“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.” Rev 3:17–19
Could this verse possibly apply to the richest church in the history of Christendom—the modern American church? Most American Christians have so much that they don’t really have to depend on God or one another for anything. Average giving is four percent of income yet Christians spend billions on entertainment. Ninety-five percent of believers have never led anyone to the Lord. Sixty-three percent of pastors have not brought anyone to Christ in the last two years. Pastors appease sinners but admonish their victims. There is little emphasis on working out the faith together in genuine Christian community. Instead faith is defined almost exclusively in terms of a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. The goal of growth is to reach one’s full spiritual potential rather than to advance the kingdom of Christ.
Church has become a weekly social gathering rather than a vital community of believers who bear one another’s burdens, share each other’s joys and reach out into the community with the transforming love of Jesus Christ. How much more powerful our impact would be if we were in this thing called Christianity together rather than every man for himself! Like the three Musketeers, our motto should be, “One for all and all for one” not “What’s in it for me?”
DECLINING CHURCH ATTENDANCE
A study done by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance shows a marked decline in church participation in recent years. From 1992 to 2003 average attendance at a typical church service dropped by thirteen percent from 102 to 89.1 At the same time, the population of America increased by nine percent. The number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians dropped from eighty-six percent to seventy-seven percent. The number that identify themselves as Protestant dropped below fifty percent for the first time in 2005. At the present rate, the majority of Americans will identify themselves as non-Christians by the year 2035 and Islam will overtake Christianity as the largest religion in the world by 2050. Far from fulfilling the Great Commission, the church has been losing ground in its battle to advance the Kingdom of Christ.
Pollster George Barna makes the following observation in his study on commitment in the Christian church, “It’s a bit troubling to see pastors feel they’re doing a great job when the research reveals that few congregants have a biblical worldview, half the people they minister to are not spiritually secure or developed, kids are fleeing from the church in record numbers, most of the people who attend worship services admit they did not connect with God, and the divorce rate among Christians is no different than that of non-Christians. Only two percent of the pastors themselves can identify God’s vision for the ministry they are trying to lead, and the average congregant spends more time watching television in one day than he spends in all spiritual pursuits combined for an entire week.”
THE BUCK STOPS WITH CHRISTIAN LEADERS
If an organization is not performing, management is responsible. It doesn’t matter whether it is a sports franchise, a manufacturing company, a service organization, a school or a church. The president, chief executive officer, principal or pastor is accountable. Somehow, church leaders seem to think the church is different from other organizations and that everything that happens there is ordained by God and beyond question. As long as they are unreceptive to criticism, they will not be open to improvement. As long as they are not open to improvement, they will be unprepared for revival. As Jesus told his disciples, it is not always the best plan to follow the Rabbis or institutional religious leaders. Not to address the shortcomings of today’s church leaders would be to let them become so embedded in the culture of the institution that they would lose touch with the God whom they claim to serve.
What got the religious leaders of Jesus day in trouble was their attitude that they were beyond reproach. Many modern pastors are cut from the same cloth. They limit themselves to preaching and teaching and refuse to mingle with the common people and get to know their needs and aspirations. They rarely seek the counsel of others because it would diminish their spiritual aura.
LACK OF COMMITMENT
Barna concludes his study on commitment issues in the American church by saying, “These figures emphasize how soft people’s commitment to God is. Americans are willing to expend some energy in religious activities such as attending church and reading the Bible, and they are willing to throw some money in the offering basket. Because of such activities, they convince themselves that they are people of genuine faith, but when it comes time to truly establishing their priorities and making a tangible commitment to knowing and loving God, and to allowing Him to change their character and lifestyle, most people stop short. We want to be ‘spiritual’ and we want to have God’s favor, but we’re not sure we want Him taking control of our lives and messing with the image and outcomes we’ve worked so hard to produce.”
From the beginning to the end of the fourth century AD, the church went from being a persecuted minority to a vengeful majority that pursued its enemies with the backing of the state. In many respects, they were not unlike the modern church. Their basilicas rivaled our modern mega-churches for their opulence. Both the fourth century church and our modern churches entrust spiritual ministry to religious professionals—the priestly class in the first case, and seminary trained pastors today. The fourth century church enjoyed the power and prestige conferred by a tolerant government as does the American church today. Church leaders should be wary lest they fall prey to the allure of wealth and power that led to their predecessors' downfall.
The Reformation was led by a number of men including Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Tyndale, the Anabaptists and others. It began with a deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction with the life of the church that arose out of the heartfelt prayers of believers throughout the Christian community. It was not a movement based on made-made methods or some ecclesiastical construct. Eventually the Holy Spirit raised up leaders to provide inspiration and guidance, but they were not part of the religious establishment because it was the establishment that was the problem. The same was true in Jesus' day when He cleansed the temple and swept away the entire religious establishment, replacing it with humble fishermen and tax collectors. The church needs the same kind of cleansing today.
Register Your Comments
Should church leaders be exempt from the kind of scrutiny that the leaders of other institutions face? Why do we treat church leaders with kid gloves? Is it because we are afraid we might tarnish the name of Christ? Or is it because we are afraid of the spiritual authority they wield? Isn’t it rather their behavior that sullies His name? Is it appropriate to criticize under any circumstances or should the church be held to lower standards than other institutions that we hold accountable to legal, moral and ethical regimes?
1. Trends Among Christians in The U.S., Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_tren.htm
The Casual Christian pp. 71-72