In my last few essays (here, here, and here) I’ve been arguing that American Christianity, and evangelical Christianity particularly, thinks about the church in mostly instrumental ways. The church’s core identity is summed up in what it’s called to do, in most cases, one form of mission activity or another. Without denying the urgency to love our neighbors, I’ve been saying that our horizontal concerns for the neighbor have all but eclipsed our passion for God. It’s like we have an advanced case of Alzheimer’s: We don’t know who we are or what we’re supposed to be about, but we feel driven to get up and walk wherever our legs will take us.
I’ve tried to show from Scripture that the church is first and foremost—and at its essence and for eternity—about the vertical, brothers and sisters embedded deeply in Christ, glorifying God and enjoying him forever. This is not just what we do but who we are.
All this to me is not a theological construct, a creative way to think about the relationship of the church to the world. Based on my experience as a pastor and member of the mainline, and my three decades as a journalist embedded in American evangelicalism, I think this view of the church is crucial for the very health and survival of American Christianity. This is what I will argue in this essay.
First, it energizes many Christians—let’s acknowledge that. This was one motive of Rauchenbusch as he articulated the social gospel—he wanted to church to get out of the pews and into the streets. And Newbigin’s missional word to self-satisfied British churches woke many people up, no doubt about it. I understand the attraction.
I’ve been in moribund, dying churches that, when they adopt a missional stance, well, it transforms them, at least for a time. When they conceive that the church is to make a difference in the world, the church makes a shift that is exciting. It lights a fire under members, giving them new meaning and purpose. They enthusiastically give themselves ever more deeply to the church, because they now think the church is going to make a difference in the world. Naturally, they imagine, the church is going to shape itself and its organization to transform the world.
What they eventually discover, however, is that churches rarely do this. The church fails to give more to missions. It fails to reorganize itself missionally. It keeps investing in worship and Christian education and discipleship at the expense of reaching out to the surrounding culture. This disappointment is felt in many quarters and felt especially keenly by those who assume a missional call for the church. Book after book and missional conference after missional conference is dedicated to addressing this problem.
A handful of churches do, in fact, turn themselves into missional organizations—but usually only for a short period. The missional-minded become very discouraged and angry at this point. They accuse the church of hypocrisy, selfishness, and irrelevance. While such is true of the church in all times and places—we are sinners, after all—what our missional friends fail to recognize is this reality: The church, from the start, has not actually been designed to be missional.
To be clear, let me say what I mean by “the church.” I understand church in a traditional sense, of a concrete body of believers gathered to worship God in Christ, gathered around the preached and taught Word, sacraments/ordinances like the Lord’s Supper and baptism, living together and growing in love. Most of us instinctively understand this as “church,” even though we might acknowledge that parachurches, with their specialized ministries, are composed of members of the family of God and therefore, by extension can be called “the church.” But here, I focus on the concrete reality of the local, worshiping congregation as the preeminent expression of the church.
A church hires a youth minister, and the church and youth minister write up a missional job description: The youth minister’s main job is to reach out to troubled youth in the community and bring them to Christ and to the church. Many church members applaud this missional approach, and they pat him on the back and tell him to get started.
So he goes out to the local high schools and hangs out with various lost souls, inviting them into the church. But the youth minister finds that it takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to minister to this group. The better he reaches out missionally to lost teens, the less time he has to disciple the youth of the congregation. Naturally, parents of the church’s youth are anxious for their teenagers to grow in Christ, and they thought that in part they had hired the youth minister to help do that. But this youth minister is usually nowhere to be found, because he’s out in the community ministering to un-churched youth.
You see where this is going. It is clear that (a) troubled youth need Christians to reach out to them, and (b) Christian youth need teaching and nurturing, and (c) it is the rare situation in which a youth minister can do both. The church as church is simply not set up to do both, and if my biblical argument is correct, it is not supposed to do both in the same sort of way. The primary purpose of a youth minister in my reading is to help youth become holy and blameless in love, doing so in the context of praising God’s glory in worship.
This makes some of us squirm because it feels so selfish, as if the church is deserting the world. But it turns out that the church is not a very efficient institution for making a difference in the world. If you are passionate about feeding the hungry, for example, churches can help here and there. But if you really want to make a difference, really cut the numbers of the hungry and malnourished, it’s better to give your time to a government or nonprofit agency that specializes in such things.
The same is true whether we’re talking about sex trafficking, drug abuse, exploitation of labor, environmental degradation, and so forth. The church as church can make a donation, organize a committee, sponsor a food pantry, but it cannot really make a significant, lasting impact. It is not set up to do that. In fact, it has many other really important jobs to do.
It is called, for example, more than anything, to provide a time and place for the public worship of God and for people to participate in the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper—to meet God as we glorify him. It is also called to teach children, youth, and adults about who God is, as well as the shape and nature of the Christian life. It is a place where Christians gather to receive mutual encouragement and prayer. It’s the place where we learn to live into our destiny, to be holy and blameless in love, to the praise of God’s glory.
This does not mean the church is free to ignore troubled and unchurched youth. Far from it. But the church is not the institution best suited to reach out to them. This is one reason I’ve been a fan, contributor, and board member of my local Young Life ministry—they do a great job at that sort of thing. Parachurches are awfully good at specialized outreach.
But what about those people who have set their hope on the church being missional? What happens when their church hardly budges and their hopes for a church transformed in the image of the missional are dashed? What happens to them, and what happens to the church?
In my experience, what happens is this: Many give up on the church. The church in their view has simply failed, and so they stop coming. Instead, they give more and more of their time to specialty institutions (parachurches and other nonprofits), or they throw themselves into politics—which is about nothing else but making the world a better place. If it’s been ingrained in you that the church was created for the world, that your purpose is to make the world a better place, why bother with the church, because it is clearly not very effective in this respect. Better to give oneself to UNICEF or the Democratic Party.
And this is precisely what so many in the mainline have done over the last many decades. There are many reasons for the numerical decline of mainline Christianity, but to my mind, one of the main ones is this: Somewhere in the 1960s, mainliners became mesmerized by the idea that the church was created for the sake of the world, that the purpose of the church was to make the world a better place. It led to initial enthusiasm, yes, but then despair as it became apparent that, other than making political pronouncements at annual conventions, the church was ill-equipped to make the world a better place. When the children of that generation put two and two together, they saw that they could chuck the church and still go about trying to make a difference without it.
But something else happens when churches recognize how bad they are at being missional. Many of them double down. They see young people leaving the church in droves because it isn’t relevant to the world, because it isn’t making a difference in the world, and these churches panic. Unfortunately, they continue to assume that to be relevant means to make this a better world. And so they shout it even more from the rooftops, and they make more pronouncements about more and more social ills, the more recent the better. The tone of their theology becomes ever more secular. Then you find more and more that the mainline churches look only like the Democratic Party at prayer, and evangelical churches like the Republican Party at worship.
Today it seems clear to me that many of the evangelical left are traveling down the path hewn by the mainline. And the evangelical right—starting with the Jerry Falwell and the rise of the Religious Right—have been on the path hewn by civil religion, a religion of God and country. Both left and right are anxious to make a difference in the world, to make the world a better place according to their own lights, because they both believe that the purpose of the church is to make the world a better place. Instead, in my view, they will end up marginalizing the church left and right even more.