American Christianity is fact due for a revival

The question is what that means.

The Atlantic recently published an article by Tim Keller on February 5, 2023 titled “American Christianity is due for a Revival.” It’s behind a paywall, so I was only able to read the first couple of paragraphs, but that was enough to see where he was headed.

The subtitle of his article was “Our society is secularizing, and Christianity seems to be in long-term decline. But renewal is possible.”

In the first paragraph he paints a picture of going to various locations and seeing how churches are being changed into secular establishments, often representing what I assume Keller would consider to be the evils of secular culture – it always seems to center around individual morality and Puritanical morals around sexuality. I could be wrong on this of course – I’m basing this off of the two paragraphs I’m reading, but he makes himself pretty clear in those two paragraphs that “repurposed” church buildings, regardless of their purpose, is a bad thing.

I’m going to be blunt – when I read this, what I hear is someone who is enthralled with nostalgia for church the way is was, or the way it was imagined to be in the past, or a favored way to have remembered it in the past. Nostalgia is getting caught up with the idea that the best days are in the past.

Again, I didn’t have access to the full article, so I could be way off here. And I apologize if I am. Maybe Keller took a hopeful turn in his article. He did talk about the church needing a revival after all. And I agree with that. The question is what kind of revival. I’m guessing he probably talks about that in the article. Knowing what I know about Keller’s theology, I have a pretty good guess on what that means. And I probably am not going to agree with him.

At any rate, I’ll grant him that our society is secularizing. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing on its own. I don’t see the secularization of our society as a threat. A far greater threat is the more fundamentalist mindset that our society is facing. A more authoritarian outlook that doesn’t believe in actual freedom. This is a far greater threat to Christianity than a secular society. A secular society makes room for people of various belief systems after all. A fundamentalist/authoritarian mindset doesn’t. This mindset about absolutes. You are either for us or against us. You are right or wrong. There is no middle ground. It’s 100% or 0%. It’s black or white. There is no gray. It’s a simplistic mindset that allows for no complexity or perplexity. It disregards the possibility of unity among people who are different but show up in a diversity of characteristics. This mindset can only see the image of God when everyone is the same. A broader mindset would appreciate and yearn for more diversity of language, skin tone, culture, sexuality, gender, etc. because in that diversity, it would allow the community to experience and encounter a greater range of the image of God – we would actually be able to see more of the image of God, rather than just a small slice of the image of God when everyone is the same. See the difference?

When the Puritans left England in pursuit of “religious freedom,” they first went to the Netherlands in the early 1600’s. They left England because they couldn’t force the Church of England to adopt their way. So they left. The Netherlands was known as a place of true religious freedom – where people of all faiths could practice in peace without fear of reprisal. The Puritans didn’t like that. Let me repeat that. They didn’t like religious freedom. They wanted to impose their religion on others and force others to follow their beliefs. They weren’t interested in actual religious freedom. And the Netherlands wasn’t interested in having Puritanism imposed on them. That went against religious freedom and what it means. So the Puritans left again. And they went to the “new world” where they set up the Plymouth colony and could impose a theocracy-style colony. There wasn’t religious freedom in this colony. They didn’t believe in religious freedom. They believed in imposing their beliefs on others and those within their domain following the rules without question or suffering the consequences.

American Christianity does in fact need a revival. The revival needs to ditch the fundamentalist/authoritarian mindset. It’s been attached to Christianity for far too long. It’s done far too much damage and pain to too many people. And it doesn’t work. And it goes against what Christianity is about ultimately.

Christianity, I think, is best summed up in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 –

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 

Secularization isn’t a threat to Christianity. It’s an opportunity for Christianity to practice what it has always been at its core – invitational, not forceful. Relational, not about overbearing rules. Freeing, not authoritarian. Humble, not dominating.

Christianity’s revival won’t be about church buildings or the church’s re-centering in the culture – as if we’re going to re-create the past. We aren’t – thank God. The best days of the church are not in the past. If the best days of the church are in the past, then it isn’t Christianity at all. It’s something else. Because Christianity is about hope. And hope is forward and future oriented. Our hope is in Jesus. The best days of the church are in the future. Christianity’s revival is about the immaterial things that actually matter. It’s about the Body of Christ. It’s about Shalom – wholeness, completeness, enough, peace. It’s about seeing the image of God in others. It’s about participating in the Kingdom of God and inviting others into this as well. It’s about the being a beloved community. It’s about embodying Christlikeness.

In short Christianity’s revival isn’t about external things (like church buildings) and how we are going to attach ourselves and our identity to them. It’s about recognizing how the Spirit is within us – individually and corporately – and how that embodying Spirit transforms us to live out the faith that Jesus has given us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

That’s a Christian revival I can get on board with. That’s a Christian revival that is transformational. That’s a Christian revival that others will want to know about and be a part of. That’s a Christian revival that is congruent with Christ and all that he is about. That’s a Christian revival that matters.

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