Why American Christianity is Sick
I love the church. Let me repeat, I love the church. The church is the called out people of God on whom the Lord has set His affection and power and through whom God has sovereignly decided to accomplish His kingdom purposes on earth. The church will never go out of existence (Mt. 16:13-20). She will always be the apple of God’s eye.
Having acknowledged the permanence of God’s people (even at the low ebb of being just a remnant from time to time in history), let me also suggest that the current version of the church in America is sick (see Rev. 2:1-7; 3:14-22). Though there are pockets of spiritual activity, much of what we call ‘church’ is a poor substitute for biblical Christianity. In spite of millions of dollars spent on the church growth industry, the average local church is in serious trouble. Apathy and indifference are widespread.
What makes this analysis of the church all the more ironic is that Christianity in many parts of the world is doing just fine. Great movements of God in Asia, South America and in some of the former Soviet republics remind us that the gospel is at work, even when persecution is pervasive and oppressive. What happened to the church in America? Why is American Christianity so sick, dead and dieing? Here are some observations I have made based upon my own struggles, the challenges I see in the church and the current societal climate.
Passion-less, Man-Centered Worship
First and foremost, I observe passion-less, man-centered worship. By worship I am referring not just to the worship of the gathered church, but to a life wholly committed to the exaltation of God. Sadly and wrongly, we have separated corporate and individual worship to the extent that our lives are now compartmentalized and spiritually disjointed. We have embraced the notion that worship is for Sunday, but not for Monday through Saturday. As a result, we do not see our work and our play as possible expressions of worship and activity for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).
Further, worship participation, church attendance and Bible study have become for many American Christians either a form of maintaining a general sense of morality or a social event where felt-needs are expressed and personal satisfaction is sought, but where God is secondary. And I’m not referring to the ill-fated dichotomy we have created between traditional and contemporary worship styles. Often, I find both ‘styles’ to be quite boring and ultimately self-centered because both have come to focus on me, my wants, my needs and my desires. What I’m speaking of is the very purpose of worship.
Worship is not primarily for us, although we reap the benefits of true worship. Worship is either individually or corporately counting God worthy, glorifying Him for His many attributes, His character and His purposes. Worship is where we seek His agenda and not our own. But in this we have failed. As a result, our preaching, singing and praying have become means by which we obtain our dreams and fulfill our personal needs rather than exalting God and seeking His glory in all the earth.
We are shocked to discover that a truly seeker-sensitive service is sensitive to the only true seeker in the church – God (Jn. 4:21-24). When worship is not about God it becomes about us. And when worship is about us it becomes morbidly introspective. No wonder our worship services lack passion, zeal and focus. Rather than make God the center of our worship, we ‘doctor’ up our services thinking this will remedy the disease of boredom and disinterest.
Excellent music of all kinds is good, testimonies, skits, dramas and of course the preaching of the Word are all means by which we worship God. But let us remember that the means of our worship ought not become the focus of our worship. To truly focus on God Himself is the ultimate goal of worship.
Is it any wonder that our personal and public worship experiences are ultimately unfulfilling when we are ultimately focused on self alone? And is it any wonder that many pour out of the church or, worse yet, never darken the doors of a fellowship of believers because we have forgotten what it is to be stricken by the terror and awe of a great and mighty God or the amazing grace of a merciful Savior? No wonder both the regenerate and unregenerate are commonly bored by ‘church.’ Self is essentially boring; God is eternally glorious and fascinating.
The core of what troubles Christianity in America is the loss of passionate worship defined not by worship style or genre, but by the all-consuming desire to seek God’s glory. The consequences of this singular issue are significant, i.e. indifferent indifference, the demotion of God as God and the elevation of the autonomous self.
Indifference: Or, I Don’t Care and I Don’t Care that I Don’t Care
My dad once told me that indifference was the most challenging spiritual disease to combat because it was difficult to ascertain its cause and even more difficult to remedy. I believe his observation is correct. Indifference or an ‘I don’t care’ attitude has invaded the church in epidemic proportions and is a direct result of our disjointed, indifferent worship of God. In addition, a secondary and corollary disease now accompanies this dreaded disease that can best be described as ‘I don’t care and I don’t care that I don’t care.’
Scripture calls this the sin of being lukewarm or half-committed (Rev. 3:15-16). In other words, we have become incredibly complacent about spiritual things. We can take it or leave it. We can attend or not attend worship – and not be bothered by our inconsistency. We can read or not read the Word – and not be bothered by our biblical illiteracy. We can witness or not witness – and not be bothered by our lack of urgency for hell-bound sinners.
And why are we so indifferent? It is because we have demoted God and elevated self. God, truly preached, lived, understood and worshipped, is never boring. Yet, satisfied with morbid introspection and self-exaltation, godless, passion-less worship always produces indifference and apathy.
As a result, spiritual things have become optional. Just like purchasing a new car with our choice of options, we have chosen to elevate ‘optionality’ to an art form. Gathering for worship on a consistent basis is no longer a priority; it is now one option among many in an otherwise too busy life. Scripture reading is but one option among the many new bestsellers and/or current magazines. Viewing the world from a Christian perspective is now optional based upon what we think is essential. If God is ‘persona non grate’ in my life and if self is supreme, then why chose for God?
And what is most troubling of all? We don’t care and we don’t even care that we don’t care. In fact, many Christians don’t care that churches are half-empty, that membership roles are filled with unconverted persons and that a general lack of holiness pervades American spirituality.
God as the God of the Gaps
As result of our passion-less, man-centered worship and icy spiritual indifference we have come to view God as the ‘God of the gaps.’ To serve a God of the gaps is to serve as God who is only good for the areas of life that we cannot control ourselves. And since through technology and modern scientific advancements we can control more of our lives than at any other time in history, the place for God has become condensed to the small, remaining gaps of life.
The consequence has been a devastating demotion of God. God has been reduced to being a buddy, a friend, a confidant or a helper. He is not sovereign, master, Lord or controlling agent of all created things. And if God is so small then He does not deserve my undivided attention or my undivided commitment.
The consequences of serving and worshipping such a small god are monumental. No wonder the church is powerless, prayer-less and passion-less. If God is so small then what power does He have to affect the outcome of things or to alter the course of human history? If God is so small then why not reduce our praying to simply praying that He’ll comfort the sick, but not shake the very foundations of human existence? And if God is so small what reason is there for us to seek Him with zeal, passion and laser-like focus?
I’m My Own Authority
The outcome of all this ‘me-centeredness’ is a self-absorbed church membership acting on its own authority rather than on God’s authority. The concept of objective authority is beyond us because we have come to fully embrace the sovereign self as the arbiter of all things important. The consequence of this is that the church is filled with individual, sovereign authorities attempting to ‘do things for God’ based upon personal choice. No wonder most churches meander and drift.
Competing authorities cannot co-exist (Mt. 6:24). This is why many Christians will say that they are a ‘person of the Book,’ yet do not live by the Book. This is why many will balk at the spiritual leadership God has designed for the church because it conflicts with their own self-autonomy. If I’m my own authority then God’s authority has no place in my life, in the life of the church or in my family.
The absence of a respect for authority also means the demise of humility as a worthy Christian characteristic. In essence the question is: if I’m my own authority and I’m not under any authority but my own then why should I humble myself before God or, for that matter, demonstrate humility toward others in sacrificial service? Self-rule and a rejection of spiritual authority is not just about rebellion, it is about pride.
The reason God does not seem to ‘move’ in His church as many desire is that she is filled with self-autonomous pride to the extent that individuals end up dictating the parameters of His authority and influence over our individual and corporate lives. No wonder James 4:6, “But He gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but give grace to the humble.”
Personal preference over priority!
If self is the final arbiter of all things then personal preference is the criteria for methodology. The church, filled with passion-less, self-centered believers, usually ends up inverting the importance of personal preference with spiritual priorities. In other words, when a subjective perspective on all things spiritual rules the day, then personal preference rules the day. The result is that sides are drawn in the church economically, racially, musically, theologically and personally. Conversely, the priorities of doctrinal orthodoxy, personal holiness, congregational unity, evangelism and missional intentionality are considered secondary or ancillary issues.
Personal preference diminishes the desire for biblical patterns and methodologies. Woe to the pastor who dares to lay out the clear patterns for church leadership, spiritual discipline, evangelism, theological doctrine and kingdom priorities. Often he will be criticized and ridiculed for being a spiritual zealot or a fundamentalist. It is true that truth must be spoken in love (Eph. 4:15), but it is equally true that love without truth is no love at all.
What would happen in the churches if the basic biblical patterns for individual and corporate life were actually taught and practiced? In my considered opinions the church would at first be emptied out the many half-committed ‘believer’ who fill her ranks. However, eventually true believers would arise and the true church would emerge in spiritual power.
Finally, saturated with self-centeredness and the rule of personal preference, the church has wedded itself to political methodologies to carry out her agenda. In essence, since she has abandoned God’s biblical patterns for spiritual power, the church has wrongly gone looking for a process that will influence culture.
Rather than being salt and light as God’s people, many churches have sold their soul to the political process to the extent that many identify some churches with one of the two major parties dominant on the American political scene. As a result, not only has the church tied her hopes for cultural transformation to the political train, but she has become internally politicized so that congregational decisions are not made by prayer and fasting, but through political alignments and coalitions based upon the dominant ‘personal preference.’
This is not to say that individual believers and gathered assemblies are to be unconcerned about public righteousness, abortion, homosexuality, corporate greed, racial injustice, etc. Instead, it is to ask, ‘How does the church impact culture with God’s kingdom agenda?’ Answer: Culture must be transformed from the inside out, from the bottom up, from the local to the national, from the individual to the corporate.
Further, culture is impacted through the clear, diligent and consistent preaching of God’s Word which transforms the individual which alters the gathered church which infiltrates the community which changes cultural tastes and appetites which filters its way to every facet and dimension of human existence.
It is interesting to note that the early church had no political agenda per say. The agenda of the early church was biblical, spiritual and transformational. Any contact early believers had with the political process was of a secondary kind that was always in service to the more important agenda of spiritual truth.
Because major portions of the American church have identified with a particular political party, many unbelievers no longer view the church as a place of possible transformation, but as just another political party. And with the ever increasing distrust of politics, is it any wonder that many have come to distrust the church?
Is There Hope?
Is the hope for the church? YES! While many things must happen, let me offer just few suggestions that may serve as the beginning of a renewal movement.
God must be glorified! This sounds so simplistic, doesn’t it? Yet it is true. God’s rightful place as the center of our individual and corporate lives must be restored. It was not a waste of ink when Matthew recorded the words of Jesus in Matthew 22:37, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” God is the center of our life! God is our life! He must be, He will be, exalted among the nations.
We must come to the end of ourselves! As God is exalted, we must diminish. Our great God is jealous for His glory. He will not, He cannot, share the spotlight. He alone can rightly claim center-stage. Humility must become the high-water mark of the church. Then, and only then, will God’s power flow to us and through us in life-changing, world-impacting influence. As pastor James reminds us (4:10), “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.” The source of our power is not our personal gifts and resources; the true source of our power is an absolute dependence on God.
We must affirm and practice God’s Word! If we say we are people of the Book we must actually become people of the Book in how we live and in how we function as a body of believers. We must once again affirm 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Putting the ‘Book into practice’ must become the norm.
Finally, we must once again seek God’s kingdom agenda. Our prayers and our faith practices must be captured in the closing lines of Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:10, “…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our ministry philosophy must be captured in what Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Our boldness must be described as that of the early believers in Acts 5:32, “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
The result will be a God-saturated, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered, Word preaching and practicing church able to glorify God and influence the nations with His kingdom purposes and priorities.