Born in the USA
I sat outside under the wide footpath and marquee at an iron table sipping my coffee. I was “hot desking” enjoying the beautiful late spring day – perfect temperatures, sunny and nice coffee. This café is tucked away on a quiet street in the Uptown of New Orléans, the area of the city where I live. This borough is quiet, trees, old houses, often brick streets and side walks. The café a haunt for regulars. I sat there, recognizing some of the people at a table near by. They all speak greetings as they pass me by, but scurry to their regular’s table to share the latest and enjoy a few minutes of friendship together. You know the kind – those friendships that are not necessarily built upon some present affinity, rather the years of shared life, neighborhood, experiences, and interdependence. These are seldom our glue in most US cities, but it is here. It one of the reasons I love it so.
As I worked, I could not help but overhear their raucous laughter, stories, conversing, teasing, and musings over life. It started with one lady telling how, and I quote, “When I was young, I used to be religious…” Another pipes in, “Wait, you used to believe in God? Believe Jesus saved you from your sins? Really? I never knew.” The first continues her story… she discussed fear of death, guilt over sin, parochial school life lessons, etc. Then another chimes in that he too once believed in Jesus and still every few years will go sit in and listen to the priest. A third tisks at the idea of a God… and so forth. They were not toxic, or stung by some horrid experience. In fact, they were so normal. They weren’t young idealistic hippies, nor poor, nor rich, nor far lefties, or far righties. They were not out of the ordinary at all. In fact, I was amazed. I stopped writing and quietly listened – now being the missionary – the spiritual sociologist. Amazing – it was a perfect example of just what I talk about so often, just why we do Communitas, our order to those beyond the reach of the church, where it is so common for most of teh population to be beyond reach by almost all churches through almost all known means.
I even took a snap shot on my phone. You can see their normal, middle aged, from thirty to sixty spread in generations. The are middle class, and you would most agree with them on most fronts.
I went back to work… later their conversation interrupted me once more. They were discussing raising kids and the value to not allow electronics in the kids’ bedrooms: no TV, no computers, etc. They wanted to protect their kids, develop their values, and ensure they were not straying into areas of the cyber world they should not. Interesting – it was the same conversation any Christian parent would have. Hmm. So close, yet, so far.
Christianity has been synonymous with the West, and as it collapsed in Europe, or was realized during the 1960’s across the continent, became synonymous with The USA. Even today, I commonly hear the US referred to as a Christian nation. There are many, many reasons why I find that not true today, or not true any longer. The US and Canada are now one of the major mission focuses for nations outside of the US. That is hard to believe for many Christians, yet the society ills statistics would beg to differ. Even with so many churches, so many Christians, the percentage of the population that follows Jesus has dwindled. Christianity, the US church, simply no longer carries the credibility, deference it once did.
I’m not writing to belabor that point, or to scream alarm. I write it because I see this post-Christendom reality and know that we no longer can assume or presume; we no longer can be the church with the perception that we’re in Christendom.
How does this change how we do and be the church? In Christendom, one operated with a common base line agreement on truth, sin, God, meaning of life, right & wrong, morality, virtues and a presumed common base line of knowledge of a more homogeneous society. That is no longer true – sure influenced by being an immigrant’s melting pot, but more so because, well, things have simply changed. Our “insider language”, our insider’s way of talking to congregations, even a group of all Christians cannot be presumed to “insiders”. The percentage of Christians in the US has declined to maybe an average of 20% of the populations, with the numbers being much lower in the international coastal cities and possibly higher in the heart land. We are following Britain, which follows the continent. Australia and New Zealand are in the same ruts and decline. Canada is right there as well. The European and English speaking world is losing its anchor as the guardians of the Gospel.
What I’m saying is that pastors are and have been trained to care for a Christendom society, where everyone gets it, knows it and simply needs to be shepherded into obedience. Whereas, missionaries approach societies in which they live totally differently. They come in, studying to understand, studying the host culture, coming to know and be respected and valued by that community, and working to make a difference that matters. They then contextualize the hope we have so that a) it can be understood; and b) so the community can understand it in way that they see the hope it brings. They then model it, incarnate the Kingdom values, imitating Christ when things are easy and when it is harder and we instinctively want to demand our rights, something core to almost every person raised in this culture. It is actually in this respect, maybe even harder to imitate Christ here for that cultural virtue.
May I propose we no longer raise up pastors, but missionaries. May we study Patrick of Ire and learn from his example, the movement he began and how it saved Western civilization once before. Maybe, just maybe we can re-imagine being followers in the way of Jesus in the reality in which we live – post-Christian America. Maybe we might imagine a church that is not centered on being American, but on being counter-cultural (not anti-cultural) to society and centered on imitating Jesus, following Him.