Denominational Pentecost in a Post-Carbon World

Written by Brandon Rhodes : June 20, 2008

Editor’s Note: Below is the 2nd Prize winner in the culture category for the Stepping into a Violent Wind Writing Competition:

When the age of less oil arrived, the Jesus radicals were all together in one place. And suddenly a great wind and tongues of flame spread through the room. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak and worship in ways that cut across tradition and theology as the Spirit gave them power.

Now there were dwelling in Kentucky Christians, devout men from every denomination under heaven. And upon seeing this they all came together, bewildered, because each one was found to belong regardless of tradition. And they were amazed, astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Jesus radicals? And how is it that we find ourselves able to worship and belong here, even according to our various denominations? Baptists and Southern Baptists and Presbyterians, Greek Orthodox and Anglicans, Methodists from Missouri and Pentecostals, too. Roman Catholics and Mennonites, Lutherans, Korean and Black congregations are all here - we hear them telling in our own languages the mighty works of God.”

So may read the best stories of the American church in the 21st century.

But what in the world could ever cause such a diverse crowd of Christians to cram together into one congregation? Perhaps a better question is, what ever let us get so fragmented in the first place? It is from this second question that we can arrive at the first.

Denominationalism of its present degree has been permitted and sustained by our ability as Americans to have within driving distance a denominational smorgasbord to choose from. Go to a less motorized society, or rewind one hundred years in history, and you’ll find a remarkably small set of options for Christians to choose from. You just go to the church nearest you, and that’s that. This is in part why you can still find heavily Catholic areas in some East Coast cities.

But nowadays, most Christians can choose a church that is as specially customized to their preferences and comforts as their own ringtone. It’s a delightful opportunity - I can easily find a church with the right theology, music style, political bent, income range, generational skew, and ethnic blend for me! If I don’t like the church closest to me, no problem: I’ll just drive down the road to somewhere more suited to my tastes as a consu - err, I mean, Christian. We are basking in the Era of Ringtone Christianity, and man is it sweet.

But it’s a way of doing church that is fueled by cheap, abundant oil. We can get to that perfect church because we can drive so dang far. We can drive on past those other churches that don’t fit us so well. Make no mistake, though: the ecclesial options of most American Christians would constrict drastically if they had to walk or bicycle to church! The emergent church on the other side of town that’s just right for me - scratch that. Without cheap oil, I’d have to attend the Southern Baptist church down the street. God help us all to get along in such a situation. And I dunno what would happen to the half of our elder board and pastorate that don’t even live in this city!

This is precisely the direction the church, and the world, is headed. Cheap, abundant oil is fast becoming a thing of the past, and it’s only going to get worse. Experts predict that global oil production is maxed out to its geological limits, that we’re going to see irreversible declines in pump rates for the rest of our lives, and that no combination of alternative fuels or technologies will be able to continue our present way of life. (Google “peak oil” for the low down)

With the end of cheap oil and the easy-motoring American Dream comes the end of Ringtone Christianity. Our waning diet of hydrocarbons will compel us to work, eat, shop, learn, play, and worship closer to our homes. Don’t expect to see those far horizons of church options in the near future: nearer will not only be better, it’s just what will have to do.

What congregation is closest to your home? How many churches can your family regularly bike or walk to? How uncomfortable might your attendance at your nearest church make either you or the congregation? Seeker-sensitive, patriotic, and geriatric congregations may have little patience for the presence of a Jesus radical, let alone one of those vile fill-in-the-blank’s that now walk here instead of driving past it.

But we’re going to have to get awfully comfortable next to one another if we’re going to make it through the coming hardships. Baptists and Presbyterians are going to have to accept each other into their congregations in the years to come, and both groups had better start cultivating a church environment of ecumenism, reconciliation, and fellowship-across-tradition.

Distinction and denomination have segregated the American church across too many lines to count. Calls for church unity and ecumenical dialogue fall on mute ears. And us Jesus radicals, emergents, submergents, neo-monastics, and the rest of the new conspirators are rarely different. We, too, would rather drive the extra ten miles to feel comfortable in the cool church that meets in the old mall than get on with the hard work of learning to love those fundamentalists that worship around the corner.

I’m afraid we don’t have a choice. Ringtone Christianity’s batteries are blinking the red battery, and the charger’s nowhere to be found. Soon and very soon, we are going to become reacquainted with the Christians on our own block. We will have to learn to talk and listen to one another with sincerity, patience, and love as the Pentecost of the Post-Carbon Church comes to a steeple near you.

Author Bio: Brandon Rhodes lives, writes, and worships in the Old Growth Community in Portland, Oregon.

image by jmaxtours

Mark Van Steenwyk is the general editor of Jesus Manifesto. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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Viewing 9 Comments

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    Great article. Made me think a lot. The sad thing is that people would skip a meal a day if they had to in order to attend a church that was more like what they wanted. In the coming years we'll see if this prediction comes true. I think the message to us all is that we need to engage in our local churches instead of going to the next church down the road every time there is something we don't like.
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    Hey, I think about this on the community level a lot but as a Church community it is very important to talk about this. How will the end of oil change our communities and our Church communities? In revolutionary ways. It will redefine neighborhoods.

    To be honest, I'm really kinda looking forward to it.
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    It might be nice if we learned to get along together, but that is very hard work. I suspect that people would prefer to not go to church at all than go to a church where they have major disagreements or have been seriously offended. The more entrepreneurial types might try and start their own house church which would probably make the fragmentation worse rather lessen it. We need people to prayerfully consider what structures would bring grace and freedom to Christ's body as a whole, so that small communities would desire to be part of larger communities.

    I have been very concerned at the general lack of understanding (much less the practice) of forgiveness, justice, and grace. These things are so much apart of Christianity's core, but it seems as though so few people (including pastors) really understand them. I doubt that we will be able to overcome very many of our divisions without persistent practice of those attributes.

    From a personal perspective, I appreciate the fact that there are so many flowers in the garden. I'm also glad that as a yucca I don't have to live in a tulip bed.
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    I agree, many will probably drop out altogether! And many of the "I-always-wanted-to-be-a-pastor-and-know-whats-best" types will probably start house churches of the more socially-militant/conservative flavor.

    Yet the drop-outs only underscores my point -- easy mobility has created a nightmarishly thin and shallow kind of spiritual formation, wherein we would rather "do our own thing" than learn how to get along with people who are stridently different from us. Retreat is FAR easier a road than reconciliation. Fear, not forgiving fellowship, is the path of least resistance -- as far as our fleshly resistance goes. Peak oil will call the question: how deep has our discipleship been in the church of North America during the Age of Carbonation?
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    If we want people to learn to get along in churches, probably the easiest place to start discipling is in the home. So many people have difficulty getting along with their spouses, not to mention other relations. There's a lot we need to relearn about anger management, communication, and negotiation in addition to forgiveness and love.
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    Hey Brandon. Thought provoking article I can relate to being car-less and formerly searching for an eccessial home. I seriously thought of becoming catholic, after walking to the perish 15blocks away to worship for a period of time. Now I ride my bike a bit further. To reverently disregard your writings to an extent, I would love to connect with the old growth community sometime. Being in the same city and loosely having a group of friends wanting to move the same direction of communal living, it would be beneficial I think. Neo monastics and the like, very well could be the new weak disciples meeting in the upper rooms, waiting for a pentecostal wind of empowerment to burn in them the freshness of the gospel's post carbon implications. I want to humbly learn from your communities journey. get at me.
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    Personally, I think you're severely underestimating the ties that some people hold to their denominations.

    Secondly, the assumption of 'attending churches' versus simply birthing them in one another's homes may not pan out.

    But I get the gist of it, and I'm with you. We are looking for a way to celebrate and love with our neighbors, of disparate faith walks and streams, ages, nationalities, economic statuses. It's scary as hell and takes a lot longer. But I think it's worth it.
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    I agree with Hew that there are many who are FIRMLY entrenched in their denominational identity and who will not easily depart.

    On the other side of this issue, yes, the poor and lower middle class will certainly be affected by higher gas prices, but do we honestly think the upper class/wealthy will see high gas prices as a serious impediment to church shopping? I tend to doubt it, so while I think there is some hope that peak oil may produce a certain degree of mixing and heterogeneity (compared to their previous congregational demographics), I think it may also result in another class-based split. Wealthy, largely white churches and poorer, mixed-race churches.
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    That's an important point that I'd never considered.

    But it'll probably only be the reality of the American church for the first few years of the energy crisis, when gasoline is increasingly expensive but still readily available. As the years progress, it just won't be available as much to non-industrial, non-governmental consumers -- including the rich. Sooner or later, there may still be enclaves along class lines, but perhaps not nearly as sharp as you're saying.

    Time will tell!


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