A Texas Tintern Abbey ©

William Wordsworth’s famous poem “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey“ drifted back into my mind through my musing at the close of a recent trip. Sunday, October 29th, Jolynn and I had the joy of sharing with Ferris Heights United Methodist Church on the celebration of the 80th anniversary of their founding. After sharing in worship and a fellowship dinner, we gazed through the document history of Ferris Heights. There were pictures of a full sanctuary and pastors sharing children’s sermons surrounded by a forest of youngsters.

This was the fourth anniversary or otherwise special celebration I have preached at this fall. Each is a time of rejoicing, remembering and recommitting to the ministry of our Lord. Almost always there is a special history room or display. The pictures explode with a different time in the life of the church, a time when sanctuaries were full and children abundant. But such is not usually the case today. Oh, there are notable exceptions to be sure, but inhaling the historic pictures reminds me that the time of Christian cultural dominance is over.

As I age, some of the pictures now represent times in which I was just starting out as a pastor. One that overlapped my ministry was on display at First UMC, Stephenville. (We were there for the celebration of their 100th anniversary.) It pictured a pastor surrounded by a large youth choir dressed smartly in beautiful choir robes. Viewing the glory of a bygone era brought back good memories.

Thus in my musing on Sunday driving home, I could not help but think I have had a Texas encounter with Tintern Abbey this fall. Wordsworth’s famous words cascaded over me.

Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of a more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
Here…
On the best portion of a good man’s life;
In his little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love…
(William Wordsworth, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” selected verses)

The sense of what William Shakespeare called a “sweet sorrow” surrounds my reflections; yet as my colleague Mike Ramsdell puts it, “the truth is your friend.” The truth is that the day of abundance in worship attendance and a surplus of young children is largely over. In a wider cultural sense the sun has set on the church of the 1980s and ’90s.

I am increasingly convinced that we have underestimated the magnitude of the tsunami of secularity that has already washed over Europe and is now crashing on the shores of America. It would behoove us to go back and read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. High culture evidences distain for cultural Christianity. Casual Christianity will not survive the impact of the secular wave battering the church. Rediscovering how to evangelistically engage modern secular culture is not an option if we wish to survive. New forms of ministry must abound. It was former Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki who pointedly stated, “If you dislike change, You’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

Yet it is here, in the midst of radical change amid the institutional life of the church which we have grown up with, that I am most excited and hopeful. Looking over what once was, the Lord brought me to a vision of the new future. A man stood up at Ferris Heights and shared what they were doing in Karios Prison Ministry. Such ministry was and is transformative in the way of Christ. Truly God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is even now birthing a renewed, deeper Christianity.

Ross Douthat in his engaging book Bad Religion reminds us of this reality in the following quote.

In The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterston describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith” – the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilizations. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud.

But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterston noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pg. 277-278).

Embracing a full blown unapologetic, Wesleyan-to-core, classically orthodox Christian faith is the wave of the future, however far out to sea that wave may yet be. The signs of its coming are scattered around us. The way ahead is difficult. It will call for courage and sacrifice on the part of those who wish to be found truly and fully faithful. We are duly challenged. Is Jesus Lord of our lives, including our professional work? Is this his church or a human institution? Make no mistake, the way is strewn with obstacles but if this is the Lord’s church, the gates of hell will not stand against it.

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