Daily Blog Email
The future of the church rests in the hands of a generation of young people who are ready to make it the leading force of justice and social reform in this country, but the church might fail altogether…it’s a big risk…
Last week, Rachel Johnson, Christian Peele, and Kevin Wright, all leaders at The Riverside Church in New York City, wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post called, “This May All Go to Sh*t: An Open Letter to Millennial Church Leaders.” Here’s a bit of the “open letter”:
Dear Millennial Church Leader,
Do you know what the hell you’re doing? Because we’re coming clean and admitting that often times we don’t.
For starters, let’s agree we’re past the whole “millennials vs the church” conversation. “Millennials hate the church.” “Millennials don’t believe in institutions or organized religion.” “Millennials don’t tithe because they’re selfish!” We know the stereotypes and stats. We’re just not interested in engaging that kind of click-bait navel gazing.
What we do want to talk about is the fact that to many of our contemporaries who are leading the exodus away from the church, our decision to move toward it is like jumping on a sinking ship — silly if not suicidal. But making an unpopular choice isn’t what’s scary about this work, is it? What’s truly terrifying is the suspicion we can’t quite shake (or maybe even admit) that our peers might be right to leave. They might be right that this — the entire work and enterprise of the church as we know it — may all go to shit.
Johnson, Peele, and Wright write for the Huffington Post about how they’re biting the bullet and breaking the Millennial stereotypes that persist—that they’re selfish, don’t believe in organized religion, and more.
They’re “past” that, they say. To their friends, they say, it looks like they’re jumping onto a sinking ship, but they’re more optimistic…kind of.
The church leaders go on to share that they are a bit nervous. Is investing in the local church really worth the risk? Writing about their friends, the trio say, “They might be right that this — the entire work and enterprise of the Church as we know it — may all go to shit.”
The true bride of Christ cannot fail anymore than the promises of Christ can be left unfulfilled.
I’m not sure how the people of The Riverside Church define “the church as we know it,” and such a definition is the crux of the problem here. If by, “the church as we know it,” Johnson, Peele, and Wright mean a sort of unbiblically-progressive-justice-organization-with-Christian-flavor, they have reason to fear.
However, inasmuch as we have a biblical understanding of the Church, it will surely not go away.
Ultimately, fearing the death of the church is doubting promises of Jesus.
Matthew 16:16-18 says:
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
An institution that mimics the biblical church but is not built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, or with Christ as its cornerstone, has fear of failure. Paul writes in Ephesians 2: 19-21:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
The people of God have never been, and never will be, an endangered species, no matter how much they fail.
If the Church was constructed on the merits of its parts, it would have failed before it had the chance to disappoint progressive Western Millennials.
The bride of Christ cannot pass away because her life depends on God, not the merits of those who comprise her.
Johnson, Peele, and Wright continue in their letter to Millennial church leaders:
What if God is not done working in this messed up, beat up, washed up vessel? What if, in this new period that is emerging, the church can summon our better angels and move our world a little more toward justice, and mercy, and compassion? What if the church is not dead, but like Lazarus in the tomb, merely asleep waiting to be awoken to a fresh reality made new by the power of God?
Spoiler alert, Johnson, Peele, and Wright: the church cannot summon its better angels.
Vague spiritualities and graceless, good-natured human effort are the foundation and cornerstone of a dying church.
And for goodness sake, the last line of the above quoted portion, “What if the church is not dead, but like Lazarus in the tomb, merely asleep waiting to be awoken to a fresh reality made new by the power of God?”
Forget about the implications of that sentence for the Church for a minute. Someone who thinks Lazarus literally “fell asleep” is someone who has read John 11:11 but stopped before he or she got to John 11:14:
After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Or perhaps they think Jesus was wrong or being figurative when he said “Lazarus has died,” as Riverside trio may be prone to denying the supernatural.
Beyond that, though, even more troubling, is that this rag-tag group of Millennial church leaders in New York City wonder, “What if we resurrected [or awoke?] the Church from its death [slumber?] to a fresh new reality?”
Neither the authors of the Huffington Post article, nor anyone who calls him- or herself a “Christian,” has the ability to bring resurrect or awaken the body of Christ from a death or slumber into which it has not entered. Even if the promises of Christ had failed and the Church was dead, you would not be able to “birth something new.”
Rachel Johnson, Christian Peele, and Kevin Wright can no more resurrect, awaken, enlighten, or otherwise bother the bride of Christ than the Church can “summon its better angels.”
As I continued to read the Riverside church leaders’ open letter to Millennial church leaders, I realized this: they rightly fear the church is in trouble because they wrongly think it is somehow going to correct itself.
The only way in which the bride of Christ doesn’t whore after creation rather than the creator and, ultimately, kill itself, is by the grace of God, not by “summoning better angels” or pulling itself up by its bootstraps.
Johnson, Peele, and Wright’s misunderstanding of the future vitality of the church is rooted in a warped view of God and man.
A church that relies on “summoning its better angels” is one against which the gates of hell will prevail. A Church who relies on the grace and sufficiency of God is one against whom the gates of hell cannot and will not prevail.
If the way in which Johnson, Peele, and Wright hope to keep the church from disappearing is by doing their best and encouraging others to do the same, it will fail because its cornerstone is not Christ, but effort.
Ultimately, Johnson, Peele, and Kevin decide to take the leap of faith—faith in themselves, that is, to summon their better angels.
Here’s more from the letter:
Let’s be clear, we are not interested in being hospice chaplains to the church. We are not here so that there is someone to turn out the lights after everyone has left. We’re here because we want community, a life of purpose, and the ability to make the world a better place through innovation and social consciousness (we are so millennial!). We’re here because, as Will Willimon says, we believe that “the church is necessary because it knows what the world does not yet know: God has reconciled the world to God.” And because maybe, just maybe, what the church can become is so damn good, it’s worth the risk.
Serving the body of Christ is the least risky profession the world has ever known.
Serving the local church, the local outpost of the global Church is messy—don’t hear me saying it’s easy. The local church is where the mess of life collides with the love of Christ.
For one who maintains an eternal perspective, there is zero risk in serving the body of Christ.
Johnson, Peele, and Wright explicit share that what they do not want from the Church is Christ, but his stuff: “We’re here because we want community, a life of purpose, and the ability to make the world a better place through innovation and social consciousness.”
When Christians join the church because of what following Jesus gives them rather than Jesus himself, they slip into idolatry and end up worshiping the creation more than their Creator.
In the end, in the minds of Johnson, Peele, and Wright, the Church will probably “go to shit” because the community, purpose, and justice that fuels their participation in the local church will not fulfill the duty they have asked it to fulfill.
All that Johnson, Peele, and Wright seek in the local church can be present if Christ is absent. There is nothing uniquely Christian about their motivation to “risk” being involved in the local church.
Community, purpose, justice, and more are all glorious gifts for whose who gather together to worship Jesus Christ and proclaim his gospel.
But, a church whose foundation is community and purpose and whose cornerstone is “summoning our better angels” is a church bound to fail.
So, maybe they were right?
Joining a church whose cornerstone is not Christ is the riskiest move we could ever make.