I have been reading Kenda Creasy Dean's Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, which is one of many works that are the progeny of Christian Smith's groundbreaking research with the National Study of Youth and Religion which was published in 2006 as Soul Searching.
Dean's book is about the kind of church young people will need if they are going to live Christ-centered, cross-shaped lives in the world. She quips, "Youth are unlikely to take hold of a 'god' who is too limp to take hold of them."
Though this book will be the reading of a lot of youth pastors, its message is much more an indictment about us adults and the church culture we have created and are raising our children within. In the book she presents a number of the characteristics of teens who are living vibrant lives for Jesus and the types of communities of faith that formed them. From them she draws conclusions about the types of churches that will produce authentic Jesus followers - regardless of their budget, activities, youth leader, etc.
One such characteristic is that the church possesses a "missional imagination." Dean states:
"Instead of the lowest-common-denominator Christianity in which everyone is happy if people just get along, missional churches ratchet up expectations by consciously striving to point out, interpret, and embody the excessive nature of God's love. The intentionally, willingly, joyfully practice Jesus' last-shall-be-first ethic of giving and purposefully refrain from doing much in the way of institutional self-preservation."
Lowest-common-denominator Christianity... hmmm.... what a metaphor.
How guilty are we all of avoiding dealing with substantive matters in our relationships with others out of fear of 'rocking the boat.' Relationships are easier if we only deal with and talk about the lowest common denominator that is true about us both.
For the church this means that the mission has become making sure no one's feelings are hurt, everyone is happy, and more people are showing up to sit in the pews.
The mission of Jesus requires sacrifice. It requires us to question the status quo. It requires us to question long-held, deeply-cherished beliefs and traditions that stand in the way of the church actively being about God's mission in the world to bring good news to the poor, release the oppressed, and set the captives free.
This passage in Dean's work reminds me of the courage and intestinal fortitude necessary for rejecting the tendency toward 'institutional preservation' and embracing the call to 'embodying the excessive nature of God's love' to the least, the last, and the marginalized.