Future of Evangelicalism
To Let Christ Live in Us
It strikes me that we have not yet mentioned the name, Jesus Christ. How does Christ play into this? What are strategies of bringing Christ forth culturally and through creative power that will work in the years to come?
I'm glad you asked. The most important thing in the Christian life is to become formed into Christ's image. Or let me be more concrete. There is a prayer that I pray every day, many times a day. It was pretty much the first thing I thought this morning, this prayer. It's three sentences long, and it doesn't sound like a prayer:
"There is another who lives in me. There is another who completes me. There is another whose righteousness is mine."
I pray those three sentences over and over; my goal is to pray them so often that I pray them without thinking them. It expresses that my life is not my own. I died and I was raised and the one who lives in me now, in a mysterious way, is not me alone but Christ living in me. The only real hope for Jesus Christ being real to our culture is for him to be real in the lives of the people who have been buried and raised in him.
Now, we could talk about strategies for adjusting Jesus' public image. For one thing, we certainly should be telling the story. Many of our neighbors don't know who he was, what he said, what he did, why he did it. But the most important thing is that every Christian should realize that we are not asked to live this Christian life on our own strength, by our own natural abilities. We are actually intended to live the life that Jesus lived and lives, not to live our own lives. And we live his life by choosing suffering when we could choose comfort, by daily practices of repentance and trust, by putting ourselves in places where only if his life is at work in the world can we hope to come out alive ourselves. This is how we let Christ live in us.
If we do that, I am not too worried about Jesus' public image. He is committed to communicating himself. If we don't do that, he will find some other way, but we will have missed an opportunity not only to be relevant to our culture, but to live the joyful resurrection life that is our inheritance as followers of Jesus.
Is the story of sin, condemnation, and personal salvation by Jesus Christ unto eternal life something that our culture will still find attractive and appealing?
We should never underestimate the hunger, amongst our neighbors, for personal forgiveness, comfort, and hope. And we should never underestimate the dignity that the gospel of personal salvation, forgiveness, comfort, and hope offers to individual human beings in very oppressive environments. That is to say, the message that you as an individual are loved by God -- as the old evangelical truism has it, that even if you were the only person in the world, Christ would have died for you -- is most powerful precisely in situations of injustice and oppression that tend to eradicate individual identity and worth. So it is a profoundly liberating message, even if it's told in an old-fashioned way that it is about you (in the singular) and Jesus and your eternal destination. Even that is something that people hunger for, and even that message, although it is not adequate to the whole biblical story, brings tremendous fruit socially, by encouraging dignity and justice for people.
That being said, no one in the Bible asked Jesus to be his or her personal savior. At least not in those words. Peter says, "Lord, save me," for example, when he's drowning. Yet the Bible is a story of a people, not of individuals. We can miss that only if we throw out three-quarters of our Bibles -- the Old Testament part. It's a cosmic story, ultimately, in which individual human beings are of immense value, but their value is precisely connected to their part in the cosmic story. And that's not a newfangled idea that's replacing an old-fashioned truth. It's the broader framework that was lost as evangelicalism accommodated itself to American hyper-individualism. The story of individual salvation is true, but it gains its truth biblically from a broader truth and a bigger and better news than just the news of personal salvation. I happen to think that, for a whole bunch of reasons, our society is exiting the hyper-individualism that marked American life after the founding. I think the myths of individualism are getting tired. In that sense, I think our neighbors are no longer as likely to respond to a message of individual salvation.