For the past couple of years, my blog’s tagline has been: “Religion is easy; discipleship is hard.” I’m starting to think that perhaps this slogan is only half right. Discipleship certainly is hard, but religion doesn’t seem to be such a piece of cake, either.
I recently read a really tender, honest post from my friend Hye Sung, in which he wrestles with the fact that he rarely attends church, despite his strong faith in Jesus and his belief that Christian community is very important. What does it mean for him, and the millions of others like him, that faith in Jesus should be so compelling and yet finding healthy, life-giving Christian community is so hard? What does it mean for me that after spending years in seminary and nearly a decade in Christian ministry, I find myself resonating with Hye Sung’s dilemma, too?
Why is church so hard? For hundreds of years, the Sunday-morning congregation has filled a vital role in the life of God’s people. Yet in my generation, it may be that there are more Christians living their lives outside of the traditional congregation than those who remain within it. And many of those who remain are struggling.
We are in the midst of a monumental shift in the life of the church, one that is just as significant as the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. Our entire culture is changing, and all of our legacy institutions — government, media, business and the church — are straining under the pressure. We’ve set out on a new sea, but instead of oars, we have shovels. How long will it take for us to craft the tools we need to thrive in this new environment? So much hangs in the balance.
It’s reassuring to remember that we’ve been here many times before. This coming Sunday is Pentecost, when we remember the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit that formed the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Pentecost was a moment when God made a way out of no way. In the face of stuckness and confusion, Jesus drew together a new community that could speak to the spiritual hunger of the people of the Roman Empire. The old order was fading away, and it was frightening, but the Holy Spirit brought the creativity needed to bridge the gap. She revealed the new order of God.
This new order played out differently in first-century Palestine than it did in medieval Europe. The body of Christ looked different in the days of St. Francis than in those of George Fox. The way that the Holy Spirit is guiding us in our time, place and culture, is bound to be different from anything that humans have ever experienced before. We’re being given new wine for the new wine skins of our day and age.
I won’t sugar-coat it: These are hard days to be living in. Everything that our grandparents thought they knew is being turned on its head. We are in the midst of a great confusion as a society, and it’s not clear where we are headed. And yet there is a blessing in such a moment, the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide us into a new expression of faithfulness for our own day. Just like on that most famous day of Pentecost 2,000 years ago, we are being invited to participate in a brand-new experiment, the likes of which the world has never seen.
I don’t know where this road leads. I’m not even convinced that I’ll like it when we get there. But I do have confidence that God is in control, and that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned her people. This is a time for the patient endurance of the saints, for us to be actively partnering with Jesus in his ministry of reconciliation and peace. It’s not easy, but it can be joyful. Let’s stumble down this road together.
Micah Bales is a writer, teacher, and grassroots Christian leader based in Washington, D.C. He is a founding member of Friends of Jesus, a new Quaker community, and has been an organizer with the Occupy movement. You can read more of his work at www.micahbales.com or follow him on Twitter.