A few weeks ago, Randy Morgan (who blogs here) was preparing a sermon on the current state of the church in America. I made a few comments on his blog and started thinking (I often do make comments before thinking, but that’s not what I meant to say here) — rather, I should say I made a few comments and was then prompted to give the subject greater thought. At this point in the 21st century, I’ve lived half of the 2000’s in either Asia or Africa and, so, consider myself to be a bit of an outsider to American culture. I feel like this might give me some small amount of insight into the culture of Christianity in America… or at least a trace of objectivity when considering such.
I don’t want to simply criticize and complain about the American church. But I do want to raise awareness and/or questions concerning why we are the way we are — and whether or not we should be happy here. I’ll limit this post to two ideas, and follow up soon with some practical suggestions on how to alleviate said problems — or at least provide some measures for counter-balancing our tendencies.
1. We are too attractional in our ministries. Nearly every evangelistic tool we have involves inviting people to events. We more or less say, “We have Jesus over here; if you come to us, we’ll share him.” Though what we’re really advertising is, “We have our version of Jesus over here. We’ve made him just like us. And so, if you’re like us… and you come over here… we’ll share him… and you’ll appreciate him… because he’s like you, too.” I guess I’m going beyond our attractional forms of ministry to say that we create God in our own image. But I think the two are related. The natural fruit of event-based, invitation-to-a-building evangelism is sharing a Jesus just like you with visitors who are also just like you. And if someone different chances upon our meetings, they are either made to feel unwelcome or made to act like us in order to feel comfortable. My guess is many of us fall back on this attractional form of evangelism simply because it’s what we’ve always done. But probably the deeply ingrained, and possibly subconscious, reasons are:
- We just aren’t willing to live blatantly spiritual lives into our communities (which is how evangelism should be done — by being Christ to others… on their turf). We seem to be either embarrassed, lazy, over-busy, or apathetic.
- We’re afraid of failure. So why even try?
- We honestly believe evangelism is a job for the leadership and ministry staff only. We feel incapable of sharing our faith with others so we prefer a system in which we bring our visitors to the “experts,” so they can receive more authoritative and/or compelling teachings.
2. Americans, in general, place a great deal of value on the notion of the individual. This manifests itself in the church in several ways:
- Each of us tends to think of himself as the center of the universe. [I will grant you, though, that cultures in which family or nation are viewed as more important than individuals also struggle with this, though they place family at the center of the universe… or nation.]
- We dabble in materialism and greed, which prevents us from taking care of one another — much less the poor in our communities.
- We tend to make Jesus a personal savior and think of Christianity in terms of what it does for me as an individual. I’d argue this was not God’s intent. Not that he doesn’t care about the individual, but he certainly puts it in its proper place — the context of community.
- We tend to think of salvation as being justification only. God saved me from my sins. We think very little about being transformed into his likeness in order to be Christ to others, and give glory to God.
- We like self-help and self-awareness and self-esteem and, therefore, believe we can solve our own problems if we try hard enough. This leads to a legalistic, pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps form of Christianity.
- We think of church in terms of what it does for us. We are the ones who are to be served — although scripture makes it clear the church exists for those outside it. This often contributes to church “shopping.”
- As we dwell on what church can do for us, messages seem to gravitate toward things that are good — but are not themselves the gospel. For instance: getting out of debt, having well-behaved children, and relieving stress in our lives. Church becomes a really big self-help group, with free childcare.
What are your thoughts? Have I falsely painted the portrait of church in America? What would you add? Do you have any practical suggestions on how to combat these trends in our churches? [Please tell me you do, because it would make my task of following up with practical suggestions so much easier.]