End of the Line

God is shifting the church from one seasonal platform to another. Are we ready?

There is an uneasy feeling in evangelicalism today that everything is changing. Long-held certitudes are being challenged both within and without the Christian faith. The way things were even 10 years ago is no longer the way things are today.

Western Christianity has reached a critical juncture. We have come to the end of the line—not the end of the line for Christianity, but the end of the line for the track we have been on.

We are like people on a subway who have taken a train as far as it will go. The car has stopped, but we have not exited. We’re sitting in the terminus, waiting for the train to start moving again.

We have two choices.

We can stay on the train that’s going nowhere, or we can disembark, find our way through the confusing labyrinth of the new station, locate the proper platform for continuing our journey and catch the train that will take us farther down the line.

Changing Tracks It reminds me of times I’ve been in Paris traveling across the city on the metro system. If I want to get from Notre Dame to Montmartre, I can’t do it on one train. I have to get off, find the correct platform and catch a new train. If you’ve never done it before, it can be confusing.

This could be a prophetic analogy for the heightened uneasiness we’re feeling in this first part of the 21st century. We need to transfer to a new train, and we’re not quite sure which one.

We can be quite certain of one thing, however: The train we have been on will not carry Christianity forward in a compelling or engaging way—no matter how enthusiastically we sing “Give Me That Old Time Religion” as we sit motionless on the track.

It’s easy to be disconcerted by all this. During a time of pronounced uncertainty it is tempting to succumb to nostalgia, to long for some point in the past that we identify as the “glory days.” But we cannot go back.

The healthy practice of recognizing the contributions of the past and building on them is not the same as a regressive attempt to return to a bygone era.

Neither is revivalism the answer. Too often it is a naive attempt to recapture a particular past. It’s like a Renaissance fair—nice entertainment for a pleasant afternoon, but you can’t live there.

An idealized memory of the past is not a vision that can carry us into the future. Nostalgic reminiscing is for those who no longer have the courage or will to creatively engage with contemporary challenges and opportunities. All of this is related to the critical juncture we’ve come to in the course of Western Christianity.

Ride Over! So then, what is this train we’re on that is stuck at the station? I think it can be summed up as “Christianity characterized by protest.” We need to face reality—the “protest train” has come to the end of the line.

It’s been 500 years since the Protestant Reformation—when Christianity first boarded this protest train. At the beginning of the line, it was a way forward from the moribund corruption of medieval Catholicism.

But for all the good the Reformation did (and it was absolutely necessary!) we must understand it for what it was. It was a debate between Roman Catholics and Protestant reformers over the theology and practice of the medieval church, a debate among Christians within Christendom.

And that’s all well and good.

But we no longer live in that Christendom—the one in which Christianity was the default assumption of an entire age, continent and culture. We live in an era that is, if not post-Christian, certainly post-Christendom.

Yet we make the mistake of trying to engage our postmodern secular culture in the same way the reformers engaged medieval Catholicism—through protest. This approach doesn’t make sense and is no longer tenable.

The Reformation, though it brought necessary reform, placed us on a trajectory to become angry protestors. Protest is deeply ingrained in our identity. It’s in our DNA. But Protestant reform is no longer the central issue and is not the problem. The problem is our uncharitable and ugly protest attitude.

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