When Christianity came to America, the church became something new. The beliefs of Puritans and Pilgrims, Quakers and Methodists, Baptists and Catholics became something they were not in Europe. While each strain of the Christian Church that made its way to the “colonies” came with heavy bags of tradition and roots in an ancient church, the soil of America in which these traditions and ancient beliefs were planted became a different tree.
Almost from the beginning, early 1630s, there were two emerging needs the church sought to meet and these needs have shaped us ever since. There was a need to have faith, a personal faith, an identifiable and defined set of beliefs; and there was a need to shape the world into a better place, a kingdom of God. If you follow these two needs, you can see and understand a great deal of American history.
The need to confess one’s faith in order to be a member of the congregations of New England, a key to business and standing in one’s community, has morphed and changed through nearly 400 years of history. We do not have the “sinner’s bench” where the non-member sat before they were examined for membership; but we do have a culture that applauds and encourages everyone to find their own way, find what they believe, and speak from the heart.
The need to make a different world, while it began with the dream of a “A City on a Hill,” has spread to include much of a continent. Think of all the “movements.” Prohibition, abolition, women’s suffrage and rights, abortion, peace, and civil rights. Each of these arise from the seed planted by the Puritan belief that our world could be remade. The desire to “make a difference” is key to unlocking the code of habit and culture that shapes us each day.
These two deep roots that took hold so early in our experience are not unique to America. People need faith and people need to have purpose. This is not an American phenomenon. What is unique is the role the church has played for 400 years in identifying those needs, shaping them, and, ultimately, trying to meet them. Hence, we have Sunday School and Confirmation and Youth Group so as to help bring faith to the next generation, for they will soon be offered the freedom to follow their heart; hence, we have Social Justice Committees, Racial Justice statements, a rainbow flag on our marquee, and a Sanctuary Church Policy.
Most churches are defined by one root more than the other. Churches are built on the “personal commitment to Jesus” or the “personal commitment to justice.” Churches must do both, but usually there is a dominant side almost like handedness.
My life has been shaped by being part of church traditions on each side. I grew up in the evangelical fundamentalism of the revival tradition and I have served churches who are looking to change the world and foster a more just community. Each need has shaped me. I have prayed at the altar and I have slept on the ground in Mexico; I have prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and I have helped build schools in Malawi. Each one is rooted in me just as it is in the soil of our nation.
And then something changed in me. It was not a rejection or even a disillusionment with either one. It was as if I came to need more; it was as if my soil, or soul, needed to be amended. I felt depleted. In this depletion, a gift came to me and I was restored. My heart once again felt vital, quickened, strong. The gift was the teachings of Jesus.
I came to see that my thoughts and beliefs about Jesus and about the world were shaped by traditions, by culture, and by philosophy and history. And this is good. I hope so since I devoted many years of my life to hone and define these. Yet, what was missing was a simple devotion to the teaching of Jesus. These I found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The teachings of Jesus are his sayings, parables, rebukes, laments, and even warnings; he also taught by the example of compassion and healing.
The good news is that the more I devoted myself to the teachings of Jesus the more I gained clarity about my own faith and my desire for justice. I could see each deep strain in me (the need for personal belief and the need to make a difference) and I could also see their need for amendment. As I devoted myself more and more to the teaching of Jesus the roots kept growing; they were just a lot healthier now.