Contemporary American Christianity is a jumbled mess. Christian denominations now number in the thousands. This would be bad enough if these disparate groups were simply slight variations on a common theme. In fact, however, many of these groups hold to doctrines so diverse from those of other Christians that it is difficult to believe they could all be adherents of the same religion.
Even within the comparatively homogeneous community of American Evangelicalism, where doctrinal differences are less stark, there is little unity. Evangelical Christians may sing about that day “when we all get to heaven,” but many of them are content to get there by associating with Christians from other denominations, even other Evangelical denominations, as little as possible.
Some will no doubt challenge this assessment of the contemporary scene, insisting that the day of denominationalism is past. They are convinced that the influence of theological liberalism and postmodernism, the loss of historical perspective, and differences in styles of music and approaches to public worship have produced divisions within denominations which promote cooperation and encourage fellowship across denominational lines. Supporters of this view often say they feel closer to believers in other denominations than to some in their own.
Whatever the case, there is little evidence of widespread unity among Christians. Differences in methodology, emphasis, and focus produce churches and parachurch ministries which resemble American corporate culture more than a worldwide religious movement with a common origin and heritage. Pastors and ministry leaders function like business executives who must achieve a high level of productivity in order to satisfy their investors and guarantee their continued employment.
Pastors no longer perceive their work as a partnership with others of similar calling in the service of the one who promised, “I will build my church… .” Instead, they approach their ministry as if they are competing with other pastors and churches for recognition and “market share.” The pressure to perform—to succeed—is often debilitating, resulting in exhaustion and burnout from the constant pursuit of “the next new thing” that might work in their situation. Many eventually give up, succumb to the “greener grass” syndrome, and look for something better elsewhere.
What is the measure of success within much of the American church community? Apparently, as with most ventures in a free enterprise system, the mark of success is size and growth. We are conditioned to believe that no philosophy of ministry is successful unless it produces crowds and generates revenue. The problem with size as the mark of success, however, is that it requires indiscriminate application. All big things are alike successful, at least in theory. The largest ministry is the most successful.
Of course no one really believes that, not even, or perhaps especially, the leaders of “competing” ministries. Any conscientious observer recognizes the inconsistency in lauding the success of a ministry built on questionable fiscal policies, no matter how large or influential it has become. And should mega-churches that represent divergent, even contradictory, doctrinal distinctives and methodological approaches really be regarded as equally successful?
Still, our culture equates growth with success, and the American Christian community has embraced that idea with enthusiasm. When size is the mark of success, then the leader of a large ministry organization or the pastor of a large church achieves a measure of influence which he exploits through writing books and speaking at conferences. Especially in the Evangelical community, which lacks the ecclesiastical hierarchy of communions such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, these mega-church pastors and ministry superstars become the authority figures for millions of Christians.
Never mind that much of their “success” has come from being in the right place at the right time. Never mind that the proponents of contradictory teachings are alike claiming the blessing of God on their endeavors. Never mind that their accomplishments owe as much to marketing techniques and savvy public relations as to the application of the teachings of Jesus. They are the authorities. When they speak, we listen, and when they outline a program for advancing the gospel and building the church, we sign on.
Meanwhile, nonChristians are not impressed. Their hearing dulled by the cacophony of voices purporting to speak for God, and their vision blurred by the myriad of tactics employed to gain their attention, they are, ironically, turning away from the church. They are bewildered by the clamor and contradiction, the inconsistency and hypocrisy so characteristic of American Christianity. Even nonbelievers agree with St. Paul that “God is not the author of confusion.”
Not only are nonChristians spurning the church. A growing number of former church members, disillusioned with the carnival atmosphere surrounding contemporary American Christianity and its cafeteria-line approach to doctrine and discipleship, have joined the ranks of those for whom church attendance is no longer meaningful.
These ex-attenders are not the typical “entertain me or I’ll leave” brand of perennial church-hoppers who flitter around the periphery and eventually disappear altogether. They are, in fact, just the opposite. Many of them grew up in church and possess a genuine and vibrant faith. They have concluded, however, and reluctantly in many cases, that American Christianity does not fairly or accurately represent the character of Jesus Christ or of the “faith once delivered to the saints.”
They are discouraged by the lack of Christian unity and the competitive climate so much a part of contemporary American Christianity. They are dismayed by the elaborate media technology and showmanship upon which so much church programming depends. They are discomfited by the star-quality which attaches to so many Christian personalities and which so many others pursue. They are embarrassed by the superficiality and inconsistency which they see in their leaders, in their fellow Christians, and in themselves. And they are confused by the diversity of admonition and instruction, much of it contradictory, with which they are barraged in print, from pulpits, and over the airwaves.
And can you blame them? I mean, how are we supposed to determine which of the competing visions we should embrace? Whose definition of the gospel do we accept? Which version of Christian discipleship do we find most compelling and for what reasons? And perhaps the most important question of all—which model for growing the church and making disciples is most consistent with the teaching and example of Jesus?
Contemporary American society is based on an ethos of acquiring and consuming. Bigger is better. Wealth is power, and power is wealth. Many of the voices speaking for God in twenty-first century America trumpet a version of the gospel which seems very much at home in this culture. They have concluded that it is possible to have “all this and Jesus too.”
But is that realistic? Is a culture based on acquisition and consumption really compatible with the message of one who owned nothing and called His disciples to a life of self-sacrifice and “cross-bearing?” Does American Christianity honestly and consistently reflect the character and values of its founder? Or has it uncritically accommodated itself to the values and ethos of a consumer society?
This post is deliberately diagnostic in tone. At the same time, it is neither a critique of all church-growth theory nor a condemnation of all large ministries and their influential leaders. I am neither a sociologist nor a historian. I am an evangelical Christian, formerly a Mennonite college teacher and pastor, and now an Anglican priest. Despite the description of American Christianity in this post, my life is devoted to Christ and His church.
I once heard somebody say, “You are not caught in traffic; you are traffic.” Similarly, I am not simply surrounded by the problem I describe here. In too many ways, I am part of the problem. But I prefer to be part of the solution, and that is precisely what I will address in future posts.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.