Lately I’ve been thinking about a passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus reminds Peter that our youthful vigor and self-determination will always fade. “Very truly, I tell you” Jesus says, “when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
This selection comes in the so-called restoration of Peter, where Jesus forgives Peter for denying him three times during his passion. It represents Peter’s re-commissioning for ministry and reinstatement as “the rock” on which Jesus will build the post-resurrection church. The Johannine author notes that Jesus shares this wisdom by way of preparing Peter for the stark reality that he (Peter) will eventually be crucified for all of his efforts toward building the church. It turns out that Peter is not only fallible, he is fated to endure the same death as Jesus. “Follow me,” Jesus says to Peter.
“Oh, jeez, thanks,” Peter must’ve thought, as the cock crowed again somewhere in the back of his mind.
We like to say in this time of institutional religious decline that we are a church that believes in death and resurrection—that death and decline hold the seeds of new life and new expressions of church. And that sounds great. On paper.
But, let’s be honest, we don’t really want to die. Instead, we seem fairly content just muddling along with a kind of chronic illness—not terminal…yet…but also not getting all that much better. If we’re honest, we don’t think the church really must die to live again. It just needs to be more missional, innovate a little more, or recite novenas repeating the sacred words “social media” and “millennials” a few hundred times. (This, as one of my parishioners described his failing heart condition to me, is like living in the fourth quarter just trying to make it into overtime.)
In the church, we assume that we will be the ones to determine and define what church and the Christian faith will look like in the 21st century. We have conferences on rethinking, reimagining, and innovating, all of which are good things. However, there is an underlying and flawed assumption that the church exercises some measure of control over that process. We somehow maintain the notion that Christianity is the sole property of the church.
But in fact, Christianity is larger—much larger—than the church. What’s more, faith and spirituality are bigger yet.
In so many words and ways, we say to what we imagine as a waiting public, “We are working on it. We’ll let you know when we figure it out.”
Well, the public is not waiting. And while we are working on it, it turns out that they are figuring it out themselves. Indeed, although religious affiliation continues to decline, faith and spirituality remain strong, and millennials in particular have taken a D-I-Y (do-it-yourself) approach to religion and spirituality.
Increasingly, these questions of faith, the future forms of religion, and theological reflection that is highly engaged with the world as it is lived today is happening across digital gathering spaces. Just recently the hashtag #LordJesusChrist was trending on Twitter, and not too long before the hashtag #EmptyThePews as a critique of conservative evangelical support of the Trump administration. These were conversations that some church members and leaders were a part of, but only a part of. And leaders were by no means in control of whatever it was that was going on over on Twitter—as is always the case at the intersection of religion and new media.
Case in point: the social media backlash against Joel Osteen and his unwillingness to open the Lakeside Church arena for refuge during the flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey. Trust me, if being a formal leader in the church meant you had control of messaging about your ministry in the world, that would surely not have happened.
But neither would the organic outpouring of support, prayers, and financial donations in the wake of our recent strings of natural disasters, such as Houston Texans football player J.J. Watt’s fundraiser raising some $37 million for those devastated by Harvey (providing more moral leadership than Joel Osteen could seem to muster in a time of crisis), or reconnecting families and advocating for assistance for Puerto Rico, or responding to the mass shooting in Las Vegas.
These and other social media tempests and conversations are indicative of the changing and fluid American religious landscape, in which glacially moving church institutions fall further behind our digitally-integrated culture, in which people respond, react, and gather in real time across digital and local spaces.
As Jesus prophesied to Peter, the ascendant post-WWII American church once used to fasten its own belt and go and do whatever it wished. Now others are taking it where it very often does not wish to go. Quite often those are good places for the church to explore, but we don’t recognize them as such because we didn’t choose those places. Therefore, they lack the imprimatur of the institutional church.
Recently, my church was awarded a Zoe Project grant for young adult ministry through Princeton Theological Seminary. As part of the project, we, along with leaders from the eleven churches that were awarded the grant participated in a learning expedition to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where we visited many different businesses, non-profits, ministries, and community movements. From urban farms to graffiti art projects to technology companies to SoulCycle to dinners groups about loss and grief to non-profits that teach about healthy foods and even a couple church-based missions, we recognized them as ways of being church.
In San Francisco, for instance, we learned to bake sourdough bread in a working bakery in the Mission. Once the bread was ready, we pulled out a bottle of wine from the neighborhood grocery store we had visited earlier that day and had communion with the staff in the back of the café. We recognized that that bakery and cafe was already holy ground. The people were already steeped in the bread of life. Our observance of communion was our way of participating in that mission and honoring the staff and their work.
The value of the church’s presence in digital and local gathering spaces is not to find conversations about Christianity and co-opt them, but to listen and nurture relationship and conversation with those that are moving faith forward, who are reshaping Christianity apart from the institutional church.
Perhaps being led where we do not want to go—or didn’t even think of going—is not such a bad thing after all. In any case, as Jesus points out to Peter, it’s inevitable.