Last year I drafted a lot of reforms for local churches in the West. I may post those reforms in detail at a future time. However, no-one wants reform if there isn’t a problem. Here are some problems churches face, which explain the lack of attendance and passion.
- The gospel has been reduced to an inconsequential formula
The emotional rush to the front of church or camp to accept Christ has proven to be too superficial.
Firstly, the way we did camps (and church) led to emotional acceptance of a faith before the whole heart was engaged. Secondly, we based salvation on neat formulas like ABC (Accept Believe Confess). The term ‘accept,’ as A. W. Tozer has explained, describes an individual condescending to let a little god into his/her life on his/her own terms. In contrast, the gospels describe repentant people as being in a position of total surrender (e.g. Luke 14). The use of The Romans Road to promise that God has a wonderful plan for people’s lives led many to believe God would make all their own wildest dreams come true. When he failed do deliver on the bargain (after all Jesus’ offer of salvation is ‘free’), they went shopping for another deal. In our consumption driven society, the shopping could be quite literal retail therapy.
The New Testament takes 27 books to lay out aspects of the good news of the New Covenant. Yes, Romans 10:9 and John 3:16 are wonderful verses to get people started, but the gospel is about the new life to be lived in Christ. Many people who think they are saved don’t have ‘fruit in keeping with repentance.’ This might clue us in to the fact we have messed up the message somewhere.
- Self-help fashions offer more immediate fixes than church
Our high tech culture promises faster and faster fixes. I am glad the internet can give me answers to questions at the click of a button. I am glad Siri can call people, give me directions to work, and tell me a story. What Siri doesn’t do, Alexa takes care of. However, ‘impatient problem solving’ seeps into our desires for happiness, joy, peace, contentment, and the problem of life after death. Contrary to quick-fixes, the Bible looks on growth as a life-long process. Sometimes growth takes painful experience, periods of disappointment, or long times of reflection and prayer.
We have no time for that. So we turn quickly to life hacks, entertainment systems, or fad diets. We believe we are in control because we have self-medicated or numbed our pain. However, the hard conversations still need to be had. The long road to redemption often requires discipline and choices we would rather avoid.
Syncretism in religion occurs when a pure form of the religion is corrupted by the addition of critical modifications. Recent generations are sometimes called Mosaics as well as Millennials and Generation Z. This is because practices and beliefs from many worldviews are placed together to form each person’s own unique perspective. The accepted measure of truth is how this individualized system works for the individual, or even more these days, how my personal beliefs feel.
A problem is historically developed religious systems fail to function when elements are mixed together from various sources. They seem to work from the individual’s small perspective as they solve life with limited goals. However, most religious systems posit some kind of larger goal (or telos) for life. The whole point of each religious system is then lost. A New Age system results. Its individualized goal becomes personal peace and happiness.
- Jesus is reduced to a role model
In the last few decades there have been numerous quests for the historical Jesus. Most of these pursuits throw Matthew, Mark, Luke and John out of the window as a precondition. They don’t like the miracles, they don’t like the attitudes, and they don’t like the idea that Jesus is God.
However, the gospel accounts can be kept by these scholars as mythical stories, which give us an example of a noble teacher who told us to love each other and take care of the poor. The scholars and skeptics who take this route often like to throw stones at the Religious Right for missing these glaringly obvious aspects of Jesus’ character.
Unfortunately, this mortal man, who lived in the backwaters of Palestine 2000 years ago, has even less power over modern America than Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi. Unlike with Jesus, we can see newsreels of King, Mandela, and Gandhi living out their moral examples. It’s harder to imagine Jesus without photographs, in-depth interviews, and film. So, we give him a respectful nod and we pass on.
- Apologetics and Polemics are weak in the church’s teaching
Children’s upbringing in the Christian faith often involves an hour of entertainment on a Sunday with a sliver of Bible teaching thrown in. The Bible teaching often uses Bible characters as moral examples by chopping out the more unpleasant aspects of the script. The results are children who are more conditioned by their peers, their media and their school than they are by their supposed faith.
Christians grow up unaware of the systems around them. They are naive at best. They don’t know their own faith very well and certainly can’t defend it. This is why many young Christians are fish in a barrel for enthusiastic atheists, secularists, and people of other faiths at college. We still educate quite thoroughly in mathematics, literature, and science, but education in the faith is insipid.
Not only do many Christians feel shaky when defending their own faith (apologetics), they also have no idea how to engage with other world systems (polemics). Some of this is due to a comfort in being ‘the moral majority.’ In America, the evangelical Christian self-designation as ‘the moral majority’ is passed. Christians need to know what others believe and many don’t.
- The entirety of the Bible is not respected
Pastors inadvertently encourage ignorance of the Bible in a number of ways. Firstly, the Bible is no longer the source of the preaching in many churches. The pastor does not dig into the text and try to understand how the Bible, in its entirety, is relevant to today. The pastor looks at what topics are in vogue in the world and designs a sermon around those topics. The Bible is then used to illustrate the pastors points rather than drive the sermon.
Secondly, preaching tends to draw from the New Testament and then often from 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 8, or Matthew 5-7. Jude, Habakkuk, or Obadiah rarely find their way into a sermon and I am not sure I have ever heard anyone preach using those books as their foundation.
Thirdly, sermons and Bible studies often use verses from multiple locations to prove points in a sermon. This is not wrong in itself. However, over time, no understanding of the whole Bible develops in the minds of the congregation. The practice results in biblical illiteracy.
Fourthly, Christians have a sneeking suspicion there are two Gods in the Bible. There is the scary, vengeful, blood-thirsty God of the Old Testament and then there is my home-boy Jesus. Jesus is loving, accessible, and helps me sleep at night. Therefore, a lot of engagement with the Bible leaves the Old Testament alone.
Finally, those of us teaching at Moody Bible Institute have noticed a cultural shift. Teens are not encouraged to study the Bible in depth before heading into their career. In the past more people went to Bible College to dig deeper into scripture before they ventured into their career. A focus on finances and efficiency has put a stop to that.
- Christians live no differently from other people
“Salvation is not about works!” The apostle Paul seemingly stresses this in his letters. We are not saved by works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). We do not develop our own righteousness to satisfy God (Philippians 3:9). People who have been saved graciously by God are good to go. Go to where? To heaven! So, no change is required to achieve the goal of salvation – to get to heaven.
In contrast, the Bible clearly lays out that we are saved to perform the good works God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). There is a whole way of life Christians are meant to live out as a result of their salvation. If the neighborhood is flush with people fervently following Jesus, it should be better. Of course, Muslims, Jews and Atheists all have their own reasons for being good. We can’t ignore that the Bible dedicates many pages to a way of living that should set Christians apart. Statistics show that Christians don’t really live distinct lives. They also show Christianity in the West is in decline.
The apostle Paul saw many of the problems listed above in the church of Colossae. His response was to write them a letter. Having just finished Philippians, I will be writing reflections based on my observations from Colossians.
Thank you for this insightful piece. I think you are spot on. I will share it with others who are concerned about these very things! God bless you!
Amazing post. You have made the point precisely. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and observations.