The men and women who founded this nation were, for the most part, a church-going people who were influenced by the Word of God; no one can intelligently argue against that point. Indeed, there was a time in this nation’s history when Biblical principles held sway over public opinion. There was a time when churches maintained influence over the national social, moral, political, and intellectual landscape. There was a time when average Americans knew the basics of the Bible; when most everyone attended church on the Lord’s Day, and when pastors were respected and trusted members of the community.
Those days are no more.
We are now living in post-Christian times, and the church no longer exercises a prevailing influence on the mind and heart of American culture. The men and women of this nation, for the most part, are not a church-going people who are influenced by the Word of God; no one can intelligently argue against this point.
But be careful, lest you begin to wax nostalgic for the past. While it is true that a solid and serious grasp of the past will enable you to be wise in the present and in the future, you should be wary of the “in the good ole days” mentality. This wrong-headed thinking leads to closed-minded inactivity marked by pastors who harangue their congregations with sentimental preaching about “the good ole days” instead of faithful proclamation of God’s Word in the present day. It also leads to congregations stuck in the past, a past nowhere near as pristine as they presently claim, lashing out against the current times. It is further marked by Christians who cease to evangelize the lost, but develop anger, even hatred, at this “sinful age” and lament that “in the good ole days” people were not this “way.” The truth is that people have always been this “way”, at least since the fall, when Eve was deceived and Adam disobeyed. Even in “righteous America”, the nation that declared the self-evident truth that all men are created equal…well, all white land owning men that is.
It is true that, in some ways, America was a Christian nation, but in many other ways it has always been a non-Christian nation. This is because the human heart is deceitfully wicked; there are none who are righteous, no, not even one! The modern family is as dysfunctional as was the original family, where a rebellious and jealous older brother murdered his younger and virtuous younger brother, and then lied to God about it. Wistfully looking to the past while lamenting the present will render you irrelevant in the future. Beware of the “good ole days” syndrome.
But how are we to minister in a culture that views the church as extraneous? Philip Ryken states in his book City on a Hill that these post-Christian days have two prevalent characteristics: relativism and narcissism. Relativism is the rejection of absolutes, particularly the rejection of absolute truth. A British poet sums up this mindset perfectly, “We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him. Reality will adapt accordingly.” In other words, as Obi Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker, “What I told you was true, from a certain point of view.” With relativistic thinking, truth is not objective but subjective; dependent on your point of view, your cultural background, etc. This is the basis of postmodern thinking.
Obviously, this type of philosophy flies in the face of Christ’s statement from John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by Me.” That type of exclusive statement is intolerable to the relativistic, postmodern mind, and must be immediately rejected.
Narcissism is a radical individualism and infatuation with self. American culture has always been tinged by a touch of narcissism, but modern society is permeated with a radical, unbridled love of self. And this narcissism is even preached from some pulpits. Robert Schuller writes in his book Self-Love that, “Self-love is, or should be, the basic will in human life.” Unfortunately, this type of thinking provides justification for people to do whatever seems to be in their best self-interest. A man says, “I want to be happy, and marriage no longer makes me happy”; so he leaves his wife and kids in order to be happy. How can he justify such behavior? It’s all because he wants to be happy, and he is positive that God wants him to be happy. Today most people will do whatever will make them “happy,” even if their happiness comes at the expense of others, and that is because we live in a society of takers, not givers.
Put relativism and narcissism together and you have people who make up their own truth to satisfy their own desires. Absolute truth is rejected, so subjects like morality, justice, and mainly, the Gospel, are either removed from public conversation or dramatically altered. And since people love themselves more than others; living to satisfy their desires even at the expense of others, they end up being alienated and alone.
Because of this relativistic and narcissistic mindset, the temptation for many churches is to find a new way of “doing church.” Thus, in recent years many pastors and church leaders scrambled around in attempts to make their church more relevant. Politics became one route, with churches lobbying against abortion, fighting to get prayer back in public schools, and to keep the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Other churches treated Christ as a commodity; they formulated a business plan, complete with market analysis and research, all in order to provide the consumer (i.e. unchurched) with a desirable product. Still other churches went the entertainment route; less preaching and a lot more skits, dramas, and contemporary, upbeat music, all complete with cup-holders on the seats. Another model is to ditch preaching and pastors to make room for discussions and facilitators. I could continue, but you get the point.
Consequently, pragmatism has become the rule of the day in many churches, and instead of leaders asking, “Is this Biblical?” they ask, “Does this work?” Now understand this, churches must not be deliberately out-of-touch with the world, but churches must maintain their Christ-like distinctness. Remember that,
“Christ…loved the church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word; that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish,” Ephesians 5:25b – 27.
A church must be distinguishable from the world, like a city on a hill, instead of being indistinguishable from the world. The goal is not to say, “Hey, we’re just like you.” The goal is to declare the truth in love, and our lives and words are to affirm that Christ has made us new creatures; that we are very much different from whom we used to be.
When you look to the Bible you see God’s plan for His churches at all times and in all places. So 21st century churches need to look back to 1st century churches. This is not traditionalism, irrelevancy, or living in the “good ole days”; it is following the timeless guidelines and precepts which were given by the Head of the church to His churches. Every true church should follow the example that is found in Acts 2:42-47,
“42And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. 44And all that believed were together, and had all things common; 45And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. 46And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, 47Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
In the coming weeks we will identify and discuss several distinctive marks of healthy, growing churches, and these marks will be, for the most part, derived from the passage we just read. This series of lessons will not promote the contemporary “ABC’s” of church growth, which are: Attendance, Buildings, and Cash. I’m not against any of those things, but they are not indicators of healthy, spiritually growing churches. The church at Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) had a reputation of being alive, no doubt Sardis had good numbers, impressive facilities, and huge offerings, but Christ said that they were dead.
There are two words that encapsulate the ideas that will be discussed during this series of posts; those two words are teaching and caring. To a relativistic world which is skeptical of everything, the church must faithfully proclaim the truth of God’s eternal Word. To a narcissistic culture, alienated by sin and driven by love of self, the church issues an invitation to worship, fellowship, and serve others. What the world needs is exactly what God wants the church to be and to do; churches that stand out as distinctly Christian.