The signs of the end of Christendom are all around us. The United Church now closes a congregation every week. Many congregations are greying and declining. The headlines are full of angry atheists who make believers feel foolish for their faith. Where I live on the West Coast, people are not angry with Christianity but totally apathetic — so much so that I would describe the good-natured people I bump into as “non-practising atheists.” Given the culture of the day, why would anyone choose to become a Christian? Is Jesus’ message still relevant in this secular age?
In Why Christian?, arguably our finest living United Church theologian Douglas Hall confesses, “The Christendom into which I was born . . . no longer exists — pockets and vestiges of it notwithstanding. Few people in the Western world today are ‘caused’ to be Christians by the sheer accident of birth. Many may start out that way, but fewer and fewer find inherited Christianity reason enough to stay Christian.”
Now some may be totally discouraged by this state of affairs, especially if they grew up in a Canada where “inherited Christianity” was the norm and where being a good Christian and a good citizen went hand in hand. As a Gen X pastor, I still hear about those “glory days” in visits with older adults. “Reverend, I remember when there were 1,000 children in the Sunday school and we had to set up special classrooms in the janitor’s closet just to fit everyone in.” Funny thing, however, is that those of us in leadership from a younger generation don’t remember those days. We recall Sunday school as sitting with a few other kids in a mould-infested, crumbling 1950s-era Christian education wing with a faded blue-eyed and blond-haired Christ poster in the corner, aimlessly doodling on connect-the-dot Jesus colouring sheets to keep us busy. No, Christendom is not a part of our memory, and that may be a huge advantage in the years ahead. Instead of trying to get back to the glory days, we look forward in hope, trusting that just as the Almighty went ahead of the people like a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, so too our triune God is moving forward — the holy ground ahead of us saturated with prevenient grace.
I’m excited about the “refiner’s fire” that God is putting our church through at this time because it forces us to make a decision between an emphasis on institutional survival and partnering with the Almighty to help make disciples for Jesus. We are forced to re-examine concepts that our dodgy missionary past has turned us away from, questions of evangelism and conversion.
Now I know that the language of conversion makes United Church people nervous, but we swim in a culture of conversion. A culture that strives every minute to convert you from Pepsi to Coke, from Gap to Calvin Klein and from Cialis to Viagra is anything but benign. As Bryan Stone reminds us in Evangelism After Christendom, in “every direction we turn, we are offered the promise of ‘makeover,’ whether of body, face, wardrobe, career, marriage, home, personality, or soul.”
In such a context, we need to find an effective witness to “the hope within us.” Why become a Christian today? While there are many philosophical paths and religious influences that beckon in this world, I for one find the vision of the Divine we glimpse in the risen Christ so unbelievably compelling that I will continue to make a case for why becoming a Christian matters. The invitation to dance with the Trinity, to see our lives as created and blessed by the Almighty, to follow a way that’s narrow with a love that’s wide is an intoxicating and totally consuming way of life. To follow Jesus, to rest in his assurance, to wrestle with his teaching, to put in practice Gospel medicine is at the same time wonderful and painful, challenging and encouraging, personal and global.
In the end, we don’t choose to be Christian at all; Christ chooses us. “When were you saved?” the Swiss theologian Karl Barth was asked. “Two thousand years ago, on a hill outside Jerusalem,” he answered. Becoming a Christian doesn’t solve all the problems of the world or make life easy, but it does promise a revelation of God perhaps best summed up by German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Discipleship means joy.”
Rev. Ross Lockhart is the lead minister at West Vancouver United.