In Tony Jones’ book “The New Christians”; he uses an allegorical story from history to illustrate the reactions to trying times in history. His story (with my attempt to convey the point without rewriting the entire thing) is about a young woman on the east coast around the middle of the 1800’s. This woman, a daughter whose family was one of prominence fell in love with and married a young man with an adventurous spirit who saw the west as an opportunity to establish himself; much in the same way his family had become established in the east. So, together, they packed up and moved west.

A year went by and the parents received no word from their daughter. They began to let the house and their own lives get away from them as they worried about their daughter and son-in-law. A second year went by and again no word. By now, the family had fallen from one of stature. The house was run down and completely neglected.

But then the day came when the mother received a letter from her daughter. She was so excited, she opened it without haste. The contents read something like this:

Mother and Father,
The west has been rough on us. We traveled west of Missouri where my husband fell very ill with sickness that eventually took his life. I lost everything but was taken in by a wonderful bunch of Indians…

Upon hearing this, the mother collapsed on the floor where she died. The letter fluttered to the ground where it landed in the fireplace and was consumed by the burning fire. The father, upon his return, found his wife dead on the floor (not knowing about any letter). Consumed with worry for his daughter and now grief from losing his wife, he took his own life. The city, not having any record of any survivors to the family, tore the dilapidated house down, sold the land and buried the husband and wife in a pauper’s grave.

And then Jones offers an alternate ending…

Continuing with the letter.
I lost everything but was taken in by a wonderful bunch of Indians who took me back to a city in Missouri. While there, I fell in love with a wonderful man working on the railroad that will stretch from east to west. We’re now living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and would love you to come and visit.

And they did indeed visit. In fact, they moved out to Cheyenne. And on the day when the Transcontinental Railroad was finished, it was father and son-in-law seen hammering in one of the final spikes.

I’m confident that I have not done this story justice, but for my purposes here, you get the point. And if you’re planning on reading Jones’ book, there’s enough that I’ve left out to make the story pop a little upon reading it – even if you know how it turns out.

In looking at this story, it thoroughly disturbed me. Especially, when looking at a comparison between this and the state of the church in America. We find ourselves again at a point where something is changing – has changed – or will change if the church in America will exist as it has until now. In the 80’s and 90’s we saw churches implement segmented programs and solutions to what has been termed as felt-needs. Churches became a Wal-Mart of spirituality – something for the kids, women, men, people that like to scrapbook, paint, work on classic cars, ride motorcycles, and be entertained. Church became a friendly place that was supposed to be welcoming to people that would visit the church. And it attracted a lot of people that liked to watch things be done.

But then there were a few people that came together and looked off in the horizon and said, “I think there’s more out there than what’s going on right now.” They pioneered the postmodern shift in the context of American spirituality. They found huge plains of land that were fairly easy to conquer and claim as their own. Along their path, they also gathered more people willing to join their journey – even though nobody really knew what they were heading towards. And then they hit the bumpy ground; a place where some abandoned the cause for various different reasons. They met opposition to their journey and the impact that it would have on the state of the rest of the church in America.

And yet, as I sit here on the front porch of my life, looking out at the horizon, I still see just as many new pioneers as there were when I came to where I am. I see an equal number continuing to stretch beyond where I am and ones still trying to reach this particular point. I see as many, if not more, opponents to the postmodern shift in religion and spirituality. But maybe more concerning, I see a whole lot more people that are content to be right where they are (right where they’ve always been) and yet they look at and hear about this postmodern shift and discount it as something that will fade away like the sunset some evening.

This is where Jones’ allegory played on my thoughts.

How many of the people that have helped me along my journey are sitting comfortable in a church watching person after person and family after family cycle through their doors never to become part of what’s going on? How many of these same people receive word back from family and friends that have ventured off down the path of postmodernity? How many worry about the condition of other’s faith while neglecting their own? How many will be in the same place they are today, the day that they die? How many of these same people will be the ones that lock the doors for the final time on the churches that they spent their entire lives in?

Please, don’t hear what I’m not saying. There’s nothing wrong with being in one place your entire life – as long as that’s where God wants you and you’re involved in making a difference in what’s going on in your community. I remember my time in Europe several years ago now. I had the pleasure of touring several very large cathedrals during the week. These were huge tourist locations where it was obvious that at one time, hundreds and often thousands would gather together to worship God. But now thousands of people tour them each week and a dozen or so worship in the building on the weekend. I fear that we are nearing the same as the Baby Boomer generation is reaching retirement and will not have the expendable income to keep open many of the buildings that are in use today. When I look at the values of postmoderns, I don’t see having a big building with lots of staff and programs on that list – or if it is, it’s buried down below things like social justice and community involvement.

I’m at peace with my decision to move on. I’m at peace with my decision to kick the dust off my feet as I walk away from a traditional church model. But I haven’t found peace in leaving behind the people I love and care for that have chosen to be content in a place that I was not. It’s with a longing for people to wake up that I send my own letter back to anyone and everyone that thinks that things are changing but are too intimidated to step off their own front porch. Typically an invitation would be to come be where I am – but in a time where you may read this across the country or world from where I am, and the context in which you read this may be very different from what I experience. So, my invitation is not to join me physically in a single location, but to join in the same way in which I have, join in the community in which you live. What does that mean? Get involved with some community event, volunteer with some group of people which share an interest of yours, hang out in a local setting where people get to know you, take the time to get to know the people you deal with every day. Learn something new about the people you know each week. Keep a journal of these new things. Be available. Listen. And when asked, communicate God’s story.

much love,
– mark

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