In May 1897 Mark Twain was in England, two years into an around-the-world trip that had previously taken him to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, and India. Twain, 61-years-old and the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, among other books, was the highest paid writer of his day. But by 1894 he had been forced to declare bankruptcy, the result of several disastrous investments. To make some money and pay off his creditors, Twain set out in 1895 on what amounted to the first global stand-up comedy tour.
Yet as his absence from the United States dragged on, a rumor started going around that he had become seriously ill and had possibly even died. One newspaper printed an obituary. The editors of another New York paper sent a cable to their English correspondent with instructions to get to the bottom of the story. Send us a 500-word article if Mark Twain is ill, they said, and a thousand-word article if he is dead.
The reporter tracked down the famous American author in London, very much alive and in good health. Accounts differ slightly from here, but according to one version, when the reporter showed Twain the cable with his article assignment, Twain said, in effect, “You don’t need that many words. Just tell them: ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’”
AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME
Over the last four years I have been on my own extended tour of sorts.
In June 2014, my friend Chris Smith and I released our book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. It struck a chord with readers in ways Chris and I couldn’t have imagined. It resonated with laypeople as well as pastors and professors, and as much with community-minded evangelicals committed to the flourishing of their neighborhoods as with progressive Christians looking for an alternative to McDonaldized religion.
The book is being used in churches, small groups, and college and seminary classrooms around the country. Other surprises since the release of Slow Church include the appearance of a Korean-language edition; the publication of a study guide; being asked to present on Slow Church to pastors in the Community of Christ, a branch of the Latter-Day Saint movement; and sharing the stage with the chairman of Slow Money, the president of Slow Food USA, and the vice-president of Slow Food International, as the closing session of the 2014 Slow Money Gathering in Louisville, Kentucky. (Knowing I am Quaker, the chairman of Slow Money even ended the three-day conference with several minutes of Quaker-style silence).
Victor Hugo said there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. In writing about our own hopes for the church, Chris and I seem to have stumbled across an idea whose time had come. We didn’t invent a new way of being the church. Instead what we heard from people who read our book was that it gave language to what they were already thinking and feeling. We’ve even heard about people who haven’t read the book but who have still adopted the language of “Slow Church.”
That something special was developing was further confirmed when we were invited to come speak about Slow Church. Over the last four years I have visited more than eighty neighborhoods around North America. As I travel, I am seeing firsthand how God is gathering in particular places, groups of Jesus-followers who have a heart for embodying and proclaiming God’s reign in ways that can be known by the people in those places.
During these talks, sermons, retreats, and workshops, my message is twofold.
First, don’t be overly enthralled by the fast and the flashy. The Kingdom of God is like yeast and a mustard seed. The small stuff matters. Faithful presence in place can be difficult, slow, unsexy, and often heartbreaking work—though it could be the most rewarding work of your life as well. It almost certainly won’t land you on the cover of Christianity Today. It can’t be distilled into the “six easy steps to anything.” But it matters. Every life you touch, every person you equip to love and serve others—it matters. Even the smallest acts of human faithfulness to God’s mission are slowly and patiently being woven into God’s great tapestry of reconciliation.
The second part of my message is this: Reports of the church’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Does the American Church Have a Future?
In those eighty-plus neighborhoods, as well as in countless conversations with people I meet at conferences, I’ve encountered two very different emotions about the future of the church.
On the one hand, I meet people who feel a tremendous anxiety about the church’s fate. “The church in North America is dying.” That is the familiar refrain. Or, if it’s not dying, then it is in mortal crisis. Prestigious firms like the Pew Research Center and the Barna Group tell us that millions of Americans no longer identify with a particular religion (the so-called “Nones”) and that nearly half of all Americans should now be considered “post-Christian.” The church seems to have lost its relevance and influence. So many young people are leaving the church, says apologist Josh McDowell, that we’ve already seen the last “Christian generation.”
Yet even as some folks are writing obituaries for the church, others are experiencing a growing excitement. I’m in this second camp. Because all around the country, I have witnessed communities of Christians who are rooting themselves in their particular places. I believe we’re witnessing the re-founding of the local church.
This is the subject of my next book: why I think we’re living in one of the most exciting moments in the history of the American church. I’ll be posting more about that here in the next several months. I will also be spending a fair amount of time on the road over the next six months, walking a couple dozen more neighborhoods and interviewing some amazing people.
I’ll also be reaching out to folks on my blog and newsletter to talk about what is happening in their own churches.
Thank you for being conversation partners as I wrap up the first draft of the book between now and July!
So what about you? Are you anxious about the future of the church? Excited for the future? Maybe both at the same time? Let me know in the comments section below.
Image credit: Rachel Elaine