We are warned over and over again that it will be the death of Christianity if we do not. . . well, fill in the blank. Every age and generation has faced its own set of doomsday voices insisting change or die or bemoaning not your grandfather's church. It is that the voices today are more sophisticated than the toga wearing prophets with their hand written placards on street corners. They are smooth as silk and so very convincing in their earnest calls to reform the aging and leaking bark of Christendom. But just as once a generation watched John the Forerunner show up with all the accoutrements of a spokesman for God, we all worry that maybe the naysayers might be correct. The damage done even by stealing our confidence in God's promises and in the efficacy of the means of grace is great damage, indeed.
I get the emails almost daily. Innovate or die. This is not the same world it was and we must change to meet the challenges before us (change doctrine, change liturgy, change methods, change paradigms)... I hear the drumbeat of culture insisting that caring for the poor is more urgent that agitating for the lives of the unborn. I meet people who define themselves by body art, body alteration, or by body mutilation and am told that self-expression is the only real freedom. The right of people to define themselves by their own whims, wills, or wishes has to be affirmed before you can say anything else...
But this is not quite the same as shifting from German to English as our primary language. And this is not about modernizing our language to fit the changes that take place in vocabulary. This is not even about embracing and using technology to aid in the mission. This is about who we are. For the changes presses upon us are far deeper than a surface image but go to the core of what it means to be a Christian. When we depart from the language of sin and forgiveness, cross and empty tomb, death and resurrection, we depart from the Gospel. When we encourage the people who are searching for their best lives now, we are discouraging the Gospel from finding a home in them. When we renovate the faith like we would a kitchen, we are doing more than making changes in appearance. No, the danger before us is changing and dying. And in case you do not believe me, look at those churches that have adapted and changed and made the Gospel simpler or more palatable to the modern ear and mind. Are they growing?
Nearly every heresy began with the attempt to meet the people where they are with a more basic and plainer Gospel. And it shows. In the thirty years the ELCA has been in existence it has bled off two denominations and a couple of million people -- most of whom do not belong to any church anymore. Yet this church has been on the cutting edge of nearly every social movement -- feminism, racial justice, homosexual rights, marriage redefinition, climate change, wealth redistribution, immigration issues, and gender fluidity. It has closed buildings, merged seminaries, and created all sorts of financing plans to justify their apostasy but the numbers will catch up with them soon. Just as it has for the Episcopalians and the not-so-united Methodists. These churches are bankrupt of faith but rich in every trend, fad, or change. How are they doing? Most of them are a mere shell of their once robust selves.
It might be cause for despair. We are surely in the business of killing churches and silencing the Gospel and it might look like there is little hope, little vitality, and little future left for orthodox Christianity. It was G. K. Chesterton who put it so pithily but what he observed has been true long before he coined the phrase. “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died,” G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man. “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”
Structures and institutions will wax and wane but the Church will not die. If needed, and it surely is, God will raise up Christianity from the dust of man's best ideas and innovations. He will rescue us from our need to revolutionize the Gospel, make it more relevant, and make its taste more palatable to a generation tired of truth and weary of doctrine. He will not do it because we ask Him to do it but because He has given His pledge and promise. The gates of hell shall not prevail. We think that this is about the enemies outside of the Church and the powers against Christ but perhaps the most urgent enemies are those who come in Jesus' name saying Lord, Lord. In every age religious leaders and those who are entrusted with the sacred deposit have proven the more formidable enemies of Christ and His Word that endures forever. God does not need our advice or our entrepreneurship. What He does ask from us is faith -- trusting that He will do what He has promised through the means of grace He has given. Who knows? God may raise up this dead and dying Christianity and grow His Church here as she grows on the mission fields far away. We can only pray it will be so and act at least as if we truly believe He will.