What’s the thing that’s draining the life out of the American church? Is it a recent thing–or has it been around a while?
People often ask these questions after seeing our film When God Left the Building, which depicts churches, small and large, famous and not, that are struggling to find their way. Is there a common thread? Yes, I believe there is. It is the same thing that crippled the religious establishment 2,000 years ago when Jesus came to make a course correction.
What is this thing? It is . . . misplaced centrality. People today, as well as 2,000 years ago, tend to fixate on certain things that do not happen to be the One Thing–a living, loving, growing relationship with Jesus Christ. Individuals and churches often rivet their attention on other things. Some of these other things may be good things, but they’re not the One Thing.
What are these other things that become centers of attention? Here’s a sampling of some:
Rules. In Jesus’ time the religious people were focused on rules about the Sabbath, the temple, and tradition. The same is true today. Some denominations have even named themselves after their rules.
Sin. Religious leaders confronted Jesus with those caught in sexual sin and other transgressions. Today some churches and denominations make their positions on sexuality, for example, the centerpieces of their work and witness.
Sacraments. Centuries ago some churches established the centrality of sacraments such as the Eucharist, creating systems and qualifications and requirements around the rites. For many today, the sacraments themselves have become idolized.
Scripture. Many today like to advertise they’re Bible-centered. Sometimes the book receives more adoration than its author. Being “in the Word” gets more play than being with God.
Tunes. Not only has church music become the synonym of “worship,” it has, for many, become the object of worship itself.
Personality. Today’s conventional wisdom dictates that any “successful” church requires a “great communicator” who draws crowds and attention . . . to himself.
Again, some of these things can be good things. The problem comes when they become the central thing. That’s when people get the impression that a relationship with Christ is no longer enough, is no longer the real focus.
What would happen if we became not rule-centered or sin-centered or sacrament-centered or scripture-centered or music-centered or personality-centered, but clearly Jesus-centered? What would be different?
We’ve begun to ask these questions at JesusCenteredLife.com. Watch the video. Look at the thoughts of others as they grapple with the question, “Who is Jesus to you?”
If everything else is stripped away, there’s just One Thing that brings life.
Good Post! I think we are often kept from centering on Jesus because as my mother-in-law used to say, “we are enslaved by the bondage of being right”.
Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian,
Going to Jesus does.
He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Thank you Lord.
Paul talks about “another Jesus” so we must be careful to not only center on Jesus, but to center on the living, resurrected Jesus! Here’s more:
There is a growing force within Christianity today…GRACE. It is in God’s grace that we are able to enter into a personal relationship with Christ. From that relationship we are then called to dispensers of that grace which we have received not bearers of the law. Phil Yancey has written an outstanding new book, an addition to his book “What’s so Amazing About Grace?” that he wrote 25 years ago. For those of you in Northern Colorado, Yancey will be presenting a forum on Sunday May 3rd at 6 PM in the main auditorium at Timberline Church in Ft. Collins.
If it’s any consolation, I heard N.T. Wright say the same observation a year ago. I asked him what was the greatest threat to the Church – he responded without hesitating. The church, as a whole, has forgotten what was the one thing they were called to do.
N.T. Wright has such a clear, pin-pointed way of presenting things. I quote (probably paraphrase) him often. In my church, I am afraid that I am the lone voice in the wilderness reminding the congregation that we have forgotten what we are to do: spread the gospel and make disciples.
Is it just me, or are an ever increasing number of believers across denominational and culture lines, seeing and awakening to the same thing? I’m in a small rural church and have an extended ministry to other rural church leaders. “God is enough” is both hungered for and drawing many back to the basics and away from (what I have called) the toxic additives of evangelical Christianity. p.s. I am evangelical, whatever that means
The millennia old “thing” is confusing Churchianity for Christianity
You could also add “community” to the list, Jesus plus community. We’ve all heard the “You can’t do it alone.” yet we sing the song called “No Never Alone”. Anyone who has been in a position where Jesus is all you got, that is when you see and understand that Jesus is all you need. On the other hand I would disagree with this also because God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are equally important. Even the saying, “Faith alone, in Christ alone.” isn’t complete. Jesus would not have been sent if not for the Father and we would not have salvation without having been given the Spirit. All are equally important. Our relationship is with all three of the One.
When you stand before the Lord on Judgement day, The one thing you won’t be ask is your denomination.
My family left the Protestant church for this exact reason. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are the reason we exist and should be the only object of our worship. The liturgy of the Orthodox church was designed 2000 years ago for that reason. The church of the west misses a lot of the deep spiritualness and mystery of the original church. I know there are good Protestant churches and people I wish there was a way to combine the two.
I respect your comment, Steve. The institution of church is probably what your family needed and the formality, the structure and the sacraments are probably what you and your loved ones missed. What is the original church? Do you mean those people who gathered around Peter when he began in Jerusalem? Do you mean the church that met in Corinth? Do you mean those at Ephesus? Alexandra? Which group? None of them had a cathedral or a formal building. Those people met house to house. The people who gathered under the banner of Jesus Chrst is the church and that is what the young unsaved people understand and why they are largely rejecting ANY “church” today. They don’t want these buildings, denominations, and rules. They don’t want a group of Christians who seem to worship anything on Thom’s list above, either. All those things are important but should not be made the “big thing.”
The original church are people who are dead and will come back with Jesus at the second coming. Those folks Rome represent are not the original church. They are a part of today’s church. They live today, not 2,000 years ago. The church in New York lives today. The church in Parkland lives today.
If your family left a church, then they left people. You’ve stopped influencing and being influenced by other members of the church in order to join with other members of the church who are more like you. There is an original church, but we cannot belong to it. We can only belong to Christ and together we are the current church. You may worship with others in any manner that makes you comfortable and allows you to use your gifts, but you can not possibly be a part of the original church because those people lived a couple of thousand years ago and they are not here today. Lord willing, we will see them sometime in the future.
Right on target with this post. We are taking Christ out of His rightful place at center. But one of your points is off base. The Scripture is Christ. The Scripture is Christ to us and the world we are called to make disciples of. John 1 makes this clear. In the beginning was God, and the Word is God. Thanks for insight, but keep God central through the Word covered with Flesh, Jesus!
The Scripture is Jesus! With flesh installed so we would get it. Good post and right on target. Don’t agree about Scripture (red John 1).
The Church has completely lost what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Without love I am only a resounding gong or a clanging bell. The noise right now is getting downright annoying to many folk.
It seems to be pretty obvious that global prosperity and the internet are two major things that are killing off the church.
Very good points, and true from both the conservative and liberal sides of the fence. In my church, we don’t thump the Bible, we are afraid of it. A great deal of attention goes to debunking parts of it (usually by people who haven’t read it).
One thing you left out, though, is MONEY. Especially in old, established churches that went through periods of prosperity and high attendance (my church is the oldest in our city), there are maintenance costs that are higher than what is coming in through donations and rents. Money has become an idol in my church, or close to it. A stewardship “moment” might take 10 minutes talking about money, whereas the 20-minute sermon might mention Jesus only a few times. There is absolutely no concept that if we are following Jesus and doing the Lord’s work, God will provide for our needs. We focus on money, not on the God who provides.
All I can say is a loud and very emphatic AMEN!
One of the saddest comments I have ever heard was from a woman who was a member of the local Anglican cathedral church, but who had previously been a member of a local village church. My heart sank when she said “After that terrible Mr. X removed the beautiful rood screen in St. Y’s, I determined that I would never darken its threshold again so I moved to worship at the cathedral.”
The next worst was at a weekend retreat to review where a congregation from a multi-congregational church was going. I had felt very strongly that God was telling me that we, as a congregation, needed to spend more time listening to Him and I had mentioned this to the member of the leadership team who was planned to lead the discussions. She was in agreement, having heard the same thing. A close relative died on the Friday and this leader was not present. The person who was taking over the discussion outlined the programme and I suggested that we needed to include some time for listening to what God had to say to us.”We don’t have time for that today.” was the reason for refusing to include it. Then we were all stood around like spare parts on a shelf when lunch was delayed by half an hour. Needless to say, the congregation is no more and the whole church went off the rails about 18 months later.
I am so deeply frustrated and pained by the leadership in my church refusing to acknowledge that our money problems are related to our lack of focus on the power of God. We focus on money at almost every meeting and often in worship. There is no concept that God will preserve a church that is putting God at the center and doing God’s work, nor that God can provide what we need to continue. They don’t understand that the continued focus on money is driving people away (including me). Why should anyone come to a church that focuses on lack rather than on abundance? I’m not talking prosperity gospel; I’m talking about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I just wanted to make an observation and leave it here because I really do not know where else to state this without inciting a fight. Church! I am grieving! I am nearly in tears!
The Spirit within me is so grieved that it is hurting my ability to serve enthusiastically.
Since Josh and Ashleigh has released their book, “Church Refugees” of which I am reading a second time, I see how very important that work is and I am happy that it was done, I am reading responses from many people that is very disheartening. Sales are climbing for this important book, which is good and important, but some of the “reviews” in these blogs and on social media seem to have a taunting, “I told you so” chest beating ring to it. This is sad! This has led to denomination bashing and finger pointing! I didn’t think that was the purpose of this important work! And I do not believe God intended for us to turn on each other.
We collectively are the church! ALL OF US. Even those of us who have left the mainstream church and either have found or are looking for an alternative way to serve our Lord, we still have loved ones in and we are responsible for these churches! They are still our heavenly kin!
I am praying that as the book sells more and more, that it doesn’t bring out more of an attitude that further divides believers. I am praying that those of us who support the work will use it to humbly encourage church leaders to take notice. Some of the comments I’ve read is akin to standing on the corner yelling at every passerby that they are all going to hell! Though any of those things may be true, winning the argument or coming out the victor in the fight is not our goal here. Our goal is to restore the church before it is too late.
Help me pray for churches to consider the pleas of the “dones” without the need to point out that they may not be interested in hearing about it. Please stop pointing out leaders publicly because, who knows, you might even make it impossible for me to speak to some of them. If I am busy trying to promote a tool to the very people the rest of us are highlighting as not willing to listen, then why would they EVER listen? Help me help them.
If Ed Stetzer said “good riddance,” after reading what many of us have been stating publicly, I wonder if he knew something I didn’t. Because some of our finger pointing and bashing of brother and sister certainly supports that he may have been right.