What is the New Thing?

LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament

The State of Things

We are experiencing some very interesting days.  The wars continue to erupt in the Middle East, (despite reports to the contrary), the Arab spring has resulted in countries attempting to rework their political systems in the midst of continued unrest, the Euro is at risk of failing, Greece continues to falter and struggle for a means of survival, the Romney/Obama campaigns are roaring along, our economy still has not turned around, poverty in the US is growing at a rapid rate, and voices are clamoring around the world for peace, and justice, and relief.  We are living in a tremendously unsettled time. 

Added to this global reality is the fact that our nation is experiencing many new trends.  And when I say new, I mean trends that have been developing over the past 40 to 50 years.  I want to talk about these trends in four major categories: Industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion. 

I am taking my data from a book put together by Charles Murray, a well known conservative libertarian political scientist and scholar, who is best known for his controversial 1994 book entitled The Bell Curve.  While I do not agree with Murray’s conclusions and suggestions for what next, I am greatly appreciative of the tremendous amount of data he has collected in his most recent book entitled Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 to 2010.   

In this volume Murray begins with a description of the four categories I mentioned earlier: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion as the four founding virtues on which our nation was built.  He then proceeds to show how each of these four has diminished considerably in the past 50 years.  For industriousness he uses data from unemployment records and surveys related to number of hours worked in a week; for honesty he uses data related to crime indexes, imprisonments, and bankruptcies; for marriage he uses data related to extramarital sex, marriage, divorce and single rates, and surveys that report happiness levels in marriage; finally, for religion he uses data from surveys that reported faith commitments (or not), and church attendance (or not).   

I do not have space to provide all of the results and conclusions, but want to highlight some that I find particularly relevant to faith communities.  In sum, all four categories are declining.  It will come as no surprise to learn that employment rates are down in the US, but so too the number of hours worked by those who are employed. Similarly, incarcerations are up and so too bankruptcies.  Marriage is on the outs—depicted not only by the divorce rate, but also by the numbers who choose to never marry.  And, low and behold, attendance at religious services and commitments to religious organizations are down.  Murray’s conclusions?  We are going to hell in a hand basket, and if we don’t turn it around quickly we will disintegrate as a nation.  Could he be right?  Maybe.  But, here is what I gained from the data as an active theologian and committed church person. (Heavily influenced by my reading of Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s book The Rich and the Rest of Us).

 High rates of unemployment have resulted in high rates of discouragement and depression, especially in the lower class.  This decrease in employment is due in large part to the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US. 

The “war on crime” that began in the early 70s has led to an outrageous increase in incarcerations in our nation.  Currently, more dollars are spent per person to incarcerate (tens of thousands more) than to educate. 

The recent mortgage crisis, the result of unethical strategies and policies (not illegal, but unethical), has led to increasing numbers of bankruptcies.

The number of people choosing not to marry, or choosing to divorce and never remarry, combined with the number of single moms in the US is nearly equal to 50% of the marriageable population. 

Now for religion: this is tremendously interesting and important for us today.  The number of people attending church, synagogue or mosque is declining – but so too the number of people participating in any type of volunteer organization: rotary, PTA, neighborhood groups etc.  In general there is a trend toward a social and civic disengagement.

One of Murray’s most helpful charts and conclusions has to do with levels of trust.  In general trust levels have declined throughout the US about 22% in the past 50 years (as low as 15% in 30% of the population).  To this statistic Murray has sounded the alarm—and it is at this point I have to agree with him.  One of the top issues/concerns in our nation (evidenced by or as result of all the mess I just described) is our inability to trust one another.  And, I believe, this is where the church can make a difference!

The Text

In Acts 2:17-21 (the Pentecost text) Peter quotes the prophet Joel

          In the last days it will be, God declares,

          That I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

          And your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

          And your young men will see visions,

          And your old men shall dream dreams.

          Even upon my slaves, both men and women

in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

and they shall prophecy

Peter is co-opting the Joel text to explain the moment described; to explain the move of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost; to explain the new thing God was doing.

My overview of Murray’s study has shown the new trends in the US.  We are a nation of unemployed, underemployed, depressed, incarcerated, poverty stricken, crime infested, non-volunteering, isolated, single parent households that does not trust one another!  How will we, how can we untangle this mess?  I believe “. . . the Spirit of God will be and is being poured out on ALL flesh.”  I believe God is doing a new thing.  Will we be part of it?

If there is one place on the planet where people might be able to learn to ‘trust’ it’s the church. It’s time church!  It’s time to walk away from the traditions that entangle us—that strangle us.  It’s time to walk away from the hierarchy, the board meetings, the ineffective committee meetings, the endless political debates about music, or race, or gender, or sexuality, or politics.  It’s time to move toward the new thing.  What is the new thing? 

          The Spirit of God is being poured out on ALL flesh

          Your incarcerated sons and unwed mothers will prophecy

          Your unemployed will see visions

          Your poverty stricken will dream dreams

          Even upon the homeless, both men and women,

          In those days will the Spirit of God be poured out

          And they shall prophesy

The Call to Respond

Will we be willing to hear and to heed?  Will we be able, willing, and committed to rebuilding trust? 

To undergird the discouraged and depressed; to fight for new public policies, new jobs, and a sustainable living wage for all?

To support the incarcerated and those newly released from prison; to assist their reentry into society?

To fight for new public policies related to the war on crime and education?  To insist that the quality of education be improved in our urban areas?  To lobby for more dollars in education and prevention than in incarceration?

To recognize single person and single parent households as the new acceptable trend in the US and to create ministries that support and encourage those households; ministries that empower for success?

To work at rebuilding trust in our fine nation by providing a place of support, encouragement, education, and much needed mediation between individuals and organizations: neighbor to neighbor, neighbor to school, neighbor to city council, neighbor to state legislature, neighbor to banks . . .?

I believe a new movement is forming and the church can be, ought to be, is called by God to be at the center of it. We have experienced the industrial revolution; the information revolution; the bio-genetic revolution; and now our country, our nation, our world is ripe for a spiritual revolution!

The Spirit of God cannot; in fact will not be contained in institutional structures.  When the Spirit becomes squelched by the structure that is formed around its pouring it will bust out to create a new thing:

–         In Joel we see it busting out of the prophetic structures of the Old Testament pointing to the Apocalyptic movement.

–         In Acts we see it busting out of the temple structure pointing to the Jesus movement.

–         Today we see it busting out of the denominational structure pointing to ????  The occupy movement?  The emerging church?  What will be the new thing?

–         Church . . . The only hierarchy that can hold us back is the one of our own creation!

The Spirit of God is being poured out on ALL flesh.  In this year, academic 2012-2013, Let’s get ready for the new thing!

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