QUESTION: What would you consider to be the biggest issue facing the modern American Christian? And what problems are the biggest the Christian Church faces?
RESPONSE: This is a great set of questions. I think that the two big issues I see relate to an area of orthopraxis (correct conduct) for believers in America, and an area of orthodoxy (correct belief) for the church overall.
I think the biggest issue with America Christians is our conduct regarding our stuff. In a word, Affluence.
My parents served for several years volunteering at a Christian training school for foreign nationals in Hawaii (I know, tough assignment!). They developed many great friendships with people from Asia and Africa. My parents related to me their surprising reaction to American prosperity and material comfort. Almost to a person, their reactions were totally devoid of jealousy or cynicism or spiritual angst over God’s unfair distribution of goods. Instead, to my parents’ shock, their response was almost universally one of pity!
You see, from outside American affluence these foreign Christians were “unplugged from the Matrix” and like those who took the red pill in the Matrix movie, they could see something clearly: While those in the Matrix lived lives of relative comfort, they were also living a lie, numbed up, oblivious to the real world, and being used to advance a malevolent purpose about which they were clueless. What a great metaphor for the siren call of stuff!
Jesus’ metaphor is even better. He said, there would be those who would receive the gospel, like good seed, but that seeds’ productivity would be choked out by weeds. Jesus labeled them worry and “the deceit of riches” (Matt 13:22). It’s hard to argue that wealth (and relative to the world almost ALL American Christians fit in this category) is seducing us. The result is millions of Christians numb to what our gospel tells us is the real world: Our next life which is our real life. The result is millions oblivious to our mandate from Christ which is not to be rich, but to be “rich toward God”. (Luke 12:21)
I don’t argue that a Christian can’t be rich AND rich toward God. But my judgment is that American Christians currently pursue wealth as heartily as the world, without any reflection of how New Testament values ought to inform that pursuit. If we do reflect at all, it often is to align with some version of the health and wealth Gospel, which turns Christianity into a God-powered program of pain reduction and pleasure expansion. And you don’t need connection to a charismatic tradition to put a spiritual gloss on love of money either. It’s just an inherent risk of living in the richest nation on earth.
But I’m afraid this is idolatry, plain and simple (Col 3:5). And it doesn’t apply to the 1% (alone) but to the rank and file middle class people making up the majority of American Christendom.
How do we tear down this idol? Well, prescriptions to impose universal vows of poverty aren’t helpful. Neither is lifelong guilt about something we can’t control, being born in an affluent country. Three key Christian truths have to be recovered:
- One, God owns “my” stuff, so I need to manage it his way.
- Two, the perspective of heaven says all wealth (and all suffering) is temporal and so a Christian doesn’t get obsessed with either.
- Three, generosity mimics God and no one becomes like Christ without it.
When Christians get this, rather than monochromatic answers, I’ve observed diverse, and inspiring responses:
- In the case of some gifted entrepreneurs, unapologetically making as much as they can, after they set a standard of living, in order to give expanding excess income to the purposes of God in the world.
- Running businesses with Gospel principles which might lessen profits in order to create thriving work cultures that act as missions to employees.
- Willingness to downsize a standard of living, in order to leverage the extra time and money to church and family and the poor.
- Openness to get out of the rat race partly or totally and be willing to accept callings to ministry where provision is much more a matter of faith.
- Leveraging affluence (money, cars and homes) for Kingdom stuff, such as fostering, adopting, housing unwed mothers, or welcoming immigrants and the homeless.
- Declaring war on debt.
- this one should be prescribed! No Christian, living by biblical principles would carry the kind of consumer debt average Americans do ($16,000/household).
Just imagine what the church could do if she repented fully of her enslavement to stuff and the debt that comes with it, and instead lived sacrificially, on purpose, for the Gospel? That’s the sleeping giant no agent of hell wants disturbed, for, if roused, would surely shake the world. But hell rests in peace, as long as individual Christians are content taking the blue pill.
With the Church overall, I think the greatest challenge is from Pluralism and its assault on Christian orthodoxy – specifically the uniqueness of Jesus’ message of Grace.
Social pluralism is, of course, a good thing. It says diverse religions should function tolerantly within the same society.
Ideological pluralism however, says that all religious claims are equally true. Therefore, claims to unique knowledge are considered arrogant and inherently wrong.
This would simply be a problem for how to present an exclusive Christ in an inclusive age, IF the Church weren’t increasingly accepting ideological pluralism as its new creed. That’s a much bigger problem.
The “Emergent/ Emerging” controversy in the Church today is very much like the “Modernist/Fundamentalist” controversy of a hundred years ago. Back then, Mainline denominations tried to accommodate the Faith to Materialism, and it lead to them giving up on core, historical, orthodox Christian assumptions – like creation ex nihilo, the authority of the Bible, the Deity of Jesus, the Atonement etc. The Fundamentalists responded by delineating and holding fast to the unchanging core essentials of Christian belief.
Today, the Emergent movement, like the Mainliners before them, seeks to accommodate the Faith to postmodernism. But this is leading it to adopt postmodern ideological pluralism. Statements of faith in Emergent churches are considered passé, divisive and truth is never spelled with a capital “T”. Like the Fundamentalists before them, the Emerging churches (totally confusing terms, I know) seek to win Postmoderns to Faith in Christ by rejecting the excesses of modernism, without abandoning, or diminishing the importance of objective Truth and Christian distinctives.
I sympathize with many of the impulses of the Emergent Movement. They were alienated by the mega-church phenomenon where church relationships were superficial or legalistic. They reacted against the emphasis on bigness, money, buildings, high-powered worship services and theological bickering. So they came together around circles of authentic relationships, candles and sofas. As postmoderns, they gladly reclaimed an emphasis on mystery in Christian thinking and de-emphasized harsh lines of who was “in” and who was “out” of the Christian faith.
And that, IMO, is where they started to go sideways and where the church is at risk.
If this was simply a move toward greater Christian unity, de-emphasizing the secondary doctrinal issues that often arrogantly keep Christians apart, recovering simplicity, I would be a fan. The Christian faith has lots of room for humility regarding our doctrinal stances, and plenty of areas where we “see in a glass darkly”. Christians can channel this postmodern urge to rally around what Lewis called “Mere Christianity”. We can go that far – but only that far. For Christianity contains, inescapable truth claims that define the Faith. Without them Christianity is quite literally “worthless” to use Paul’s phrase.
In other words, a full accommodation to the postmodern mind which rejects objective truth, authority, “meta-narratives”, creeds and doctrine, is impossible – not without de-Christianizing Christianity. And yet, that is exactly what is being tried. Even in less hip, less trendy, more conservative evangelical traditions, I know of church leaders starting to accept the fundamental tenant of pluralism: that the Christian faith does not offer the world unique access to God through Jesus Christ.
The “only way” of Christ is, admittedly, a divisive idea.
But can one reasonably believe that Christianity is Christianity without it? What impelled the first apostles to move across the Mediterranean with the gospel? Was it an Emergent “doctrine doesn’t really matter” impulse? No, it was the belief that “there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Consider the role doctrine played in early Christian controversies. Clearly the apostles had no problem calling some ideas “in” and some “out”, and the assumption that other religions/gods/teachings are false is behind everything you read, from Genesis to Revelation.
Perhaps the Emergent movement will become like the Mainline Denominations which have largely made themselves irrelevant by removing the stakes of involvement. If you tell people your message is not really needed for salvation and that truth is found everywhere, why go to your church? Not surprisingly mainline churches have been declining for decades. It remains to be seen if the Emergent churches will also flag due to their relativizing of truth. Most still retain the outreach energy of the evangelical traditions from which they sprang.
Also what may energize this movement away from biblical orthodoxy is a growing Alliance between “old mainline” and “new emergent” under the LGBTQ banner. Again there’s a parallel – when the old mainliners removed the historic gospel, what remained was a social gospel. Today, Emergents have rallied to the LGBTQ cause of normalizing homosexuality, which is simply another social cause that replaces the primary, spiritual mission of New Testament Christianity.
But that is simply further evidence of the place doctrine, history, the creeds and Scripture holds in the life of these new Christian communities. This concerns me. Without a strong commitment to all those things, the Church exchanges its unique Gospel birthright of grace, for a mess of postmodern, moralistic, relativistic pottage.