A few years ago, the late communitarian Robert Bellah and his colleagues identified how radical individualism has taken a toll on our communal well-being. In Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life,they wrote about the religion of “Sheilaism.” They were referring to a woman by that name who put in a little bit of religion here and philosophy there to create her own religion, unique in its specifics to her and no one else.
Habits was long on description of problems and short on prescription of solutions. Yet toward the end of the book, Bellah wrote about a small Episcopal church in the San Francisco area. With wistful words, he described how this little group of people committed to Jesus Christ met together regularly to worship, to sing hymns, to pray, to hear sermons, to celebrate Communion. From there, they went out into the surrounding community in the name of Jesus Christ, feeding the hungry, ministering to youth, helping abused women, and caring for the mentally and physically ill. In short, says Bellah, “[St. Stephens] seems to be able to combine a sense of continuity with the past and engagement with the public world of the present.”
Because of my 50 years of experience in the pastorate and my involvement with numerous non-profit boards, I’m often asked, “Are you pessimistic or optimistic about the future of the Christian church in the United States?” I’ve pondered this question in relation not only to the church, but also to a ministry like Christianity Today, which I’ve served for 36 years on the board and the last decade as board chair. I’ve seen a lot in my 75 years. I have to say my attitude is not unlike that of Bellah: I ...1
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