–Daniel S. Ferguson
Several people have been correct to point out that, when it comes to church, I criticize first and most often. I must confess that this is natural for me. I’m a born analyst; it comes with the territory. Truth be told, it’s a curse. I’ve never been able simply to relax, turn off my critical eye, and just enjoy church. It’s not within my ability to do so, most of the time.
But every once in a while, every so often, it happens. The ARC Conference 2017 was…not one of those times. My critical inner voice was on full blast, hence my two previous posts. But thankfully, my penchant for piercing through the obvious netted me something positive to report from ARC, and it’s this: a big thing is about to happen in American Christianity. We might be–just might be–on the verge of finally, finally, getting it.
For decades we’ve (largely) said the right things and done the right things and believed the right things. But where we failed was that we didn’t love the right things. We practically perfected preaching, but it was too often either truth without grace or grace without truth. We served our communities hard and well, but it was too often in avoidance of people groups that we thought of as problems instead of, as Steven Furtick so aptly pointed out, thinking of those communities as the harvest. We committed ourselves to understanding what we believe and why we believe it, but in doing so created such a competitive church culture that the answer “Christian” is no longer satisfactory when we profess our faith.
But I think–I hope–that’s changing.
While I was infuriated by the celebrity of the pulpit and by the hundreds of millions that will be spent on church buildings perhaps unnecessarily just in the coming year, my critical eye caught something beautiful: a room full of preachers, pastors, and planters who might finally be both willing and able to address the grey area of American Christianity, that zone between faith and doubt.
Granted, these men and women are true believers. They’re not, at least visibly, in that grey zone. But from listening to them talk, I think the data has finally caught up to them that their primary evangelism, in most places, isn’t so much to people who have never been to church as it is to people who have quit church. And that’s a whole ‘nother ball game.
But it’s one I think these leaders are finally ready to play. They are interested in pastoring their current flocks, that’s true, and they want to reach the totally unchurched, but they are finally discussing out loud that there are people in between. And unlike in the past, these people aren’t being condemned as “lukewarm” turncoats; they’re being addressed as part of the mission of love, grace, and truth.
And that’s a game-changer. Even with just the 150ish churches ARC will plant in the next year, and even with just the 600ish churches it already has in the field, and even if ARC is the only one that’s on this path, I think this change marks a major shift in American Christianity. I think a new, very strange and uncomfortable, kind of revival is on its way. It won’t be one necessarily where the lost come to Christ, but where the wanderers come back to Christ. The thought of that makes me very hopeful.
At this conference, I said something to someone that surprised them a lot. It’s something I’ve said before, often to cocked eyebrows and turned heads: “I could give up on faith and still not give up on the church.”
That doesn’t make much sense to most people, but let me explain. Even though the church annoys me, even though it infuriates me, even though it so often rejects me, I’m still irrevocably in love with it. I could no more leave it than I could my wife. And just like with my wife, the love is rather inexplicable. I don’t have a sound logical reason for loving the church; I just do. And this unsourced love is the closest I’ve ever been to understanding God.
I have flirted with leaving the faith before, but it has been church that has brought me back to faith, and not the other way around. For me, and for so many others, the two are linked, and I think they’re linked in the progression of church to faith, not faith to church. This is why I invest so heavily in the church vision of people being able to “belong before they believe” because it really is almost impossible for people to believe before they belong.
Such is the case with me. For better or for worse, I belong at church. I don’t really even know why, but I’m supposed to be there. Even when it hurts. Even when it makes me angry. Even when it does the wrong thing. I’m supposed to be there.
I suppose it’s selfish, but I need a place that I can think of as spiritually home, even throughout the fluctuations in my faith. It’s not just important to me that I can belong before I believe; I need to know that I could still belong even after I believe, should that ever happen. And there are so many people just like that.
That’s what I think these pastors, preachers, and planters have begun to understand and minister to. That’s a huge change that will bring about a huge result. I just know it.