In honor of the President’s State of the Union address last night, I offer to you a consideration of the State of the Church.
The state of the church is not well. Over the last few decades, we have witnessed how the church, once the focal point of American society, has been marginalized and cast to the periphery. The church once stood as the moral and religious conscious of our culture, with a far reaching voice which impacted all people, including out political and cultural leaders. The church used to be seen as a respected institution which should have an input on those issues which face the American family. However, those days are now gone. The American church has now been too closely welded together with the partisan political parties of our day, that anytime the church wishes to speak on an issue facing our c0untry, we are not heard for fear that we are merely speaking on behalf of a particular candidate or political ideology. In the future, as important moral and theological issues come to the forefront of the political landscape (such are cloning and genetically engineered children), the church will not even be given a seat at the table because our voice has been so suppressed.
The state of our church is not well. Practically all denominations and church movements are now reporting a decline in domestic attendance. We now know that a smaller percentage of Americans are regularly attending church than ever before. For every “megachurch” that has sprung up and seen great growth, 5-10 surrounding churches can testify to exactly where that growth came from, their own members. Even the great growth that has been experienced by the Pentecostal movement of the last century is showing signs of tapering off. Evangelism, reaching those who do not profess a faith in Christ, has largely become a antique of past generations as we are now only concerned with the comfort of the ‘seeker’ and not with the condition of the sinner. Should this pattern continue, I am deeply fearful of the results.
The state of our church is not well. Ideological entrenchment has greatly increased among all strands of Christianity. Every distinct tradition and movement is now best known for what they stand against. We all know a certain denomination because they are very vocal about issues of homosexuality or the place of women in the church, without any respect given to the history and theological distinctives of those traditions. This has only served to greatly fragment the American church. Most evangelical churches have built thick walls in order to prevent “liberal” influences while mainline churches go to great lengths to avoid ever being label as “conservative” of a “fundamentalist”. In fact, both sides often ridicule and insult the other. But to an unbelieving world, these great divisions are nothing short of unbelievable. How can the church claim any type of unity in Christ when we are best known for our divisions? How can the church ever seek to reach others when we are only concerned with showing ourselves to be right and other Christians to be wrong?
However, all things are not all bad. The church is on a precipice, looking out with two great choices: continue down these same paths to a slow, painful death or a fundamental reform which will transform the church at its foundation. Most churches look at this new post-Christian landscape and do nothing but lament about “the ways things used to be”.However, I am convinced that this new religious and cultural landscape is a fertile ground for the church to reestablish its identity and thrive. The pre-christian era (until the early 4th century) was the most successful time of growth in Christian history. The church grew in the cities and in the rural areas. It grew in the Roman Empire and it also spread south and east. All of this happened while many faced the threat of torture or even death for what they were publicly and proudly proclaiming. Today, the American church enjoys more religious freedom than any other people in history; however, the church has clearly become “at ease in Zion” (a term used by the early church to describe those Christians who had become overly comfortable in their present condition). And now, we are faced with a cultural climate which is not conducive to an established church, we are truly in a post-Christian age. So, why can the church not embrace its status as a counter-cultural movement today just like our fathers did in the early church?
Things are not all bad. Regardless of the political, religious, and cultural climates, God is still God and we are still the Church of God. We are the bride of Christ, the institution which God has preordained to be his vehicle of salvation to a dark and dying world. As I took a church planting class in undergrad, my professor often reminded us a five important words stated by Jesus: “I will build my church.” I feel that such reminded is helpful for the church of today. No matter how divisive the American church may become, no matter how marginalized or secluded. God the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world to build the church, its only up to us to seek after that which God is doing and for us to merely get on bored. God has been at work for thousands of year to gather together a chosen people, God will surely not stop now.