…..our whole universe is profoundly permeated with the presence of Christ. He surrounds, fills, holds together from top to bottom this human sphere in which we dwell. The entire cosmos has become his body, so to speak, and the blood flowing through it is his love…..mystical visionaries have tended to claim that this “pan-cosmic” saturation of his being into the deepest marrow of this created world was the cosmic cornerstone turned in his passage through death. Without in any way denying or overriding the conditions of this earth plane, he has interpenetrated them fully, infused them with his own interior spaciousness, and invited us all into the invisible but profoundly coherent energetic field so that we may live as one body – the “Mystical Body of Christ,” as it’s known in Christian tradition – manifesting the Kingdom of Heaven here and now. Jesus in his ascended state is not farther removed from human beings but more intimately connected with them. He is the integral ground, the ambient wholeness within which our contingent human lives are always rooted and from which we are always receiving the help we need to keep moving ahead on the difficult walk we have to walk here. When the eye of our own heart is open and aligned with this field of perception, we recognize whom we’re walking with.
At the very heart of the Christian faith stands the scandal of the incarnation. I use the word scandal in the sense that, at its root, the word implies a stumbling block, something a person, no matter how well meaning and mindful, just might trip over. The incarnation of Jesus was certainly that and it has caused more than a few Christians, no matter how learned, wise, and erudite, to fall flat on their face.
For the Evangelicals and the Fundamentalists, the incarnation is rightly at the core of their interpretation of the faith. Where these folks run into difficulty is their overly rigid view of the reason Christ incarnated in the first place. To hear the Evangelicals and the Fundamentalists tell it, Jesus left his heavenly abode for one reason and one reason only: to offer himself up as a sacrifice for humankind’s sins and as ransom to dissuade God from unleashing his wrath on the fallen world.
The problem with this view of the incarnation is that it paints the Father into a very unflattering corner. If this aspect of the “good news” is true, then God is, on the one hand, guilty of killing his own son, and viewed from a slightly different angle, guilty of suicide. In essence, he killed his son and he killed himself. Granted, he raised himself three days later, but is beside the point. This doctrine, so closely held by so many, is totally unreasonable, difficult to swallow and no amount of “God’s ways are higher than our ways” is going to make it any more palatable.
For those of a more Liberal orientation, the Incarnation is a major stumbling block as well. The notion that the Godhead somehow manifested himself in Jesus in a unique manner – that Jesus Christ was in factGod– hurls liberal scholars into fits of apoplexy, so much so that from miles away one can hear their spittle-choked harrumphs echoing down the halls of academia. According to the majority of liberal theologians, the divinity of Jesus was a teaching added on by the early church and nothing more.
Personally, I don’t fit well into either camp. While I firmly believe in the Incarnation, that Jesus was and is a divine being, I don’t hold tightly to the substitutionary atonement as espoused by the Evangelicals and the Fundamentalists. I do firmly believe that Christ wrought something miraculous and restorative through the Incarnation, his death, resurrection, ascension, and infusion into all reality (see Ephesians 4:10). However, I think our limited understanding is incapable of fully comprehending what he accomplished, much less how he did it.
Admittedly, I am a person who likes to speculate on theological and metaphysical matters and, yes, I have spent much time pondering over the ins and outs of the Incarnation. However, that was in my younger days when time seemed to be less valuable. Nowadays, I, have learned to rein in my overly speculative tendencies and along with the psalmist I can truthfully say:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother. (Psalm 131:1-2 NRSV)
The gospel in general and the Incarnation in particular are complex, multi-faceted phenomena that are far beyond the pale of my cognitive capabilities and any insights I have arrived at are thoroughly gifts of grace. Like light shining through a prism, the gospel and the Incarnation reveal multiple perspectives, each equally valid. If we view the prism from one angle we see one color and from another angle we see yet another hue. It is the same with the Incarnation. From different angles we see different things, all equally significant.
Whatever a particular church’s situation might be, it shares with all churches the essential task of educating its congregants about Christ, his identity, his life, his teachings, and his mission on this planet. Ideally, this education will be of a sufficient enough nature to inculcate in those who participate a sincere desire to become a genuine Christ-follower. Hopefully, the church will also give detailed instruction in what it means to be a Christian in this particular age and how to “count the costs” as per Jesus’ teaching.
After accomplishing these goals, the educational focus should shift from Christ to the individual. Hopefully, after being educated about Christ, his identity, mission, and accomplishments and also after counting the costs of true discipleship, the individual is ready to make an informed decision about whether or not he or she wants to take on the yoke of Christian discipleship. I believe this is an area where the church has failed mightily in the past and right on down to the present. I think this is especially true in Evangelical traditions where the primary concern is to get the person to “make a decision for Christ,” or “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” Focusing primarily on getting the person on their knees and repeating the “sinner’s prayer,” these “workers in the vineyard” pay little attention to the importance of educating the individual in exactly what it means to take on the yoke of Christ.
This tendency to reduce the gospel to a focus on the salvation of individual souls and on getting a ticket to heaven has not only cheapened the “good news” of Jesus; it has resulted in the creation of a cadre of confused and lukewarm Christians. The concomitant lack of spiritual fever and passion for the kingdom has contributed greatly to the marginalization of the church as described at the beginning of this article. Richard Stearns, President of World Vision U.S. paints a very clear but distressing portrait of the situation under discussion:
More and more our gospel has been narrowed to a simple transaction, marked by checking a box on a bingo card at some prayer breakfast, registering a decision for Christ, or coming forward during an altar call………..It was about saving as many people from hell as possible – for the next life. It minimized any concern for those same people in this life. It wasn’t as important that they were poor or hungry or persecuted, or perhaps rich, greedy, and arrogant; we just had to get them to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and then move on to the next potential convert. In our evangelistic efforts to make the good news accessible and simple to understand, we seem to have boiled it down to a kind of “fire insurance” that one can buy. Then, once the policy is in effect, the sinner can go back to whatever life he was living – of wealth and success or poverty and suffering. As long as the policy was in the drawer, the other things don’t matter as much. We’ve got our “ticket” to the next life.
There is a real problem with this limited view of the kingdom of God; it is not the whole gospel. Instead, it is a gospel with a gaping hole. First, focusing almost exclusively on the afterlife reduces the importance of what God expects of us in this life. The kingdom of God, which Christ said is “within you” (Luke 17:21 NKJV), was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. It was not meant to be a way to leave the world but rather the means to actually redeem it.
Right from the beginning, I firmly believe that it is imperative that new believers be educated in exactly what discipleship means. Christ certainly gave us this example. In his words, those who set their hand to the plow and looked back were not fit to be his followers. In addition, he did not sugar coat what following him entailed. Scripture relates that on occasion those hearing Christ speak would say, “These are hard teachings,” and often walk away.
After educating its members on what true discipleship consists of, I think it is next essential that churches design programs that deeply educate its congregants in what it truly means to be “in Christ.” I am convinced that the majority of Christians have little understanding and even less personal application of their status and privileges as “children of the Light.” I think this is an area where the church has been highly negligent in the past and it is high time this problem was addressed and rectified. I can say without reservation that this might be the single-most significant causative factor in the church’s impotence today. Popular Bible teacher, pastor, and author Chip Ingram shares the following cogent remarks in his book Living on the Edge:
Chip Ingram speaks cogently to this issue in his book Living on the Edge:
I can’t overemphasize this point because I think it is one of the most glaring omissions in the Body of Christ today. I meet Christians who love God and who long to follow Him with all their heart, but it is apparent that they have no real understanding of who they are in Christ. Their relationship is based solely on their experiences with God, but often not deeply rooted in the foundational truths of who they are and what they actually possess as a child of God. This lack of understanding destines sincere believers to defeat and frustration as t hey seek to live out the new life in their own power.
In like fashion, most new Christians are encouraged to get involved in Christian activities and begin the disciplines of the Christian life in order to grow spiritually. Church attendance, praying, reading God’s Word, serving, and getting involved are the messages young Christians hear – and for good reason. It is critical that we talk to God from the heart, learn to hear His voice, have our mind renewed through His Word, and enjoy the fellowship of His people; but what is missing in all these valuable Christian “activities” is specific teaching on what it means to be “in Christ.” We need to clearly understand how God sees us before we become inundated in activities for God.
For quite some time now I have pondered and prayed over the various reasons the contemporary church is in such a state of crisis. In addition to people leaving the sanctuaries in drove, the church itself is rapidly becoming marginalized in its impact on American culture and this, coupled with dwindling numbers and a chronic affinity for internal bickering, has left the Body of Christ in a general state of paralytic impotence.
There are many reasons for this state of affairs – far too many to catalogue in this brief article. I would like, however, to focus in particular on one specific causational factor that I think contributes greatly to the church’s current woes. Before delving into that issue, however, I want to spend a few moments discussing the issue of “lost faith” or, as some describe it, “weak faith.”
I mention this because I think that these faith problems are related to our overall lack of understanding and acceptance of Jesus Christ, his mission, and the impact of that mission on life as we know it. As we will discuss below, one of the primary factors contributing to the exodus from the church is that it has lost its most vital, life-giving focus. A side-effect of this is that many people have what those – in – the – supposed – know call a “crisis of faith.” This crisis can take many forms, but each tends to share a few common elements. The following description by Brian McLaren provides a cogent summation of what I am talking about:
One way or the other, we outgrew the faith of our childhood or youth. Now we are seeking for a faith that we can hold with adult integrity, clear intelligence, and open-eyed honesty. So, many of us need in this way to renew or replace the faith we lost – to fill the old vacancy in a new way, to see faith with fresh eyes, or better – to let a mature, refreshed faith become the new eyes through which we see life.
Others of us have faith, but it is weak or damaged. We feel that we are walking on a sprained ankle or trying to enjoy a delicious meal with a bad tooth. Perhaps we have been spiritually undernourished, malnourished, or mistreated and injured by a church or religious family member. We don’t have confidence in our faith, and it brings us more pain than comfort. Or we have a faith that is little more than a set of concepts to us. This kind of faith is often called nominal, meaning “in name only.” It doesn’t affect our behavior, at least, not positively. Perhaps for some of us, faith is like a vaccination – we have just enough in our system to keep us from getting “infected” with a full-blown “case” of vibrant faith. There’s faith there, but it needs to be “set on fire”; it needs to come alive; we need to really “catch” it. In these ways some of us need to invigorate the faith we already have.
I don’t know about you, but I can see myself and many others in this description of those in a “faith crisis.” I especially recognize McLaren’s description of those whose faith is like a vaccination, giving them just enough Jesus to prevent them from catching the real thing.
As I stated earlier, the reasons for the dwindling numbers and declining social impact of the church in our culture are many and multi-faceted. And, I might add, the responsibility for more than a few of these problems lies with the church itself. Overall, I think it is safe to say that as a body, we have done a generally poor job of carrying out the mandate given us by the Master before he departed for the heavenly realms.
One major reason for this situation flows from the fact that the church has lost focus on Christ, who and what he was and is, what he accomplished, and what he expects of us. Without this knowledge, a Christian lacks a functional compass with which he or she may navigate through the shoals of daily living. Further, when the focus on the biblical Christ is either weak or lost, an individual lacks the basic information needed to truly make a decision as to whether or not to follow Christ. I dare say that there are untold numbers of self-proclaimed Christians out there who, other than the standard “he died for my sins” teachings, have no clue as to the true magnificence of Christ’s being.
Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, in their excellent book Jesus Manifesto, speak directly to this situation and how it impacts the most fundamental question each person who faces Christ must answer:
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 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…
Sweet and Viola then state that each of us needs to answer one specific question and if you think about it, every other thing that follows hinges upon how we answer that question. It is the same question Jesus put to his disciples:
“Who do you say that I am?”
I have come to the conclusion that the church has, as a whole, done a poor job of educating its members on the importance of answering this question and furthermore, our efforts at educating new believers on the incredible nature of this being we call “the Christ.” We have played the “personal savior” and “Son of God” tapes until they have lost much of their meaning. Although the importance of Christ’s role in the process of restoration of right standing with God and the remission of sins is a key element in his mission, but it is only an element. And his status as the Son of the Living God, as evidenced by Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer, is also highly significant, but this, too, is only one aspect of Christ’s identity and his agenda for coming to earth.
I am of the strong belief that until we educate new Christians (and reeducate established ones) on the truly magnificent nature of Jesus Christ, who and what he is, all that he accomplished, and his agenda for the restoration of God’s plan on earth, we cannot hope to fulfill the mandate we have been given as the Body of Christ.
I am hesitant to give a highly specific prescription for how churches might go about this educational mission, primarily because each church is a unique entity in terms of its congregational demographics, its denominational affiliation (or lack thereof), its theological orientation, and its particular mission. However, several areas of commonality may be mentioned.
I think there comes a time in the Christian walk of faith when individual believers make a choice to go no farther with Christ. Let’s face it, Christ has called for such a radical transformation of character and world view, to fully follow his teachings would be suicide, given the realities of our post-modern world.
“Taking up the cross and following Him is not the same now as it was back in the day,” a friend of mine once said. “If I really did what Jesus said to do, I would wind up in the poorhouse along with my whole family. I love Jesus, but hey, I am not an idiot. All in all, I think He understands.”
There is really nothing wrong with this logic. The problem lies in the fact that once we begin to make this compromise, a dozen more usually follow in its wake. Listen, my friend, to follow Christ in our day and time is suicide. And guess what? That’s how it’s supposed to be.
What is suicide? In a very real sense it is a voluntary death. And what is it that Christ asks us to do? We are to take up our cross and die daily. Each day, we are to undergo a voluntary death. That doesn’t mean that we literally attempt to end our lives. Heaven forbid. No, it means that we place the demands of our ego, our lower self, our flesh, on the cross. They die with Christ so that we may be raised up in new life. It cost quite a bit to be a Christian and this faith is not for the weak of mind or faint of heart. It takes a real hero to be a true Christian.
The question before us, and the antidote to the complacency that like a leech, is sucking the very life out of the church, involves each of us on an intimately personal level.
The ultimate question facing Christians in this difficult but exciting age is a question each believer must answer individually. Will you take on the yoke of Christ in all its implications and allow him to live and fulfill his mission through you? Recognize that this question involves taking an assessment of the true costs of discipleship. Yes, God’s grace is freely given but real discipleship comes with a price. And in the end, my friend, that price is yourself. How each believer answers this ultimate question will determine how effective the church will be in its mission. Dallas Willard remarks:
So the great issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or by culture, are identified as “Christians” will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of Heaven into every corner of human existence. Will they break out of the churches to be his Church – to be, without human force or violence, his mighty force for good on earth, drawing the churches after them toward the eternal purpose of God?
If you think about it, the words of Willard are both motivational and frightening. Yes, most of us want to be true disciples of the Lord. We all want to learn from him and profess the willingness to do whatever he requires for the furtherance of his kingdom. However, do we really want that? Are we really willing to go to whatever lengths it requires of us? The question before each and every one of us is fairly simple to comprehend.
In my daily life, where the rubber meets the road, how far am I willing to go?
Each of us must settle this matter for ourselves. It is ultimately between the Lord and the individual believer when it comes to answering this vital question. However, our individual answers, taken collectively, largely determine the nature, the character, and the future of the church as a whole.
I am not trying to be fanatical here. I am not saying that unless you go all the way, you are not what God wants you to be. If that were really the case, I would be the first to admit that I would be toasted and toasted quickly. I think what Jesus is asking is, “How far will you go given your current circumstance?”
Also keep in mind, to avoid answering the question is to answer it. God, however, sometimes refuses to allow some of us to rest unless we answer this vital query. I know in my own life, whenever I avoid God for any length of time, particularly something he wants me to do that I don’t want to do, I can make Jonah look like a piker. Still, the Lord indeed comes after me and, in the final analysis, I am grateful.
If my own experience is a valid indicator, it seems that most of us come to a point in our spiritual journey where we are confronted with the reality that things are not as they should be. On a surface level, we may be struggling with a persistent sin or shortcoming; on an emotional level, we may find ourselves wrapped up in a cloak of despondency, bitterness, or guilt. Whatever the surface manifestation, however, if we really take a look at what is going on and if we have the backbone to be brutally honest with ourselves, we find there is a deeper struggle occurring. More often than not, that struggle is between that still, soft voice calling us to move forward in our journey of faith and that other voice of complacency, which tells us that stepping out into the territory of the unknown can be a dangerous affair – at best unpredictable, at worst, downright terrifying. The late Brent Curtis and his co-author John Eldredge describe that voice we often hear in the dead of night:
The voice often comes in the middle of the night or the early morning hours, when our hearts are most unedited and vulnerable. At first, we mistake the source of this voice and assume it is just our imagination. We fluff up our pillow, roll over, and go back to sleep. Days, weeks, even months go by and the voice speaks to us again: “Aren’t you thirsty? Listen to your heart. There is something missing.
Indeed, my friend, that still, small voice calls us to the grand adventure. It calls us to get up off our seats, step out of our comfort zones, and walk forward in the light of Christ. It calls us to become His partner, to share his mission, to challenge the status quo, just as He did. Yet his calling is a high calling. It is a high honor, but does come with a price tag. The price tag for most of us is, first of all, getting past any sense of complacency and satisfaction with things as they are.
The call of Christ is without a doubt counter-culture and has no association with maintaining the status quo for the sake of personal comfort. The divine call is a grand calling, but to follow it is to guarantee a degree of daily discomfort. I have always loved these words by Houston Smith, so much so that I will give them to you in there entirety. I think Smith speaks clearly about what the call of Christ, one of the ways the divine calling manifests, particularly in the West, entails:
…we have heard Jesus’ teachings so often that their edges have been worn smooth, dulling their glaring subversiveness. If we could recover their original impact, we too would be startled. Their beauty would not paper over the fact that they are “hard sayings,” presenting a scheme of values so counter to the usual as to shake us like the seismic collision of tectonic plates…We are told that we are not to resist evil but to turn the other cheek. The world assumes that evil must be resisted by every means available. We are told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. The world assumes that friends are to be loved and enemies hated. We are told that the sun rises on the just and the unjust alike. The world considers this to be indiscriminating; it would like to see dark clouds withholding sunshine from evil people. We are told that outcasts and harlots enter the kingdom of God before many who are perfunctorily righteous. Unfair, we protest; respectable people should head the procession. We are told that the gate to salvation is narrow. The world would prefer it to be wide. We are told to be as carefree as birds and flowers. The world counsels prudence. We are told that it is more difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye. The world honors wealth. We are told that the happy people are those who are meek, who weep, who are merciful and pure in heart. The world assumes that it is the rich, the powerful, and the wellborn who should be happy. In all, a wind of freedom blows through these teachings that frightens the world and makes us want to deflect their effect by postponement – not yet, not yet! H.G. Wells was evidently right: either there was something mad about this man, or our hearts are still too small for his message.
It is imperative that we don’t become complacent. I am convinced that one of the primary obstacles we Christians face is our own tendency to be too complacent. We come to treasure our comfort zones and, as a result, keep our hearts too small for the message of Jesus.
The life of believers, individually and collectively, is intended to incarnate the biblical reality of human dignity. The church is called to be an alternative society, living in a contrasting style in the midst of the world. Its members are, in God’s design, not self-promoting, as the world is; they are not competitive, as the world is; they do not advance at the expense of others, as the world does; they do not take advantage of the weakness of others, as the world does. They love one another and do good to and for one another. Failing that, there is no compelling reason for the world to pay attention. Which is to say that the only means by which Christians can commend a truly godly vision of human rights is to incarnate them in their individual and collective lives, to announce God’s actions and intentions that constitute the Gospel, and to act justly in the name of God.
(from Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense)
What if? What if each of us decided with renewed commitment to truly embrace the good news, the whole gospel and demonstrate it through our lives – not even in big ways, but in small ones? What if we each said to God, “Use me; I want to change the world”? There are now two billion people on earth who claim to be Christian. That’s almost one in three. Have we changed the world? Certainly, but our critics would be quick to point out that the changes have not always been good. So have we changed the world the way God intended? Have we been effective ambassadors for the good news that we call the “gospel”? The Lord’s Prayer, repeated in churches the world over, contains the phrase “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10; emphasis added). Do we believe what we pray?
The whole gospel is a vision for ushering in God’s kingdom – now, not in some future time, and here, on earth, not in some distant heaven. What if two billion people embraced this vision of God transforming our world – through them? Imagine it. Indeed, what if even two thousand people took their faith to the next level – what might God do? Two thousand years ago, the world was changed forever by just twelve.