This is a peculiar moment for a church to be a church. Maybe that’s obvious to you, or maybe that sounds like a bizarre thing to say. I’ve been a pastor for 13 years. In 2016 I began leading a new effort, called South Bend City Church, where I’m more aware than ever of the tension between historically rooted faith and our rapidly changing world. Let me explain what I mean.
Communities of Christian faith have their roots planted in a story that comes to us in the Scriptures, that points to Jesus, and that’s summarized and interpreted in the creeds. That story has endured for 2,000 years, and though “church” has looked different in different eras, we have this feeling that the story we tell, and the way we understand it, hasn’t changed all that much.
At the same time, we’re living in an era of intense change. Like other such moments in history where incremental change gave way to radical upheaval, new technology is fundamentally altering the human experience. Thanks to the internet, we can exchange fake news and cryptocurrency and personal experiences and scientific discoveries and competing philosophies and evolving worldviews with lightning speed. Like other such periods, questions of authority—who or what should we trust, and how do we know what’s really true—are at the center of the upheaval.1
Those two realities—rooted faith and a changing world—raise all sorts of questions for our churches. What should we do when it seems that new claims are contesting our understanding of our faith? What will we do with the disruptions we’re feeling? And are our churches the right places to sort out those questions? As we grapple with all of that, there are at least a few different ways to move forward.
- We can decide that our rooted faith is our core business, and the changing world is a distraction. Sure, we might update our methods, get a better website, and modernize the worship experience to keep pace with the times. But churches that adopt this first posture don’t really dive into the questions that are being raised in this moment. This is what you run into when you go to church, hear a 40 minute sermon, and leave wondering if the pastor lives in a vault all week, because they’ve said a lot, but haven’t said anything about the big questions we’re actually wrestling with.
- We can go further in that same direction, not just seeing the changing world as a distraction, but rather as a threat. When a church takes this view, you’ll have no doubt that the pastor is aware of the questions that are being raised by our current cultural moment, because they’ll proactively warn you not to ask those questions, not to read those books, not to even consider the possibility of integrating new data into our worldview. These communities spend their energy building ideological walls that they hope will prove impenetrable.
- We can go the other direction, too. We can look at the roots of our faith and shake our heads in quiet embarrassment. How unfortunate that we had this outdated story we were trying to cling to! We can assume that whatever is the most recent thinking on any given question is definitely the best thinking on that question. We can capitulate to whatever winds are blowing at this moment and become unrooted.
However, none of those postures lives up to what we see of the church in the book of Acts. There you find a community confronted with a collision of historic faith and radical change, and the way those early followers of Jesus moved forward can be instructive for us today. In the early church, the historic roots were Jewish, and the radical change they are confronted with was the idea that Gentiles were becoming part of the people of God.
It can be hard for modern readers to appreciate just how disruptive the inclusion of the Gentiles would have been for Jewish followers of Jesus. While first century Jews expected that God would bring Gentiles into the people of God in the last days, there was no real program for how that would happen, and what would be done with all the questions of Torah. Is the Jesus movement a Jewish movement? Are Gentiles who are following Jesus and manifesting signs of the Spirit already in? Are we empowered to forgo a command of Torah based on what we’re observing? These questions lead to a meeting in Jerusalem in Acts 15, where the infant church debates whether Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be saved.
Now, before we even get to the conclusion of that debate, we can ask ourselves some questions about what this text means for us today. Are our churches supposed to be calm, quiet bodies of agreement where we never consider new data? When we discover something that threatens our paradigms, does that mean we’ve done something wrong? When we’re not sure how new information works with our old ideas, should we turn away from that new information? Or is the story of the church in the Bible calling us to some other posture?
After Peter makes the case for the inclusion of Gentiles who aren’t circumcised, James speaks up. He reaches back to the Hebrew prophets and quotes from Amos, where God described a future when all of humankind might seek the Lord. James then offers his judgment that the Gentile Christians should be accepted as they are, while instructing them to continue to observe parts of the Torah instruction.
If the early church had taken the first posture I described, this meeting would have never happened. They simply would have ignored the experience of the Gentiles and kept on with business as usual. With the second posture, the meeting would have happened, but with radically different results. The mere suggestion of altering the community’s understanding would have been met with condemnation. With the third posture, you can imagine the leaders in the church scoffing at the suggestion that the community’s historic understanding carries any weight. But that’s not how the story goes.
This is important because when we’re confronted with the difficult work of integrating new data into our existing views, it can feel like we’ve gone off course. When our churches stumble into debate over the questions raised, for example, by evolutionary accounts of human origins, we might think that the debate itself is a sign that we’ve somehow gotten off track. However, if the book of Acts is any indicator, maybe our churches are actually called to be the places where we work out these questions together. In the process, we don’t have to let go of our rooted faith, but we may end up with a new interpretation of our tradition, and that may not be a bad thing.
I’m not sure it takes much faith to double down on a fixed set of ideas without letting them be challenged by new information; and I’m not sure it takes much faith to let go of our roots and go along with every new idea; rather, I’m becoming more and more convinced that faith actually lives in the tension between our rooted faith and our changing world, and that our churches are called to be places where that tension is worked out.
When James quotes Amos in Acts 15, he adds a brief commentary that I find incredibly insightful. Immediately after he cites the prophet’s statement that the Lord “does these things,” he adds, “things known from long ago.” He reaches back into their tradition, brings forth a word that they now understand with greater clarity and urgency because of what’s happening in their time, and then says these things are “known from long ago.” It’s as if he’s saying these deliberations have helped them discover something that was always there in their tradition but that they weren’t able to encounter without the provocation of the present moment. This doesn’t mean that an older perspective—whether it be the teachings on circumcision or ancient Near-Eastern cosmology—is always accurate and enduring, but rather that the highly contextualized words in the Bible are always pointing to the truth beyond themselves, and sometimes new questions can help us rediscover the truth to which they were pointing.
At my church, we’ve been trying to take seriously this calling to live in the tension between our rooted faith and our changing world, and what we keep discovering is that the new questions are actually giving us the opportunity to rediscover what was always present in the tradition, even if we didn’t know it.
We read the early chapters of Genesis with fresh eyes as we try to understand what God may be saying to us through the text, even as we set it in conversation with what God is saying to us through our best understanding of the natural phenomena that surround us. We’re hearing in fresh ways the ancient Word of what it means to be human, to live in a God-breathed world.
We’re falling in love with the God who created every good thing, and who might have done so with the staggering patience required in the evolutionary account, wooing the world slowly forward into what he ultimately wants it to be. This conversation is stirring up a newly invigorated love for the Scriptures, as we find within them a profoundly compelling account of what it means to be human.
We’re finding a renewed sense of awe in our church as we encounter God together. This fruit isn’t coming in spite of the challenges of all this change, but because of it. The Lord does these things, things known from long ago. Even if we’re just now beginning to understand it.