For at least 500 years, the Church has concerned itself mainly with the first question, and as a result, we have thousands of denominations and non-denominations each claiming that the others are wrong about such matters as how to baptize, which day of the week to worship, and the correct method of scriptural interpretation. Extreme and bitter arguments, and denominational splits characterize the 20th century. Recent writings of Presbyterians before and after the 218th Assembly have shown that the truth issue still dominates much of our conversation.
I am encouraged, however, by a number of writers to think that this situation may be shifting. Consider Richard Foster1 and Brian McLaren2 who find truth in several facets of the denominational spectrum. Jim Wallis3 and Shane Claiborne4 are goading us to live out the teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, while Alan Hirsch5 and Reggie McNeal6 are insisting that our churches be re-formed so as to do ministry in a changing culture. The many voices of the Gospel and Our Culture Network7 urge us to become missional, other-centered, rather than remain the self-centered persons and churches we have become. The re-emergence of accountability groups and one-to-one meetings dedicated to discipleship are yet another indication of this trend.
I do not think that the search for truth is insignificant. I do think that the bitter debates of the past and present, marked by a noticeable lack of Christian behavior, have led us to our present demise and will keep it going. The early church spent a great deal of time talking and writing about (and most importantly, demonstrating) a new way to live, and their resultant efforts radically impacted the Roman culture. One of today’s catch phrases is “They love Jesus, but not His Church.” Clearly, we are not impacting in the manner of the early Christians.
Jimmy Long8 states that the post-modern generation is much less concerned with the question “Is Christianity true?” than it is with the question “Does Christianity work?” If we cannot answer both questions in the affirmative, by reason of our personal experience, they will not listen – and our demise will continue. Diana Butler Bass9 writes about several mainline churches that are finding that spiritual practices excite their congregations, attract others, and make a difference in their communities.
The early Christian’s creed was generally “Jesus is Lord!” The Council of Nicaea complicated that quite a bit, and the Church has made it more and more complicated over the years. Perhaps it is time for the “How shall we live?” question to come to the fore of our conversation. This will not be easy for the Church. We would much rather discuss our faith than attempt to live it. As G. K. Chesterton has said, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Try we must, however imperfectly. An honest attempt to follow Jesus will transform us, our congregations and will attract other followers.
John Sterner is a Commissioned Lay Pastor in Albion, Mich.
1Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster, Harper
2A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren, Zondervan
3God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, Jim Wallis, HarperCollins
4The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne, Zondervan
5The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch, Brazos Press
6The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, Reggie McNeal, Leadership Network Publications
8Emerging Hope, Jimmy Long, Inter Varsity Press
9Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass, Harper