What I predict for evangelicalism in particular is what I’ve seen happen to the mainline. The more we are fascinated with the missional, the more we take this medicine as the malady of church sluggishness, the sicker we are going to become. And the more people in our midst will become frustrated. And that will lead to more people leaving the church. We already see signs of it.
Over ten years ago, Gordon College president Michael Lindsay researched and wrote a now-classic survey of evangelical cultural influencers—Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. In the course of his research, he discovered that a large number of evangelicals were embedded in key cultural institutions—government, education, entertainment, and so forth—and that they were, in fact, making a difference in the world. But he also noticed how few of them were connected to a local church.
Let me hazard a guess that these cultural leaders found the local church irrelevant, likely both to their own spiritual growth but also because it was not making a difference in the world. Since that book, the number of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” has only increased, which suggests that the Christians in this group are even less committed to the church, and I suspect for the same reasons.
There is no question that some churches are on life support, and some have become spiritual social clubs. Some churches have hurt, even abused, members physically, psychologically, or spiritually. Those are understandable reasons to leave a church and not come back for years. But I suspect a high percentage of people who leave evangelical churches do so because they do not think the church is doing enough to make a difference in the world.
I want to give the benefit of the doubt to these missional evangelical elite and the activists who describe themselves as spiritual-but-not-religious. What these Christians do in the world is right and good and truly to be admired. They are indeed loving the neighbor in inspirational ways.
What concerns me is that so many have deserted the one institution that embodies the very purpose of God for the world. And what saddens me is that they have removed themselves from the one place that can teach them about love as can no other.
In Paul’s vision, the church is composed of people of all stripes and sins and persuasions and ethnicities and races and strengths and weaknesses but united in Christ. Given this, I can think of no institution on the planet is better situated to learn to live in love.
One is tempted at this point to paint the ideal picture of the church. But that is precisely what we must not do. We don’t have to wait for the church to live into its ideals to see that it already is the testing ground for the biblical vision. I only have to ask you to think about your own church, and you’ll get the point.
Your church probably has a Max, a legalist who reads the Bible literally and endlessly criticizes everything that isn’t proven from the Bible. Then there’s Marjorie, a woman who works mightily in Sunday school but whose weakness is gossip, some of which you’ve been the subject of. Then there’s that couple, David and Barbara, separated while they try to work things out. On the mission committee, Doris and Jim repeatedly argue, sometimes not charitably, about whether to give more money to evangelistic or social justice causes. You also suspect the associate pastor may have a drinking problem. And you’ve never gotten along with Scott because he’s so fanatical about the environment.
And on it goes. And yet every Sunday, you gather together with this motley crew to worship Jesus Christ. You pray together a prayer of confession, you sing hymns that speak of your unity in Christ, you recite the creed about a God who is one and a church that is holy and one, you pass the peace to one another as a sign of your love. You also sit on committees with these folks and attend Bible studies and serve food at the homeless shelter with some of them. You live with them in something resembling a community centered on Jesus. It’s not pretty. It’s not glorious. But it is a laboratory of love, where God is met, relationships are endured, worked at, and rejoiced in. It’s a place where saints are made.
It’s also the main place that regularly reminds us to love our neighbors outside our church. Let’s not forget that. The fact that loving the neighbor is not the church’s primary purpose does not mean it is not still the second great commandment for disciples. So the church encourages its members to practice simple acts of hospitality as well as acts of sacrifice for those outside the church. It encourages us to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and to staff the local food pantry and homeless shelter. Perhaps some church members will run for Congress or join the police force or teach in the inner city. Some will become doctors or lawyers, others grocers and gardeners—all of whom on Monday through Friday work in the Spirit of the Lord in their various vocations to make the world a better place.
But if you want to do something that is really hard, and if you want to push yourself to the limits, if you want to be constantly tested by love, if you want to live into your ultimate destiny—if you want to learn to be holy and blameless in love before God—there is no better place to do that than in the local church.
Many of us today rightly note the great defects in the church, most of which boil down to its superficiality. Because the church thinks it has to be missional, that it has to be a place where the world feels comfortable, it has dumbed down the preaching and the worship, so that in many quarters we have ended up with a common-denominator Christianity. It goes down easy, which is why it attracts so many and why many churches are growing. But it is a meal designed to stunt the growth of the people of God. And it is a way of church life that eventually burns people out, where people become exhausted trying to make the world a better place.
What if instead the church was a sanctuary, a place of rest and healing and life, where the fellowship of believers lived together in love, where we just learn to be holy and blameless in love before God? And what if, having encountered afresh some sort of beatific vision, we go out from church in our vocations and ministries, serving the unchurched neighbor and, by God’s grace, make a difference in their world?
It’s not that learning to love in the church is all that easy. But learning to love has this self-generating quality: The more we fail, the more we turn to God and the people of God for forgiveness and thus imbibe the life-changing power of grace.
If this biblical vision settles into more and more local churches—and it’s already present in many places—I believe we would see some significant changes. The church would no longer be a place that is anxious and worried about being relevant to the world on the world’s terms; it wouldn’t worry about its inability to make a difference by society’s norms; it wouldn’t think of itself as means to a useful end but God’s end for humanity. That is, a place where we learn to live together in love—Republican and Democratic, rich and poor, male and female, white and Hispanic and black and Asian. Where we would learn to grow up into the stature and fullness of Christ, who is all in all, to the praise of God’s glory.
And more than anything, it would become a place where we learn everything there is to know about praising God’s glory, a place where we learn the fine art of praise, a place that would employ every form of music and word and drama and reading and visual art to praise God for his coming salvation, so that when the nations of the world flood into the New Jerusalem, they will have songs to sing and chants to chant and words to praise the God who has brought them together in love.