The above one hour video gives an excellent overview of how a small movement based on the teaching, miracles and resurrection of a Jewish peasant named Jesus became the largest religion in the world. It’s really hard to believe. The Roman Empire’s official religion was the worship of the Emperor and it experienced Christianity first as a novelty, then a threat, then a rival and finally a force that had to be accommodated. The question many Christians today ask is if that accommodation forever compromised the authenticity and moral integrity of the church, making it unable in its current form to truly live out the teachings of Jesus.
Today at our Bethany Visioning day I will lay out the evolution of the church in 15 minutes (whew!). Many attending today will have known the church as the only game in town. Social needs like finding one’s mate, women’s and men’s clubs, programs for young people (often modelled after our parliamentary system), you could find them exclusively at the church. And while there was almost certainly diversity in the pews as to who Jesus was, did he or didn’t he perform miracles, was the resurrection a metaphor or history, was Mary a virgin, etc…you would never hear such talk in the church. It was orthodoxy all the way and the dominant role for the Minister was teacher, to explain these doctrines, explain prayer, explain the Spirit, and explain the history behind the Bible.
As our world has become smaller and we now are now aware that other faiths exist with competing claims as to what is truth. Many more look at Christian orthodoxy and have questions. Even more still look at the church and see baggage, hypocrisy and wonder how this tainted institution can be an incarnation of anything beyond its own self-interest. Ministers and lay leaders can no longer stick to management and teaching as dominant approaches to the world around them. More and more the church needs to gain much needed credibility and offer mission in areas the world today does not offer.
Almost all of the social needs the church used to exclusively offer are now offered bigger and better by the culture around us. The church cannot compete. But there are gaps in our culture, namely intimate community, connecting to people who are not valued by our culture. Interestingly there is resonance with the early church described in the Book of Acts. Sociologist Rodney Stark in his book The Rise of Christianity describes a movement that had none of the trappings of the Temple or the Roman Empire but it offered something quite unique, a vision of the divine to be found in each person. Moreover this image that we find in the other is revealed and celebrated in community, a community that for the first time includes as equals widows, refugees, the poor, those with diseases.
There were differences. The Roman state would execute those citizens who did not show loyalty to Caesar and some Christian leaders were very suspect. No such threat is made in our country today. Contrary to what you might hear in some circles the church in Canada is not under assault. Rather the church’s dominant image in our culture is one of boredom and judgement. Breaking free from these assumptions means the church has to confront the baggage and once again reach to those on the margins, like the early church. Pope Francis embodies this approach.
Authenticity is the way forward. Church leaders need to walk the talk more than teach, inspire more than explain, live mission more than piety. There is a path forward, it is not as grand but it is just as powerful.