What will faith look like in the 21st century? In some ways it will feel new and different. But in reality, what seems new is not really new at all. We have inherited almost 2000 years of the Christian community figuring out how to approach God and live a life of faith.
When Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, he did not give a lot of detail as to what its structure and pattern would look like. When Christians went out into the world to proclaim the good news of salvation, they had to create a lot of the patterns of Christian life as they went. Their effort gives us the opportunity to learn how Christians follow Jesus and approach God in many different circumstances.
Many Contexts and Expressions of Faith
We have seen Christians living in community in cities and in the country, in war and in peace, in empire and in freedom, as literate and as illiterate, as fundamentalist and as liberal, as sophisticated theologically and with simple faith, as servants and as masters. We have seen church as highly institutional and as focused in local communities, as clergy-driven and as lay-driven, as authoritative and as completely spirit-driven. At some times, we have emphasized the written word and at others, the free movement of the heart.
Martin Luther and Charlemagne: Two Different Approaches
Different historical circumstances have always called for different expressions of the Christian faith. For instance, in a strictly hierarchical church with no room for debate, Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546) brought reforms that emphasized the freedom of each believer to read scripture for themselves, and of different churches to have different worship expressions. In another time, in a kingdom that was under threat from the Norsemen, and while trying to fight for simple order and unity in a time of great chaos and violence, Charlemagne (Western Europe, 748-814) found the need to standardize all of the liturgy and church governance and to increase the authority of the clergy. Two different times and situations called for two different responses. Both were faithful even though they went in two different directions.
If there is anything particularly new about faith in the 21st century, it is that we have a greater appreciation for the diversity of Christian practice. We are more willing to resist the temptation to imagine that there is only one way to practice Christianity.
For instance, Richard Foster has done helpful work highlighting for us six different streams of Christian life: the prayer-filled (contemplative) tradition, the holiness tradition, the charismatic tradition, the social justice tradition, the evangelical tradition and the incarnational (sacramental) tradition. In his writing, Gary Thomas explores how different temperaments approach God in different ways. For instance, some people find God primarily through liturgy, others through nature, others through focus on the Word, or through giving service, through tradition, through the intellect, and so on. We have so much rich wisdom and practice to draw on. In some ways, this is the golden age of access to resources that help us love God and love our neighbours.
Of course, not all resources are the same. Some are better than others. In order to navigate an almost bewildering range of spiritual practices, we need one virtue in particular: discernment. But again, there is a long tradition of Christian practice to help us do exactly that!