There’s a line in Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis that I’ve been pondering:
“…this pursuit of Jesus is leading us
backward as much as forward.”
I see that there is a lot of truth in this statement.
In my own journey out of institutional Christianity, a lot of what motivated my search for something better was simply a search for relevance in our day. I began to see that the church culture I had become so comfortable with was actually ingrown as its own subculture, and that it was doing relatively little to reach the world around it. I became acutely aware that the main reason people do not attend church is that they do not find it relevant to their lives. I could see that so many larger churches were patting themselves on the back for all the people they were drawing in, yet not stopping to consider that most of those people were already Christians, and many of those Christians had lost their sense of true community and fellowship by the sheer size of the church. And I realized (long before reading Pagan Christianity) that much of what we call “church” isn’t even found in the Bible; so if it wasn’t working anymore, why hang onto it so tightly? Why not at least explore some other methods, something that would adapt itself to the changes in our culture? This is our forward pursuit of Jesus–to find a model that works well in our time.
At the same time, with this migration away from the institutions, there is a strong sense of “returning to our roots.” Returning to a more fluid way of looking at church, meeting in homes, servant leaders rather than “clergy”, having group discussions about the Scriptures rather than just having someone preach a “sermon”–these are more what the early church looked like and how it functioned. Some are investigating the Jewish roots out of which our faith was born, and finding a more holistic, organic spirituality in which God is integrated in the whole of of our lives rather than just our “spiritual life”, effectively eliminating the boundary between sacred and secular. These are examples of how our pursuit of Jesus is leading us backward.
Amazingly, this forward and backward movement is all happening at the same time. And it really needs to. While it is definitely a healthy move for the church to return to its roots, we simply cannot return to being the first-century church. Why not? Because we live in the 21st century. In our global, technology-rich culture, there are things we do and way that we relate that have absolutely no precedent in Scripture (my sitting here blogging on the Internet is one of those very things). Returning to first-century practices just for the sake of doing it, in my opinion, is simply more religion (just older). And the Jesus we follow didn’t stay in the 1st-century; He’s here, now, reaching out to the people around us in ways they can understand. We need to be sensitive and aware of how people think and relate here in our time–and we need the creative heart of God to give us great new ideas for how to reach them with Jesus’ love.
The simple beauty of the Christ-centered life is that it can extend across cultures, across generations, and across time, and be relevant in any setting. Religion can’t easily cross those boundaries, but simple Christ-following can. We do not need to be a 1st-century church; we need to be a 21st-century church that is faithful to 1st-century principles. I believe it’s in this healthy tension between past and present that Jesus is forming His future bride.