“So let us not talk falsely now; the hour is getting late.”
– From “All Along the Watchtower,” by Bob Dylan
Christendom’s demise is a gift to the church. No longer responsible for underwriting the ruling entities of the world, nor longer required to “make nice” with the principalities, no longer dutifully excusing the violence of power politics, the church can at long last resume the serious business of being the church.
Playing church is, of course, far easier than being it. But, barring a powerfully rejuvenated alliance of accommodated Christianity and American nationalism, reasons to pretend should grow increasingly rare. The benefits of claiming default Christian identity have disappeared in many parts of the United States. Even the assumed American requirement that Presidents endorse “strong beliefs vaguely held or vague beliefs strongly held,” has nearly run its course.
The wall of the vineyard is broken; the hedge is devoured.
This may mean far fewer church weddings for couples lacking religious commitment, fewer baptisms motivated by cultural rather than confessional reasons, and fewer public appeals to a housebroken god who apparently wants us to have the things we already want.
It may not mean, at least for some time, an end to Christian nationalism. It may not mean the end of having to distinguish the confessing church from the accommodated. It may not mean the end of apologizing to non-Christian inquirers for the words and actions of other, so-called Christians.
But a church less entangled with other allegiances will not necessarily be a peaceful, happy place. It will almost certainly bring an increased cost of discipleship, an end to cheap grace.
When baptism no longer comes with lifelong membership discounts, church will require sustained commitment and tangible sacrifice. When Christianity is no longer defined by a tame and bourgeois God, country, and family values, families will increasingly be theaters of conflict rather than havens in a heartless world. When the peace of Christ no longer merits condescending lip service, the gospel, proclaimed and lived, will just as often sow division as unity.
A cloud rises in the West; a south wind blows.