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The Case for Renewal

In the last blog entry (, I reflected on Quaker Thomas Kelly's World War II musings and how they connect with us today.

Continuing on in his tiny section on suffering in his book, A Testament of Devotion, Kelly ends with a plea to his Quaker brothers and sisters to renounce their comfortable lives and pledge themselves more fully to the Lord. For Kelly, the events of World War II bring to mind first century Israel and John the Baptist's crying out, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in this desert a highway for our God" (Mark 1:3, quoting Isaiah 40:3).

It feels like it is time for renewal yet again today. In the midst of much darkness, I see many voices prophetically calling out warnings and pleading with us all to turn and reconsider what we think about how life is to be lived.

For example, this summer, Dr. Tim Keller released his fourth and final article in The Decline and Renewal of the American Church series ( This fourth article is on strategies for renewal, and it starts with "The Case for Renewal." Dr. Keller offers three reasons for the need for renewal:

  • The Church needs it. Keller says that mainline churches have been in decline for 50 years and now the conservative evangelical church is as well. And the black church faces complex challenges. He summarizes, "Never in American history has the church been weaker or has the American population been more disconnected from religion. Never have all the various branches of U.S. Christendom been so weak all at once."

  • The country needs it. Keller argues that the decline of the church is ultimately bad for the country. Drawing on Robert Bellah, Keller points out that the United States is arguably the most individualistic culture on earth. The church at times holds at bay the narcissism and self-centeredness that is part and parcel of hyper-individualism. With the church's decline, we see the blame (i.e. "if you are poor or marginalized, it's always your fault") and fragmentation that is left when actual historic Christianity fades away and the only ideology left is a political one that is basically Social Darwinism (i.e. some people succeed more because they're innately better than others).

Since Keller's article came out, Christianity Today released an article this summer (, which describes in more detail what Keller hints at. Basically, the Bible belt is no longer the church-going, church-tied region it used to be. Church attendance has dropped precipitously among white southern Evangelicals, and a corresponding "off-ness" can be observed in their theology and overall beliefs. Their Christianity slides away, but they hold onto some kind of an ideology that is essentially hyper-individualism, over-emphasis on law and order, and extreme distrust of others and institutions. This has been a long time coming, but the more rapid devolution explains a lot.

Similarly, I'm noticing conservative Christians following some strange ideologies pertaining to Social Darwinism, strange because the ideologies run completely counter to a Christian worldview, and the originators of these beliefs would be extremely open in claiming that! For example, Ayn Rand as a darling of conservative Christian thought is extremely puzzling and concerning. I understand capitalist and libertarian fascination with Rand. It is much less clear how an atheist and someone who promoted the "virtue of selfishness" is at all compatible with a Christian worldview.

In 2014, Baptist News Global questioned this as well ( Rand, the author points out, would have been an extremely reluctant apostle of the religious right, given that she "despised Jesus." What's the fascination then? According to the author, Rand helps the religious right "[hold] together an American version of Christendom." Specifically,

The Religious Right has hitched its star to the inspiring fantasy of American Christendom and, as always, a few minor accommodations have been called for. Political domination means membership in a coalition of convenience extensive enough to win elections, and that means dancin’ with them what brung ya. Because America reflects the warring spirits of Jesus and Ayn Rand a shotgun wedding was hastily arranged.

Back to Keller's article, he references Carolyn Chen to say that when religion falls away, something else fills the God-shaped hole (this concept that Blaise Pascal described). For many, it is their jobs--workaholism. I'd add, that for others, it's family, and a type of workaholism within the family that is so endemic in my generation as Gen X and Millennial parents desperately try to create the perfect life for their children, one that they may believe they were denied when growing up. Thirdly, this "shotgun" wedding of philosophical/political ideology and religion is another filler.

If we aren't focused on the teachings of Jesus Christ, we won't see how they run completely counter to a worship of self and one's self-promotion in a career, the worship of family and creating the perfect utopian life for your children, and the upholding of an ideology that is the exact antithesis of loving your neighbor, sacrificing your own rights, and helping the undeserving. If we disagree with these last three things, we disagree with Jesus, no matter what mental gymnastics we attempt to convince ourselves otherwise.

  • Finally, and similarly, Keller's third reason for the need for renewal is: the love of God requires it. Christians should want the survival of the church not because of its utility but because it promotes the truth. Because we love God and our neighbors, we seek the renewal of the church "as a way to love and serve the One who saved us."

A certain radical Christianity is needed for this renewal, and I'm noticing all kinds of groups embracing this phrasing (including the Book of Common prayer app that I use). Jesus' life was countercultural for his time period, as it would be in ours, as ours should be if we're living it properly. As Thomas Kelly writes,

In my deepest heart I know that some of us have to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God's sorrow is too great, man's night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or it may not mean change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will have to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the 'Eternal Internal' which is as complete and irrevocable as was the vow of the monk of the Middle irrevocable vow to live in this world yet not of this world, Franciscans of the Third Order, and if it be His will, kindle again the embers of faith in the midst of a secular world.

As I note here on occasion, many of us are enamored of the monastics right now. They seem to call us back to a time where total devotion to God seemed possible and where peace, simplicity, and community were the big ideals. How interesting that these three things are such deep longings for my generation!

What would it look like for groups to re-pledge this, to denounce and renounce not other people, but that which is idolatrous inside us, and to devote and dedicate ourselves (with no excuses otherwise) to the Eternal? What if we did this, not by going off and cloistering in a monastery, but by engaging in smaller communities with others who are passionately pursuing the "life that is truly life" (from I Timothy 6 where Paul, incidentally, is exhorting Timothy and his church against false teachers and a love of money).

Would it look like the Clapham Sect, the group largely responsible for a successfully ending slavery in Britain? ( Other issues they promoted was protection against cruelty to animals (bull and bear fighting), fighting gambling (the lottery), improving factory working conditions, and prison reform--all the while living in community with one another and letting their faith drive these efforts. I'll conclude with a quote from William Wilberforce (the bolding is mine), who is probably the most famous name within this group. This is a segment (quoted in the above article) from his writing on what real Christianity is:

I apprehend the essential practical characteristic of true Christians to be this: that relying on the promises to repenting sinners of acceptance through the Redeemer, they have renounced and abjured all other masters, and have cordially and unreservedly devoted themselves to God...It is now their determined purpose to yield themselves without reserve to the reasonable service of the Rightful Sovereign. They are not their own: their bodily and mental faculties, their natural and acquired endowments, their substance, their authority, their time, their influence, all these they consider as belonging to be consecrated to the honor of God and employed in his service.

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