07/21/2012 09:50 am ET Updated Sep 20, 2012

What the Church Has to Offer

The New York Times essay by Ross Douthat ("Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?") combined with Diana Butler Bass' rejoinder in The Huffington Post ("Can Christianity be Saved?") offer windows into current realities in American Christianity. Both articles raise seminal questions and offer provocative comments, but could easily -- though unfairly -- be interpreted as an internecine debate about things that matter only to the declining numbers of the institutional church.

Meanwhile, an increasingly large number of people in the United States have come to assume that ecclesial or theological conversation has nothing to do with them. This is not primarily because of formal objections, but is rather the result of a culture that considers history less and less relevant in light of the belief that life is fed from the future rather than the past. Things that sound, smell or feel like the past are unlikely to attract the focus of those who are anxious, if not desperate, for their preferred future. For many, few things spell "p-a-s-t" more than the their perceptions of the Church. In a speed-addicted culture, momentum more than mass is what fixes peoples' future-oriented attentions and aspirations.

The voracious hunger for hope is fueled by the desire for realities presumably as yet to be discovered, imagined or invented. Despair over (and disregard for) politics, leadership and the institution enervates the journey on traditional pathways toward the future. The more mired in what has been the conversation seems, the more lethargic and disinterested the response. This, more than theological, ethical or spiritual debate, explains the disregard so many have toward the Church. For them, the Church -- by definition and by ethos -- offers neither a hope nor a future.

The irony, of course, is that within the Church's self-perception, both liberal and conservative, "a future and a hope" are the very gifts they wish to offer. Depictions of that vision may vary, but to those outside the Church, it all sounds the same: irrelevant. What churches of the right and left have failed to inspire is a viable and compelling future that the Church universal can awaken and offer. If Apple can imagine and offer a future, so must any other competing hope. If Steve Jobs can create it, why can't God?

What the Church has to offer must center on an enactment of the life of Jesus. Inexplicably, the churches of the right, left and middle have tended away from Christ's vivid example of living and dying, offering church-likeness instead of Christ-likeness. Outside the Church culture, this appears to be a decision for form over reality, for tradition over people, for safety over risk; in short, for nothing over something.

One morning in Berkeley, I met a student named Tim who had been attending worship services at a church where I was pastor. He explained he was a graduate student newly back to school after a number of years as a touring musician. His neck tattoos were spectacular. He said he had shelved a lot of life's big questions while on the road, but now he was dusting them off and thinking about them again. Among his big questions were issues of faith.

"I am checking out churches and wondering about something. I go to some churches and I hear a lot about Jesus but very little about the world. I go to other churches and I hear a lot about the world but little about Jesus. I've been going to your church lately and I hear a lot about Jesus and a lot about the world. But here's my question: It's easy to find people in Berkeley like me, we are a dime a dozen; however, what I want to know is, if I hang out at your church, will I meet people who are like Jesus?"

Now there was a question to start a pastor's day. Tim was hungry for spiritual reality. He rightly expected that the Real Thing would be measured by lives that portrayed the Jesus we claimed to follow. Is this not what Jesus himself meant when he said, "The Kingdom of God is at hand"? In other words, Jesus defined a future that has come near.

Tim was paying close attention to what our church said, but what he wanted was to meet people who lived and loved like Jesus in the world. For a moment, I looked into his eyes for any sign of a cynic or of an accuser. What I saw instead, early one morning in the middle of Berkeley, were bright and honest eyes asking a clear, serious and unguardedly earnest question: does following Jesus show?

A life where following Jesus was readily apparent would be a life beyond the institution, off the scriptural page, out of ecclesial culture, radically free and vividly, sacrificially engaged in creating hope. Unless the churches of the right and left decide that this is the most compellingly important question, their survival will continue to be in question. If this is the direction they take, their survival may be even more in jeopardy, but for an entirely different set of reasons.