Earlier this week I had lunch with a 69-year-old elder of our church who is part of a small group that’s been studying Brian McLaren’s, A New Kind of Christianity. It was so much fun to listen as he talked about his passion for belonging to an “emergent” (I know that word is way over used) church. Our lunch prompted me to go back and reread parts of McLaren’s book. As mainline churches find themselves in seasons of transition I find his observations encouraging. In one section McLaren writes:
…local churches and denominations, we must acknowledge, play a vital role in the lives of millions of people around the world – very literally, churches save lives.
Simple churches save people from complexity, and complex churches save people from simplicity. Political churches save people from an overly personal religiosity, and personal churches save people from overly politicized religiosity. Exciting churches save people from boredom, and quiet churches save people from hoopla and hype.
The folks who are successfully saved from something by a certain type of church or denomination generally stay in it, along with some others who get stuck there by birth or marriage or inertia or duty. (As a pastor, I always felt sorry for these poor people and wished for their sake – and sometimes mine – they could go elsewhere.) The folks who don’t find any particularly helpful kind of salvation from a church or denomination eventually leave, sometimes stomping out mad, but more often just drifting away bored. Sometimes they find a church that saves them from whatever their previous churches afflicted them with or disappointed them over, but increasingly they just drop out entirely, often swelling the hospitable ranks of the “spiritual but not religious.” Younger generations especially have been choosing the latter option lately; they just can’t figure out what they’re being saved from, or for, enough to stay. When enough church leaders wake up and smell the Ben-Gay, when they realize that their faith communities are shrinking and wrinkling and stiffening, they start to ask the church questions very urgently: What are we going to do about the church? Behind their question is the very real fear that their beloved congregation or denomination could soon find itself on the red side of a spreadsheet and they could find themselves seeking to save the beloved church that has saved them.
A few pages later McLaren offers a great and simple understanding of why the church exists:
…simple to understand but also embarrassingly challenging to do: the church exists to form Christlike people, people of Christlike love. It exists to save them from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less than and other than they were intended to be, gaining the world but losing their souls.
No one wants to waste their life or become less than what they were intended to be. I’m 48 (49 in August) and lots of my friends are hitting 50 this year. I am finding myself increasingly looking toward the next decade and asking: How can I best be a part of forming Christlike people of Christlike love? I’m convinced the answer lies in letting go of our desire to “save the church” and instead focus on following Jesus.