I noticed this morning that I haven’t been writing much about the state of the American church lately.
It’s kind of odd in a way, since I spent most of this blog’s first four months (December 2008-April 2009) on that subject. When I started it, I never intended it to be so focused on religion — it was supposed to be a spot for whatever issues I happened to see and feel the need to address, in whatever field. Thus the subtitle: “Views on God, life, sports, politics and whatnot.” It just happened that from early January through the middle of April, between my Congregational Journey and other church-related dealings, I was up to my Adam’s apple in the issues of American Christianity.
So why has that changed over the last two months? Well, for one, my Congregational Journey is over, and doesn’t look likely to resume (hit the calendar on the right and go to April 25 to see the surprising conclusion). And I haven’t succeeded in finding a “house church” to check out — in fact, I’m starting to doubt that any exist in this county. So in a way, I’ve been on the shelf for several weeks.
But there’s another reason I haven’t written much on the American church. It’s because very little seems to be happening that’s new.
Let me give you an example. I picked up the Supermodel and our kids last Sunday from the congregation they attend. Usually my first question to the Supermodel in that situation is “so how was the service?” This time, she didn’t even wait for my prompt before starting in: “Well, today’s sermon was the one I’ve heard every January for years …”
I didn’t need a half-second to figure out what she meant. “Ah — stewardship!” (For those of you outside the evangelical ghetto, “stewardship” is usually a code word for “give your money to the local congregation, so we can pay our bills.”)
I’d called it — the pastor’s entire message was on giving money, and giving money specifically to that congregation. The irony was deep and wide, since the previous week he had preached on “our vision for this church” (read: his vision for that congregation), and his first point had been “we are a GIVING church!” Not “we hope to be …” or “we should be …” or “by God’s grace, He will make us …” or even “darnit, I wish you were …”. “We are …” — present tense. So to recap, the messages (in part) for the last two Sundays have been:
- June 21: “we are a giving church.”
- June 28: “c’mon, church, you need to be giving!”
Which indicates to me (and to the Supermodel) that in the pastor’s little adventure in vision-casting, when he says, “we are …”, it’s more wishful thinking than actual fact. How disappointed is he going to be, I wonder, if/when that congregation fails to live up to his vision? Or will he just set it aside and toss out a new vision (or a carbon copy of the old one), as do so many others pastors that I’ve seen and heard about? Time will tell.
Now, telling the Supermodel to give is sort of like telling a bear to go pee in the woods: totally unnecessary, as it’s what they do anyway. My wife is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, as evidenced by the fact that after 11 years she still puts up with me. She has tithed (given 10% of her gross income to the work of the church) for as long as I’ve known her; I myself have set aside at least 10% for the same purpose since 1988. You don’t have to convince us of the value of tithing. And yet we both turn rather sarcastic when the subject is brought up periodically (as the Supermodel said, every January, it seems). Not because we don’t believe in tithing, but because we’ve given to the church for decades and it seems to be getting poured down a rathole. When you invest ten or twenty years’ worth of contributions into anything and the only result seems to be the same ol’ same ol’, you start to wonder whether it’s really what God had in mind for your giving.
I used to joke about my tithe to another congregation (one I loved and enjoyed greatly) as “paying my share of the light bill.” I didn’t mean it seriously — I knew how many missionaries and outreaches that congregation underwrote. But now I wonder if I was right all along and just didn’t realize it. How much of our tithes have been going to just maintain a structure of buildings, utilities, salaries and denominational bureaucracy that do little or nothing to bring the good news of God’s salvation to a needy world? It’s no wonder that for the past year or so, the Supermodel’s tithes (and a good portion of mine) have been going to a former pastor and his wife who are now ministering among the poor in Baja California, Mexico. Not only are the people there needier, by and large, than the ones in Stockton, but we trust that pastor to use the funds to actually minister to people rather than to pay for the air conditioning for six hours on a Sunday morning. (That was the specific example the Supermodel used, though to be fair to the congregation’s leadership, she is rather thin and we don’t have A/C in our house, so she’s less equipped to deal with the chill than most people.)
And this is the way it’s been pretty much since we’ve been born-again, and in some ways even before then. (Both of us grew up attending services — low-church Episcopalian for me, laid-back Presbyterian for her — but didn’t give our lives to Jesus until leaving home for university.) When the Supermodel went through the “we are …” points and action items of that pastor’s vision-casting sermon, I asked her how many of them were emphasized the same way, in the same words, in the Campus Crusade group where she gave her life to Christ sixteen years ago. Answer: almost all of them. Leaders in the American church, for the most part, are doing the same things in the same fashion and making the same points that they were 15 and 20 years ago, but they’re still expecting different results. (Ben Franklin gave that as his definition for “insanity.”) The emphases of the past decades have led to widespread apathy, declining attendance and the almost complete collapse of the church’s influence in America. You’d think it would occur to those leaders that maybe a new approach is in order. Not so far, it hasn’t.
There are a few deviations from the norm that I’ve heard about, but they don’t deviate all that much. The rift in the Episcopal Church in the U.S. has become even more pronounced, with the congregations and dioceses that still hold to the fundamentals of the Christian faith now forming their own Anglican denomination … but then, denominational splits happen all the time. A pastor in Canada whom I have referenced in the past is publicly adopting a new belief system that seems (I emphasize the word “seems”) to abandon the fundamentals of Christianity for a sort of fuzzy mysticism … but then, that’s not exactly unique either. Another Republican “family values” politician has been caught sticking it in someone other than his wife … but the only unusual part about this scandal vis-a-vis numerous other straying pols is that he went to South America to do it. And a pastor up in Seattle is making headlines and shaking things up through straight-talking messages that include occasional swearwords and frank discussions about sex, but also are full of traditional Protestant (Reformed) theology and calls to holiness. He’s actually doing some things that are different … so of course, leaders in the American church are lining up to slam him. Business as usual.
I’m not advocating change-for-the-sake-of-change, and I’m not advocating “getting with the times.” I’m advocating using the brains God gave us and realizing that the way we’re doing things, for the most part, isn’t advancing the Gospel. If it were any other entity that was going into such a steep and obvious decline, evangelicals would be pointing fingers and saying, “they’re falling apart because they’re out of God’s will, and because of that God won’t bless them.” Well, do you know why I think American evangelicalism is in such a mess and going nowhere? Here’s my theory: we’re out of God’s will, and because of that God won’t bless our efforts.
If the way we’re living as the body of Christ isn’t getting us or the message of God’s grace anywhere, why don’t we stop living that way? What if we shut down all the vision-tossing and mission statements, stop worrying about incidentals like denominational whatevers and comfy sanctuaries, stop pretending “we are …” one week and then urging us to become that the next, stop doing all the things we did last year and last decade that never led to anything positive, and refocused on God, finding out what He wants of us? I don’t think it’ll be hard to find out, really — after all, He’s given us a big, thick Book to study, and invites us to come and ask Him about anything we want.
In fact, when the leaders of the early church found that they were getting distracted by secondary issues — specifically, how their food closet was handling distribution — they asked their congregation to appoint a few people to take care of fixing that so that they could focus on praying and studying the Word of God. (Read all about it in Acts 6.) Within twenty years, the church was being accused of turning the world upside down. Nobody’s accusing the American church of that right now. Maybe we’re spending too much time “waiting on tables” (or worse) and not enough time waiting on God.
It’s just a theory, I suppose; you don’t have to agree with it. But my thinking is that it’s a better tack to take than doing the same ol’ same ol’ that we’ve been doing for a generation, while the world has pulled closer to the drain. And it would explain why I haven’t written much about the American church lately. There really hasn’t been much new going on. Nothing new means no news.
And in the case of Christianity, no news has never been, and never will be, good news. And since “good news” is what we’re supposed to be about …