the cultural church. take 2.

Assignment for class: Write an iconoclasm treatise on something you want to change in the church.

Idea: Steal the title and first sentence of an old blog post and build on that foundation.

Product: See below.

In a culture consumed by consumerism, infiltrated with individualism, and saturated with syncretism, I have to wonder just how well the typical American church measures up to what Jesus intended for His body.  The place where contrite sinners used to come on their knees has become a trendy self-help workshop.  The place where Christians used to surrender all other loyalties is decorated with sentiments of nationalism and materialism.  The place where people used to find community has become a resource for expanding their own self-centered networks.  Gifts have become budgets and shepherds have become CEOs.  The church has become a corporation.

When a heart is replaced by an agenda and the Spirit quenched by “the way we’ve always done it,” when the counter-cultural call of our faith is replaced by a formula that mimics society a little too closely, the church has become nothing more than a lifeless structure.  The structure appears well made and carefully crafted, but it is hollow and in danger of collapsing.  At first glance, everything appears to be in place.  We have the programs, the technology, the board of directors, and a healthy bottom line.  But somewhere in all of this religious programming, one vital component is missing: God.

Throughout history, God has been an advocate for the poor, the needy, the desperate, and the ostracized.  People turn to Him at their lowest point when there is nothing else to depend on.  Yet, conversely, when we feel secure apart from God, we see no need for Him in our lives.  This is why Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).  Could it be that in our zeal to do right, we have stored up a sort of legalistic wealth that keeps us from hungering and thirsting for righteousness?  Could it be that in our careful structures and organization, we have come to a point where going through the motions of our religion no longer requires the fuel of the Spirit?

In Revelation, Jesus instructed John to write to the church in Sardis, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1).  Could that describe many of our modern American churches?  When the religious program is carried out week after week; when tradition, rather than the living, active revelation of God, defines our faith; when people leave unchanged time and time again; is there life in the church?  Or has our heart ceased to beat inside our perfectly-structured ribcage?

In the dawn of the church, it was an underground movement persecuted for its counter-cultural values.  But we American Christians, complacent in our first-world status, have fallen in love with our culture and modeled our faith after it.  We seek power, wealth, and affluence, advertising ourselves and exploiting others to be the best of the best.  Have we not employed this same mindset in our churches?  We advertise our selling points as better suited for the population’s needs than the church down the street.  Needing to keep up our image, we hire dynamic speakers with Ph.D.s and professional worship leaders and showy youth pastors.  Inside this web of key church leaders, we create power structures and assume everything can be solved with a formula.  The pastor is above the worship leader because he has a Ph.D.  The worship leader is above the secretary because he is more visible to the public eye.  This particularly stood out to me when we drew our home church’s structure of authority on the whiteboards in class.  There were carefully drawn little “technical” lines and “realistic” lines and squiggly political maneuvers, but there was little room for God in any of those equations.

The church has failed to distinguish itself from the world.  We have become so consumed by our own businesslike strategies that we hardly know what it means to be a community of people that follows Christ.  As such, we have lost our witness to the world.  We do not model the freedom Christ offers.  Instead, we market ourselves as insurance against hell and invite people to join our legalistic hamster wheel of Christian production and consumerism, keeping up with the latest and greatest evangelistic strategies and architectural styles.  I have to wonder, if Jesus were to come into the typical American church, would He come in with whips and overturn the tables?

Jesus never called anyone to comfortable discipleship.  He called them to radical discipleship.  It is time for us to stop settling for security and go outside our comfort zone to follow Jesus.  There are times when it will be difficult and painful.  There will be times when we are afraid.  True discipleship is not easy, but it is worth every mile you walk, every dollar you spend and tear you shed, every piece of your heart you give away.  True discipleship is the adventure of a lifetime.  Perhaps it is time we rethink the way we “do church.”  What if it were less about the building and the budget and the bottom line, and more about a group of disciples coming together to encourage and challenge one another to make a difference?  What if it were less about the structure and more about the meaning?  What if it were less about business and more about community?  What if…what if it were less about us and more about Christ?

Such a paradigm change would require some drastic and uncomfortable changes in the way we have typically thought of church.  For some of us, maybe the answer would be to abandon the corporation altogether and begin again in homes.  For others, it may be prayer and fasting as we cast a new vision for our trajectory as the church and seek guidance from the Spirit.  We need to take a good hard look at ourselves in a mirror and see if we look like the world, or if we look like Jesus.  If we resemble any structure or ideal other than Jesus – if our identity is found in something other than a simple, undecorated gospel — are we really Christians at all?

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