Has the church lost its focus?
Perhaps no other verse is so singularly preeminent in defining the Church’s mission to the world, and for good reason:
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.Matthew 28:18-20 (NKJV)
Known far and wide as “The Great Commission,” these are the last recorded words of the resurrected Christ from the gospel of Matthew. Denominations, churches, some of history’s greatest preachers, and countless parachurch organizations have embraced The Great Commission as their raison d’etre. As popularly understood, it is a call to “preach the gospel to all the nations” and summon the unconverted to a profession of faith in Christ. Trips to the altar, raised hands at a revival, or cards dropped in a basket are scored as “decisions for Christ”. Success is measured by counting up the “decisions”, and the higher the “score”, the more successful the ministry. Seems simple enough. It also completely misses the point.
Now, had Jesus merely said “go and make converts of all the nations”, we’ve done pretty well. About one-third of the world population identifies as Christian, well over 2 billion people. But He didn’t. The command of Jesus was to go out and “make disciples.” Conversion is merely the first, albeit a necessary, step. It’s the foundation, not the whole edifice. What’s a disciple, and what’s the difference? There are plenty of ways to define the term, all with some degree of validity. Rather than defining the term yet again, may I propose two essential hallmarks of a disciple. First, a disciple understands and embraces orthodox (small “O”) Christian theology. Second, a disciple lives in accordance with that theology. I mean “theology” in the broadest sense of the word: a congruent system of understanding God, the universe, reality, and morals that is grounded in Scripture and church tradition.
Success isn’t measured by converts; it’s measured by disciples. So how are we doing? Not very well. And the failure starts at home.
The lost generation
Consider the younger generations. While 84% of the “silent generation” and 76% of Baby Boomers identify as Christian, only 49% of Millennials do. In just one decade, from 2009 to 2019, there has been a 16-point decline in the percentage of Christian Millennials. In 2011, David Kinnaman from Barna Research reported that “59% of Millennials who grew up in the church have dropped out at some point.” Only two out of ten believed faith was any matter of importance. Where is the church failing? Mark his words:
“The dropout problem is, at its core, a faith-development problem; to use religious language, it’s a disciple-making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.” [emphasis added]David Kinnaman. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…And Rethinking Faith. Baker Books, 2011.
Not all traditions were failing equally. The declines have been steeper among Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant denominations than Evangelical denominations, but no group was spared.
Believing all the wrong things
Well, the least older generations are keeping the faith, right? Not so much, really. In his penetrating 2011 work Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat argued that much of western Christianity is suffused with heresy. Through social and historical analysis, Douthat examined four major currents:
- Theological liberalism
Theological liberalism emphasizes the rejection of Biblical authority, fraternity with far left politics and economics, and typically dismisses God’s supernatural intervention in the physical world. It describes most of the old mainline Protestant denominations and much of Roman Catholicism. (Douthat effectively documents how abandonment of sexual morality by the priesthood during the 60’s and 70’s led to the subsequent epidemic of sexual abuse).
- Prosperity theology
This stream is encountered mostly among Pentecostals and nondenominational Evangelicals, where many immensely successful preachers proclaim that health, success, and material prosperity is God’s will for all humanity and can (in fact, must) be claimed by faith.
- New age mythology
Some call this the “Oprah-fication” of Christianity, exemplified by Ms. Winfrey’s close relationship with New Age Guru Eckhart Tolle. It blends Christian terminology and scattered Bible verses with pantheism, fostering the belief that we are all gods or part of The God and possessed of divine insight, wisdom, and worth by our very nature – not as gifts bestowed by God on whom He chooses.
- Christian nationalism
More common in conservative Evangelical denominations, Douthat characterizes this as a fusion of Christianity with American triumphalism. His exemplar in this category was Glenn Beck, who is actually Mormon but commands a wide Evangelical following.
With due respect to Douthat, I nominate a fifth heresy for consideration:
The oldest and most enduring Christian heresy of them all (read Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians). Legalism has many facets. It might be the belief that eternal life is attained by obedience rather than grace, that Christians remain bound by Mosaic ordinances, or a fixation on rules and regulations rather than humility, mercy, and love. Even the most liberal groups have not escaped this trap. They merely substitute l’ancien regime with more onerous decrees of their own creation.
Considered in toto, a sizable proportion of Westerners who check “Christian” on the survey box would land in one of these five categories. They may be converts, but they are failing the discipleship test.
So, evangelism and discipleship are not at all synonymous, but they are connected. Only disciples will engage in evangelism, and bad disciples make poor evangelists. Even worse, some professing Christians unwittingly function as “anti-evangelists”. They so resemble the pagans that they drive them away, just as like charges repel.
What is the Church doing wrong?
What under heaven is happening? If the church is failing in its mission, there are only three possible places to lay the blame or look for a solution: God, the world, or the Church.
Now, I hope no one seriously blames God for our failures, so let’s consider the second. Is it the fault of corrupt Western society? Now you could make a strong argument there, and many have, but consider: fallen people are dead in their sin. We can’t (and oughtn’t) control them. They walk in darkness and their eyes are blinded to the truth until God opens them. So, if you blame them, you’re back to blaming God.
So we’re down to option #3: Us. Face it. That’s the only option under our control. What might we be doing wrong, and what could we do differently? On this matter, opinions abound:
- More prayer. Pray for what? For God to change more hearts? To put better people in government? Isn’t that just putting the blame back on Him? People are praying. Just how much does it take? [I actually do believe prayer has a role, but in a very different manner]
- More Preaching of the Word. There are a couple problems here. First, thousands of congregations honor this principle and have for decades. Second, far too much sound Biblical preaching amounts to superficial rehashing of the same general principles and offers little or no relevance to the challenges faced by most believers in present-day society. Those congregations are bored with repetition, yet still not learning what it takes to be a disciple in the early 21st century.
- Seeker-friendly services. Morning worship services, particularly in some of the more successful megachurches, have morphed into entertainment extravaganzas. Results are elusive. Some megachurches I have visited offer outstanding, relevant, and timely preaching of God’s word in a culturally relevant context. Certain others figure prominently in Douthat’s Bad Religion.
- More strenuous indoctrination in Young Earth Creationism. This one would be funny if it weren’t so sad. But it is the rallying cry for one influential organization and its solution to every problem. Said organization commands the loyalty of many white conservative Evangelical pastors and laity. [For the record, it’s far easier to show young-earthism is a cause, not a cure, for young people leaving the faith. I’ve met some].
What we’ve been trying isn’t working, a least not on a large enough scale to make a difference. They say the definition of insanity is to keep trying the same thing over again and expecting a different result. And the First Rule of Holes? When you’re in one, stop digging. Is there anything we haven’t tried? Maybe.
When all else fails, read the instructions.
I propose there is a much simpler explanation for our failure in disciple-making. And it’s nothing I thought up; I’m just an old retired doc who has conversations with his dog. It’s the same sickness identified throughout church history, by: Andrew Murray. Jonathan Edwards. Thomas Aquinas. Augustine of Hippo. Paul. Moses…..God. The great news is that there is something we can do about and it that will cost us nothing. Except our egos. (And how much are egos fetching on the open market these days, anyway?)
Many Evangelicals are enamored with II Chronicles 7:14:
If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.New King James Version
I see it quoted regularly and have for decades. I always had a gnawing sense that we really meant those people. You know, the ones who aren’t humble like we are. But perhaps we’re not quite as humble as we imagine. What would pride in the church look like, if it were a problem? (speaking hypothetically, of course). Divisions? Conflict? Superficiality? Self-satisfaction? Ineffectiveness? Irrelevance? Decline? Failure? Hmm.
The Sin of Pride.
Andrew Murray restated a solid Biblical principle when he wrote over 100 years ago:
“There is nothing so natural to man, nothing so insidious and hidden from our sight, nothing so difficult and dangerous as pride.”Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness (public domain, New York, 1895)
“The lack of humility is the sufficient explanation of every defect and failure.”
The “explanation of every failure?” Even ours? Maybe we have overlooked something.
Could it be that the global Church has a pride problem? That would explain everything. You’ve heard it before: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble”. (James 4:6) He still means it. Would you prefer to be at the receiving end of God’s resistance or His grace? Looks like the choice is ours.
We’re just getting started.
So, let’s approach this “scientifically”. My working hypothesis is that there is a causal connection between pride and human failure, and specifically the current failures of the church. The burden of proving my hypothesis remains. First, we must define pride and understand its Biblical context. [Like eating mushrooms in the wild, first you’ve got to know what to look for]. Then, we can offer predictions to test the validity of this hypothesis. One prediction is all of the heresies listed earlier will reveal, on closer inspection, that pride is consistently at the core. Our hypothesis predicts that Biblical principles concerning pride and its consequences will be empirically validated in secular research, which is, after all, no more than the study of reality, or God’s General Revelation. Since the Bible prescribes humility as an antidote to pride, we predict that humility is a positive predictor of personal and corporate success, and that this also can be empirically validated.
If pride is our problem, then humility is the only cure. Our last hope after all other solutions have failed. The Virtue that has seldom been tried. This principle is thoroughly grounded in Biblical and historic Christianity. God only works through humble people. Yet, this message is also one of great hope. Just as Pride can never succeed, Humility can never fail. It was the humility of Christ that unleashed the power of God upon the world. Satan offered him total world domination. Jesus held out for something still greater. The world has never been the same.
- The Great Commission is to make disciples
- We observe a systemic failure in the making of disciples
- Biblically, most failure is a consequence of pride, and humility is the solution
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