John Spong

14 years ago John Shelby Spong said “Christianity must change or die.” Episcopalians have been doing both ever since.

Hebrews 11:32-38:

32 And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:

33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions.

34 Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.

35 Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:

36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:

37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;

38 (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

That account, of course, was written sometime during the 1st century. Since that time, a number of other horrifying things have been done to God’s people–they have been fed to the beasts in the Roman arenas, slaughtered by gladiators, beheaded, roasted in ovens, drawn and quartered, racked, and burned at the stake. They’ve had their eyes gouged out and tongues torn out of their mouths. They’ve been drowned to death. In more recent years, they’ve been cast into prison, whipped, electrocuted, and had slivers of wood driven underneath their finger and toenails, separating the nail from the appendage.

Through all this opposition, the church has survived and even continued to thrive. As the great hymn writer has said, “The church shall never perish / her dear Lord to defend / to guide, sustain, and cherish / is with her to the end.” That is the story of the church up till now. It’s the story of an institution that, despite moral failings from within and sometimes brutal repression from without, has continued to march on and grow. And while those who hated the church have long since died, the church marches on across time, “terrible as an army with banners,” as Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters. Hold these words and stories in your mind (and, for that matter, your hearts) as you read these words:

No, the Church shouldn’t change for millennials…but I think the Church must (and will) change along with millennials. In other words, we need not compromise the historical tenets of the Christian faith to recognize that this generation has something valuable to contribute to the future of Christianity, as does Generation X, the Boomers, and the generations before them. The article wasn’t intended to be a list of demands, but rather an expression of desires, a casting of vision and an articulation of my hope for the Church. Obviously, the real work begins when we come together in community to do the hard, daily work of reconciliation, listening, serving, and worshipping in spirit and truth.

That comes from Rachel Held Evans, in a follow-up post to her CNN article that was shared over 150,000 times via Facebook. Upon reading such a post, one is tempted to simply point out that if you compare the churches that accommodated modernity with those that made some effort to resist it, it’s the accommodationalists that are dying out, with the Episcopalians leading the way. They’re on pace to be completely extinct by 2037.

Yet when we state the argument in such pragmatic terms, we run the risk of missing why comments like the quotation above are so problematic. It’s true that the younger evangelicals doing their Chicken Little routine are completely ignoring what happened to the last generation to insist that “Christianity must change or die.” But the far more amusing thing is not the historical ignorance on display in such comments, but the ecclesiastical arrogance of such declarations. Hearing it, one can’t help being reminded of the late George Carlin’s rant about environmentalists intent on “saving the planet”:

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles…hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages…And we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference?

What Carlin says of the planet may be said of the church as well. Review that list at the top again–we’ve been burned, beheaded, disemboweled, and flayed alive and come through it all. We’ve been killed by our brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve fought wars, we’ve been sent off to concentration camps and gulags. There have been many times in our history where the greatest hindrance to joining the church was that getting baptized could lead to imprisonment, torture, or even death. And through all that, the church has endured. But in the minds of certain Christian bloggers, privileged white millennials and their nebulously defined intuitions and impulses pose a greater threat to the long-term flourishing of the church than the Colosseum.

Such an astonishing display of vanity calls to mind one of Chesterton’s finest quips: In The Everlasting ManGKC tells the story of a conversation he had with an author named Grant Allen who wrote a book titled “The Evolution of the Idea of God.” Upon hearing the title, Chesterton remarked that it would be far more interesting to read a book by God titled “The Evolution of the Idea of Grant Allen.” So it is with this latest iteration of the “Christianity must change or die,” crowd.

Just to be clear: The problem is not with the simple (and obvious) observation that the church changes over time. Of course it does–it’s a human institution. The problem is with this preoccupation certain millennials have with how the church will change alongside millennials at the expense of asking the far more important question, which is how millennials will change to conform to the church.

photo credit: Scott Griessel via photopin cc

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.