Over the past ew months, I’ve thought a lot about various aspects of the way we “do church” in America. Though there are certainly variations on a theme, many if not most American Evangelicalism churches look pretty much the same. Though one may have “young adult contemporary with a hint of edginess to attract the Millennials” style worship while the church down the road maintains “traditional values”, chances are, the basic structure of what they do, (order of worship, ministry structure, classes offered, etc.) is probably pretty similar. You can repaint the barn all you want but it’s still a barn.
The other day I considered whether the American approach to “church” tends to exclude otherwise qualified men or whether I’m just a curmudgeon. By the way, I did get one vote for curmudgeon from a friend on FB, so that is still a real possibility. Just like I have come to wonder whether or current models of ministry tend to favor certain personality types over others, I wonder whether the current model of church has actually hindered rather than fostered discipleship. The primary thing Christians have been called to do may actually be stunted by our approach to try and fulfill the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).
While I love that there are exceptions, the general rule seems to be that the American church produces passive Christians. I have been part of the missional conversation since I was encouraged by my Acts 29 Assessment team to attend Soma School in 2008. Since then, I have been challenged to actively live out my faith and I have given my life to equip others to do the same. We tried to plant a church that would require people to participate. We have participation in our sermons. We are structured around Missional Communities, we limit our church programs, etc. After all, Paul is very clear that it is the people of the church who are to be responsible for the majority of its ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).
And we have seen God change people’s lives! We have seen people not only learn their neighbors’ names but build relationships with them. We have seen families open up their homes for foster care and adoption. We have seen people learn to identify and de-throne the idols they worship. We have seen people increase in love for God and others.
But it has been a slow and sometimes discouraging process. It has meant that we have to be sensitive to the fact that many people are simply not accustomed to their local church expecting a lot (other than maybe money and volunteer time) from them. Jesus certainly gave people pause before following Him, reminding them to count the cost. Following Jesus will often cost us in life because Jesus expects our entire lives to be devoted to Him. The local church is the avenue in which and through which we live out this life-encompassing call. If you are never challenged or made uncomfortable by your church, you might have reason for concern.
God’s people have been blessed to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). God calls us to bless the cities in which we live, even if we feel captive (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Jesus calls His people “salt and light” (Matthew 5:13-16). But I often meet Christians and pastors who feel like they just don’t know how to tangibly live out their faith.
Why have we made it so difficult for Christians to actively live out their faith in natural, unforced ways in everyday life? Why have we made it so difficult for so many Christians to talk openly and welcomingly about their faith? Why have we made it so difficult that throwing parties and serving others seems so unnatural? Why have we made it so difficult for people own their own spiritual growth?
I have come to believe that many of the challenges American Christianity faces are a direct result of the methods we have adopted in living out our faith. These methods have actually created a culture of passive Christians who need to be awoken, energized and equipped to put feet to their faith.
Though there are certainly other factors, I think that at least a few reasons we seem to pump out passivity, such as:
Theology (or lack thereof) of Place: American Evangelicalism generally seems to have a poor theology of place. Instead of challenging commuter culture, we have adopted it wholesale. We have removed most churches from their local context. Sure their property sits in a particular geographical area but it is increasingly rare for those surrounding communities to feel that the church is a blessing.
We need to regain and live out the notion that faith is put in to practice in everyday life. Local churches should be involved in their local communities. If we have been blessed to be a blessing, our communities should have tangible blessings to point out. Instead, they complain that our mega-services cram up the traffic and we take tax breaks from our communities rather than pouring in to the city.
The issue here is probably bigger than just a theology of place.
A n0n-holistic Gospel Leads to Christian Isolationism: Though the Evangelists and Revivalists of recent ages past certainly meant well, American Evangelicalism seems to have learned from them that the salvation of souls is the most important thing. But if all of creation has been affected by sin, surely the Gospel impacts and will someday redeem all of creation. The Gospel is not about getting in to heaven when we die, it is about living out the Kingdom here and now.
One practical result of this disconnect is directly tied to our poor theology of place. Not only have we disconnected the local church from its neighborhood, the separation of salvation from everyday life has only led to the fact that Christians like to clump together, removing ourselves from the “secular” world. We create our own sports leagues, reading clubs, etc. It is entirely possible for a Christian to have no contact whatsoever with those who believe and live differently. We can eat Christian toast, listen to Christian radio on our way to our Christian job, having lunch at the Christian coffeeshop, and then go to Bible study before going to bed.
“Christians are like manure: spread them out and they help everything grow better, but keep them in one big pile and they stink horribly.”
Christians were never meant to separate themselves from the rest of the world (John 17). Not only does isolationism separate us from those who don’t yet believe, it increases passivity. Though I may be challenged on the certain nuances of particular ideas, when I’m surrounded by those I generally agree with, stagnation is usually close by.
The Professionalization of the Pastorate Has Led to Poor Equipping: Though Paul clearly say the five-fold ministry as given to the church to equip Believers for the work of the ministry, we have relegated this “work of the ministry” to those paid to do it. Instead of viewing themselves primarily as equippers, many pastors are forced to live as doers. Part of this is related to the fact that seminary is probably not the best way to train equippers and we primarily seem to have seminaries in general because we wanted legitimacy from the academic world, but I am digressing and hope to address some of those issues later.
The very fact that John Piper (regardless of your thoughts on him and his ministry) felt the need to write a book called Brothers, We Are Not Professionals reminds us that this is indeed a real issue amidst American Evangelicalism. Many Christians have adopted passivity because they have come to believe that that’s what they pay others to do. And, instead of encouraging people to take responsibility for their own spiritual growth, we have turned spiritual growth over to the professionals.
Consumerism and An Entertainment Culture: Very few would argue that American culture has not willingly gift-wrapped itself in consumerism and the desire to be entertained. But, as Neil Postman has pointed out, the medium is the message. Our news shows are more scripted drama than simple reporting of events. And our worship gatherings are often more about entertainment than they are equipping Believers.
As Hirsch and Frost and others have pointed out, the very fact that our congregations are lined up in rows facing a stage means that the gathering will typically mean a passive audience. Top this off with the unhelpful aspects of “seeker sensitive churches” and we have many churches that will adopt the “USA Today” model of preaching, never challenging above a seventh-grade level. The music is led by slick emotionalists and the message is delivered by a professional public speaker.
Another side of this is the self-righteously Reformed folk who have adopted the notion that the sermon is the time for lessons in doctrine and the transfer of information. I was heard a famous preacher say, more than once, that if a pastor wasn’t spending 40 hours a week in their study, they had no business stepping behind a pulpit. While not necessarily entertainment driven, this approach certainly promotes passivity rather than engagement.
As I said the other day, I am not bitter towards the church. But I am in a personal place where I feel the need for public dialogue. Over the years, I have asked hundreds of people if they thought the American church was rocking it at actually making, maturing and multiplying disciples. I have not had a single person say that they think we’re doing a great job. That should prompt some deep self-reflection and some really big discussions.
As Einstein reminded us, insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Even though we have painted the barn lots of different colors over the years, it is still a barn. If our current system does not excel at the one main task to which we have been called and, in fact may have not only discouraged some men from serving but encouraged passivity, (and I am open to the fact that you may have had a different experience and that I may actually be wrong) we need the humility to talk openly about our shortcomings.