The reformation of American Christianity will, of necessity, cause turmoil and turn the culture of many churches upside down. However upsetting this will be, it is a necessary precursor to any possible positive impacts on American culture. Christianity must be made righteous before its light can shine out in the world. The Gospel of John (John 3:19–20) tells us the people of the world love the darkness of evil and resist being brought into the light of the truth. Only a regeneration of our Christian understandings and practices can produce any hope of us lighting up our darkened world.
When Paul and his fellow Christians left Antioch to bring the light of Jesus Christ into their darkened world they were entering a culture that was not like the present secularized, scientific, and technological environment that now surrounds us. It was a culture that much resembles the contemporary condition of American Christianity. The pagan part of Roman culture followed gods that were of human invention, and traditional myths largely inherited from Greek culture, as well as imports from Eastern and Egyptian religions. The irreligious people advocated a number of conflicting philosophies.
I think it would take a long article to fully justify the previous paragraph, so please just accept my thesis that there is a real correspondence between the Roman culture of Paul’s time and our present Christian culture. If you do that, you can see that the book of Acts contains ideas applicable to our current situation.
C. Kavin Rowe in his book, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age writes that the passage describing Paul’s visit to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1–9) sets out three interdependent practices churches must follow if they are going to fulfill Luke’s vision of cultural remediation of a darkened society. These actions are: “the confession of Jesus as Lord of all, the universal mission of light, and the formation of Christian communities as the tangible presence of a people set apart.”
It might be thought all Christian churches would acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord of all that exists in this world and in the world to come. However, what is the reality in our present-day churches. It brings to my mind the parable Jesus told about the tenants of a vineyard that had been left in their care (Mark 12:1–12). The tenants thought they could take ownership of the vineyard because the owner was absent and the people the owner sent to remind the tenants of their obligations had not the owner’s power to enforce them.
The present-day tenants of the Christian enterprise have sought to claim ownership by doing away with the person and teachings of Jesus as set forth in the canonical New Testament and substituting either their own opinions or those of various people, past and present. This is readily evident in people who deny the truth of the New Testament accounts. It is also true of those who remake the gospel in order to attract people to their ministries. It shows up in the portion of Christianity whose image of Jesus is a dead man on a cross. It is also apparent in churches where the empty cross and not God’s love are made the center of preaching and teaching.
Rowe makes the point in his book that when a “moral or metaphysical order is invalidated, a practice whose sense was made in relation to this order literally loses its sense.” What this means, in plain language, is that when Christian churches and institutions move off the bedrock of the being and reality of Jesus Christ their practices of Christianity become nonsensical. This is a strong statement but I suspect it was what had become the situation when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. It may be that many of the people who are leaving the practice of Christianity are sensing at some level this disconnect between the reality of their churches and what Christianity really ought to be.
What will happen when part of American Christianity becomes a mission of light to darkened churches should not be a great surprise. John 3:19–21 (English Standard Version) tells us there will be two reactions. Some people will hate the light and resist it so their evil works will not be exposed. Others, who have having been holding to the truth, will come to the light and be seen as people of God.
19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Judgment is not a popular thought in our culture. I think it is true that some Christians in the past both misunderstood it and overemphasized it. Judgment is not getting zapped by a lightning bolt when we do something wrong. It is choosing darkness when light is available, and having to live with the consequences of that choice. One of the missions of a reformed American Christianity will be to show our nation both the reality of the light and the truly fulfilled lives Christians can live.
According to Rowe, Luke in the book of Acts shows us that Christianity was not to be a reformation of Roman culture but an overturning of it. If we apply this understanding of Acts to American Christianity, we can see that something radical is needed for its reformation. Institutional Christianity swallowed up the converts of the Billy Graham crusades, the Jesus people of the ‘70s, and the men of the Promise Keepers movement. Perhaps a motto for reformation will be “Step out of your Church and enter the Kingdom of God.” This was the essentially the message of the first reformation and I think American Christianity needs as thorough a revision. However, it should be accomplished without all the downsides, such as divisions among the reformers, persecutions, religious wars and so forth.
It is at this point that the formation of tangible Christian communities will be required to show the reality of life in Christ. I think these communities can be virtual (existing on the social media), ad hoc (Christians coming together at particular times and places to accomplish meaningful objectives), and long term (more or less permanent groups of Christians who have chosen to be an expression of the body of Christ). I also think it will need our submission to the leading of Christ and the Holy Spirit as the reformation task is too large and too difficult for our human abilities, no matter how motivated we might be.