The word being used today is decline. “The church is in decline” is in the news regularly, the subject of numerous studies nationwide, the fear of countless pastors, the curiosity of many a churchgoer, as well as seminaries from coast to coast, and the wish of some who would like to replace the church with their own religion.
But let’s face it and call it what it is, generally speaking, The church in America has melted into the culture. We hear of more and more closing year after year.
As with many a battle in life the enemy is often more within than without. This is the more serious decline and should be one of our greatest concerns.
The world is a sick place and in need of God. But the world wants a god that is manageable, one that will not interrupt things and certainly not disrupt things. The world likes the “mild” Jesus. Call him what you will, but don’t call him mild!
But the world does not know the depth of its sickness nor the extent of it. The world hungers for that which it cannot taste or acquire, and longs for that which it cannot create or buy. It will take a little help along the way, but not if it is too costly, religious or otherwise.
What it would like from us is accommodation. It will make it a little easier for us if we will be honey and shade, not salt and light.
We church people can have our place in the sun as well. We can gain the favor of the world, but it is a certain death if we do. The terrible octopus of Cultural Christianity has its grip on us and the result is we have lost our influence and are no longer agents of change but instruments of accommodation reflecting not God but a value system that places man at the center.
This gives us a human perspective that displaces God and his truth from the world, making sin look normal and righteousness look not only strange, but perverted. When a church does this, it has lost its message, its identity, its grip on grace and truth. What is morally wrong becomes plausible and wrong seems normal. I ask you, is this not where we are today?
As I recently heard, “Now the goal of the world is self-glory. The goal of the world is self-fulfillment, self-control, self-indulgence, self- satisfaction.”
And all of it is hostile to God and all of it is antagonistic to his word. And all of it opposes his will.
We now are worshipping at the triune altar of health, wealth and pleasure. We have lost our message. It is not that we have nothing to say, but like the Corinthians, we have an absence of the basics: faith, hope and love. The church has lost her voice, her vision, her ear and her purpose and has become about herself.
Pastors are celebrities, preaching is powerless, the pew is clueless. In over 40 years of preaching all over the North American continent one thing I have seen, the healthiest churches are not in an identity crisis. They know who they are in Christ and are unmoved, unapologetic and unafraid.
Their measure of success is not the approval of the world. We have allowed things that matter most to be at the mercy of things that matter least. We must get our priorities straight.
Did not Jesus say “Seek first … — Matthew 6:33”? When will we ever learn that sacred things cannot be staged and remain sacred? What will it take to finally convince us of what Muggeridge stated so well: “You cannot present an authentic message by means of an inauthentic medium.”
We cannot make God visible otherwise. One of my favorites, John Stott, has described the church we are in danger of becoming. “The Laodicean church was a halfhearted church. Perhaps none of the seven letters is more appropriate to the 21st century church. It describes vividly the respectable, sentimental, nominal, skin-deep religiosity which is so widespread among us today. Our Christianity is flabby and anemic. We appear to have taken a lukewarm bath of religion.”
Stanley Hauerwas suggests “we have confused North American values with Christianity and reduced being a Christian to being a good neighbor and good American.”
Thus, many are powerless. … We learn accurately, think correctly, worship politely, program carefully, manage efficiently and then fail — fail miserably — and live badly and without power. Does this speak to how you want to live? If not, let’s begin here.
Renewal begins with the understanding — God loves his church, Christ established and built his church. It is for her he lived, it is for her he suffered and died, and it is for her and her alone he is coming back.
What is God calling us to do?
We need a city wide prayer gathering of those who share the following: “a shared focus (the cross), a shared authority (the Bible), a shared experience (conversion), a shared mission (worldwide evangelization), and a shared vision (the spiritual renewal of the church and society).”
We are kingdom outposts, so we had better stay connected to the home office.
The Rev. Chuck Cooper is a longtime pastor and the developer of Daybreak Ministries. He and his wife, Linda, live in Walla Walla. Contact him at Chuck.firstname.lastname@example.org. Pastors in the U-B circulation area are encouraged to write 500- to 700-word columns. Send them to email@example.com.