Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Rise of the "Churchless Christian"

In No Church? No Problem, Kevin Miller at Christianity Today reviews George Barna's newest book called Revolution. Quote!

Storm the barricades! According to researcher George Barna, we're in the midst of a "spiritual revolution that is reshaping Christianity, personal faith, corporate religious experience, and the moral contours of the nation."

Who's leading the coup d'├ętat? Some 20 million people, dubbed Revolutionaries, who live "a first-century lifestyle based on faith, goodness, love, generosity, kindness, and simplicity" and who "zealously pursue an intimate relationship with God."

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Revolution is passionate for the church, so long as it's the capital-C church, the universal group of believers in Jesus, the church I can't see and don't have to relate to. When the Reformers distinguished between the local and universal church, they did so to point out that not every church member had justifying faith. But they insisted that every believer be immersed in a local congregation, where the gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments rightly administered. The notion of freelance Christians would have made them spit out their beer.

Barna anticipates this criticism and replies: "The Bible does not tell us that worship must happen in a church sanctuary and therefore we must be actively associated with a local church." But to say the New Testament does not prescribe a form for worship (though its assemblies somehow all gather on the Lord's Day to read Scripture, pray, prophesy, and share the Lord's Supper) is not to say the New Testament allows us to disregard the church.

Not that I'm blaming Barna. His book merely reveals every thin spot in evangelical ecclesiology. We flamingly disregard 2,000 years of guidance under the Holy Spirit. We elevate private judgment above the collective wisdom of apostles, martyrs, reformers, and saints.

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Still, Revolution's emphasis on personal choice would make a marketer rejoice and an apostle weep. Barna expects to see believers "choosing from a proliferation of options, weaving together a set of favored alternatives into a unique tapestry that constitutes the personal 'church' of the individual." The phrase "personal 'church' of the individual" must be the most mind-spinning phrase ever written about the church of Jesus Christ. Could it be that we evangelical Protestants, who have done more to fragment Christendom than any other group, are now taking that to the logical extreme: a church at the individual level, each person creating a personal "church" experience? At any other point in church history, "personal church" would be nonsensical. In today's America, it's the Next Big Thing.

Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam argued compellingly in Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2001) that since 1960, Americans' involvement in social groups and churches has dropped 25 to 50 percent. So we can't help but wonder if this same societal withdrawal from institutions is now bringing us a do-it-yourself church. As Roger E. Olson writes in The Mosaic of Christian Belief (InterVarsity, 2002): "Nowhere in the Great Tradition of Christianity before the twentieth century can one find the uniquely modern phenomenon of 'churchless Christians.'"