One does not have to look far and wide to notice complex problems facing the United States.
Schools are struggling, churches in decline. Anger and vitriol at an all-time high. Ever-growing tent cities for the homeless, rising numbers of children in foster care systems, and hospitals stretched to capacity.
It is quite a depressing litany of crumbling institutions in our post-modern, pandemic-strained culture.
Greg Jones, in his book, Christian Social Innovation, describes the challenges of the industrialized West with a looming sense of degeneration, noting that our “older institutions and patterns of life are decaying and dying.”
These decaying institutions indicate the time is ripe for innovative change, for new ways of being in the world.
“Most people are hungry for innovation,” Jones writes. “We are hungry for new ways of living and doing things that can chart better paths forward. We are hungry for innovation because we know that we are facing challenges that are ‘complex,’ problems that are ‘wicked.’”
The church in America has faced many a challenge in recent years and also reflects so much of the apparent disintegration of institutions that are on full display in our country. It is riddled with infighting, scandals and economic inequality, all while being drawn into political and theological fights.
All this distracts us from being in the world as the transformed people of God.
Kavin Rowe in Christianity’s Surprise details the myriad ways in which the early church surprised the world with its view of the human as the imago dei.
Christians in the early church saw others as Christ. They served the poor, outcast and went to the suffering to serve them as if they were the Lord Jesus Christ. They trained for suffering – to meet others in their suffering and to prepare for their own.
It was this understanding that formed the foundation for institutionalizing charity, schools, hospitals, hospices and orphanages by early Christians and thus propelled the young church from a minority religion to exerting great influence in the world.
Their approach to the suffering was countercultural and revolutionary. History must be our teacher.
With the challenges that face the church in America today, it is time to consider how we might rethink and reposition our priorities to bring about maximum change and human flourishing in the 21st century.
The year 2020 brought an unprecedented worldwide pandemic and exposed the painful racial fault lines in our country.
Slavery has been called “America’s original sin” by Jim Wallis and rightly so.
The church has yet to corporately seek repentance and forgiveness for this sin which has impacted generations of Black, white and Indigenous Americans.
While some might say, as did then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that Americans should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, some white Christians are finally beginning to face the painful legacy of their white supremacist heritage.
Eugene Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland responds to this inadequate defense by saying, “Reparations is simple, ‘What will this generation do to repair the damage caused by previous generations?’ We may not all be guilty, but we all have a responsibility.”
The Episcopal Dioceses of Maryland and Texas are working toward implementing reparations funds in the form of scholarships for students, microloans and aid to nursing home residents after years of research on how they had benefited from slavery and racial inequality.
“We wanted something that would actually not just be a drop in the bucket; it’s going to cost us,” Sutton said.
If we understand that the church in America is in a crisis of relevancy and at a pivotal point, and that our cultural institutions are deteriorating and the racial justice issue is of paramount concern for the church and for society, then now is the time to apply Jones’ work on the necessity of Christian social innovation.
While keeping in mind the ways in which the early church revolutionized society through their care for the suffering, the church today must radically address the generational suffering of our Black brothers and sisters and implement innovative efforts at reconciliation.
It is time for bold action on the part of churches across America.
The church cannot ignore these challenges if it wants to survive and be about God’s work of healing and restoration as a witness to the saving power of God’s love in the world.
This is our moment as the people of God to invite the world to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13).
This is our “do-or-die moment” for the American church.
Will we rise to the occasion? We must.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit his or her article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.