What is wrong with The American Church

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Matthew 28:19-20

You are like salt for the whole human race. But if salt loses its saltiness, there is no way to make it salty again. It has become worthless, so it is thrown out and people trample on it. You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and puts it under a bowl; instead he puts in on the lampstand, where it gives light for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven. – Matthew 5:13-16

As I ponder the early church, I wonder why it only took one generation to reach the known world with the gospel.  Today the church lacks the power of its earliest generations, being silent on the current issues of culture.  Has the culture converted the church?

A lot of church growth experts are dumbing down the church to being more of an entertainment center than a Biblical, Christ centered, disciple creating, mission orientated, church.  What did Jesus die for?  He died for a Church without spot or wrinkle, or as Revelation describes it a bride.  Today, however, if Jesus would return for his bride, she would be a child and not a fully mature woman.

We have been focusing on members, and numbers, rather than our commission of making disciples of all nations.  The “Great Commission” has turned into the great omission.  Why has this happened?  Why are not more pastors speaking about the culture from their pulpits?

The answer to these questions can be found in some of the following trends:

  1. Making Christianity a spectator sport.
  2. Fear of man, and fear of losing people.
  3. Worshiping doctrine rather than God.
  4. Ignoring the movement of the Holy Spirit.
  5. Lack of Biblical teaching, and it’s application in everyday life.
  6. Ignoring the mission field outside the four walls of the church.
  7. Building empires rather than the Kingdom of God.

Lets take each of the above, and explain the problem and solution.

  1. Making Christianity a spectator sport.

In the beginning of the Christian church, church was not a building that you went to, but a community you were a part of.  The church met in homes or other places.  It met the needs of the general populace, feeding the poor and caring for the sick.  It was an active force in the community in which it resided, and was not shy in sharing what it believed regardless of the cost.  It preached with action and power, welcoming all who would wholeheartedly accept its message.

Each member of the community had a part to play, and ownership of the ministry.  You could not just sit there and do nothing.  This is a far cry from the church today where members can sit back, have their consciences made to feel good and throw a few bucks in the offering plate, then go home not applying anything they have just heard.

If the church were serious about the commission of making disciples, it would engage its members concerning their lifestyle, active service, and ministry development of each member.  Methodism was so successful in its accountably groups that it grew not just in numbers, but spiritual maturity as well.  These groups would address life issues through biblical perspectives, while giving an account of their success or failure in conforming to the scripture.

This is far from the current trend of comfort and consumerism that has griped the church today.  Pastors receive mail about programs that promise growth in numbers if they simply purchase and implement the advertised product.  Many come with sermon outlines and materials for the pastor to follow during the duration prescribed by the program.  Such programed devices have replaced community life, and often do little to stimulate personal ministry development for the person in the pew.

  1. Fear of man, and fear of losing people.

In talking with pastors I continually experience a common thread of the fear of change.  The biggest fear is the loss of people due to a stance taken from the pulpit.  Such an exodus results in a loss of needed financial support that keeps the program going and puts in jeopardy the affordability of the facility.

In some cases pastors are reluctant to speak out because the board or denomination holds their employment over their head.  Such franchised arrangements make the pastor a professional hireling rather than a spiritual leader.  His/her job performance is based on parameters that usually have little to do with the great commission given by Jesus.

The political sermons of the American founding had little to do with the fear of man or the loss of members of the congregation.  Rev. Peter Muhlenberg stood before his congregation one Sunday morning in 1776 and the following quote describes what happened.

” Coming to the end of his sermon, Peter Muhlenberg turned to his congregation and said, “In the language of the holy writ, there was a time for all things, a time to preach and a time to pray, but those times have passed away.”  As those assembled looked on, Pastor Muhlenberg declared, “There is a time to fight, and that time has now come!”  Muhlenberg then proceeded to remove his robes revealing, to the shock of his congregation, a military uniform.

Marching to the back of the church he declared, “Who among you is with me?”  On that day 300 men from his church stood up and joined Peter Muhlenberg.  They eventually became the 8th Virginia Brigade fighting for liberty.”[1]

Such direct and to the point content and action is missing today.  When a pastor cannot lead or express to his congregation what God has lade of his heart, the church becomes weak, and blind to the tactics of its adversary, Satan.  No wonder such churches lack the power and presence of God.  To them God is saying:  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”[2]

  1. Worshiping doctrine rather than God.

Let us be clear of what the term doctrine means.  Doctrine is the teaching of a church.  Each church has their own doctrines.  In Christian usage, Dogma is the essential beliefs needed to be Christian.  As an example, the virgin birth of Jesus is an essential part of the dogmas of Christian belief.   If a “church” teaches, (doctrine), that Jesus was not born of a virgin, it cannot be a Christian church.

Doctrine is often used as by some churches as the proof tool of unity.  Such churches do not fellowship with people, or churches, that do not have the same doctrines.  Such separatist teaching has elevated parochial doctrine over the very bible it proclaims.  In other words, the doctrine has now become the god through which we interpret the Bible.  Such teaching is prone to error, and has little chance of being corrected.

Unity in the body of Christ needs to be based on the dogmas of the faith not on the doctrine of any one church.  We may have many doctrinal differences, but we should agree on the essential dogmas of the Christian faith.  There is only one who is to be worshiped, and that is the Triune God of the Bible.

  1. Ignoring the movement of The Holy Spirit

The Third person of The Trinity is present throughout the Bible.  He has been active in the affairs of mankind, and will continue to be, even past the end of time.  Yet he is the most ignored and limited part of the Godhead by the very church he serves!

Do we follow the leading of God’s Holy Spirit, or are so programed that we no longer need him?  This is what Bonhoeffer meant by “religion coming of age.”  I know of churches that plan their service so well that there is no need of God.  If God is God, will churches allow the Spirit to “interrupt the program” to hear an important message from God?

The Church of Jesus needs to return back its dependence on The Holy Spirit like it’s forefathers did.  Where are the times of prayer?  Where is the waiting on God?  Where is the power?  It is sad to say but we have come to the point of  ” having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” [3]  God’s power and presence comes only to a people who are actively perusing God regardless of the cost.  When was the last time you were part of a prayer meeting crying out for God to move?

  1. Lack of Biblical teaching, and it’s application in everyday life.

The pulpit preaching has become the main part of the Christian service.  This is in sharp contrast to the early church, where the Eucharist celebration was the high point of the gathering.  This giving of thanks intersected the teachings of the scripture, with the life of the Christian, and his covenant relationship with his Lord.

I would agree Helmut Thielicke when he writes:

“With many colleagues in the theological enterprise of our generation I share a concern for both the substance and the form of preaching.  With them I also share by and large the diagnosis of the present sickness of preaching, namely, that it move for the most part in an otherworldly and sacral sphere which has no relation to man’s secular existence and hence leaves him helpless and alone, and that it has very largely ignored the problems posed by the change in our modern picture of the world.”[4]

The pulpit is the sacred ministry of The Word of God.  By it Christians are instructed in the life application of their faith, and unbelievers are convicted of their sin and come into salvation.  When the pulpit is strong, the national morality is strong.  When the pulpit is weak all seek their own way, and the nation’s morality falters.

  1. Ignoring the mission field outside the four walls of the church.

When the church is comfortable it begins to lose the mission it was created for.  Seeking to provide an environment tailored to its constituency, the focus of the church is inward. The question now becomes, how can we best maintain our members and meet their needs?  At this point the church begins a Plato stage, leveling out in growth while slowly loosing members and vision.

In the meantime evangelism slows down or stops.  Encouragement for evangelism takes a back seat for management.  Gifts of the Holy Spirit are traded for a standard service scheduled to a tee.  The result is a staged, stagnate program with little power or presence of God.

The church is the only institution that does not exist for its self.  It exist to promulgate the Kingdom of God bringing men, women, and children into the kingdom of God and mature them into the ministry of service God has chosen them for.  Paul says: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[5]

The “works” are not to promote us but the Kingdom.

  1. Building empires rather than the Kingdom of God.

Too often the “mega” church is the envy of every ministry.  The number of people who show up on a Sunday morning now measures the idea of success.  In some denominations the ministry is more like a franchise than a ministry.  The more in attendance you have, the more you are qualified to be the pastor of a bigger church. Climbing up the corporate ladder means more money and benefits for the pastor.  This corporate mentality is what I call “empire building.”  God never called his pastors to be managers of a franchise, but “fishers of men.”

I do not measure the success of a ministry by how many people attend its Sunday service.  A successful ministry is one who builds the Kingdom of God with others for the benefit of a location God has called them to.  Not everyone in a city is going to go to your church.  There are other churches that may better suite them.  Why not build together, share the burden, even if your church does not grow the kingdom will.  It is time to build The Kingdom and not the empire.

Conclusion

Every move of God comes at a point where revival is needed.  The American Church is in decline.   Its pulpits are week, and congregations asleep.  Today’s youth are looking for a reality of faith, and are finding it outside the traditional church.  In the future, church structure maybe different from today’s denominational trends. More and more denominations are in decline trying to survive using traditions well suited for the 1950’s.  If the trend continues it is possible some endangered denominations will not exist in the near future.

A return to biblical fivefold church using the model at the end of Acts two maybe the end result of denominational decline.  Tradition will fade away in favor of Holy Spirit empowered fellowships, that will follow God regardless of the cost, and reflect the life found in the book of Acts, with God is adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

 

[1] From the website: http://www.heritageofthefoundingfathers.com/article11.html

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 3:20.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 2 Timothy 3:5.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics Vol. 1. Foundations, Page XV, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids Michigan

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ephesians 2:10.