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Communities crave a focal point. In the final installation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy a striking visual reminder invades the mind. Picture a white tree in the courtyard of the great white city in the realm of Gondor surrounded by armed guards day and night. The tree is lifeless, no longer gleaming and adorned with brilliant blossoms. The driving need to protect this tree fueled by the hope that one day the rightful king will assume the throne embodies the spirit of the people. The inherent symbolism and hope richly capture this craving for a focal point. Why else should this dead, lifeless tree be so carefully preserved and protected? Could this powerful illustration provide insight into the life of the Church in North America? Can Christ’s Church rise like the Phoenix from its ashes and inhabit a place of community and cultural prominence?

North America’s cultural landscape shifted dramatically in the last half of the 20th century. The Church slipped in prominence amid a shaky and unsettled landscape, which continues today. We’re not in Gondor, so I’d like to suggest that the best modern representation of the cultural epicenter is … Wal-Mart. In rural communities across America, the cultural center of the town or city is reflected and represented by the presence of the superstore.

Now, the grandiose chain, as a collection of stores, is decidedly amoral. The store’s presence signifies something significantly greater than itself. This unintentional design typifies the American spirit of choice, progress and self-reliance. The spirit was obviously present prior to the first Wal-Mart building being erected. How often a return trip from Wal-Mart elicits the following response, “Well, guess who I ran into at Wally world?” In this central location people congregate, shop, bank, work and socialize. The store constantly buzzes with activity. Twenty-four hour access calls to the busy and overworked segments of society. Where else can you find all you need and even play hide and seek at three in the morning? I am extremely grateful for businesses like Wal-Mart, which make life convenient and less time consuming. But therein, the hideous monster rears its ugly head.

The fascination with Wal-Mart is a microcosm of the problem running rampant in society. Unfortunately, many are content to view and experience life on economic terms. We relish obtaining the best product at the lowest price, like a hunter returning from a successful hunt with his trophy buck thrown over the shoulder. Sadly, economic thinking and living distorts spiritual realities.

Churchgoers seek maximum spirituality with minimal input. Churches push the fracas by competing to provide more bang for invested time. Choice and progress are not evil demons. Self-reliance is suitable in the appropriate context, say, the practice of basic hygiene. But choice, progress and self-reliance divorced from the reality and presence of Jesus Christ is detrimental to the whole of society. Just check Google News for tangible evidence.

The reasons behind this cultural downfall are not easily unearthed. Perhaps the message has become banal due to the apparent gap between profession and practice among believers. Perhaps choice, progress and self-reliance severely cloud sound judgment. Perhaps the Church silenced her voice. This we know, the Church is not the bastion or champion of hope she once was. In ancient warfare a Bastille was a tower for defense or attack. Current practices of the Church advocate a tower for defense mostly. The Church’s offensive front is usually a countermeasure to halt the progression of previous attacks. The defensive mentality is firmly entrenched in practice and belief. Can the Church once again occupy and fortify the place of cultural prominence? I think God can. I believe God can. I know God can. Here are a few suggestions:

Trumpet the truth tempered in love and humility: Truth is powerful, uniquely God’s and ultimately liberating. But the trumpets must sound out in love and humility.

Intercede to this end: As the sound goes out, we should pray for God to accomplish his work, not ours.

Champion the message of hope: People will embrace change only if they feel there is hope.

Know the core mission: Knowing why the Church exists and for Whom she exists keeps us on His mission, not ours.

Live authentically, not radically: In our day it’s easy to be radical. In fact, radical is the new normal. But authentic followers of Jesus are in short supply.

Enthrone the Savior: Jesus is the centerpiece. If He is not the central figure of the Church, life, faith and practice then we are merely noisy cymbals in an already dissonant orchestra

This kind of attack requires tenacity and commitment. Theocracy is not the goal. Transformed lives and communities are. Visible signs of God’s presence will begin to send shockwaves through the community: crime rates drastically plummet, spiritual strongholds vanish, church attendance soars and individuals exhibit a totally new way of living and thinking. God can elevate His Church into the role of the cultural epicenter of a community. Maximum results necessitate maximum input, “If my people” still resonates in the chambers of Almighty God and activates a holy fire in the chambers of our hearts. Will the Church rise above and decimate the prevailing spirit of choice, progress and self-reliance or slip into the vacuum of spiritual lethargy?

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