Faith Progression in the 21st Century
Believe – Belong – Become.
These three words are prominently displayed on the attractive new sign, just below the church’s name. This sign, in front of the new church building, is located on a busy highway near where I live. When I saw it for the first time last week, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There it was, right there on a sign for all to see. Not three weeks before, no less than 3 clergy cohorts discussed this very progression. Our topic was how spiritual seekers enter into faith and church life in this Post-Christian, Post-Modern world in which we find ourselves.
We know the typical way people enter faith and church life in the 20th century; in a Christian culture during the Modern Period. They first give intellectual assent to a body of beliefs (theology and doctrine). Then pilgrims “belong” to a church as members. Then we work to develop them as believers, growing and maturing in the faith. This linear process was more normative than not up until…well, until it was no longer normative.
Now, in this Post-Christian culture, with its Post-Modern perspective, in this 21st century…now this linear progression is not the norm anymore. First of all, people wonder why we would expect them to believe this theology and doctrine we say is true, just because we say it is so. What makes it more true than all the other faith options who claim the same level of truth? The cultural norms which backed up our theology and doctrine in the 20th century are no longer present. Rarely will 21st century spiritual seekers begin their entry into the church by believing first. They have not been prepared by their families, nor by their culture at large for belief, like was common thirty years ago.
So, how do post-modern spiritual seekers enter church life? Is there a typical or normative route? Can we line up the words like we used to, with any credibility or reliability? Yes and no. The verdict is still out on what is now normative, since we are barely into this new century. But a trend seems to be emerging.
Experience – Belong – Become – Believe. I heard tell of a large church who needed a new drummer for its praise band. They were focused on quality, so they hired a gifted musician. This young adult was not a Christ-follower, but was open to playing for worship services after he completed his sets at clubs on Saturday nights. Predictably, after about a year, he became really tired….burning the candle on both ends of Saturday night. In conversation with his wife, he shared his need for a rest, intending to quit one of these gigs. She quickly said, “Quit the clubs.” He was surprised at her suggestion, since she had no personal investment in the church job (not a Christ follower). “Why,” he asked. “Because I like you so much better since you started playing in that praise band.” After brief reflection this young man responded, “You know…I think I’m one of them now. I think I’ve become one of those Christ-follower people.”
First post-modern people need to experience Christ through real live people before they can move toward belief. When they experience this genuine faith, observing Christ-followers giving themselves in love for the good of the world, then they think there may be something to this. Then they are interested in participating with this group. After experiencing this group actually loving one another (Great Commandment), then they come to identify with the group (belong). This genuine love they experience is convincing; leading to a growing awareness that something real is happening here. Then these Post-Modern seekers find they too are growing a bit more loving, authentic, and genuine. Thus, the opportunity to believe unfolds. “Based on this experience, on belonging with this group (church), and becoming a different person, then I am willing to risk that Jesus Christ is real and trust these beliefs (theology and doctrine). The outcome is the same (faith in Christ), but the predictable pathway we plaster on signs is all a-jumble.
Wow. What are the ramifications of that for church life as we know it? Are we ready for the 21st century as Christ-followers who gather together in groups (churches)? Ready or not, here we go.
Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA