tendencies of an american church

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.]



Filed under just thinking, woe to us

18 responses to “tendencies of an american church

  1. randy morgan

    you’re dead on, brett. i agree with everything you’ve said (and thanx for the reference, by the way). we focus on “come” rather than “go,” and we choose individuality over community.

    most distressing to me, though, is that we’ve made “church” about sunday morning at 10 o’clock. that was never what jesus had in mind.

    • good point, randy. i was just reading yesterday a blog post about the evils of church shopping. my response was that if church is just about what we do on sunday morning at 10, then why wouldn’t we shop? seems logical to me.

      what’s strange to me is those churches that plan on and encourage this thinking (church is this one assembly) while at the same time complaining about church shopping and a general lack of commitment.

  2. Jason

    Isn’t the root of these problems that we have forgotten how to be community? If we remembered how to be community we wouldn’t twist around backwards to not look like we’re doing…here it comes…evangelism. Evangelism has become a four-letter word, I think, because we’ve dis-associated it with community.

    The attraction model is just the same as compound-based missions: bring the people to you so you can be little-inconvenienced and/or can wow them with your poise, position and status.

    Is that what happens in what is considered a Christian nation? We forget how to go, as you said Randy, and therefore have forgotten how to meet and build community with new people and love them in their places, whatever and wherever those places are.

    • “we… have forgotten how to meet and build community with new people and love them in their places.”

      i really like this thought and the wording. it’s odd, though, because many church groups of which i’ve been a part have done a pretty decent job of building and living in community. its seems our difficulty is often in accepting other communities — or even in having a desire to love people in those communities.

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  4. David Robinson

    anyone interested in more info on this subject should definitely check out my new buddy’s book, The Tangible Kingdom. Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, who live in Denver, co-wrote the book. It is great! They speak right along the lines you are talking about.

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  7. Just happened on your website and really resonate with what I have read. So many times, it is the missionaries who have a clear insight into what our mission is: to be like Jesus and to continue his work. Last night I preached (as a guest preacher since I no longer preach full time) on “Restoring Visible Christianity.” Jesus was visible and we must quit hiding behind our four walls and become visible just as he demonstrated for us.

    • thank you, dwight for reading and commenting. but i want to thank you more for your service to the kingdom — both formerly in full-time work and currently (in full-time work that you’re not being paid for).

      “restoring visible christianity” sounds like my kind of sermon.

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  9. Eagle

    This is coming from a former Christian, more of an agnostic. But this is what I saw over the 10 years I was involved.

    1. Lots of superficiality with people being less than honest at times. Being involved in a culture that forces people to project a facade so they can fit in. The bottom line…they can’t be themself or be honest about what is happening in their marriage, life, failures, etc..

    2. Lack of grace and lots of legalism. Christians will know Ephesians 2:8 or Philippians 4:13 but they fail to live it out. Grace is withheld becuase they don’t want to appear to condone some sin, situation etc.. My Bible study leader in the church I was invovled with struggled with homosexuality. Be denying him grace I think many helped force him sadly in the wrong direction.

    3. Jesus in the suburbs!!!! I hate to say this…but I think Christianity in the US is a white, upper, middle class movement or people who live and spend most of their time in the suburbs. I was struck by the lack of diversity in the church and how much a bubble it became. That bubble was far removed from reality with pastors, minsitries, ministers, and dare I say? Even the Bible being worshipped.

    4. Maniplative…I spent time in the LDS when I was younger and noticed similarites between the Mormon culture and evangelical culture. Evangelcials have their pet sins, i.e. not tithing, homosexuality, sexual, and alcohol. As a result there are so many sins or things that God talks about which are routinly ignored. That includes – pride, anger, materialism, the least of these, sloth, greed, gluttony, envy, etc.. This point hit me like a loa dof bricks when I worked with the homeless. I saw all the sins that were never covered. In the end it became too artificial.

  10. Tisha

    Oh, ok. See, there you are talking about how the individualism plays out in the church. Sorry – I was wrong about your views . I just need to read more of your blog. Again, thanks for the link.
    Your point about blatantly living spiritual lives in our communities to evangelize is spot on. It seems that our churches often rely on PROGRAMS to do this for us! There is always a scheduled event or meeting or class or “ministry” to (supposedly) do the work of evangelism. All we need to do is invite people to church events – no real need to actually live the gospel.

    • programs have been deemed as one of the most important functions of church today. which is odd because they seem to me to be one of the most damaging things we do.

      but you weren’t far off on me leaning towards individualism. in ncaa cases and with student athletes, i lean extremely far that direction.

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