A new paganism, or the new Jerusalem?

Is the church in this part of the world (North America) verging toward a new brand of paganism? One of my colleagues wrote recently that “many (if not most) American churches emulate the ancient pagan religions in one regard: we neglect mission.” “The American church,” he wrote, “approaches evangelism, mission and outreach pretty much the way the ancient pagan religions approached it: [in] stunned bewilderment.”

The American church’s neglect of mission in favor of self satisfaction might be another way of naming the “consumer religion” that seems to so dominate the mainstream Western Protestant church and drain it of its lifeblood. It’s a sign, I believe, that we have lost our heart, our soul. There’s also another way to frame the situation. Jeremiah envisions God’s new covenant with us as one in which we no longer have to teach one another to know God, for everyone will know God (Jer. 31:31-34). And John imagines a perfected human community in which there is no temple (read, “no church”), i.e., no institutional religion (Rev. 21:22). There is a vision in scripture (only slightly apparent, I’ll grant) of an authentic faith that is large and nonexclusive. It’s one that treats the church as salt in the sense of the Hebrew scriptures: not as a body of believers who are out to convert the rest of the world to become salt also, but as a body whose seasoning presence makes of the whole – salt and non-salt – an offering acceptable to God (cf. Lev. 2:11-16). That would not excuse the church’s anemic commitment to mission, but it would perhaps free us from the self-serving need for affirmation that is what proselytizing is sometimes about.

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