It's been a wild year for religion in America, and next year promises even more twists and turns. While I don't have confirmation from a Higher Power on any of these predictions, I'm pretty confident that the Christian church will head down some of the following paths in 2014.
Gays and Evangelicals Head to Camp David
Call me crazy ... but I think 2014 is the year that the gay community and conservative evangelicals finally get together, and start figuring things out. Because honestly, there's nowhere to go but up.
Folks are already refusing to bake wedding cakes. We're sidelining duck callers. We're protesting beloved pastors. The two camps have lined up on opposite sides of the playground all year long, and spitballs are flying. Perhaps within the next year, a couple of brave souls will stand up and say: enough is enough. And they'll sit down to hash out the important concerns of both sides.
I've got a few ideas about who can do it. The staunchly conservative, eminently reasonable Dr. Russell Moore, policy chief for the Southern Baptist Convention, would be an excellent representative from the evangelical community. No one understands the issues of religious liberty and biblical fidelity better, and few are as temperamentally suited for the task. On the LGBT side, I can't think of a better emissary than Bishop Gene Robinson, who as the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop has dealt with his fair share of criticism, and remains as empathetic and prudent as ever. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign and Center for American Progress on the Left, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and The Becket Fund on the Right, could be hubs for these important conversations.
The extant issues are numerous but at least we know what they are. They include: should Christian businesses be able to object to providing services to LGBT couples on religious grounds? How should theologically conservative churches treat gay members, and gay leaders? What are the obligations of evangelical adoption agencies when it comes to placing kids in LGBT families? And more generally, in our modern public square, can those in full support of gay rights and those with a traditional biblical interpretation of marriage and family coexist?
We need the best minds--and most tender hearts--in the country to unpack these issues (away from the media glare of a certain Duck). I'm hopeful that will happen in 2014.
I am Woman, Hear Me Preach
You heard it here first: 2014 is going to be The Year of The Woman in the Christian church. American Christianity has kept some of our best players--women preachers--on the sidelines for way too long. If the Christian church is going to grow and thrive, we need to put them in the game.
And they are ready. If you haven't heard Christine Caine preach, you're missing one of the best young evangelists in the world. Beth Moore's Jesus-focused ministry is inspiring millions of American women (and quite a few men, too). Bishop Vashti McKenzie, one of the few female Bishops in the historically Black A.M.E. denomination, is blazing new paths among African American Christian leaders. And authors, speakers, and thinkers like Rachel Held Evans, Shauna Niequist, Lynne Hybels, and hundreds of others are increasingly making their voices heard.
My prediction: in 2014, a male pastor within a major conservative evangelical denomination will make a splash by coming out for the ordination of women (yes, many evangelical denominations still don't allow women to be senior pastors). And when that happens, an army for God in sensible pumps will be ready to go.
The ACLU Takes It Too Far ... and America Pushes Back
You can be excused for missing it with everything else going on, but the ACLU officially jumped the shark this year.
On November 27, the ACLU sued the nation's Catholic Bishops because a Catholic Hospital in Michigan did not perform an abortion on a woman. The woman later delivered a stillborn child.
Read that again: it was a Catholic Hospital, in a community with other health care options around. The Catholic Church, as most know, has been opposed to abortion throughout its entire history; no surprise there. But Catholic hospitals have also provided life saving care to tens of millions every year since at least 1727.
That's not enough for the ACLU. The organization wants Catholic Hospitals to either perform or refer for abortion, directly violating their religious beliefs. You don't have to be a pro-life advocate to know that that's wrong.
In 2014, I think even progressive Democrats will start telling the ACLU and allied organizations that enough is enough. Our public square has to be big enough for Catholic institutions--and pro-life Americans in general--if we're going to have a truly civil, pluralistic society.
Jesus Is Back in 2014
Some supposedly "Christian" organizations have been running an interesting game for years now--but in 2014, I think the jig is up.
It works like this: groups and leaders wrap themselves in religion, but really they're Political Action Committees, fundraising operations, or media platforms in disguise. They're definitely not spreading the Good News to people who haven't heard it; if you ask the average American what these groups stand for, "Jesus" would rarely be the response.
On the Right, it's advocacy organizations like the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, or quasi-Catholic groups like CatholicVote.org. On the Left it's the increasing number of Protestant groups who've turned their congregations into "post-Jesus" churches, heavy on social justice but light on the Gospel. The spokespeople on both sides are advocate-pastors and members of Congress who are often more intent on getting their name in a headline than making Jesus's name known in the world.
With these folks representing Christianity, it's no wonder that young people are fleeing the church in droves. As has been well covered, the number of people who don't identify with any religion--the "religious nones"--are on the rise, with fully one fifth of Americans under 30 unaffiliated with a religious group.
But the same study that broke the news about these "Nones" provided a critical clue on how the Christian church can bring these folks back. It said that the unaffiliated "are not uniformly hostile toward religious institutions." Rather, they think "churches and other religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics." Basically, God's not the problem; religious people are.
Well, I think 2014 is the year the Church fixes these problems. Taking a cue from Pope Francis, I think we will see more vocal pushback when religious leaders try to misuse faith for partisan or monetary ends, and more leaders like Jefferson Bethke, Bob Goff, Serene Jones and others who are intent on letting the beauty of the Gospel shine through in this hurting world.
Call me crazy, but I think the Church is back in 2014. Not the divisive, bombastic, prideful church of recent decades--rather, the church of old, of the book of Acts, where folks loved God, loved Jesus, cared for their neighbor, and looked after the poor. That's something to look forward to in the year ahead.