Worried by crisis in churches? Let’s Awaken Hope

This is important—and this is good news.
All summer long at ReadTheSpirit, we’ve heard from readers who are worried about the future of their congregations. That anxiety recently spiked with the release of Gallup’s startling report on Americans’ record low levels of confidence in organized religion. We’ve heard from anxious readers of every faith. Can we survive? What can we do?

Here’s the good news: We can meet people like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove—our guest this week at ReadTheSpirit. Read today’s story (below) and, later this week, our three-part interview with Jonathan to discover his strikingly fresh perspective on this crisis. You’ll find out about new networks forming across the nation and other signs of renewal.

WE ARE RECOMMENDING three of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s books and will discuss these books with Jonathan later this week.
Available now for pre-order is The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice a Common Faith, which is Jonathan’s epic portrait of a dramatically transforming Christianity.
Go back to the roots of Christian community with Jonathan’s paraphrase of The Rule of St Benedict, a handy edition of the classic.
: We also will talk with Jonathan about this nuts-and-bolts look at The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture.
(Want these books? Click any of the links to jump to the Amazon book pages.)

We are not alone in reporting from this perspective. A regular reader in Pennsylvania, an Episcopal priest, emailed us a link to a Tom Ehrich column headlined “Despite doubters, mainline Protestant churches are poised for success.”
To be clear, Tom wasn’t specifically reporting on Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. But Tom is in the vanguard of smart writers urging people who care about their churches to take heart. There are great treasures in our communities, both Tom and Jonathan argue. And there are many things that will be left behind in the current revival.

Welcome Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove who has been working with colleagues nationwide for years to rediscover the energies that connect healthy congregations with healthy neighborhoods. Jonathan is convinced that we are on the verge of the next Great Awakening in America—this time blossoming from many grassroots communities, rather than erupting in a single location.
You may be thinking: Is this guy crazy!?!
Our answer: No, he’s not crazy—nor is he interested in ego trips or political power like old-style evangelists. Instead, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a chief architect in an emerging network of savvy, super-connected, faith-filled writers, teachers and activists on the verge of toppling our assumptions about America’s evangelical old guard.

So who is Jonathan-Wilson Hartgrove?
Consider these trademarks of his work:

HEALTH FIRST: Wilson-Hartgrove teaches that church health is more important than church growth, especially in this era when millions of men and women are thinking of “opting out” from organized religion. (See our earlier story about Gallup’s newest data.) Jonathan’s focus on health over growth is a major break from a half century of Christian obsession with management principles borrowed from the corporate world. The entire power structure of evangelical America boasts of numbers. From Rick Warren to Rob Bell, the brightest stars in the Christian firmament in the late 20th century made their names by drawing awe-inspiring numbers to their mega-churches. Wilson-Hartgrove says: Simply racking up numbers isn’t the same thing as building a healthy church.

THE SPIRITUAL GIFTS OF—SMALL: Wilson-Hartgrove teaches that small usually is healthier than big. He’s got his eye on the future of America’s actual neighborhoods. Remember those? Neighborhoods? They’re places in cities and rural areas where people have lived as neighbors for generations—yet, today, their glue is nearly gone. Healthy communities depend on smaller local churches. Like the mega-malls that destroyed Main Street in the mid-20th century, Wilson-Hartgrove says that rootless commuting to distant churches separates us from a life-giving sense of place. It’s usually better to join an existing neighborhood church than to organize a new one, he teaches.

STOP GRASPING: Wilson-Hartgrove also teaches that, overall, the past half-century of evangelical grasping for political power was a sinful mistake. (He’s not alone in this message. Jonathan Merritt, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw preach this message, too.) Don’t misunderstand! These potent young preachers are, indeed, tirelessly active on behalf of the needy, on behalf of peace and on behalf of diversity. But they all grew up with a disdain for the tactics of political power brokers in the old Religious Right.

All of the emerging voices mentioned above share another core message: In our rush to discover the hottest new techniques for church growth, millions have forgotten the religious treasures gathering dust in the 2,000-year-old Christian storeroom. And, Wilson-Hartgrove truly practices what he preaches. One of the books we will discuss with him, later this week, is his handy new version of the 1,500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict, the father of Catholic monasticism. More Americans need to see the actual teachings of Benedict, Wilson-Hartgrove believes—so he rolled up his sleeves and spent a year or so writing a paraphrase of Benedict for easy reading.

Evidence of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Unique Role

Here are a few more facts about Wilson-Hartgrove’s life and work that establish him as a rare new kind of teacher and writer.

He’s a boundary crosser. He’s a white, Southern, evangelical Baptist—but he’s an active, long-time member in a historically black church. That’s rare. What’s even more unusual: Among his recent books, two we will discuss with him this week are from the Catholic publishing house Paraclete. The third is by the evangelical giant Zondervan. That’s extremely rare.

He’s not “the Rev.” For 200 years, Americans have given the highest respect in the religious realm to ordained pastors. Think Dwight Moody, Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham and Joel Osteen—all ordained pastors. Wilson-Hartgrove stands with a small but influential new group of leaders who pointedly decline ordination to demonstrate what lay people can do.

He lives small. As you will discover in our interviews with Wilson-Hartgrove this week, he doesn’t even own his own home. He lives with a dozen other people in a kind of urban monastic community called Rutba House. That’s where other like-minded emerging leaders gathered from far and wide in 2004 to draft what is now known as the Twelve Marks of New Monasticism.

He speaks through his own network. Wilson-Hartgrove stands at the hub of a small but influential national network that he has helped to build over the past decade. If you follow trends in Christianity in America, you might have seen Wilson-Hartgrove’s name on the covers of books by other popular authors. Often, he has been a second-billed collaborator or editor. Now, Wilson-Hartgrove’s scholarship and architectural vision is emerging in its own right. This final point is important because there are thousands of Christian writers pumping out new books, each year, with their own individual visions of the future. Wilson-Hartgrove is different. He’s doing the hard work on all levels of this new movement.


Click this image to visit the book’s Amazon page.FINALLY, read a few words from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove himself, from his upcoming book, The Awakening of Hope …

America has a tradition of Great Awakenings—times when we remember the Spirit blowing across our land and demonstrating God’s power in people’s lives. These revivals have renewed the church in our culture, giving rise to new denominations and swelling the ranks of the faithful. They’ve also pricked the conscience of this nation’s soul, sparking reform movements from the abolitionists of the 19th century to the “What Would Jesus Do?” campaign of the 20th century. Our history teaches us to hope for a Great Awakening.

We have good reason for this hope. The God whom we know in Jesus has not abandoned us. But the awakening that happens when the Spirit blows across our lives does not have to be “great”—at least, not if great means crowds of people fiing into open fields or stadiums to hear talented communicators articulate the good news for our day. When Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” testified to God’s power in the early days of the Christian movement, he wasn’t noticed because of his communication savvy. People listened to Peter because they saw signs of hope in the new community he and John were part of. What they noted was that he and his friends had “been with Jesus.” They had been given power to lead a different kind of life (see Acts 4:13).

So maybe we’re not waiting for the next Great Awakening. Maybe we don’t need another George Whitfield or Charles Finney, a Dwight Moody or Billy Graham. Maybe the Spirit is already breathing new life into the church and into God’s good world through the everyday awakenings that are happening all around.

In hundreds—maybe thousands—of little communities that are mostly overlooked, people are being stirred by the Spirit to lead a different kind of life. It’s a life that doesn’t make sense if the gospel isn’t true. But because these people have been with Jesus—because they’ve somehow gotten the truth of God’s story deep down in the bones—their life does make sense.

Indeed, the way of Jesus is now the only way of living that makes any sense at all. To see your life from this vantage point is to see a whole new world of possibility. It’s like waking up from a bad dream to realize the thing that most scared you—the thing that just a moment before was as real as the price of gas—was only an illusion.

The way things are is not the way things have to be. There is a new creation all around us.

It’s an everyday awakening that can happen anywhere. When it does, you know you’ve found what you were looking for. You don’t have to go somewhere else to find the answer. Your desperate search is over because God has met you where you are.

NEXT: Read the portion of our interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, focusing on his recently published paraphrase of The Rule of St. Benedict.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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