead of recognizing that they are simply entertainers and profiteers in America’s culture war? If so, we had better disembark the protest train before we are marginalized into complete irrelevance.
Now that we are a full decade into the third Christian millennium it’s time to take stock of a movement that isn’t moving much anymore. How have American evangelicals come to be identified? I dare say we are largely identified by our protest and our politics. We are mostly known for what we are against and what political positions we hold. We have unwittingly allowed our movement to be defined in the negative and to be co-opted as a useful tool in the cynical world of partisan politics.
But don’t we have something better to do? Don’t we have some good news to tell? Isn’t it time we became identified by something more refreshing and more imaginative than angry protest and partisan politics? Might it not be time for a new reformation? And this time, not a reformation in the form of protest, but a reformation in some other form.
The purpose of reformation is re-formation—to recover a true form. What is the true form of Christianity? It is the cruciform—the shape of the cross. The hope I see for Christianity in the twenty-first century is in a cruciform reformation. Instead of using protest as a pattern, what if the church re-formed itself according to the cruciform? What if we responded to hostility and criticism, not with angry retaliation, but in the Christlike form of forgiving love? What if instead of “fighting for our rights” we laid down our rights and in love simply prayed, “Father, forgive them”? Or ask yourself these questions: Does the paradigm of protest look like the cruciform? Does the Christian who wants to protest every perceived slight with an angry petition remind you of the Christ who forgave his enemies from the cross? Does our grasping for power and privilege conform to the image of the crucified Christ? Five hundred years ago Martin Luther and the other Reformers looked to scripture in order to reform the church. I suggest we do the same. And I suggest we center our reading of scripture in the gospels.
The great twentieth century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote, “Being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, the Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.” Balthasar is correct. The cross is the full and final revelation of God. God’s nature of forgiving love is supremely demonstrated at the cross. When Jesus could have summoned twelve legions of angels to exact vengeance, he instead prayed for his enemies to be forgiven. Vengeance had been canceled in favor of love. Retaliation was overruled in favor of reconciliation. Protest had been abandoned in favor of forgiveness. This is the cruciform.
That evangelical Christianity has become identified by protest and politics instead of forgiving love is nothing short of a scandal. The disreputable behavior of celebrity preachers notwithstanding, the greatest scandal in the evangelical church is that we are no longer associated with the practice of radical forgiveness. It should be obvious that forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Obvious by the simple fact that at the most crucial moments the gracious melody of forgiveness is heard as the recurring theme of Christianity. Consider the prevalence of forgiveness in Christianity’s seminal moments and sacred texts: As Jesus teaches his disciples to pray they are instructed to say, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As Jesus hangs upon the cross we hear him pray—almost unbelievably—”Father, forgive them.” In his first resurrection appearance to his disciples Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” And in the Apostles’ Creed we are taught to confess, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Whether we look to the Lord’s Prayer or Jesus’ death upon the cross or his resurrection or the great creeds of the church, we are never far from the theme of forgiveness. If Christianity isn’t about forgiveness, it’s about nothing at all. And I am afraid that if we don’t leave the protest train, we are in danger of making Christianity about nothing at all!
We have come to the end of an era. We find ourselves in a time of transition. Things are uncertain. Old assumptions are being reevaluated. We feel uncomfortable. We are trying to make our way through a confusing metro station where we’ve never been before. We may be tempted to cling to the familiar and stay on the train that has brought us to this point. But that is not the way forward. We have to find the new platform and catch the next train that will carry the gospel into this new century in an engaging and compelling way. The platform is forgiveness. The train is a cruciform reformation. If we can leave the paradigm of protest and position ourselves on a platform of radical forgiveness, and if we can get on board with a cruciform reformation, the twenty-first century will be full of hope, promise and unparalleled opportunity for the church of Jesus Christ.