An earlier version of this article first appeared in Christian Citizen, Jan 12, 2021

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

As the calendar turns and an extraordinary 2020 concludes, advertisers for gyms and weight loss programs bombard us with some version of, “A New Year, a new you!” The fitness industry’s perennial pursuit of profit based on our short-lived desires for self-improvement is worryingly ingrained into the lifecycle of the American psyche. However, the annual call to honest self-examination is an important challenge that resonates. Nobody needs honest reflection and a “New Year, new you” campaign more than the American church after its response to 2020.

Early church leaders, dating back to fifth-century writer Prosper of Aquitaine, used a Latin phrase to describe how discipleship habits shape people into the image of God: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vevendi. This phrase, often translated as, “The rule of prayer is the rule of faith, the rule of life,” might be understood in contemporary language as, “the way we pray and worship, becomes the way we live.”

The Christian journey is not simply the mental affirmation of doctrinal statements while waiting to die and go to heaven. The Christian journey is active participation in the Kingdom of God. What we believe about the Kingdom impacts how we live within it. Discipleship habits like prayer, Scripture reading, worship, community, church calendar, solitude, silence, generosity, mercy, justice, and many more are not mere reflections of our Christian faith and belief. They create, shape, and form our faith and what we believe. What we believe impacts what we do. What we do reveals what we truly believe.

I must confess 2020 caught me flat-footed. I was often uncertain how to respond to the rapid succession of social, political, economic, and personal stresses. Equally lamentable, the entire Christian community in America seemed to have been caught unprepared for the opportunity to serve as signposts to the kingdom of God.  

Why were we not ready? How did we get to such a position of ineffectiveness? Why were so many white Christians not already standing next to our African American brothers and sisters? Why were not more of our church buildings utilized as emergency spaces for COVID-19 screenings, resource distribution centers, or online school safe havens so kids did not have to be home alone while their parents worked? Why did worship without a sanctuary cripple our ability to be the church?

As the calendar turns and an extraordinary 2020 concludes, advertisers for gyms and weight loss programs bombard us with some version of, “A New Year, a new you!” The fitness industry’s perennial pursuit of profit based on our short-lived desires for self-improvement is worryingly ingrained into the lifecycle of the American psyche. However, the annual call to honest self-examination is an important challenge that resonates. Nobody needs honest reflection and a “New Year, new you” campaign more than the American church after its response to 2020.

Many of the churches I partner with observed that their local municipalities did not even think to ask them for help in meeting community needs through the crisis until they already had plans in place, and lamented this as evidence of the church’s weakened witness. Worse, local churches have been spreaders of misinformation and skepticism on just about every stressor in 2020. Last year revealed too often our houses to be built on foundations of sand as we squabbled about online gatherings, communion limitations, mask mandates, secular ideologies, and “all lives matter” mantras.

To be fair, this is a broad observation. There are many local churches, pastors, and leaders who represent the kingdom well, sharing the love of Christ in their local contexts. But if we are honest, a large swath of us need to be better.

Thanks be to God, “New Year, new you” opportunities abound. Like any good renewal campaign, we must start with the basics. One of the most fascinating things about the Bible in general, and the New Testament specifically, is that its target audience is community. We tend to read the Bible as though it is written to us as individuals, yet most uses of the pronoun “you” in scripture are plural and should be read as “you all” or “y’all.” The hope of resurrection, lists of moral virtues, the calls for unity, and the teachings on loving others are for the entire community to practice together as the church. If you are in Christ, you have been adopted into a family of siblings, a metaphor used 271 times in the New Testament to describe the church. Our foundational challenge for 2021 is to think corporately. Our rule of prayer, our rule of faith, rule of life, must be rooted in community, not individuality.

If Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vevendi holds through the centuries, what sort of emphasis can we focus on together in 2021? Of course, the classics remain: prayer, Scripture reading, storytelling, listening, and communion are the lifeblood of community practice. But if we are going to be a church deeply rooted in Christlikeness serving as signposts of the kingdom of God, we must also work hard on nurturing a faith of reconciliation, generosity, wisdom, empathy, grace, reciprocity, truth telling, justice, service, mercy, and prioritizing people as friends and siblings. We cannot foster these habits of discipleship on our own strength—if we could, we would have done it by now. These discipleship habits require submitting to the active presence of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is not a cozy list of buzzwords or theological platitudes; this is the real gritty work of faithful Christianity. We must first define what these discipleship habits mean as words and as practices considering Christ’s resurrection and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. We must do our part by practicing our way into being. As N.T. Wright writes, the church is “a microcosmos, a little world…the prototype of what is to come…a light in a dark place.”[1] A microcosmos is a little world. A prototype is preliminary model of what is to come. The church is to be a little world that embodies here and now the future heaven and earth. We will know we have become the church God wants when stressors like those of this past year reappear (none have disappeared, and new ones are on the horizon) and we are found being the prototype of faithful reconciliation, generosity, wisdom, empathy, honesty, justice, mercy, and Christlikeness.

2020 found us wanting. 2021 is a new year and in it we can be a new church. We must be better. Now is a great time to start.

[1] N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, vol. Part 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 1492.

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