Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. – James 4:8-10
I ran across this video recently, and I was struck by the state of the American Church as we experience the transition into a post-Christendom context.
On the face of it, I really like this video. I fundamentally agree with pretty much everything Mike Slaughter says. He’s right that we need to get serious about being disciples of Jesus rather than just striking a pose on Sunday mornings. I agree that the pseudo-gospel of “accept Jesus and go to heaven” needs to be challenged; and he’s right that our words are meaningless unless they are accompanied by transformed lives. Mike says a lot of good stuff that I can unite with. However, as the video ran, I began to feel convicted: Something is amiss here.
A couple of phrases really stood out to me. The first was when Mike talked about us being, “part of a movement that changes the world…” I was convicted of how big I like to talk sometimes. In my joy and enthusiasm, I am apt to run ahead, ready to make declarations about how I am going to change the world. As Jesus noted long ago, this is an easy way to miss all the change that needs to happen within my own heart.(1) The world is indeed in awful shape – but why am I so quick to assume that I am part of the solution, rather than a perpetrator of sin? When I open myself to Wisdom, I see that my own life is on the front lines of the struggle for change. I am humbled, seeing the world I want to change – with its greed, fear, pride and violence – reflected quite clearly in my own life. Changing the world must begin within.
The other part of Mike’s sermon that struck me was when he talked about the Church being “effective.” Hearing this, I was convicted about how limited my own conception of effectiveness is. When I place my focus on how to be effective, I often lose sight of the things God might be calling me to that do not seem very effective to me. When my primary goal becomes obtaining certain outcomes, I have moved beyond faithfulness and have put myself in God’s place.
As my friend Tyler Hampton has pointed out to me, the focus on being able to deliver results reflects how entrenched humanist market values have become in the thinking of the Church. Growth in church membership, number of people fed and clothed in church missions, Bibles translated and distributed, the quality of the music in our services – all of these things are important. If they become our primary focus, however, we have missed the mark. We have adopted a consumer model instead of a Kingdom model.
Of course, we want to be part of a movement that changes the world; we want to be effective. This is as it should be. We should seek to glorify God with our lives, having a positive impact on others. But when “results” become more important than waiting on Christ’s guidance and obeying the immediate promptings of the Spirit, we have made an idol of our own understanding. And make no mistake – our claims about “what Jesus would do” are often little more than cover for our own selfish desires.
That, I realized, is our condition as a people. We are still caught up in our long-established habit of using God to justify our own human motivations. We participate in the same triumphalist church culture that most of Christendom has been mired in for the last eighteen hundred years. We see that we are entering into an age of post-Christian culture, yet Christendom is still under our skin. We see the decline of Christian predominance in the West, and yet we believe that the Church is entering into a new phase of influence and high-impact ministry. This reeks of human ideas shrouded in the mantle of God.
And I stand as convicted as anyone. I confess that I would like to be powerful and respected in society at large. I would like my arguments to be persuasive, my methods to be viewed with approval, my assumptions to be validated. However, if we are indeed transitioning into a post-Christian culture, we as followers of Jesus Christ need to come to grips with the reality that our influence in polite society is diminishing.
This should be easier for Quakers to accept than for many Christian groups. We have generally been on the margins of Christendom – frequently persecuted by the wider Church, and, with a few exceptions, rarely permitted to wield much power. And yet, this transition will challenge us, too, because we have grown comfortable and respectable. We share most of the assumptions of the wider society, and as our culture becomes more secular, more focused on products than on people, we will be greatly tempted to follow suit. If we want to stay true to the Lord Jesus, we must embrace our powerlessness. We must allow God’s power to shine forth in our weakness, just as Christ did during his self-sacrificial life on earth.
How do we begin to accept the reality that we are weak and uninfluential? How can we embrace our place as a Church on the margins – not only in rhetoric, but in fact? What new opportunities can this afford us to truly be the Church of the Crucified Savior in a broken world?
Lord, show us the way of your cross.
1. Matthew 7:3-5