By Tyler McKenzie
I grew up a preacher’s kid in the rural outskirts of a small city. Every time we walked into a restaurant, my dad visited at least two tables to check-in on people we knew from church. Often, someone would pick up our check. The community honored him. Back then, people looked to clergy for care and accepted their moral exhortation.
Gone are those days! Barna president David Kinnaman reported on the clergy credibility crisis in his 2017 book Good Faith. “The public’s respect for pastors, priests, and other faith leaders has significantly declined,” Kinnaman wrote. “Today only one-fifth of U.S. adults strongly believe that clergy are a credible source of wisdom and insight when it comes to the most important issues of our day.”
If you are a pastor, especially in more cosmopolitan areas, you feel this at a deep level. People expect you to preside over their weddings and funerals, but they take the hard stuff to their therapists. Add to that all the leadership scandals headlining the front page, and I can sympathize with the public’s suspicion.
What Do We Do When We Have No Institutional Authority or Cultural Influence?
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says our culture has moved from the “Age of Authority” to an “Age of Authenticity.” For most of human history, people acknowledged that truth, identity, and morality were discovered from the outside-in. We looked to traditional authorities like God, religion, politics, and the wisdom of elders to determine what is best. Today, in our “Age of Authenticity,” we have rejected that. We moralize from the inside-out. “Follow your heart.” “Make your truth.” “You do you.” These are mantras of a generation that believes doing what you feel is being authentic to who you truly are.
These days, the church (i.e., an external traditional authority) is treated like a repressive institution. For example, consider the biblical concept of church discipline. The classic example comes from 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 where Paul instructs the Corinthians to call a church meeting and excommunicate a sinner. Could you imagine a minister doing this today? Calling the church together to publicly discipline a grown man?
I was recently in a meeting with a congregant who felt we should do this to another member. They quoted verses about standing for truth and putting the sinner out. This method of church discipline may have worked in the first century or on the American frontier, where there was only one church in town and no automobiles to drive to the next. Today, if you put someone out, they blast you as judgmental on social media and then drive to the megachurch campus down the street.
I grew up in a time when Christian living was seen as different but tolerable. Today, it is castigated and shamed. A whole brand of spirituality has emerged that is one big impugning reaction to orthodoxy. They don’t organize or envision around belief statements insomuch as they do around disbelief statements. “We don’t believe in . . . Hell, sexual holiness, an inspired Bible. . . .” In their defense, many are deconstructing from a place of deep woundedness.
What Do We Do When Our Decades-Long Methods Lose Their Relevance?
Techniques that seemed to work 10 years ago are losing their appeal. Many of our churches came of age during the “contemporary movement” aimed at “cultural relevance.” Some call it “seeker-sensitive” or the “attractional model.” Back in the 1990s, we started doing skits, making silly videos, and punctuating sermons with practical life-application. We sang Hillsong. We allowed coffee in the auditorium. We loosened our dress codes. We told ourselves, “Church doesn’t have to be boring,” and people found Jesus. As we saw success, we built bigger auditoriums, added screens, and installed moving lights and Jesus smoke. We did secular rock songs. Easter and Christmas Eve became Disney-style productions. “This is not your grandma’s church,” we shouted.
At the time, the novelty shocked people’s sensibilities and opened them to hear God’s Word afresh. But these techniques are not unique anymore. You can go to a work conference and find loud music, a graphics package, a hashtag, a lighting rig, bumper videos, and a peppy speaker. This helps explain the recent movement toward tradition, liturgy, and simplicity among some of our youth.
What Do We Do When the Secular Tools No Longer Work?
To summarize, the church is wrestling with the loss of three secular tools on which we have long depended: institutional authority, cultural influence, and relevant methodology. Secular is not a synonym for evil. Secular is a term used to describe things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred. Every institution (corporate, political, educational, and religious) leverages these three. So, what ought the church do when these secular tools don’t work anymore?
Simple. We should repent for depending on the secular to begin with! We should remind ourselves that effective ministry is built on the spiritual. And we should praise God for a cultural moment where we have no choice but to grasp for spiritual power.
Westerners are haunted with the unshakeable feeling that there is more to life than this. Many have a deep hunger for the transcendent. Look at all the shows that imagine spiritual realities. Consider the massive resurgence of ancient practices like meditation and pilgrimage. Look at the burgeoning industry for life coaches who help you with everything from squaring your diet to centering your soul. People say things like, “I’m spiritual, just not religious. I pray to the universe. There’s something out there.”
For years, the academy has been predicting that religion will disappear in the enlightened West, yet here we are. We cannot exorcise the ghost. We have a better understanding of science and more technology than any civilization in history, but just like the most primitive people praying to the gods of rain and wind, we have an undeniable sense that there is more than what we can see. The next generation is not looking for institutional authority, celebrity swag, cultural woo, or entertaining worship. They are asking, “Who knows God? . . . Can anyone introduce me to the transcendent?”
What Do We Do When We Cannot Cast Out the Demons?
Jon Tyson made a crucial point in his main session at a Spire Conference a few years ago. He was preaching from Mark 9, where Jesus came down from the Mount of Transfiguration and drove out a demon from a boy, after his disciples failed at this. It caused quite a commotion. Later, in private, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”
Maybe we should be asking this same question. Why can’t we cast out the evil spirits that are haunting our kids, families, coworkers, and country? Why can’t we cast out the demons of polarization and political idolatry? The demons of racism and ethnocentrism? The demons of sexual immorality and abuse? The demons of marital brokenness and the devaluation of life? The demons of gun violence and homicide? The demons of anxiety, fear, and depression? The demons of addiction and gluttony, distraction and disillusionment, greed and materialism, and the demons of consumerism and individualism?
Here’s how Jesus answered them: “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Could it be that simple?
What Do We Do When It Seems Like Nobody Cares and Nothing Works?
What do we do? We pray. I have prayed with Christians in the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Uganda, and Palestine. When they pray in those countries, it’s different. If you know, you know. Prayer has a much more prominent place in the Global South and East than it does in the West. This explains why we in the West have no power.
In our churches, we talk a lot about having a relationship with God, but prayer is the key to that relationship. Why is prayer so absent in the gatherings, methods, and strategies of the church? I may be overspiritualizing this, but I wonder what would happen if prayer became central.
We need to be prepared to answer when the lost and searching world asks, “Does anyone really know God? Is there a community that has an other-worldly beauty and power? Can someone introduce me to something more transcendent and eternal than the American Dream?”
I wonder if we can tap into a level of God’s power that has thus far eluded us so we can help meet the challenges of our lost world. Genuine, earnest prayer is the best place to start.