The Ruins of Formation

The Ruins of Formation October 26, 2021

Things fall apart, we’re told. Trained as a historian, I’ve had to study many, many “falling aparts”—the Roman Empire fell apart; the Jerusalem center of worship fell apart; the Qing dynasty fell apart; the German war machine fell apart; British imperial power fell apart; the Soviet sphere of control fell apart. History is just one “falling apart” after another.

Things fall apart in the religious world as well. The centuries of European Christendom have passed; Puritanism is just a section in Church history books; the Great Awakening is over; the “I Found It” movement is lost in time. The falling aparts we’re in the midst of, however, are always the most painful. According to Peter Wehner, we are witnessing this in real time. In his recent article, “The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart,” Wehner describes the torments of American Evangelicalism in, apparently, its death throes.

Wehner’s anecdotes and interviews depict a movement in full-blown disarray, evidenced by political hostilities, leadership failures, pastoral defeatism, and rampant fear. He tells of pastors leaving the ministry because their churches have “become hostile work environments,” of inculcated hostility and tribalism, of an encouraged sense of outrage in the pews. There’s little talk of genuine biblical virtues, taught by Jesus himself. Poverty of spirit? Charity? Meekness? Love of enemies? Self-denial? Gentleness? All missing in action, apparently.

While Wehner’s comments are restricted to what he calls “the Evangelical Church” (which is, perhaps, a problem since there really is no such thing), I might expand his application to the American Church at large. Those in evangelicalism have their own peculiar places of dis-ease, but the ruin is evident everywhere. United Methodists, Southern Baptists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Presbyterians have all been in the news lately because of their in-house conflicts, scandals, suspicions, and divisions. The anonymous commenting trolls who snarl and ALL-CAP CONDEMN in the name of Jesus, happily sending people to hell, reveal the underbelly of much of American Christian spirituality.

Working as I do in the area of Christian formation, perhaps it is all too obvious that I think James Ernest’s evaluation of the problem is correct. Wehner writes of his conversation with Ernest: “’What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure,’ James Ernest, the vice president and editor in chief at Eerdmans, a publisher of religious books, told me. Ernest was one of several figures I spoke with who pointed to catechism, the process of instructing and informing people through teaching, as the source of the problem. ‘The evangelical Church in the U.S. over the last five decades has failed to form its adherents into disciples. So there is a great hollowness. All that was needed to cause the implosion that we have seen was a sufficiently provocative stimulus. And that stimulus came.’”

We just don’t make time for formation anymore. The willingness to approve a statement of faith is adequate “formation” for most churchgoers. (And then, of course, more and more Christians don’t bother with churchgoing anyway.) Paul warned believers: “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve the perfect, good, and beautiful will of God.” Lots of “form”-ation in there, but there’s an obvious dichotomy: you can be conformed, or you can be transformed. If those trolls are any indication whatsoever, we have conformed ourselves to the ways and words of this world.

True transformation demands the renewing of our minds. It requires a return to training in the ways of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy, and  the careful teaching of why those “orthos” really matter. Why is it important that we are Trinitarians? How do we really live into the Sermon on the Mount? What does it mean to set our minds on the Spirit and be led by the Spirit? (Because we can be sure that fear, outrage, tribalism, and political idolatries are NOT Spirit-produced.) I once came out of a worship service where the pastor had been addressing the need for spiritual disciplines, like daily personal prayer and Bible reading. A lay leader commented to me, “Huh. I should give that a try.” How can this be that a lay leader in the Church has no personal rule of life that includes prayer or scripture?

Somewhere in the ’70s and ’80s, we traded the work of the Church for cultural power, and the exchange was easy. The Sunday School model that was so effective in the 1940s and ’50s is long outdated, and once our kids learn their Bible stories, they “graduate” into youth groups that major on entertainment, and then they become full-blown Christian adults who have very little engagement with mind-renewal. The world, this “age,” on the other hand, has multiple opportunities and avenues of conforming our minds and hearts, and it plies its trade 24/7.

Things fall apart. Indeed. Evangelicalism as a distinct Christian movement may be falling apart. If so, it will then take its place in the long and (mostly) honorable history of Christian renewal movements that have arisen to awaken believers to the true power of life in the Spirit, the transformed life. Some of these endure, in some form; others have fallen to the pressures of time and cultural or political erosion. We remember the “evangelical” (gospel-focused, Spirit-filled) energies of the Montanists, Beguines, the Friends of God, Cistercians, Discalced Carmelites, Jansenists, pietists, Puritans, revivalists, and many more, all of which aimed at transformation and training in the life of the good and beautiful will of God. If Evangelicalism as a distinct movement falls apart, the Spirit will undoubtedly renew the Church again with something creative, transformative, and genuinely life-giving.

Listen to Peter’s counsel (1 Peter 4-5) in the face of things falling apart: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray. Above all, love each other deeply. … Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering… If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. … Continue to do good. Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another. … Humble yourselves… Cast all your anxiety on him… Be self-controlled and alert.”

We need not fear things falling apart. The kingdom of God is not falling apart.

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