“So, what’s church like in America?”

It’s a question we’ve heard a lot in the weeks since our return from furlough in the United States.  And it’s a hard one to answer.

Since 2003, my wife and I have been part of a mission team serving the Makua-Metto people in Mozambique, Africa.  Our context here is predominately Muslim; Protestant churches make up less than 1% of the population. The Mozambican believers asking this question typically worship with only a dozen or so people in their villages each Sunday, so hearing about hundreds of Christians gathering regularly to praise God is difficult to process.  They smile in wonder; it sounds amazing and incredible.

But, this past year as our family traveled around the U.S., what my wife and I sensed a lot of was tension and anxiety.  It is common knowledge now that Churches of Christ in America are in decline (http://www.christianchronicle.org/article/165-000-fewer-souls-in-the-pews-five-questions-to-consider) and this recognition has left the church with some serious questions:  Didn’t we used to be the “fastest growing church” … Why aren’t we growing like we did in the past?  How should the church interact with a culture that seems to be moving away from vestiges of a Christian heritage? Why are so many of our children leaving the churches of their youth? What do we do now? Which way do we turn?

There are a number of different ways to approach these questions. Outlining the seven steps or five changes that churches should implement could be a useful exercise, but it seems to me that what would actually be most helpful for our fellowship as a whole would be finding a story that helps us find our bearings in the present context.

And there’s a story from the history of God’s people that I believe is extremely relevant to American Churches of Christ today.

The most famous event in Elijah’s life happened in 1 Kings 18.  Elijah set up a contest on Mount Carmel, a power encounter between Yahweh and Baal to see who would send down fire to burn up a sacrifice and offer definitive prove of divine status.  Baal’s representatives begged their god to no avail, but after a simple prayer from Elijah, Yahweh sent down fire from heaven to burn up the sacrifice.  Israel immediately recognized the identity of the true God and dramatically rejected the deceiving prophets of Baal. Elijah’s first mountain top experience was unlike any other.

The previous story has appropriately received a lot of our attention, but I’d like for us to consider the next chapter of Elijah’s life and the next chapter in 1 Kings – chapter 19.

After the deaths of the prophets of Baal, Queen Jezebel declared her intention to kill Elijah.   Even though he had borne witness to dramatic proof of Yahweh’s supremacy, Elijah still ran for his life.  He fled to a cave on Mount Horeb (otherwise known as Mount Sinai).  In what was likely the deepest valley of his life, Elijah went straight to the Mountain of God.  Elijah (whose name means “My God is Yahweh”) ran to the place where he was certain that Yahweh had been before. And God spoke to him there, asking: “What are you doing here, My-God-is-Yahweh (Elijah)? Why are you in this cave?”

It was then that the prophet lodged his complaint: “I haven’t broken the covenant that you made with your people right here – and now I’m the only one left.”

After a series of divine displays of power, God’s presence was presented to his prophet in a whisper.  Elijah was asked again what he was doing there, and his response was to repeat his practiced speech. It was then that Yahweh gave the prophet a task (anoint a new king and a new prophet) as well as an important truth (that he is, in fact, not alone –there are seven thousand people who have not bowed their knee to Baal).

There are a host of potential messages for us here: We could reflect on God’s grace, coming in a gentle whisper and reminding Elijah about the meaning of his name.  We could consider how God consistently provided for Elijah’s needs throughout his life (food and shelter, and then later, community and colleagues in his mission). We could note the need for more than just God’s power, but also a deep necessity to encounter God’s presence (That was the real gift, the real present in this story, God’s presence.  Idols, Jezebel’s gods, on the other hand offered power without presence.  But as Mount Carmel taught us – they have neither).

What I’d like us to consider, though, is how this story could provide a vision for what it means to be the Church in our time and in our world today.

With the shift in the way Western cultures relate to Christianity and the observation that the Church seems to be losing skirmish after skirmish in the “Culture War,” Christians are increasingly nervous.  Many feel marginalized by the culture, like we’re either being given the cold shoulder or left out in the cold altogether.Maybe it’s not persecution that we are receiving, but it certainly seems like pressure.

Some advocate that the church should retreat in fear in the face of all these changes.  There is a strong pull to run back to the past, to places and times that felt more secure – like the way Elijah ran back to the mountain of God to hide out in a cave.  But I wonder… if we, also, follow the path of running back to a “safe time and place”… would God say to us something similar to what he said to Elijah?

“What are you doing here? I’m still the same Powerful God who knows you by name. Your name is Church of Christ. You are a member of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God is never in trouble.[1] You have a mission – and there are 7,000 or 70,000 or 700,000,000 who have not bowed to other gods.”

Let’s try a different metaphor.Elijah ran to a mountain; let’s imagine that instead of running to a mountain we headed for a beach.  There we find like-minded people who care about Christ and his Church and we decide to build a ship to handle the rising tide of adversity and animosity. What kind of boat will we build?[2] How should we think of the Church? What do we do?

  1. We could choose to fight and begin to build a battleship: finding our purpose in fighting the culture wars and following the agenda of some trustworthy captain.
  2. We could choose a “Flight of fancy” and spend our time and energy to build a cruise ship: focusing on building an exclusive community centered on filling our time with a variety of fun activities.
  3. We could choose to stay fixed and build something sturdy and motor-less that would stay anchored in the port: hoping that by staying in place we could ride out the changing tides.
  4. Or we could get in a sailboat or a deep sea fishing boat and go into “uncharted waters,” trusting God to keep us afloat and keep us flowing in the right direction. Shroyer reminds us that “sailboats rely primarily on the wind to propel them forward. Despite the unruly waves of the sea, we try to trust that the wind of God’s Spirit will get us where we need to go.  I mentioned this thought to a friend of mine who sighed as she said, ‘That’s probably true, but it sure feels rickety sometimes out on this boat,’ and I have to agree with her.  It probably explains why we often do so many things to try to make this journey toward God’s horizon feel more secure, but I wonder if that doesn’t keep us from having to do the very important work of remembering the promise, even if we’re a little breathless sometimes out here on the waves.”[3]

It may sound nice to run back to the past, to ride out this gathering storm in a cave, or to run to build for ourselves a cruise ship or a battle ship.  But instead, what if we followed Christ’s lead and ran into our community… ran into the world, empowered by the Task and the Truth we’d been given.

Elijah walked out of that cave with courage and determination.  My-God-is-Yahweh went out and did his job: witnessing to Yahweh, completing his God given tasks, and training Elisha (discipling the next generation of leadership).

It seems that the powerful “Mount Carmel moment” has passed for our fellowship (and for the Western Church in general!) and we have now entered into a “Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai” season.  Taking inspiration from God’s counsel to Elijah reminds us that a journey back to the past is unlikely to be our way forward.  Faithfulness in our current climate may look more like persevering in the face of despair, believing the whisper that God is present and discerning the truth (the number of the “faithful” is larger than we may think) and the task we’ve been given(to make disciples of Jesus).

Early Christians who experienced pressure/persecution were reminded of the truth that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8).  It will take courage to follow where the Spirit’s wind blows, charting a good course; rightly perceiving how to be the Church in a changing world.  I think we will need to listen to our brothers and sisters from around the world who already know what it means for their faith to marginalize them within the surrounding culture.  If we have ears to hear I think we could hear them calling us to join them in faithful witness to those within the culture who are longing to know a powerful and ever-present God.

My hunch is that faithfulness in this “Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai”season will look like people possessed by a commitment to: (1) the truth that we are not and never were alone in this endeavor and (2) the task of discipling the next generation of leaders.

May the American Churches of Christ take inspiration and counsel from Elijah’s other mountaintop experience and have the courage to engage God’s world in meaningful ways.

[1]I’m borrowing this helpful phrase from James Bryan Smith.

[2]I’m adapting ideas here from Shroyer, Boundary-Breaking God, 123.

[3]Shroyer, Boundary-Breaking God, 123.