These days, what is the American church known for? Is it known more for what it stands FOR, or for what it stands AGAINST?
We’ve posed that question to audiences across the country. Overwhelmingly, they say the church today is most known for what it opposes.
Research shows that the church’s finger-wagging reputation is a leading cause for its decline in our culture today.
But when it comes to decline and decay, the church is not alone. Many institutions have seen significant decline in recent years. And many would say the culture as a whole seems to be experiencing a period of decline. Check out this opening line in a recent news story: “The American Dream picked a funny place to die this week, in Aspen.” That was the site for the annual Aspen Ideas Festival, where high-profile leaders, writers and academics gather to assess the country’s health.
Real wages have not increased for most Americans. African-American males who do not finish high school have a 68 percent chance of ending up in prison by age 35. The education system is failing. Harvard professor and author Robert Putnam said cultural breakdowns are creating a knowledge gap between rich and poor kids, leading to class segregation.
A reporter on the scene wrote: “There wasn’t just an aura of gloom, but a recognition that no one has the answer.” One speaker proclaimed that his federal program would change the lives of thousands of disadvantaged youth. But even if he’s successful the effort would reach only 1 percent of the affected demographic.
STANDING FOR LOVE
Are America’s problems so big that no one can make a dent? Is there any large collection of caring people in the society who could come together to make a real difference? I can think of just one.
It is the church.
Even after recently reported declines, 70 percent of the American population identifies itself as Christian. Across the land we have over 300,000 local Christian congregations, plus thousands of house churches, plus countless parachurch organizations, not to mention the millions of Dones–those Christ-followers who no longer attach to a congregation but they still desire to live out their faith.
What if these multitudes would join a unified cause to love their neighbors? What if they seriously considered Matthew 5: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
What if this legion of love would tackle a big, far-reaching societal problem, such as education? A model already exists to send caring Christians into local public schools to mentor at-risk kids. Kids Hope USA matches schools with churches in a simple but highly effective weekly program. The only problem? There are way more schools desiring a church partnership than churches currently willing to cooperate. Could the nation’s 300,000 churches shine a life-changing light of love on the nation’s 100,000 public schools?
The church is, by far, the largest volunteer organization in the country. What if these millions would be focused on a mission of love in every community? Jesus provided some ideas of where to volunteer: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” This summer 20,000 Christian teenagers and their leaders are setting a good example of this kind of serving through Group Cares’ community mission projects.
And the church controls one of the largest financial treasure chests in the country–over $100 billion a year. What if churches would make even a marginal increase of dollars flowing outside their walls?
What would happen if God’s people, all across the land, actually came together to be FOR something?
Good! Sign me up!
Terrific article! Thank you for sharing. I think and feel much the same as you do in this regard. Keep writing and sharing.
Thankyou very much for sharing this Biblical insight.
Count me via prayer. I want to be part of this call to “Biblical Action”
It’s not just for the Christians in the USA, but all over the World (including Warkworth, New Zealand) where I am from.
God bless you all.
Roger & Heather (Warkworth, New Zealand)
Yes! May the City on a Hill shine brightly in New Zealand!
Great vision, Thom! However, it’s not clear to me how this huge ship called “the American church” is suddenly going to change direction and “join a unified cause to love their neighbors”. (This is not to say that there are not many examples of churches and individuals who are doing this now. But, taken as a whole, the American church is largely inward focused and passive when it comes to impacting the American culture in this way.
And, this is in spite of an endless series of the latest “programs” that are guaranteed to “bring new life to your church”. (The purpose driven church, the seeker sensitive church, etc) And, in spite of these programs, the Dones continue to leave.
I want to propose that there are deeper, hidden (at least in the sense that we can’t see them), systemic problems that militate against the change that Thom is suggesting.
1. The American church is largely “building centered”. So much so that most American Christians can’t even imagine church apart from a church building. However, the building and the staff necessary to carry on the activities of the church require that the leadership is always focused on “nickels and noses”. That is, how do we get people to come to our church and then how do we get them to contribute to the church budget. And, if attendance is dropping (those troublesome Dones, again!) the anxiety rises and the focus becomes even more internal. As much as leadership may fight against it, the building and all the attached issues generally drives the agenda. The building necessitates a significant inward focus.
Contrast with the early church. “The New Testament Church began as a small group house church (Col. 4:15) and it remained so until the middle or end of the third century. There are no evidences of larger places of meeting before 300.” Snyder, “Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine”, p. 166.
2. The American church is largely “sermon centered” (and worship team or choir centered). So much so that most American Christians can’t even imagine church apart from the Sunday morning “service” (whether traditional or contemporary). However, this form of church by definition (unintentionally) trains people each week to be passive spectators rather than active participants. (When is the last time you stood up in church and said “I have a passage of Scripture to share” or “I have a song I would like us to sing”?) The primary meeting of the church each week (unintentionally) communicates the message of “Come and sit and enjoy while we (the leaders) do all the work.” We may preach the “priesthood of all believers” but our primary expressions of church communicates exactly the opposite (ie, the priesthood of a few, highly gifted individuals).
Contrast with the Early Church. The typical church gathering in this period was characterized by participation and mutuality. See 1 Cor 14:26. From the moment a new believer walked into church, they were expected to function as a priest. “Spectator Christianity” was unknown. As a result the Early Church made a huge impact on the Roman Empire. Rodney Stark estimates that, of the 60 million inhabitants of the Roman Empire in 300 AD, 6 million were Christians.
“If the problem is the system, then even our best solution is part of the problem. That leaves even the most dedicated, visionary, passionate and revived Christians trapped in a system which is sucking their very energy and is simply overpowering. The way forward, therefore, may not be hidden in slight changes and adaptations to some new forms in “Church as we know it”, but in a much more radical discovery of the very nature of Church itself. The quickest way to “church the unchurched” may very well be to “unchurch the Church.” Simson, “Houses That Change the World”. p 20.
Astute insights, John. And I’d add a couple more choke points:
1. Mission drift. The established church has forgotten why it exists. “Make disciples” has devolved into a 4-week lecture-based course on Bible history.
2. Sectarian bickering. Joining together to make a difference is difficult in an environment of denominational divisiveness and nitpicking.
I agree with you about the additional “choke points”, Thom.
With you all the way, John White. Also Thom’s ‘mission drift.’
John, I wish that I could be as succinct and eloquent. I’ve been ‘preaching’ this message for quite some time. These are EXACTLY the issues that need to be addressed but they are not what churches really want to hear these days. Sadly.
Dear Heartspeak, We are finding a growing number of the “Dones” around the country who are hungry for a new/old way of doing church. Check it out… LK10.com
johnwhite732758590, Yes! Very well put!
[…] My good friend Tom Schultz posted something you should read. Check it out here. […]
Right now I see the church having a hard time defining what love is. We have the 1cor 13 version. But there is more. For example, the tough love a parent has for their children. The love a counselor has for their patient, letting them come to the realization they need help, sometimes bouncing off the floor numerous times in the process.
Do we understand love does not equal approval anymore than disapproval equals hate?
How do we learn to be like Jesus? The Jesus that died on the cross in our place is the same Jesus that turned over the money changer’s tables in the temple. We cannot get away with sin in our body, the New Testament temple, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. The LORD our heavenly father, like all good parents, will rebuke and correct us, BECAUSE he loves us!
Until we understand the whole definition of love we will always swing one way or the other too far on the pendulum of law and gospel.
Great article and call to action!!!
You ask the question, “What would happen if…”
I think we would begin to see what happened in Acts 2: 47b – 48, The church was “enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
As a nation, as you have pointed out, we have lost favor of the people in the United States and around the world. Think about this equation, irrelevancy + time = extinction. The church has thought of relevancy as more lights and smoke on Sunday morning, more hip communicators, and bigger and more fun children’s and youth ministries. Though these things might very well have a place in the life of a church, I think the fact is much of this has become a deafening noise that has drowned out the cries of the world.
I think we, the church, are going to have to start quietly living like Jesus before the world will be willing to hear the message of Jesus.
BRILLIANT and so timely!!!
Hmmm. You mentioned loving our neighbors and tackling education, but I didn’t hear you say “share the gospel,” or “make disciples,” or “teach them to observe all I have commanded.”
Tim, there’s a whole load of good stuff I did not mention in this short piece. Just touching on the principles of Matthew 5:14-16 and Matthew 25:35-36 filled more than my normal article space. My lack of inclusion of the rest of the New Testament here in no way diminishes my love or devotion to it.
Thanks for your reply, Thom. What I’m seeing is a lot of “mission drift”–drifting away from the specific mission Jesus gave us, to make disciples. Seems like churches and Christians (including many in my own church) are too quick to equate “loving our neighbors” and “tackling education” with “making disciples.” The point is not a better image in the world (though I’m for that). The point is making disciples.
Inviting the Body of Chrsit to stand for Christ’s love as we together pursue a prayer-care-share lifestyle. Join the love-your-neighbor-with-the-gospel movement at LOVE2020.com ~ then get the email reminder at PrayCareShare.com
I think, suggesting that “making disciples” in a stand alone fashion, is just code for protecting the old status quo. In our ten years of running our street/outreach Church, loving our neighbor and all the sacrifice that entails must come first. Then the Holy Spirit leads in the discipleship making.
Wayne what you have been doing reflect Acts 2:45, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” For years I read that as they gave to others inside the church. It doesn’t say that, it says “anyone who had need”!!! Way to Go!!!
Wayne, yes I think the “disciple making comment” sometimes is all about “you sit and listen to me preach” and used to justify a faith without works on behalf of the speaker. We have found that people are very willing to hear about Jesus and become his disciple after they have experienced the love of Jesus from us. However you are correct, showing the love of Jesus can take a lot of personal sacrifice that many are not willing to make. It is easy to say “make disciples” and it is nothing more than “churchy talk”, saying the right thing because of a current trends making the rounds about the state of the Church and how to fix it. However the sacrifice needed to be a disciple of Jesus has not changed from 2000 years ago, as you have shown with Acts 2:25.
Maybe we’re all missing something here. A lost world will never see the church in a positive light, no matter what we do. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be of the world.
Christianity is not popular, never had been, never will be. Jesus told us this. We are to be salt and light, however, to a lost people, and though we will never, ever do it perfectly, we will hopefully always be making strides to let people see Jesus in us.
If we think we’ll ever get to the point where we can say we have fully arrived and the world views us in a positive light, we are deluded. All we can do on a daily, moment by moment basis is individually and collectively walk by the power of the Holy Spirit in that sanctification process.
If the world chooses to view me in regard to what I’m against, i.e. gay marriage, abortion, etc. etc. etc. then so be it. I can still love my neighbor regardless and how they choose to view me or the church is up to them.
But if we think we can convince the world to view us in a positive light when they do not know the Lord, we are sadly mistaken and any effort to convince them otherwise without them coming to a saving faith in Jesus is called compromise. And sadly, we are seeing this in the church today as we seek to be “culturally relevant” to a lost and dying world.
Thanks, PureVintage. As cited in my article, I’m following Jesus’ advice: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Good points, purevintagestyle. There are many verses in the Gospels in which Jesus warns us about being hated. One is: If you belonged to the world, the world would treat you with affection and would love you as its own. But because you are not of the world [no longer one with it], but I have chosen (selected) you out of the world, the world hates (detests) you. John 15:19 (Amp.) We are called to love our enemies, but our goal is to obey the Lord, not make friends with the world.
Thom–great piece. Thanks. We helped start Kids Hope in a church I served in Grand Rapids. The Kids Hope training is terrific–very thorough, clear on boundaries training, empowers the people (this is not all on the pastor!), and is definitive about how to best care for the students. Thanks for highlighting this great opportunity.
Thanks for mentioning the public schools. In the district where I live, there is a huge public-private divide. Parents of means have opted out of the public schools (without ever even visiting them) and for the most part, the schools are now mid- to low-income. Add to that an imbalance in the number of group homes and foster homes in our community, and you can see how much the kids could use mentoring.
I only wish the website you linked to had a list of the communities that desire partnerships. There is no way I can pitch an idea to our Session without more information.
Thanks, Laura. The Kids Hope site does show where they have active church-school partnerships: http://www.kidshopeusa.org/Partnerships/Locations/
Please contact them directly to learn about the possibilities in your area. They would love to talk with you.