I recently read Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass, in which she argues that the Church in the United States is losing its hold on the imagination of its people. She offers evidence that mainstream Christianity in America is entering into a period of sharp decline, mirroring the decay of Christendom in Western Europe in the last century. Yet, while she has dire predictions about the future of the established Church, she is optimistic about faith in America.
Bass points out that in recent centuries the Church has operated primarily on the basis of accepting propositional statements (e.g. "Jesus is fully human and fully divine"). That is, to belong to the Christian community, you must first believe certain things about Jesus. A transformed life was beneficial, of course, but the act of accepting certain theological statements was the most essential element of Christian identity.
Bass is convinced that this emphasis on right belief no longer works in our present cultural context. Instead, she argues that the health of the Church depends on reversing the established dynamic of "believing, behaving, belonging." While propositional beliefs about God and Jesus are ultimately essential, they are not the first order of business. For this generation, the hierarchy of needs is different.
These practices were a gateway for me into discovering the intellectual contours of my faith. As I waited in the silence, studied the tradition, learned to pray and began to read the Scriptures, my life began to change - and so did my ideas about God! I started learning about who Jesus is, allowing him to speak to me through the Scriptures and through his Spirit. No one was forcing me to adopt a party line, yet as I continued to engage in prayer and study, I found myself growing into a deeper appreciation for orthodox Christian faith.
Here in our context at Capitol Hill Friends, this might look like an emphasis on naming spiritual gifts and nurturing spiritual practices. By acknowledging the spiritual gifts that God has given to our community, we nurture belonging. A person does not have to believe that Jesus is divine before we can recognize that God has given that person a gift of healing, or administration, or knowledge. And by naming these gifts, we can invite each one, no matter where they are at in their journey, to walk deeper on the path of faith. We can provide resources for adopting spiritual practices that help sustain us in our personal lives, and in the work that we do in the world.
How does this resonate with you? What is your own experience of belief, behavior (practice) and belonging? How do you think that we can do a better job of inviting seekers into our Christian communities, teaching spiritual practices, and encouraging an ever-deepening engagement with our shared faith?