St. Francis and a companion were walking past a large, ornate cathedral. The brother, quoting from Peter and John’s encounter with a beggar in Acts 3, quipped to Francis, “The Church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I not,’” to which Francis replied, “Neither can she say, ‘Rise, take pick up your mat and walk.”
As the church becomes ensnared by a material focus she loses her ability to speak with power into places of brokenness, oppression and lostness.
I once sat next to a man on a plane who was reading Why I am not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell.
“Is the book convincing?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. This is good stuff,” he replied.
“Is Russell arguing that he is not a Christian predominantly because of the sin and hypocrisy of the Church more than a disappointment with the person of Jesus Christ?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s a big part of his argument.”
“Yeah, Jesus certainly does attract messed up people to Himself. He said that he came for the sick and not for the healthy, so I guess that’s why the Church is so full of sick and broken people.”
I don’t know if my seatmate quite knew what to do with that, but it is true that as long as there are broken people in the world, Jesus will be in pursuit and the church will struggle with the frightening moral, mental, emotional and spiritual “issues” that people bring with them. Including materialism and the corrupting force of seeking worldly power.
But history tells us that after a period of entanglement with power, politics and possessions the church often witnesses the emergence of a handful of restless youth, hungry for genuine faith or a revival among the dispossessed which infuses the church with new life and a commitment to simplicity and altruistic spirituality. The vita apostolic the young monks, nuns and friars called it – the apostolic life.
Decline often is followed by resurgence.
I feel as if I’m living in the seam between the two actions of contraction and expansion. As the church in the West exhales her members, lost due to the institutionalization of the faith and the toxicity of church wealth and commercialism, the church in the South and the East begins to inhale new members, often made up of the young and the poor and sometimes suffering under oppressive economic and political forces, but so often substantially freer of materialistic or power-based encumbrances that her western cousins suffer under.
But I wouldn’t write off the church in the west quite yet. The US and Europe have received a significant boost to flagging church numbers from the poor or asylum-seeking Christian immigrants of Latin America and Africa.[i] What’s more, the disaffected youth of the western church are striking out to create new wineskins, often gathering in smaller and less formal structures and experimenting with mission that is leaner and meaner than their parent’s mission structures.
Bernard of Clairvaux once said, “The church clothes her stones in gold but leaves her sons naked.” While it is true that the western church is growing ill with the many shiny things she thinks will draw or sustain members, the truth is that there is always a movement of young, Christ-enamored idealists or revivals among coal miners or prostitutes, which follows close behind, bringing the church back to a place of renewal and vibrancy.