One of the most gratifying aspects of writing this blog has been the opportunity to reconnect with so many men and women who took one or more of the courses I taught during the fourteen years (1994-2008) I served as a faculty member at Rosedale Bible College in Ohio. I am particularly grateful when they take the time to leave a comment or send an email after reading one of my posts. When they pose questions based on what they have read, I feel it is both my privilege and my obligation to respond to them as best I can.
My last post (the third in a series of three which I called “Being Real”) prompted one of my former students, who is now a pastor, to ask several thoughtful and incisive questions. I promised him I would address his questions in this post. Here, in part, is what he wrote.
I sense a growing number of people who share your concerns about contemporary American evangelicalism. … (T)he question I have is how… transformation in our churches takes place? What are the real and tangible ways we are screwing up? What systems and structures undermine our ability to behave differently? How are they undermining it? How do we serve, minister, and lead in brokenness? How do we help foster real community?
I have dealt with several of these questions, or similar concerns at least, in earlier blog posts. (You can read some examples here and here and here.) Some of what I say here, then, will echo what I have said before. Some, however, will reflect a new thought which has been taking shape in my mind over the past few weeks. I could tell you that I believe God put it there and that I believe it is evidence of the spiritual gift of discernment, what some might call a “word of wisdom” or a “word of knowledge.” Instead, I think I’ll just share it a bit later and let you draw your own conclusions about its source, its value, and its relevance.
No matter how you define the word church, a key element will always be people. Whether you think of the church mainly as an organization with fairly rigid institutional structure or as an informal association with little to hold it together except a common faith commitment, the essential component is still people. People are not perfect, not even Christians. Forgiven, yes, but not flawless. It is therefore logically inconsistent to expect perfection from an entity composed of imperfect people.
The church faces an additional challenge. Not only is it composed of flawed human beings, it is also subject to another potentially debilitating imperfection—institutionalization. By that I mean the tendency of any organization, over time, to devote more and more of its energy and resources to keeping the machinery running instead of pursuing the goal for which the organization came into existence in the first place.
No matter how well-intentioned and enthusiastic they may be when they are young and fresh and focused, both human beings and the organizations and institutions which they make up can run out of energy, lose their focus, and become so self-absorbed and self-important that they forget their original purpose. They begin to “major on minors,” devoting so much time and attention and so many resources to self-preservation that they lose sight of their original mission. When this happens, their efforts, no matter how hard they work, become counterproductive.
This is not a criticism of organizational structure. Any group of people who unite in pursuit of a common goal needs to organize in order to function effectively and efficiently. With this post I am not joining the ever-expanding ranks of those who have given up on the church as an institution and have embraced the idea of something called the “simple” church or the “organic” church. That model is plagued with problems and shortcomings as serious as any faced by the church in its more institutional forms.
This is simply an admission that, whatever form the church may take, the earthly expression of the body of Christ requires periodic renewal and revival. Sometimes the situation becomes so acute that only a thorough reformation can purge the institution and restore clarity of vision and unity of purpose.
The Christian church in America is in need of another reformation. We have lost our focus. We have forgotten who we are and what we were originally designed to be and do.
I still believe that the best description of the purpose for the church in the world is that put forward by George Eldon Ladd more than a generation ago: the church is the agent of the Kingdom of God. The church is where the distinctives of the Kingdom are cultivated, where we learn how to live by Kingdom values in the face of pressure to succumb to the influence of the prevailing culture. The place where we encourage one another to hang tough, be consistent, don’t surrender, don’t lose heart.
The church is, at heart, a community of Kingdom people. It is both the representative of the Kingdom of God and a compassionate community in which people feel loved and accepted and where they are enabled to heal and encouraged to grow.
It is extremely difficult for churches to sustain a commitment to that kind of vision over time. The natural tendencies of creeping institutionalism dull and distort the vision. In addition, the church has a spiritual adversary whose diabolical energies are devoted to preventing the church from realizing its godly purpose as the community of the King. Unless a Kingdom vision is consistently maintained and constantly renewed, the church will invariably be blown off course. It will major on minors and will develop a defensive frame of mind which results in competitive relationships with other churches and abrasive, even hostile, interaction with the surrounding culture.
In 2007, Christian authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons wrote a book called unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… and Why It Matters. The book summarizes the results of extensive research by the Barna Group in which they asked young people, ages 16-29, what they thought of when they heard the term “Christian.” The results are both enlightening and disheartening.
If the results accurately reflect the American population, then more than nine out of ten young people think of Christians as “antihomosexual.” Nearly 90% believe Christians are “judgmental” and “hypocritical.” Three quarters perceive Christians to be “old-fashioned,” “too political,” and “out of touch with reality.” And seven out of ten think of Christians as “insensitive to others” and “boring.”
The New Testament is clear that, when Christians pattern their lives after their King, they will cut across the grain of the prevailing culture, and they can expect some antagonism and hostility as a result. That may account for some of the responses to the Barna survey. I suspect, however, that much of the negative reaction toward Christians results from the church’s failure to fulfill its purpose, and not from its relentless pursuit of the Kingdom.
The good news is that God has provided the church with two resources which, if they are properly utilized, can keep the church on course and help to avoid the collateral damage and declining influence which result from institutional short-sightedness: the Holy Spirit and godly leadership. The bad news is that the Spirit of God most often works through leaders and only rarely in spite of them. Thus the key to spiritual reformation in the church lies mainly with its leadership.
For forty years I have been pointing out the foibles and failures of the Christian church in a well-intentioned effort to encourage more consistency and greater faithfulness in pursuit of God’s purpose for the church—to be the agent of the Kingdom of God in the world. I have not been very effective. The reason, I now believe, is that my energies and perceptions were misdirected. I should have focused less on the church’s membership and more on her leadership.
No group of the Lord’s people will ever achieve a level of spiritual maturity and devotion to Christ which exceeds that of its leadership. If the church has failed to own and realize its godly purpose, that is fundamentally a failure of its leadership. If the church is in need of reformation, that renewal and reform needs to begin in the lives and ministries of its leaders.
I had been planning, for some time, to address this important theme in my blog posts. My former student’s probing and insightful questions simply nudged me in that direction and forced me to develop my thoughts a bit sooner that I had expected. Now I’m on this path. I think it will be interesting, and I hope it will be helpful, to see where it leads.