It has become almost cliché these days to say that the church in America is dying. Whether one arrives at this conclusion through general observation or through the analysis of vital statistics, the result is the same. The Body of Christ in America is withering on the vine. Church leaders and those who make their living by studying the church cite a wide range of reasons for this demise. Likewise, solutions offered to stem the tide of this downward spiral vary widely in terms of both rationale and methodology.
One thing these experts can agree on, however, is this: change is happening and it is happening at a rapid pace.
It is far beyond the scope of this essay to delve into the intricacies of these issues. Instead, I want to focus on one specific theme that I believe accounts in part for the church’s current decline and, if properly corrected, can also be instrumental in forging a new, more vital Body of Christ as the future unfolds. Interestingly, a number of writers from differing theological orientations have also flagged this problem as a contributing factor to the current set of issues bewildering the church. Among these writers are Philip Yancey, Marcus Borg, N.T. Wright, Brian McLaren, Harvey Cox, Phyllis Tickle, and Mark Driscoll, just to name a few.
I also want to mention the recent work of Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola as I believe their writing especially identifies the theme I want to discuss in this essay, namely: the church has lost contact with the very source of its life, its purpose, and its calling.
This vital, life giving source is Jesus Christ.
Near the beginning of their excellent book Jesus Manifesto, Sweet and Viola get down to business in describing what they see as the fundamental cause of the church’s present dilemma:
……….we feel a massive disconnect in the church today, and we believe that the major disease of today’s church is JDD: Jesus Deficit Disorder. The person of Jesus has become increasingly politically incorrect and is being replaced by the language of “justice,” “morality,” values,” and “leadership principles.” The world likes Jesus: they just don’t like the church. But increasingly, the church likes the church, yet it doesn’t like Jesus………..Can our problems really be caused by something so basic and simple as losing sight of Christ? We believe the answer is a resounding Yes. Answers other than Christ to the problems of the church today mean that we are more into solvents than solutions. For that reason, this global, Google world needs a meta-narrative more than ever, and the Jesus Story is the interpreting system of all other systems. In this hour, the testimony that we feel God has called us to bear revolves around the primacy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Specifically, we need to decide how we are going to answer one question.
I firmly believe that it is the church’s seeming inability to consistently answer this one question in a way that is simple, pragmatic, and above all, accurate, that lies at the root of many of its current problems. What is this central question raised by Sweet and Viola? It is precisely the one Christ asked his followers a little over 2,000 years ago:
“Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
According to sacred scripture, Peter, led by the Holy Spirit, got the answer right. The church, however, has turned this simple question into a conundrum of colossal proportions. It took the early church at least four centuries to arrive at a fragile consensus. Over time, that consensus eroded into a quagmire of conflicting, confusing answers that could fill entire libraries and, in the process, created much rancor and discord instead of the unity and cooperation called for by Jesus and later, Paul.
Sweet and Viola paint such a dynamic, comprehensive, and inspirational portrait of the nature and being of Christ. Speaking of Paul’s reasons for writing to the Colossians about these themes, the authors state:
The Christ that the Colossians knew was simply too small. That was why they became susceptible to chasing after other things – including religious ones – in the first place.
You bet it does! If ever something hit the nail right on the head in terms of my lack of consistent faithfulness, this sums things up pretty well. By not comprehending the truly awesome and magnificent stature of the pre-existent Christ, I chased after all sorts of lesser entities and stumbled down more than a few dark alleys. Believe me when I say that Alice pales in comparison to me when it comes to jumping down rabbit holes in hot pursuit of magical characters with funny hats and big watches. Sweet and Viola continue:
Paul’s goal was to strip away every distraction that was being held before their eyes and have them with nothing but Christ. He dared to displace all rules, regulations, laws, and everything else that religion offers, with a person – the Lord Jesus Himself. As far as Paul was concerned, God hadn’t sent a Ruler of rules, a Regulator of regulations, a Pontiff of pontifications, or a Principal of the principles. He had sent the very embodiment of divine fullness. So, he reasoned, if the Colossians could just get a glimpse of the glories of Christ, He would be enough. The Spirit would electrify their hearts and restore them to a living relationship with the head of the body. So Paul threw down his trump card – The Lord Jesus Christ. He presented a panoramic vision of Jesus that exhausts the minds of mortal men.
In other venues, I have written that I believe one of the most critical tasks facing the contemporary church is reintroducing people to Jesus Christ. With the steady exodus from the organized Christian denominations over the past forty or so years, we now have a situation where at least one generation, and maybe two, have been raised in a culture that is, for the most part, non-Christian. In large measure, many of these folks have either an incomplete or utterly confused image of Jesus.
Before the church can even begin to tackle this crucial goal, however, it must accomplish one critical preliminary task. The church has to reintroduce Jesus to itself. The sad truth is the church is every bit as confused about Jesus’ nature and being as those outside the institution. The silver lining in this tragic situation is as follows: once the church really gets a clear, biblical picture of just what manner of being this Jesus Christ truly is, it will set off a spiritual conflagration that will make previous revivals look like brush fires.
Sweet and Viola state that in the first chapter of Colossians Paul was in “full flight.” The Apostle told his readers that if they truly laid hold of Christ’s real identity they would be able to muster a walk of faith worthy of the Master.
In describing the stature of Christ Paul pulls out all the stops:
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see – such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him.
He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 NLT)
After the foregoing section, which is found in a chapter fittingly entitled “A Bottle in the Ocean,” the authors present an incredible description of who Christ was and is. I find this passage so complete and inspirational I am going to share it at length. Describing Jesus Christ, the authors state:
Set your eyes beyond the stratosphere and see a Christ who confounds the mind. This Christ is – present tense – the visible image of the invisible God. Jesus Christ displays God’s image visible in the invisible realm, where He is seated in heavenly places at the Father’s right hand. To look upon the carpenter of Nazareth is to discover God in totality. To know the Nazarene is to know the Almighty, the one true Creator – He who was, is, and is to come.
But that’s not all.
This Christ is the firstborn of the entire cosmos, the first person to appear in creation, and He is preeminent in all of it. All things visible and invisible were created by Him, through Him, to Him, and for Him. He is the Originator as well as the Goal – the Creator as well as the Consummator.
But that’s not all.
This Christ existed before time as the eternal Son. He is above time and outside of time. He is the beginning. In fact, He was before the beginning. He lives in a realm where there are no ticking watches and clocks. Space and time are his servants. He is unfettered by them.
This Christ is not only before all things, but the entire universe is held together in Him. He is the cohesive force, the glue and gravitational pull that holds all created elements together. He is creation’s great adhesive, the hinge upon which the whole cosmos turns. Remove Christ, and the entire universe disintegrates. It comes apart at the seams. Remove Him, and creations wheels come off.
But there’s still more.
This Christ is the very meaning of creation. Eliminate Him, and the universe has no purpose. Remove Him, and every living thing loses its meaning.
But more than all this, the One who created the universe watched it fall. He saw the cosmic revolt in heaven and the wreckage on earth. Under the caring eye of the Father, the Lord looked upon His own creation as it morphed into an enemy – His own enemy. And then he did the unthinkable. He penetrated a fallen world.
This Christ pierced the veil of space-time. He became incarnate and took on human flesh. As such, He was touched with the same temptations, the same infirmities, and the same weaknesses as all mortals, only He never yielded. Christ entered into His own creation to reconcile it back to Himself and to His Father. The Creator became the creature to make peace with an alienated creation.
Sweet and Viola go on to describe the gospel message of the atonement, the resurrection, and how Christ was the firstborn of many brothers and sisters. It is a remarkable passage in a remarkable book. My point in mentioning it here is that it illustrates the vital need the church has in this challenging age. Put simply: the true and real Christ, stripped of the myriad accretions with which he has been covered over the centuries; the true and real Christ, revealed in all his magnificence, splendor, and glory – must be reintroduced to the church.
Ironically enough, for many sincere believers this may well be the first time they actually meet the real Christ.
You see my friends, for far too long now the church has been cut off from its source. In a real sense, the Body of Christ has been decapitated. If Christ is the head, it stands to reason that the church cannot survive long without being attached to the Master. Unfortunately, for quite a long time now the church, with some exceptions, has gradually been drifting farther and farther away from that which gives it meaning, direction, and most of all, life.
To be continued…..
(c) L.D. Turner 2012/ All Rights Reserved