To this day, I can vividly remember two lunchtime conversations in 1995. The first conversation changed the trajectory of my life right away. The second took decades.
The first conversation happened in Columbia, Maryland, with a man I’d never met before. He had done an assessment based on a questionnaire I’d completed for him. We met at Bertucci’s for pizza. I’ll never forget his introduction: “Hi, I’m Bob. I’m Presbyterian.” I found that a little odd, so I asked why Presbyterian mattered. “Well, I’ve had a word from the Lord. And Presbyterians don’t get words from the Lord.” Bob had written the word on the 3×5 card that was in front of him, face down. He said he’d show me the word after walking me through his assessment.
The assessment had four categories. Bob said I was off the charts on all four. The first three were positive things like leadership and vision. The fourth was what he called “churn.” He’d never seen someone with so much churn. I knew what he meant. I was a pastor at that time, and I hated my job. I had lost confidence in whether the Western church could make a difference. Then Bob said something that changed the trajectory of my life: “Your kite is being blown—hard—and you won’t let go of it.” He had me dead to rights. I didn’t want to let go of my paycheck, my “settled” life as a popular pastor of a booming church.
Then Bob turned over the 3×5 card. He had written one word: Prophet. “Has anyone ever called you a prophet?” Yes. Several friends had recently.
After lunch, I drove around Columbia for two hours. I was stalling for time. I knew I had to go home and tell my wife Kathy that I was resigning. I hoped she’d understand. She did although I’m sure she was scared. I was. I had no plan. All we had were three young kids (who ate a lot), a mortgage, and not a lot of money in the bank. I was 41.
A few months later, I was in Chicago, taking a course under Dallas Willard. My good friend Tom knew of my churn and suggested we take the course together. Dallas was teaching on the spiritual disciplines, but was also covering material in his upcoming book, The Divine Conspiracy. Three of us taking the course took Dallas out to lunch. That lunchtime conversation also changed the trajectory of my life but would take decades.
I’m referring to a question that Tom asked Dr. Willard: What do you make of the church in America? Without batting an eye, Dallas replied: “It’s a lost cause.” Then he took a big bite out of his cheeseburger. The three of us just sat there, a bit stunned and very silent.
Looking back, I think we were all chicken to ask Dallas a follow-up question. That was providence since the answers would have been too much for us then.
Over the next 28 years, I’ve slowly discovered some of the answers. I say discovered since I haven’t “figured out” anything. I’ve been playing catch-up to those who are a whole lot smarter than me, leaders like Archbishop Fulton Sheen. In 1974, he said, “We are at the end of Christendom. Not of Christianity, not of the Church, but of Christendom.” Protestant missionary Lesslie Newbigin said the same thing. Western Christianity is over. Pope Francis said the same thing: “Brother and sisters, Christendom no longer exists!” It’s dead. (I introduced the idea of the end of Christendom in last week’s column.)
I’m sharing all this because death is a difficult thing to face. The Judeans of Isaiah’s day couldn’t face the fact that they’d been idolatrous for 500 years. The era of prosperity was over, dead. Seventy years of exile was next. Their beautiful temple would be razed. Few Judeans could face this.
Five-hundred years later, few Jews could face the fact that their five centuries of idolatry were over, dead. Their temple, not as beautiful as the first, would be razed in 70 years.
I’ve found that few pastors and Christian leaders can face this. Years ago, Kathy and I lived in Annapolis, just across the street from St. Johns College. When Christians visited, some wrestling with what to make of the Western church, I’d ask them to look across the street at St. Johns. I’d ask them to imagine St. John as the prestigious University of Ptolemy. We’re all on the faculty. We all have advanced degrees from prestigious Ptolemaic colleges and universities. We’re all tenured, we’re well paid… face it, we’ve got a good gig.
Then we hear rumors of a little book that the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus has written: On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbits. It supposedly upends Ptolemy’s 1500-year-old view of the universe. In other words, if Copernicus is right, the Ptolemaic era is over, dead. Our frame for reality, found in every book in our library, is wrong. The individual words are right—stars, moon, planets, orbits—but they’re arranged in the wrong frame, making the entire model wrong. Only a few of us would face the reality that a revolution had begun.
But the revolution would not include most of us in Ptolemaic institutions. The Ptolemaic era might have been dead, but human nature says most folks in established institutions will fight like hell to keep their jobs (and retirements). Western Christendom might be dead, but I have to live.
This is why it took almost 30 years for God to change the trajectory of my life. I began to read the medieval mystics, then went further back in time, to the church fathers (and mothers). Their frame upends our +1500-year Western frame. If the church fathers are right (I think they are), Christendom is over, dead. Its frame for reality, found in Protestant Evangelical books in every library, is wrong. The individual words are right—God, Gospel, salvation, discipleship—but they’re arranged in the wrong frame, making the entire model wrong. That’s why Dallas Willard said: “It’s a lost cause.”
I close by referring you to someone who might help if you feel as I (and many others) do. Over the past two years, Paul Kingsnorth has written an excellent series on why the West is Dead. I heartily recommend it. Start with The Tale of the Machine. After that, read: The West Must Die: Beyond the Revolution. Paul’s thinking might not change the trajectory of your life right away, but I hope the points he makes will transform you over time.