Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4)
That everything has changed because of the pandemic has become something of a truism—but if you’re like me, it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what that change is!
In regard to the church, my growing sense is that whatever has changed is not just due to the last two years of social upheaval, but that it is all part of a much bigger pattern that was already at work.
Back in 2009, for instance, Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox published a book called The Future of Faith. In it, he argued that Christian history can be divided into three distinct periods.
The first, which he calls the “Age of Faith,” was the first three centuries or so after Jesus, when the Christian community was focused on living the life that Jesus had taught: welcoming social outcasts, sharing bread and wine together as a sign of fellowship, and embodying God’s reign of peace (shalom). About doctrine, there was a wide variety of opinion; about church organization, there was a pattern of shared equality; and about society, there was a consensus that Christian life was steadfastly in opposition to establishment and empire.
But around the beginning of the fourth century, all that began to change. When the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the year 312, the church suddenly became overlaid with imperial forms of governance; creeds came into being as a litmus test for belonging; and rather than a pattern of opposition to oppressive empire, the church became its advocate and handmaid.
This “Age of Belief” (as Cox calls it), lasted for a very long time—some 1,700 years in fact, until the relatively recent emergence of what Cox calls the “Age of the Spirit,” beginning in the late twentieth century. This age is once again claiming Christianity’s roots as a non-hierarchical, non-creedal, counter-cultural movement that is focused more on living a life shaped by what Jesus taught, than insisting on believing things about who Jesus was. At its core, the Age of the Spirit is driven by an ecstatic response to the enlivening presence of God’s Spirit: a Spirit that is personal, unpredictable, and counter-cultural to the deadening weight of late capitalism and mass society.
The evidence for this kind of transformation lies in two directions. On one hand, Christianity in the last several decades has been transformed by the rapid rise of Pentecostalism, especially in the global south, so that demographically speaking, the most “typical” Christian nowadays is quickly becoming either African or Latin American, and Pentecostal. On the other hand, traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic churches—the ones (like ours) that are most attached to the ancien regime of hierarchical structure, creedal faith, and social establishment—are in steady decline.
So what does this emerging “Age of the Spirit” look like in practice? Well, it means that worship is becoming more experiential than performative. It means that the experience of God is immediate and personal, rather than doctrinal. It means that we most readily know God through one another, rather than through an institution. It means that church structures are becoming egalitarian and participatory rather than clerical. It means there are multiple ways we come to God, and multiple ways that God comes to us.
It’s been easy, in thinking about how the pandemic has changed church, to focus only on superficial things such as the experience of online versus in-person worship. But what I think these times have really revealed, is a deep hunger for personal connection in whatever form with one another and with God, beyond what mere “church attendance” can provide. That’s why even if we could go back to the way things were before Covid, we would still find it unsatisfying: we’ve come to crave something more, something life changing—which is what Cox would say is a sign of the Age of the Spirit.
Let me give you some concrete examples. Last summer, at my invitation a group of vestry members formed a study group around what we called, “The Future of the Church.” Together we looked at a variety of emerging congregations whose very name indicates that something new is afoot within them.
Take, for instance, St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, a congregation in Queens, New York whose entire life is based on a single verse of scripture: “Jesus was known to them in the breaking of bread.” Or the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, a Lutheran congregation whose worship is designed and executed by the whole gathering, young and old alike, preaching included. Or the Episcopal-Lutheran Church of the Apostles in Seattle, where the sacred and secular are blurred artistically and musically, “like a canvas waiting to be painted” (and often there is one awaiting exactly that!). Or even here at St. Michael’s, there are innovative small groups that have come into being such as a Sabbath gathering on Saturday evening that lights candles of blessing, breaks bread, meditates over scripture, and shares in prayer. And the transformation of some of our institutional office space into a center of hospitality for immigrants speaks volumes about our shifting priorities.
All of this might be summed up by saying that the emerging Age of the Spirit emphasizes faith as a way of life, rather than a pattern of belief. It’s about what you do, rather than what you think. “Deeds, not creeds,” as one pastor put it. And here’s the point: St. Michael’s has always seemed to me like a congregation on the cusp of just such a transition, for that instinct for personal spiritual wholeness and social responsibility is already woven deeply into the fabric of who we are. So as we come out of these Covid times, I’m convinced there’s something new and innovative just waiting to be discovered and activated among us!
And that’s truly exciting, because it means that we have the opportunity to be part of something of global significance that is transforming the Christian church. As Professor Cox wrote, that something is a new stirring of the Spirit, which is yearning to break free as it did in the earliest days of the church, before it became hostage to empire and hierarchy. And that freedom is what Jesus laid claim to in today’s gospel, “the time of the Lord’s favor,” when he proclaimed that prisoners would go free and sight would be restored to the blind—when our deepest longing would be met with God’s most abundant grace.
For those who have ears, now is also a time of renewed invitation to be part of living afresh into God’s peace, the invitation to peace that was at the core of Jesus’ life and teaching, and the peace which was the final gift he made to the disciples: “Peace I give to you, my own peace I leave with you.” May that peace be both the gift we are prepared to receive and to live, and the gift we are ready to offer. Amen.