The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People
Fields Ripe for Harvest
In Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (2020), Tara Isabella Burton offers a dizzying description of movements that are changing the religious landscape. She posits a fundamental distinction between religion in general and institutional churches that come in many brands. While it is apparent a whole generation is bypassing institutional church life, most are not rejecting religion.
Rather, they are re-mixing the ingredients for their personal faith. “Today’s Remixed reject authority, institution, creed and moral universalism. They value intuition, personal feelings and experiences. They want to rewrite their own scripts about how the universe and human beings operate. The Remixed don’t want to receive doctrine, to assent automatically to a creed. They want to choose the personal path that feels more authentic, more meaningful, to them. They prioritize intuitional spirituality over institutional religion.”
Some numbers will clarify the challenge. In 2007, 15 percent of Americans called themselves religiously unaffiliated, meaning they did not consider themselves to be members of any traditional organized religion. By 2012 that number had risen to 20 percent. For adults under 30, that number is now about 40 percent. These can be described as the “Nones” that have no traditional religion. These are not atheists, who remain at about 7 percent of the population.
Burton observes, “We do not live in a godless world. Rather, we live in a profoundly anti-institutional one, where the proliferation of internet creative culture and consumer capitalism have rendered us all simultaneously parishioner, high priest, and deity. America is not secular but simply spiritually self-focused. Anti-institutional, intuitional self-divinization is, at heart, the natural spirituality of Internet and smartphone culture.”
What Caused the Shift?
Burton believes much of the responsibility for that shift belongs to institutions themselves. Traditional religions have not been able to offer compellingly meaningful accounts of the world, provide their members with purpose, foster sustainable communities, or put forth evocative rituals.
Perhaps most damaging to Evangelical institutional churches is their harsh denunciation of same-sex relations, which are now taken by newer generations as a common-sense civil right above controversy. This hardened position has become a disconnect for so many. The solution is not to back off from the biblical position on same-sex relationships, as many in mainline churches have done. The challenge is to express that morality with wisdom in the context of a loving community that maintains its integrity.
In Pagans and Christians in the City (2018), Steven D. Smith offers a provocative distinction between two kinds of religious belief. One he calls the paganism that locates the sacred within the world. The other, as practiced by Judaism and Christianity, places the sacred outside this world. The new intuitional spiritualities and movements are essentially pagan. That word is too negatively loaded to use as a conversation starter. It does, though, point out a direction for developing conversations with the Remixed.
Paul knew real pagans. He met them on their own turf of Mars Hill in Athens, where he started his conversation by noting that among their many gods they had an altar to the unknown god. “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Romans 17: 23). He did so by declaring that the God he worships is not far from them. This God wants a relationship with them. He will no longer overlook ignorance but will come in judgment. This God has real power, which he proved by raising Jesus Christ from the dead. We read that some responded with a sneer, but others said, We want to hear you more on this subject.
The goal for Christian witnesses today is to conduct ourselves in ways that others say, I want to learn more about your God. What would Paul say if he faced our mixed-up spiritualities of today? He would not start out by condemning those he addressed. He would not just unload the Gospel in a nutshell. He would go to those he wanted to reach on their turf. He would recognize their problems and respect their issues. Then he would show how the biblical God has better answers for how to live. He would highlight the advantages of living true to God’s way.
Paul’s Four Steps
In his book Plugged In Daniel Strange analyzes Paul’s approach. He did not come as bringing “religion” to them. He came addressing questions they were already answering, encouraging discussion of religious commitments they already have, and offering a way to mend their relationship with the God they were already seeking. Strange highlights four steps Paul took that we can take to reach out to the pagans of our day. The first is Entering by stepping into their world and listening to their story. Then Exploring by searching for elements of awe and grace in their lives. Step further into Exposing by showing up the idols as destructive frauds. Then comes Evangelizing by showing off the Gospel of Jesus Christ as subversive fulfillment.
Strange stresses that those we are engaging with are real people. “That means communicating holistically and humanely. It demands love for, patience with and a “bearing with” tolerance of the other, which in the current climate is so counter-cultural. It requires the skills of listening carefully and slowly building trust. We need emotional intelligence to recognize how we listen and how we are heard.”
Making Faith Magnetic
In his later book Making Faith Magnetic, Daniel Strange further offers the image of a magnet that attracts objects to it. Jesus is a magnet attracting all people to him. We are called to be magnets. Humans have a built-in “itch” that needs to be scratched in one way or another. Drawing on the work of missiologist J. H. Bavinck, Strange offers five magnetic points. First, all those created by God have a built-in need to find a way to connect with others. Call that Totality. They are looking for a way to live, or Norms. They have an itch for a way out of their present situation, or Deliverance. They search for their destiny as a way to Control their lives. Fifth, they want a Higher Power as a way beyond where they are now.
Sixteen centuries ago, Bishop Augustine of Hippo confessed his personal itches in this famous phrase: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee. As Tara Isabella Burton described the Remixed in Strange Rites, there is a whole lot of spiritual restlessness going on out there. Our challenge is to help those restless souls find their rest in Christ.
The rational argument itself will seldom start an unbeliever on the path of being pulled toward the magnetism of Jesus. That is much more likely to happen through the pull of relationships with believers who know Jesus and demonstrate the quality of life he offers. Ultimately the work of calling to belief is done by the Holy Spirit. He works, of course, through presentations we do of God’s Word about our relationship with him and the centrality of Christ’s reconciliation.
Do you know people who pick and choose what they want to believe? Who are the Remixed? Why are the fields of mixed-up people so ripe for harvest? How would Paul have approached them?