Years ago, members of a Boulder, Colorado, ministers’ association determined that they were responsible for Boulder’s civic health. Taking a cue from the early chapters of John’s Apocalypse, they resolved to serve as the guardian angels of the city.
They began to invite civil officials to address the pastoral association. Heads of city bureaus, the district attorney and police chief, and officials at the University of Colorado all visited. Each time, the pastors made the same offer: “Tell us,” they would say, “the problems you face for which there are no human solutions. We want to pray for solutions.” A pastor friend of mine who has been intimately involved with the group says that no one ever refused. No matter how secular or post-Christian, the politician sat tight as the pastors scrummed round to lay hands and pray.
My friend has countless accounts of answered prayer. Out of the meetings, the pastors developed close personal relationships with Boulder’s leaders. When crises hit, as they always do, city officials turned to the pastors for guidance, advice, prayer, encouragement, and friendship. Some of these officials converted or recommitted to their earlier faith. The pastors became, as my friend likes to put it, “advisors to the king,” prophet-pastors like Daniel to Nebuchadnezzarand this in one of the most secular cities in the U.S.
At a conference in Florida a few years ago, my friend demonstrated how easy it is to replicate his work in Boulder. Before the end of the conference week, he had made contact with several local pastors, met city officials, and had a friendly chat with the mayor.
Every time I tell my friend’s story, someone comes back with a similar story about another part of the country.
During the 1990s, the murder rate in Aurora, Illinois, was higher than in Chicago. There was a murder every month in Aurora as recently as 2007. In 2012, there were no murders in the city. Police crackdowns on gangs have played an important role, as have efforts by community groups that work with troubled youth, but churches have also been a visible player. Beginning in the mid-90s, the ecumenical Aurora Coalition for Reconciliation, founded by David Haas of the Aurora Community Church and David Engbarth of St. Nicholas Catholic Church, began holding a prayer vigil at each murder site. Vineyard Pastor Robby Dawkins was recently recognized by the city for his work with gangs.
It’s not just happening in the U.S. Another friend has been a missionary in northern Peru since 2000. With the blessing of the Catholic bishop, his missionary team took pastoral responsibility for a sector of his city. They built their first church in a depressed part of town on a piece of ground donated by the city. They run a medical clinic, provide micro-financing for small business startups, and train woodworkers at one of the local churches. They offer seminary training for Peruvian pastors and plan to start Christian schools.
There are two constants in the stories I hear. First, churches from different denominations minister together, and, second, churches cooperate with political leaders on projects that benefit the entire community. Here’s a project for an enterprising religion reporter looking for a big scoop, the hidden story of twenty-first-century American Christianity: Christendom is being rebuilt on a human scale in town after town across America.
It’s a model of ministry suited to our historical moment. As the Yoderites and Hauerwasites have been telling us for some time, Christendom is dead. The religious right was its last, long susperation. Though there are millions of Christians in the U.S. and Europe, Christian faith no longer provides the moral compass, the sacred symbolism, or the telos for Western institutions. America’s Protestant establishment has collapsed. Neither evangelical Protestants nor Catholics nor a coalition of the two are poised to replace it. Christian America was real, but, whatever its great virtues and great flaws, it is gone, and the slightly frantic experiments have failed to revive the corpse. It’s past time to issue a death certificate.
That’s a sobering conclusion, and it’s tempting for Christians to slink back to our churches. For innovative, visionary pastors and civic leaders, though, there are hundreds of realistic, locally based, ecumenically charged opportunities to foster experiments in Christian social and political renewal.
Christendom is dead! Long live the micro-Christendoms!