The State of the American Church
I recently read a couple of articles in the "Currents" section of the Christian Chronicle that dealt with the current condition of the Lord's Church in America. Overall the church appears to have leveled off in growth, and shows signs of declining in some places. I began to do my own reflection on state of the church, and I will share them here. This is a two part series, the first deals with what I see as challenges, the second part deals with moving in the direction of solutions.
Most congregations that I know of are declining, and the members they have are aging. Overall, it seems to me that the church is sick. I believe that this has been the case for some time, but it has only become recently apparent due to dropping numbers. From my perspective, it seems that it boils down to basically these elements.
1) A misunderstanding of what our calling is to be as a church.
Our love affair with our church buildings along with an institutional mindset contributed to the church building paradigm for Christianity. Many believe our mission and purpose is to manage the organization. Missions, outreach, evangelism, and a number of other activities take a back burner to building centered activities. Our budgets are also a reflection of this mindset. The majority goes toward maintaining the building and building related activities, and if there is not enough left over, missions and outreach get cut. Even though it is not stated this way, this practice seems to demonstrate that the building is primary and things such as missions, evangelism, outreach, etc. are optional.
We are influenced by our culture's view of "institution." We have similar language and practices as those who belong to an "institution." We often speak of "going to church" as one might go to a board meeting. We speak of being a "member" as one might be a member of a lodge. In theory, church membership is much more than this. But in practice, membership is primarily expressed by attending meetings in the building. Staff and leaders are managers and CEOs of the institution, everyone else are members, consumers, and attenders. The result is a nominal Christianity that for many may not be a whole lot different than membership in some other institution. In this way, the church has accepted as "normal" what can only truly be characterized as "nominal" Christianity, while it views what the Bible characterizes as "normal" Christianity as something "extraordinary."
With our institutional mindset, we have lost the biblical emphasis that the church is the body of Christ. The emphasis has typically been that we are the "one and only body." What has been missing is the biblical emphasis that the church is the body of Christ, and therefore represents Christ in the world and his mission. The church's mission is not to send people, but to be a sent people. We are his hands, feet, and mouth to carry on the mission of Christ. Christ did not come to establish church buildings, but to establish the reign of God in the hearts of people. Often our priorities are backwards. Outreach, missions, etc. should be first and foremost. Anything we construct or do should support that mission and not the other way around. If, as the body of Christ we are to be ambassadors of Christ, representing his mission, it must be more than maintaining a meeting place.
From my perspective, I see a positive trend all over the world with the Lord's church. This mindset is slowly changing. It has been painful but positive. We are reexamining many of our dearly held pre-suppositions and are slowly becoming better equipped to engage the world incarnationally as Christ did.
2) Misunderstanding of our relationship to Culture, which is changing.
As I understand it, much of our emphasis over the last 100 years has been on doctrinal purity and the "distinctiveness" of the church. That distinctiveness was usually defined in terms of how we are different than the denominations rather than how we are set apart for Christ. This seemed to work well in a culture that was saturated with Christian ideas, symbolism, and language. I am not sure that the emphasis was so much on Christ as it was that we were the one true correct church. It seems that many were winning people to the church rather than to Christ. This was a reflection of our culture's emphasis on various "institutions," which affected us in ways we didn't realize. Much of our literature printed during this time period demonstrates this emphasis. Many articles and books concerning salvation approached it in terms of an idealized and oversimplified version of church history that highlighted the divisions in Christianity and our plea for unity with a call to become a member of "the one true church," namely, our church, through baptism. The church seemed to receive more emphasis than Christ. As a result of this cultural influence, the church as an institution remained squarely at the center of evangelistic writing. This mindset with its language seemed to resonate with a Western, Christianized culture. Our "Christianized" culture held institutions in high regard and was full of denominations and sects, and we engaged it head on.
However, since the culture has become increasingly secular, many of the ways we identified ourselves culturally are now lost to the citizen who has not been "Christianized." The fact is, we do not know how to engage a culture that has become increasingly secular. We do not realize that we have been shaped by our culture and that many of our practices are an expression of our culture as much as it is an expression of our faith. We have trouble separating the two, not realizing that Christianity stands above culture and therefore is translatable to many cultures, whether it be African, South American, or our North American Culture, which is currently undergoing huge changes. Like more recent missionaries who recognize the need to import the Gospel but not Western Culture, we need to recognize that our efforts in our own back yard need to be the same. Some of what we promote and hand on to is probably a form of Western Culture that is antiquated and passing away. Western Culture is not Christianity as the Bible defines it. Some of the ideas and values of Western Culture squarely contradicts the ideas and values of the Reign/Kingdom of God. If we are coming across as "irrelevant," it may be that we are promoting an older, dying form of Western Culture more than the Reign of God. This is why I believe we need to think like missionaries in our own back yard. According to statistics, there are now more Christians in Africa then there are in North America. Africa can no longer be called the "Dark Continent" as it was 100 years ago. We are (and have always been) a mission, therefore we need to think missionally.
3) A misunderstanding of what our message should be.
Since our way of doing things and our message was shaped by our culture, we speak a language that is stranger than ever to the "Un-Christianized" person. Even when we are able to communicate it in a way that can be understood, it seems irrelevant. Indeed, it often is. I believe that this is because we have not kept a biblical emphasis. While the church is important and biblical, it is not what the early church emphasized in its preaching to those outside. As I see it, themes such as the Fulfillment of the Reign of God, the Gospel, The Return of Christ, The Holy Spirit, and a Call to Faith and Repentance were all part of the Apostolic preaching of the cross. These are not themes that we have typically emphasized. Some of these themes as the Bible portrays it are foreign to us. Our emphasis has often been to highlight what makes us different than the denominations. Whether it was baptism, Communion every first day of the week, instrumental music, denominationalism, multiple elders, etc., we emphasized those things that made us correct in comparison to the denominations. As a result, many people were won to a form rather than to a person. In a culture where a positive institutional loyalty still existed, the church appeared to thrive in numbers with this emphasis.
However, institutional loyalty no longer characterizes our culture. In fact, the general feeling in our culture now is a general distrust of institutions. In the past, the church has operated as an "institution" with all of the many of the same institutional structures and mindset, which worked well when there was a positive view of institutions. However, people do not want to be converted to an institution anymore. Indeed, God does not want anyone to be converted to an institution either! We are called to Christ, not an institution. Historically, when the "institution" was overemphasized in the church, all kinds of problems followed. There are numerous examples of this in the medieval church with all of its institutional forms.
4) A weak spirituality.
There is a mystical element to the Christian faith. That makes many of us in North America very uncomfortable even though African, Asian, and South American Christians do not have a problem with this. The reason is that we have been shaped by Western Culture along with its rationalism and empiricism. We have a tendency to reject anything that cannot be observed, tested, and explained. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the power of the word of God and things of this nature are usually de-emphasized or reinterpreted to mean nothing more than a rational exercise of our mind and will informed by a reading of the Bible. There is little mystery in the daily life of a Christian and little emphasis on the disciplines that create the right conditions for spiritual growth. For some, Bible study is not a whole lot different than reading a philosopher and becoming his "student." Much of faith is very academic in nature and a personal relationship with the Lord is little more than knowing correct doctrine. Religion is reduced to a set of rules and preaching often becomes moralizing on certain topics. There is little need for fasting. Praying is a duty rather than an expression of love and desire for God. Bible reading, if it takes place at all, is for the purpose of knowing the Bible rather than knowing God. Spirituality is where we may be the weakest of all. While we often speak of spiritual growth, we often cannot define what that means. Rather than defining spiritual growth as learning to grow in our love for God in all things, it is usually defined more in terms of the amount of Bible reading one does, the service one renders, or then number of events one attends. All of these are good, but are secondary to loving God.
This weak spirituality, I believe, lies at the foundation of the other three items I mentioned above. A weak spirituality probably leads to the difficulty for seeing the world as it really is and our assigned place in it. Without this clearer vision of our identity, we find it a very difficult challenge to know how to engage our world with the mission of Christ.
The point of this reflection is not merely to be critical of our culture or of the Lord's Church as has become fashionable in recent years. Instead, the purpose of this essay is to assist in moving believers toward a more faithful vision of the Lord's mission in today's time.
Deeper Than Method
I have not explicitly mentioned "methods" in any of my reflections here. It seems that a methodological solution may be more a product of our culture than of Biblical reflection. In the modern Western Mindset, there is the thought that there is a scientific methodological solution to every problem. I would not be surprised to find that many disciplines might have been affected by this mindset. In Psychology, that is probably where the "behavior modification" theory came from. In the 1980's, I think one strand of the Church Growth Movement was fueled partly by the same mindset. The thought seemed to be that if the church is not growing, then we need to adjust our methodology in order to fix the problem. Some churches become more market driven, as though they were the dispenser of religious goods and the members were the consumers. Overall, the Church Growth Movement did not deliver what it promised. I think we learned a lot from the Church Growth Movement, one of which is that the solutions go much deeper than method. Part of the problem may have been we have identified the wrong thing as the problem. Dwindling numbers are not the problem. They are the symptom of a deeper problem. The solution has more to do with our sense of God-given identity, who we are, and what we are called to do. The changes in our culture along with dwindling numbers have forced us to re-examine these questions. A cultivation of a deeper spirituality, which helps us to discover God's answers to these questions, is a step in the right direction.
Over all, I believe that when the church is faithful to its calling to be a sent people, and that when it has the correct emphasis in its message and practice, that the mission of God will be carried out. What is encouraging to me is that I am beginning to see more and more people grapple with these sorts of issues with a commitment to be faithful to the mission of God.
But what should it look like in our particular cultural context? How can the church faithfully carry out the mission of God? Obviously, this looks different in African churches than in North American churches. Missiologists have combined a sound theology with insights from social sciences such as cultural anthropology, which gave birth to "Missionary Anthropology." Their insights on how to contextualize the Gospel in order to establish indigenous, healthy churches that can effectively engage their own culture has proven to be a fantastic success in the last three generations. Their understanding of cross-cultural missions has enabled them to better carry out the mission of God in their culture. It seems to me that the mission of God is becoming increasingly "cross-cultural" right here in North America. Our culture is shifting from its Western Christianized roots. This means that it will take wisdom and insight to avoid doing what early missionaries did in places like Africa, which was to infuse the gospel with western culture and convert people not to just Christianity, but to "Westernize" them as well. This did not work well. Just as a tropical plant that is transplanted to a climate that it is not indigenous to will become sickly, the church in Africa was the same way when missionaries indiscriminately mixed western culture with the Gospel. Could it be that this is now an issue in North America? Is it possible that our ineffectiveness might be due in part to trying to promote withering Western ideas that are no longer "indigenous" to America? Is this why Christians are finding it increasingly difficult to share the message of God with a culture that seems to become increasingly alien to them?
I don't have all the answers, but I do believe that in our effort to be faithful to the mission of God, we are going to have to find new ways to communicate the message of God, and it will not be centered around a "building" or an "institution." What is encouraging to me is that I am now seeing this begin to take place around the country as Christians begin to think more outside the box. At this point in our history, the box of western culture will only limit our effectiveness in carrying out the mission of God. The mission of God is about going where the people are and inviting them into the Reign of God, which the Lord offers to those who truly believe, not about building an institution.
The "Reign" of God
Perhaps an answer can be found in a reexamination of what the Reign of God is supposed to look like while being aware of our cultural biases. "Reign" is a better rendering than "kingdom," because "kingdom" implies geographical and political boundaries. The original Hebrew phrase was Malkut Shemayim "Reign/Rule of Heaven," not "kingdom," which is a different Hebrew word. The English word, "kingdom" came from the Greek language, which translated this phrase using the word, basileia. This word can mean either "reign/rule" or "kingdom." Context identifies which meaning is meant in Greek. The context goes back to the Hebraic image of the "Reign of God," which transcends geographical, social, or political boundaries. Indeed, Jesus said that His reign was not of this realm (Jn 18:36). This is why Jesus said that the reign of God is "in you" (Lk 17:21).
In my experience, preachers and teachers rarely looked to the Gospels in their study of the Lord's Church, with the exception of Jesus' words, "I will build my church." This leaves out a very significant portion of the teaching concerning the Lord's church. Jesus' favorite term was the "Reign of God." It was the centerpiece of his teaching. Everything he taught flowed from that concept. The concept of the Reign of God goes all the way back to creation where God instructed mankind to "rule" the earth, which mankind failed at. Jesus, the ultimate son of man (human), and also the Son of God, inaugurated a new Reign of God, which was the fulfillment of God's promises. What does life look like under the Reign of God? What are the identifying marks of the Reign of God? You come away with a very different picture from the Gospels than some of the studies I grew up with that stressed more of the "institutional structures," such as the "plurality of elders" the "Bible as its only constitution," and things of this nature. The Reign of God is subtle yet pervasive. It is quiet yet subversive. It redefines every aspect of thinking, motivation, and actions. For example, the Sermon on the Mount is an exposition of the Reign of God. Like the instructions for kingdom life in Deuteronomy, which spells out the blessing of living under the rule of God, Jesus spells out the blessedness of living under the Reign of God for the Christian in the Sermon on the Mount. A fresh reading of the Gospels with a heart to truly participate in the Reign of God does not allow one to be a "nominal Christian."
What does the Reign of God look like? Jesus' picture of the reign of God looks very different than many of the "institutional" structures we have been passionate about in the past. What is interesting is that Jesus takes many concepts that were taken for granted and turns them on their head. Here are some examples. Jesus was crowned with glory and honor not by conquest, but through suffering. In God's reign, the nobody becomes somebody and the somebody becomes nobody. In the Reign of God, kindness is returned for insults. In the Reign of God, one gives up everything in order to become rich. One gives up his life in order to live. One receives gifts in order to give. In the Reign of God, the greatest thing is to tend to the "least of these." In the Reign of God, those who are persecuted for righteousness are the blessed ones. In the Reign of God, everyone is equal and shares alike. Their hearts, minds, and souls no longer belong to the system of the world, but belongs to the Lord and King. These are the sorts of things Jesus demonstrated as being marks of the Reign of God. Truly, the Reign of God is not of this realm.
Rather than spell it out any more than this, my humble advice is to re-read the Gospels and note the marks of the Reign of God, and compare it to the culture in which we live, and especially to our local congregation. This is an important exercise because it causes to re-evaluate everything. I once read that, "We do not know who discovered water, but we are pretty sure it wasn't a fish." We live immersed in our culture, which makes us hardly aware of it. This includes both our national culture, and even the subculture of our own congregation which has been shaped by the larger culture. Many of the subtle values of the system of this world we accept and are hardly aware of it.
Ultimately, the challenging and humbling question that should arise from all of this is this: What marks of the Reign of God do are evident in our lives? What will it take for us to be faithful to the mission of God?