Statistics show a steady decline in the membership of mainline Protestant churches over the past several decades. Also, it is easy to see the hostile and anti-christian bashing which takes place among the social and media elites. What is going on? Is there something simple and systemically amiss with us? Has the American Church missed it?
Several issues could be mentioned in regards to the answers for the questions I raise. However, one area is becoming more and more clear as we watch American politics and fundraising among American Churches. Here is the issue at hand: We have failed to recognize the difference between culture and the Church.
In America, preachers and “christian celebrities” are always discussing social issues to a lost and un-regenerated culture. After all, book and DVD marketing finds more clients among the consumer driven economy by targeting the largest audience. Therefore, our message has lost the clear dividing line between culture and Church. Here are three issues we need to revisit for developing a mission toward the lost to regain the biblical focus of a New Testament Church.
- Church is for the believer – The focus of meeting with believers (church gatherings) is not evangelism. We gather to encourage, support, instruct and teach the body how each part is to fulfill their role/ministry. Modern church services have become the focus of evangelism because we have taken the ministry out of the hands of the body and placed them into the hands of ‘official clergy.’ This tragic shift has turned members of the average church into spectators instead of living participants.
- Evangelism is primarily outside the Church – Each local church body is responsible for doing the work of the ministry. And that ministry is primarily to reach the lost in every day settings and circumstances. Evangelism is for every believer to engage and move into the lives of their neighbors, co-workers and culture. In our church gatherings, majority of our time should be spent equipping and training the believers. (**This does not mean the offer of salvation is not presented for visitors, but that the majority of time is on equipping. Every message, if properly presented, carries with it the biblical potential of running to Calvary for an offer of surrender to Christ.)
- Culture is not the target – Our target is the redemption of ‘souls,’ not reformation of culture. Culture will change if the majority of a region respond to the truth of the Gospel and exercise any rights afforded to them within their citizenship privileges. However, to focus upon correcting the secular world and it’s laws with biblical mandates and sermons only ostracizes the very people groups we are attempting to reach.
A Major Shift in Ecclesiology
In the West, Christianity has almost become synonymous with middle class and Republican political policy. This is our own fault, as during the 70′s and 80′s the Evangelical thrust was more into politics than in preaching the Gospel. I grew up through the 70′s and saw it up close and personal, though I did not come to Christ until 1980.
Church leaders were seduced by the influence and power they gained through coddling and appearing with political candidates on the national stage. It was easy to see the addiction that national ministers stepped into as their messages changed from presenting the Gospel to discussing social needs for the country. The building up of the believers was abandoned as the focus moved to social and political activism…and the Church footed the bill, both financially and spiritually.
This is not a blanket rebuke of every leader, as some held fast to the purpose and calling of the Church to proclaim the message of salvation. The lust for power and recognition did not get its talons into every minister. The Lord has always had men who were free from the desire of riches and fame in order to be faithful ambassadors to Christ.
Recapturing the Message
Christianity is not a culture. Instead, it is the life changing message of the Cross and, in it’s purest form, it invades every culture. When we seek to change society but imposing the Christian worldview and Christian ethics upon a secular society, we unnecessarily offend the very people we are desiring to reach by stepping out of the message of Grace and promoting a message of legalism! Making men socially accountable to the Christian principles will not change their hearts, but it will incite their disdain.
The Apostle Peter said,
“But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” (1Pet.4:15, ESV)
According to many scholars and commentaries , this word “meddler” (Gr. – allotrioepiskopos, “a bishop in what is another’s”) refers to the Christian attempting to force secular society to be accountable to Christian ethics. (i.e. judging the matters of unbelievers.) Our ethics are accomplished through us by the power of the new birth, not through legislation.
The Apostle Paul, while discussing Church Discipline, made it very clear that our judgments do not involve those outside of the Christian faith. He said,
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world…For what have I to do with judging outsiders?…. God judges those outside…” (1Cor.5:9-10,12a,13a, ESV)
Mixing culture with Christianity forces the Church to violate both of these verses. It moves us from our true call (evangelism) and lowers our task to social reformation through political and social activism. And, tragically, this puts us in the unbiblical position of judging and imposing Christian ethics upon those who need a Savior…not a law. Let us use of civil rights to stand for righteousness and, as Christians, become informed voters for godly men and issues. But let us never abandon our true call.
Jesus came, not to force immoral men to be moral, or bad men to be good, or social outcasts to become social insiders. No! He came to make dead men alive. As ambassadors, we have been entrusted with the same message.
When we find ourselves in a deep hole, the first principle is to stop digging. Numerically speaking, the American Church has found itself in a hole. Let us stop our digging. That is, pushing to change society through political action and social reformation. Instead, let us get back to our calling and reclaim our purpose…Preaching the Gospel!!!