Anne Rice, the popular author of the Vampire Chronicles that sold some 100 million copies, shocked the secular world when, in 2002, she announced she was done with vampires. After thirty-eight years as a professed atheist, she said she had found faith in Christ and returned to the Catholic Church. Two months ago, she rocked the Christian world by proclaiming she was renouncing Christianity. She stated, "For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” She went on to say, “My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me."
Of course, I think Anne Rice is selling “Christianity” short. While churches are often quarrelsome, sometimes even hostile, I would hate to live in a world without churches. I visited Russia at the end of the Soviet Union and saw what that looked like. Churches do far more good and create much more charity than otherwise. But, she does have a point.
Interestingly, Anne Rice is not alone. George Barna, the leading researcher on faith in America reported in 2008 that “a majority of adults now believe that there are various biblically legitimate alternatives to participation in a conventional church.” It appears that there is a growing number of people who claim faith in Jesus but want little or nothing to do with the institutional church.
For some, this may sound alarming or confusing. The fact of the matter is, we are living in a post-Christendom world. Christendom was defined by the dominance of the institutional church, both Catholic and Protestant, that shaped and influenced the western world. At its height, Christendom dominated governments and communities. This is no longer the case.
For those of us who are serious followers of Jesus, we can take heart by reminding ourselves that the most fruitful period of faith occured in pre-Christendom, the first three centuries following the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Here is the paradox. Worldwide, we are witnessing the largest growth in the number of Jesus followers in history. In China more than 30,000 new believers are baptized every day. The number of believers in Africa grew from 9 million to 360 million in the last century, most in the last decade. More Muslims have come to faith in Christ in the last two decades than at any other time in history. Interestingly, the rapidly reproducing churches in these nations look little like our western Christianity. They resemble the churches of the first century that met in homes as close-knit communities that produce transformed people who act like Jesus.
At their core, churches are communities of believers who exhort and encourage one another to become like Christ. Churches are the wine-skins provided to contain the new wine of faith in Christ. Over time, each generation’s “wine skins” grow brittle, inflexible and institutional so that succeeding generations must discover new “wine skins” that serve their new found faith in Christ.