Optimism in the Face of My Pessimism Seven biblical qualities that can nurture hope in today's church. John Huffman/ NOVEMBER 4, 2015
Afew years ago, the late communitarian Robert Bellah and his colleagues identified how radical individualism has taken a toll on our communal well-being. In Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life,they wrote about the religion of “Sheilaism.” They were referring to a woman by that name who put in a little bit of religion here and philosophy there to create her own religion, unique in its specifics to her and no one else.
Habits was long on description of problems and short on prescription of solutions. Yet toward the end of the book, Bellah wrote about a small Episcopal church in the San Francisco area. With wistful words, he described how this little group of people committed to Jesus Christ met together regularly to worship, to sing hymns, to pray, to hear sermons, to celebrate Communion. From there, they went out into the surrounding community in the name of Jesus Christ, feeding the hungry, ministering to youth, helping abused women, and caring for the mentally and physically ill. In short, says Bellah, “[St. Stephens] seems to be able to combine a sense of continuity with the past and engagement with the public world of the present.”
Because of my 50 years of experience in the pastorate and my involvement with numerous non-profit boards, I’m often asked, “Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future of the Christian church in the United States?” I’ve pondered this question in relation not only to the church, but also to a ministry like Christianity Today, which I’ve served for 36 years on the board and the last decade as board chair. I’ve seen a lot in my 75 years. I have to say my attitude is not unlike that of Bellah: I see reasons for both pessimism and optimism.
I’m pessimistic in part because of research results like the recent Pew Research Center reportthat showed religious decline in North America. I’ve also been deeply influenced by Robert Bellah and two other critical observers of American culture.
Alasdair MacIntyre said the first Dark Ages was ushered in by barbarians from without: ‘This time however,’ he wrote, ‘the barbarians … have already been governing us for quite some time.’
First, there are the deep, insightful reflections of philosopher and moral theorist Alasdair MacIntyre. In his seminal work After Virtue,he identified the short-lived philosophical movement of the early 1900’s labeled “Emotivism,” which has recently re-emerged (without that name) in Western Culture. Emotivism amounts to doing whatever you feel like doing with few or any external system of checks and balances. MacIntyre regretted the gradual erosion of Aristotelian, biblical, and republican virtues that once protected us from our self-destructive impulses. He said the first Dark Age was ushered in by barbarians from without. We now are facing a second Dark Age. “This time however,” he wrote, “the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.”
Second, there is the French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who in the 1830s visited the United States and shared his cogent observations in Democracy in America.He lauded the individual freedoms of our frontier mentality. But he warned that this marvelous individualism was held in check by strong family life, religious traditions, and personal involvement in local politics. I wonder what his observations would be today if he saw how these institutions have so rapidly declined. In this respect, he foreshadows the America that Robert Bellah so ably described.
Silver Lining of Recent History
On the other hand, I see reasons for optimism.
The month I was born, May of 1940, Hitler invaded Belgium and the Netherlands. I wonder how optimistic my mother and father were as they brought a new little life into a world threatened by fascist totalitarianism. That was followed by the threat of Marxist totalitarianism coupled with the Cold War threat of nuclear holocaust. And yet we’ve managed to survive these and other political/military challenges of our age.
In addition, in my lifetime, evangelical Christianity has moved out from the shadows of American life. I grew up with a minority complex as an evangelical in the public schools of a Boston, Massachusetts suburb. The majority of my friends were liberal Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Christian Scientist, Greek Orthodox, or nothing at all. I was the only evangelical Christian in my classes from kindergarten through junior high school. As I grew older, we evangelicals held on as Billy Graham rose in popularity and political influence. Some of us gloated when Time magazine declared 1976 “the year of the Evangelical” as devout Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter was elected President.
We almost forget that in the 1970s and early ’80s, there were less than 100 Protestant churches in America with weekly attendances of over 1,000 people.
Simultaneously the lay-led small group Bible study movement swept through mainline churches and the surging “Jesus movement” through high school and college campuses. Then came the megachurch movement, with church attendance often mushrooming into the thousands. We almost forget that in the 1970s and early ’80s, there were fewer than 100 Protestant churches in America with weekly attendance of over 1,000 people. Who knows what movements the Spirit will inspire in the next few decades?
Optimism Grounded in the Word
My optimism is also enhanced by my daily encounter with the Scriptures. For all but one of the last 30 years, I have read the entire Bible using the One Year Bible. Each day I read a passage from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and then some verses from the Psalms and Proverbs. Each year I see the ugly-beautiful cycle of the experience of God’s people, from Creation to the present. We are not the first generation to stumble. Time after time, a godly leader has been followed by one who led his people into sin, followed by another who restored the people morally and spiritually.
Add to that the first-century church, which though surrounded by hedonism and religious pluralism not only survived but eventually became the dominant faith of Europe.
Yes, I am haunted sometimes by a Bellah-like pessimism. And yet I too am encouraged by his optimistic description of that little San Francisco congregation. It points to vital role of the local church for God’s work in our world in our day.
During the last few decades of my ministry, I’ve been driven back to Luke’s record of the early church in the Book of Acts, especially the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30 and 13:1-3), where believers were first called “Christians.”
Antioch was not located in a homogeneous or religiously insulated community. It lay in the very northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, where today Turkey and Syria meet. Many historians consider it the third or fourth most prestigious city of the first century. It was known for luxury, poverty, sexual immorality, hedonistic pleasure seeking, and great religious diversity. That diversity included all variations of Greek paganism, Roman Emperor worship, fertility cults, Judaism, and multiple varieties of tribal religion. It was there that believers, driven from Jerusalem by persecution, settled and established a church.
I see seven qualities that marked the life of this church that can help us in the church today see a way forward in our troubling times.
1. Energetic Evangelism. Luke records, “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-21, NIV here and all other quotes).
The most relevant bottom line is whether the gospel is preached so that people don’t just join ‘the church of what’s happening now’ but come to a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
There is no substitute for a straightforward preaching of the gospel. God, please free us from our bondage to the commercial “ABCs” of successful church growth! In too much of my ministry, I succumbed to an emphasis on Attendance, Buildings, and Cash to the neglect of the more qualitative biblical criteria of success. The most relevant bottom line is whether the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ is preached in a way that people don’t just join “the church of what’s happening now” but come to a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
2. Encouraging Accountability. Word got back to the home church in Jerusalem that Gentiles as well as Jews were coming to faith. Immediately they send a winsome Jew from Cyprus named Barnabas to check out what was going on. Luke writes, “When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:23-24).
Barnabas remained and served as an encouraging pastor. The church historian F. J. Foakes Jackson says, “Barnabas … possessed the rare gift of discerning merit in others.… He seems to have been utterly without jealousy, eager to excuse the faults of others, quick to recognize merit, ready to compromise for the sake of peace.… Whilst we admit the greatness of Paul, we cannot forget that Barnabas was the real pioneer of a world-embracing Christianity.”
3. Rich Nurture. Barnabas recognized that these new followers of Jesus needed more than an encouraging pastor. They also needed someone who could teach sound doctrine. That someone needed scholarly credentials and to know how to make his way around a pluralistic cosmopolitan city. As Luke reports, “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:25-26).
4. Wise Generosity. When Agabus, a prophet from Jerusalem, described the emerging famine in Judea to the believers in Antioch, their hearts were touched. Luke says, “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29-30).
Theodore P. Ferris, for many years the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston wrote, “A person can be famous, successful, rich, achieve great things, but if that person has not cultivated and refined that natural instinct to help others in distress until it rises above all other instincts and dominates them, is sovereign over them, that person, as a person, is a failure.”
Not only were the Christians in Antioch generous, they also wanted to make certain that the money they collected arrived in full to those who really needed it. So they sent two trusted leaders to deliver the gift.
5. Cultural Inclusivity. The church of Jesus Christ is bigger than any one cultural group. The church at Antioch lived this truth. As Luke notes, “Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch), and Saul” (Acts 13:1). In the leadership of the church, we see two persons of color, an aristocrat, a multicultural theologian, and a Jewish pastor.
The church is a genuine hospital for sinners of all types of people sociologically, ethnically, economically, racially, and educationally.
The only common denominator that should characterize the church is not class or race but the fact that we all are sinners. Many a Sunday I have opened the worship service with these words, “Welcome to Sinners Anonymous—this local chapter of men and women who accept that we need the forgiveness and help of our ‘Higher Power’ whose name is Jesus Christ.” The church is a genuine hospital for sinners of all types; it comprises people who differ sociologically, ethnically, economically, racially, and educationally.
6. Transforming Worship. Luke gives us a glimpse into the regular life of the Antioch church when he writes, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2).
While we know the importance of worship, I am not certain we know what will happen when we take our worship seriously. Where there is genuine worship, God is present and always speaks.
7. Bold Mission. Luke continues: “So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:3).
God had something much bigger in mind for the Antioch church than to receive a first-century church growth award. God was already thinking of us today, and because the church of Antioch not only listened but also obeyed, we know Jesus Christ.
While I admit to bouts of pessimism about the future, I am encouraged when I recall God’s working in the church of Antioch. As we open ourselves to the grace and power of the Holy Spirit today, we too can share the qualities that church enjoyed. And that in turn will help us see that God is as alive and well today as he has ever been—and that the very gates of hell cannot prevail against him and his church!
John Huffman is Minister Emeritus of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, and board chair of Christianity Today and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.