Amidst the cultural rot and doctrinal rubble of American Protestantism, Christianity has gone missing. The once great traditions of the past are difficult to find behind Franklin Graham’s Twitter feed and among those opposed to the results of the recent election. Many Christians, imbued with unwavering sincerity, believe God (the American Protestant version of God) chose our next president to save America. Others, with equal measures of devotion, believe God has called them to resist the new president’s proposed policies. Both groups identify as Christian. Yet with such a divergence of opinions, Christianity appears as fractured and divided as the country where many believe real Christianity to have been born: the United States of America.
Christianity and the churches which represent these various brands of religious expression are today little more than organized supporters clubs for rival teams. I am vaguely reminded of the Iron Dukes of Duke University and the Ram’s Club of the University of North Carolina. These are donors clubs for wealthy supporters to spend money while watching their respective team battle one another on the athletic field. While both may take the same field, neither side has little respect for the style of play the other team plays. The groups despise each others supporters. However, in football or basketball, there remains agreement as to the basic elements of the game. The standards and rules rarely change.
Of late, it seems the goal posts have shifted. Do we know what it means to be “church”? No, we do not. New edicts, plans, and directives reset our focus each year. In my recent appointment, I’ve heard it said there’s nothing “Christian” about what I do. “Evangelical” is now a hollow word; robbed of any Biblical meaning by a thirty-year culture war and the most recent election. An “evangelical” can be anyone who prefers pumpkin spiced lattes while they worship to being for or against a series of social issues. Litmus tests on abortion, your preference for drums in worship, and your feelings about coffee in the sanctuary have nothing to do with the “Good News”.
There are no more “Christians”. Christianity, it appears, in Advent 2016 can only be defined by these contested adjectives. A Christian is characterized by the way she or he modifies or describes their Christianity. This perpetual delineation of adjectives borders on idolatry. We give the adjective more meaning than the word we’re modifying. One is either an evangelical Christian or progressive Christian. Denominational labels only confuse matters further. In United Methodism, we are Wesleyan Covenant Methodist Christians, Progressive Methodists, and Methodist Christians. There might even be “Full, Free-Will, Snake Handling, First, Sanctified, Holiness, Brethren” Methodists for all I know. Yes, these terms describe who we are. They also make it harder to recognize the Christianity they are intended to modify.
There are no more Christians. We are the holier than thou adjective people, unable to practice our faith unless it’s diluted through special filters which give us power. The person modifying the noun gets to set the rules, make the budget, and decide who’s in and who’s out. Our Christianity is constantly modified by words (i.e. beliefs) bearing little resemblance to the Scripture, witness, and testimony constituting this most simple definition: a Christian is someone who confesses Jesus as Lord. It is not about doing a seven part sermon series on money management or being for gay marriage. A Christian is someone who sees the world through the prism of the Cross. If we’re looking at the cross and Jesus’ massive redemptive action, I believe our adjective problem will resolve itself. What you’re for and against become much clearer in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For example, I think it’s hard to support capital punishment when the innocent man we worship as God was executed by the state. Call that whatever political position you want, I call it seeing the world through the Cross.
Is it possible not to be an evangelical or so wrapped up in our Methodism that we remember more about who Jesus is? Yes, I think it is. Are we able to live with our filtered identities while not diluting Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God? I hope so. If not, we’ll stay worshiping our predominately American Methodist Wesleyan God (or you fill in the blank), call ourselves Christians, and wait for the world to keep asking: how can you call yourself Christian?
© Rev. Richard Bryant, 2016