I’m in Charlottesville this morning, on a 24-hour retreat with the Coordinating Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Virginia. We spent some time yesterday talking about our plans for this year including a partnership with CBF missionaries in Slovakia, something called “Mission Madness” for youth, “Mission on the Move” for the churches, and, finally, a Mission Immersion Experience in Slovakia (did you see the word mission in there anywhere?). I finally asked Rob Fox, our Field Coordinator, “What is our mission?”
In a book called The Once and Future Church author Loren Mead argues that there was a time when nobody would have asked that question. In the years following World War II Christians in this country were riding a wave of euphoria. “We won the war,” they thought, “now let’s win the world!” And they tried to do it in much the same way, sending wave after wave of heroic “Christian soldiers” to convert the heathen in other lands. The mission was clear; our efforts were focused.
But then, for a number of reasons, things began to change.
In a book called Resident Aliens William Willimon suggests that things began to change on a Sunday evening in 1963. He writes, “Then, in Greenville, South Carolina, in defiance of the state’s time-honored blue laws, the Fox Theater opened on Sunday. Seven of us—regular attenders of the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church—made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, then quietly slip out the back door and join John Wayne at the Fox. That evening has come to represent a watershed in the history of Christendom, South Carolina style. On that night, Greenville, South Carolina—the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world—served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church. There would be no more free passes…no more free rides.”
That word Willimon uses—Christendom—contains the idea that the church and the community are essentially the same thing: that they have the same values and the same goals. While many people can remember a time when that seemed true, it doesn’t seem true anymore. And, like Willimon, many of us can remember the moment we realized Christendom was collapsing. For me, it was when I found out there was going to be a youth league soccer game on a Sunday morning in my town. I could hardly believe it. But these days it isn’t so hard to believe. If America ever was a “Christian nation,” it isn’t anymore. And it’s not just because people of other faiths have moved into our neighborhoods, it’s because our faith–the “Cultural Christianity” we used to take for granted–has moved out. When the pastor stands in the pulpit these days and says, “Let’s win the world for Christ!” the few people who are there might yawn and look at their watches.
That’s why we can’t go on doing business as usual, and why we have to take the time to ask questions about what our mission is, and why it matters, and who it’s for. That’s what we spent some time doing yesterday afternoon at the CBFVA retreat and when I can I’d like to tell you about it. Until then, let me give you this glimpse:
We were talking about that parable in Matthew 25 where Jesus said, “I was hungry and you didn’t feed me.” We talked about how often, when it comes to mission, we think of taking Jesus to people who don’t “have” him. But here was Jesus saying, “No, I was already out there. I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me.” I had to stop and think about that for a minute, and then I said, almost in a whisper,
“Jesus is out there.”
I don’t know what might come from that revelation, but I know that we need to keep talking about how to be faithful to Jesus and his mission in a world like this one. Take a good look a the picture above, at those beautiful children singing the National Anthem. You don’t have to look very long to realize:
It’s not 1963 anymore.