The idea for the Mainline Evangelism Project can probably be dated to one conversation I had with some of my favorite people. I was leading a retreat for eight smart, loving pastors of growing mainline churches. Off the cuff, I asked, “Hey, what difference does it make in your own life that you are a Christian?” Silence. Loud silence stretched on. And on. I stared around the circle in disbelief. Finally one volunteered hesitantly, “Because it makes me a better person???” That question hadn’t been intended as a pop final. I was not raised in the church, so I have a very clear sense of having made a choice to become a Christian that went against the culture in which I had always lived. I have a good sense of what it is like to be Christian and what it is like not to be Christian. Most Christians and most pastors grew up in the church. They did not change cultures to get there. (From Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese, pg. 14)Clearly we have some theological work before us. I would argue that this necessitates at a minimum a re-appropriation of doctrines of salvation and sin. How real is sin in our life and times? Surely ISIS and Ferguson challenge us with larger sins of violence and racism but the litany does not end there. Honest personal reflection clamors for a self-application that in our comfortable middle class existence we wish to explain away. Likewise our allergy to any talk of hell and damnation leads to a fuzzy notion of what we are saved from (if anything!). The answer of course is sin and death. Yet, the full implications of such in our time are often lost on us. Let’s face it. The biggest sin confronting most of us, the sin we really need to be saved from, is a massive dose of hedonism which hides in the guise of personal pleasure as long as we don’t harm anyone else. It begs all kinds of larger questions. Worship of the self and our own pleasure in any form is an idolatry, and the wages of sin still are death. We need salvation. We need a Lord – ruler – Master who can deliver us from our bondage. In the face of the challenge of “why bother” there is reason for great hope. A light really does shine in our darkness. The light has a name. It is Christ. I close with a perceptive insight offered by Ross Douthant:
I think the Apostle Paul has it right. “The wages that sin pays are death, but God’s gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) More in the next blog on “the first steps at recovering a personal witness.”
The rootlessness of life in a globalizing world, the widespread skepticism about all institutions and authorities, the religious relativism that makes every man a God unto himself – these forces have clearly weakened the traditional Christian churches. But they are also forces that Christianity has confronted successfully before. From a weary Pontius Pilate asking Jesus “what is truth?” to Saint Paul preaching beside the Athenian altar to an “unknown God,” the Christian gospel originally emerged as a radical alternative in a civilizations as rootless and cosmopolitan and relativistic as our own. There may come a moment when the loss of Christianity’s cultural preeminence enables believers to recapture some of that original radicalism. Maybe it is already here, if only Christians could find a way to shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age (Bad Religion, by Ross Douthat, pg. 278-279).