In her Dec. 21 Opinion article, the Rev. Nicole Grant Yonkman expressed angst over being part of a church that "celebrates its heyday in a time before I was born."
As the first baby baptized at the very first service of the Mercer Island United Church of Christ in 1964 (a congregation outside Seattle), I share both her angst and her enthusiasm for creating an "exit strategy" to this incessant longing for yesteryear.
Thankfully, I believe we now live in a time in which we are experiencing an enormous shift in the Christian faith – one that is moving us into both an exit and a profound emergence.
We are "exiting" from the expectation that we can do the same old 1950s (or 60s or 70s) things and expect different results. We are "emerging" into … well, that's a little harder to define, but I'm going to give it my best shot.
I believe that, at least in the context North American Christianity where I have the most direct experience, the following are frequently overlooked markers of where Christianity is exiting and what it is emerging into:
• Increasingly, Christians are letting go of their traditional insistence that the Christian path is the only legitimate path to God and grasping more strongly their traditional insistence that God is greater than our imagination can comprehend. By letting go of claims to exclusivity, Christianity is emerging as a faith in which its adherents are more openly joyous about celebrating their distinctive path, partly as a result of being more humble and helpful about the claims they make about others.
One of many recent examples of this emergence is Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion campaign, in which representatives of all the major world religions have joined together in reclaiming the centrality of compassion in their particular faiths while celebrating its centrality in the faiths of others.
• Increasingly Christians are letting go of biblical literalism and notions of inerrancy, which - arising within the past 300-year blip on the two-thousand-year horizon - is non-traditional to Christianity. In so doing, they are both reclaiming and expanding upon more ancient, non-literal approaches to scripture.
By taking the Bible non-literally, Christians are increasingly able to take it seriously. The so-called "emergent church" movement, which started predominantly among disaffected Christian evangelicals and is marked both by their non-literal and increasingly social-justice-oriented commitments, offers a significant case-in-point in addition to the obvious mainline examples.
• Increasingly, Christians are letting go of their over-easy assumption that the Genesis command to "subdue and dominate the earth" means that we can do whatever we want with God's creation. In so doing, Christianity is emerging as a faith that both believes in, and acts upon, principles that affirm the ecological interconnectedness and harmony envisioned by Genesis 1.
In the last decade, the exponential growth of environmental organizations and initiatives founded or supported by Christians – both liberals/progressives and conservatives who increasingly work in partnership with each other – is a hopeful sign of this emergence.
• Increasingly, Christians are letting go of empty worship conventions and grasping hold of more diverse, creative, engaging approaches, often making strong use of the arts. This does not mean that worship is necessarily trending in a more "contemporary" direction. The fact that such renewal is slowly taking place even among churches who offer to more "traditional" approaches – aided by thriving centers like the Calvin Institute for Worship and the Arts – is an indication that this trend is deeper than one might suppose.
On a recent trip to Minneapolis – a bastion of conventional mainline worship – I was struck by the fact that, within just a few square miles, one could find several examples of churches who are doing worship "outside the box" (including churches with non-traditional names like as Solomon's Porch, Spirit Garage, and House of Mercy). Yet one could also find churches like Plymouth Congregational Church that have brought "traditional" worship into the very peak of its form and make vibrant use of the arts throughout their congregational culture.
• Increasingly, Christians are letting go of a narrow definition of "God given" sexual orientation and gender identity, and grasping the fact that God has made us humans more diverse in this respect than we have realized. In so doing, Christianity is emerging with increasing confidence as a faith that affirms the dignity and worth of all people.
Of course, recent setbacks to same-sex marriage initiatives around the U.S. – catalyzed in part by religious groups who have not embraced this emerging paradigm – may seem to argue against this claim. Yet the fact that same-sex marriage is now conceivable from a legal, political and even a religious standpoint in a growing number of congregations and denominations, is a step forward that we would do well neither to minimize nor forget.
While it will be years before some approximation of complete LGBT equality becomes the norm in church and society, the fact that we UCCers can no longer claim to be part of the only, or the largest, Christian denomination to make significant strides in LGBT equality, including affirming the ordination of LGBT people, is important and worth celebrating.
These are just five of twelve significant signs that give me hope that Christianity in North America is emerging into a faith that I can not only believe in, but offer my life and love to support. While there is not space to develop the other seven signs here, I write about all twelve in my book, The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christian Faith (Jossey-Bass, 2006.)
A wise, elderly college professor of mine used to insist repeatedly that, "The 'good old days' were really the 'bad old days,' and the only 'good old days' we can hope for are the ones we're actively creating right now." The "good old days" are upon us. To me, the question is not, "Are they here?" but "Do I have eyes to recognize what is emerging, and hands to join in the harvest?"
The Rev. Eric Elnes is Senior Pastor of Countryside Community Church (UCC) in Omaha, Neb. He is the author of several books and publications including an article on worship innovation in the most recent issue of UCC Musicians Network Magazine and a book on Incarnational Worship (Igniting Worship: The Seven Deadly Sins [Abingdon, 2004]).
In 2006, Eric helped lead a 2,500-mile walk from Phoenix to Washington, DC, to promote awareness of progressive Christian faith and practice, and meet with Christians at the grassroots to hear their hopes and dreams for the future of faith in America. His journey was the subject of a feature-length film, The Asphalt Gospel as well as a his most recent book.