*We know how to be Christian when we are poor, under-educated, and culturally marginalized, but we struggle to be Christian when we are affluent, educated, and have a full place in the culture.
These over-simplifications speak volumes about the state of the church in the Western world. Simply put, today we are better at dealing with someone already sitting in our church pews than we are at getting anyone there in the first place. Our churches are strong on maintenance, weak on being missionary.
This is everywhere evident. We look at our churches today and we see so many wonderful things: faith-filled individuals, good liturgies, good preaching, good music, wonderful programs sensitivity to justice, faith-sharing groups, excellent theology, ecumenical openness, soul-work in our renewal centres, beautiful church buildings, and an ever-increasing lay involvement. It has been centuries since we have done so many things so well and maintained church life with such quality and balance.
But we see something else too, less positive: One-half of all baptized Christians rarely enter a church, our churches are greying, the culture is increasingly marginalizing the church, and, most serious of all, too often we cannot pass on our faith to our own children. Even as so many good things are happening within the church we are losing ground. The crisis, it seems, is not in the area of parish program, liturgy, or theology but in the area of the missionary dimension of Christianity. We know how to run a church, but we don’t know how to found a church.
What’s needed? We need to become more deliberately, reflectively, and programmatically missionary within our own culture, to our own children. We need to send missionaries into secularity in the very same way as we once sent them off to faraway countries. The church in the secularized world needs a new kind of missionary.
What will this new kind of missionary need to bring? Before anything else, real faith. What we need are men and women who can walk the workplace, the marketplace, the academy of learning, and the arts and entertainment industry, and radiate a faith that is not infantile, over-protective, paranoid, colourless, or compromising. We need men and women who are post-affluent, post-sophisticated, post-liberal, post-conservative, and post-fearful in their faith. Their faith needs to have a double strength: It must be strong enough not be defensive in the face of secularity, even as it has the capacity to sweat the blood of self-renunciation rather than compromise the great future for present consolation.
Beyond personal faith, the missionary to secularity will need these things too: A new language for a post-ecclesial generation, a new gospel-artistry to refire the romantic imagination of a secularized mind, a new way to connect the gospel to the streets, a new way of moving beyond personal gift and charism to the building of lasting community, a new way of connecting eros and spirituality, justice and piety, energy and wisdom, and a new way to combine God’s consolation with prophetic challenge. No easy task. In all these areas we are, right now, still searching for new ways.
Perhaps the person we can look to for guidance is Henri Nouwen. To the extent that our age has had a missionary to secularity, he fits the bill. His life and his writings touched people in all walks of life and not just inside church circles. His approach was deliberate and faith-filled, he was trying to speak to the heart of secular culture from the perspective of the gospel. Slowly, through many years of writing, he developed his own language. He re-wrote his books many times over in an attempt to be simple without being simplistic; to carry real feeling without falling into sentimentality; to speak the language of the soul without falling into psychological jargon; to be personal without being exhibitionist; to put forth Christ’s invitation and challenge without being preachy; to challenge towards community without being churchy; and to offer God’s consolation without falling into mushy piety.
He didn’t always succeed, but he did it better than the rest of us. And more so even than the popularity of his writings (that unique appeal and effectiveness of the language he developed) Nouwen is a model to us in terms of the quality of his faith. He walked inside secularity with a visible faith, raw, without fear and without compromise (albeit not without tears, heartache, and breakdown). In the end, what shone through was faith, his belief that God’s existence is real and is the most important thing of all.
We need to learn from people like him, learn the difference between providing church-maintenance and being missionaries. We know what to do with people once we get them into a church but we must learn again how to get them there.