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.
To be continued…..
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.
To be continued……..
I find it fascinating that the churches that seem to be most negligent in educating congregants in the realities of what it means to be “in Christ” are those at opposite ends of the theological spectrum. Our liberal churches often ignore the phrase altogether or describe it as a quasi-mystical state resulting from long-term arduous spiritual training. It is described more often as a state of consciousness rather than a gift of grace through the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. At the other end of the stick, many of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters are so absolutely obsessed with sin and the “blood of the Lamb” that they never get beyond the theme of atonement and justification. Themes like empowerment and sanctification rarely cross their lips.
Once we come to an understanding of who and what we are “in Christ,” we need to have a thorough education in God’s great mission of restoration, renewal, and the primacy of the Kingdom agenda. We need to know what God is up to and discover how we fit into that agenda both as a church and as individuals. This entails education regarding the kingdom, God’s “Great Story” of restoration, and our equipping in terms of spiritual gifts. Understanding the “kingdom” purpose is especially important as this was the central focus of Christ’s teaching.
Underlying all of our efforts as the Body of Christ is the notion of working along with God to establish the “Kingdom.” I can’t stress this notion of Kingdom enough and, if you take a close look at the gospels, neither could Christ. His first public statement was “Repent for the Kingdomof Heavenis at hand.” After beginning this way, Christ repeatedly stressed that his mission was to inaugurate the Kingdom. As ongoing agents of incarnation, it is now our mission to pick up where Christ left off. This is the foundational mission of the church. Even the great commission is aimed at this and this only: Bringing God’s Kingdom to Earth.
The coming of the Kingdom is really the heart of the gospel. The forgiveness of sins and the work on the cross, although of central significance, is not the heart of the gospel. It is not that which brings life to the body. No, it is the coming of the Kingdom that constitutes the life of the gospel. Unfortunately, the church, especially since the reformation in general and Calvinist theology in particular, has primarily defined the gospel in terms of the remission of sins by the work of Christ. Again, I am not downplaying the importance of this. All I am saying is that it is not the core of the gospel. Jesus repeatedly stressed the coming of the Kingdom. The remission of sins is part of this, but it is far from the whole enchilada.
Dr. Myles Munroe, author of several books dealing with God’s kingdom, echoes the centrality of the kingdom agenda for today’s Church:
“How important to the Body of Christ is the message of the Kingdom of God? Frankly, we have nothing else to teach. The message of the Kingdom is good news, and the Church exists to proclaim it. If we are doing our job, everything we are about will be Kingdom focused: every sermon we preach, every Bible study we teach, every ministry we perform, every activity we accomplish, and every worship service we celebrate…The Kingdom of God must be our highest priority; Jesus gave us no other commission.”
As individual members of the Body of Christ, it is our duty to share the kingdom message at every opportunity. In doing so, however, we must take care to present Jesus’ kingdom manifesto is ways that are relative to today’s world. Howard Snyder also points out the contrast between kingdom people and non-kingdom people. His words paint a clear portrait of why the church must educate its members in depth regarding Jesus’ concept of “Kingdom”:
The church gets in trouble whenever it thinks it is in the church business rather than the kingdom business. In the church business, people are concerned with church activities, religious behavior and spiritual things. In the Kingdom business, people are concerned with Kingdom activities, all human behavior and everything God has made, visible and invisible. Kingdom people see human affairs as saturated with spiritual meaning and Kingdom significance. Kingdom people seek first the Kingdom of God and its justice; church people often put church work above the concerns of justice, mercy and truth. Church people think about how to get people into the church; kingdom people think about how to get the church into the world. Church people worry that the world might change the church; Kingdom people work to see the church change the world…If the church has one great need, it is this: to be set free for the Kingdom of God, to be liberated from itself as it has become in order to be itself as God intends. The church must be freed to participate fully in the economy of God.
I find the Church’s lack of focus on establishing the kingdom even more remarkable when considering other popular pulpit themes. A few years back I was conducting research on the growth of several denominations in the county where I live. This research necessitated my visiting eight different congregations over an extended period of time and provided an opportunity to hear firsthand the kind of topics preachers from a variety of denominations were expounding upon. Frankly, I was amazed. I heard at least four sermons on prosperity, four more on the reality of sin, three on the importance of speaking in tongues, two on how speaking in tongues was the work of Satan, at least two sermons detailing the importance of voting Republican in the upcoming 2008 election, and one meandering, 40-minute bombast without a discernable core.
In short, the church is supposed to be in the business of turning out “kingdom people” rather than church people. So, along with the other themes discussed in this article, I feel it is imperative that the church also include as a part of its educational agenda information on just what the kingdom is all about.
I should say at this point that I rocked along as a Christian for many years before, by the grace of God and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, I began to at last encounter Christ in a more profound way. In spite of my personal beliefs and biases, misinformation gleaned from myriad sources, including the church, and perhaps most subtle of all, my own intellectual arrogance and theological snobbery, a sliver of divine light managed to break through. Augmented by much prayer and meditation, this thin beam of illumination expanded into an unexpected eruption of insight and wonder. It was as if some sort of spiritual dawn had exploded across the horizon and standing at the center of this sublime awakening was Jesus Christ – Jesus as I had never seen him before; Jesus as I had never understood him before; Jesus, as he had never impacted me before.
My reaction to this encounter was one of reverence, awe, and wonder. I think the phrase coined by Hebrew writer and scholar Abraham Heschel sums up my feelings quite accurately. When the dust settled and I began to embody the new revelation of who and what Christ was and is, I was literally overwhelmed with a sense of radical amazement.
This sense of wonder, awe, and amazement created in me a desire to obey Christ in things both great and small. I was (and I remain) far from perfect in terms of my obedience, but with divine assistance each day I get a little bit better it seems. More significantly, this revelation of Christ’s nature, his accomplishments, and his ongoing mission created in me a desire to create and maintain a level of excellence in my life that greatly exceeded the level at which I had been operating. Cutting straight to the chase, my personal mission statement became:
To become the optimal version of myself for the glory of God and the benefit of others.
The way I saw it, and still see it, is anything less than my best shortchanges Christ. I am not talking about perfection, nor am I employing any sort of legalistic program of puritanical holiness. Those flavors of teaching prove time and time again to create more problems than they solve. What I am driving at here is the importance and the necessity of making a consecrated commitment to excellence.
I am convinced that the vast majority of us are living far beneath the level we are capable of, whether in terms of our personal relationships, our professions, our level of knowledge and wisdom, and our moral values. All I am saying here is that in light of the great gift Christ has given us, we can and should do better than half-measures.
Christ gave us his best and our response should be nothing less than our best.
Think about it.
© L.D. Turner 2015/ All Rights Reserved