Friday, December 5, 2008

What Is So Wrong with the Church in America Today?

I would like to comment on Dutch Sheets’s remark (which I tagged on to my November 16 post) in which he said, “The complacency and lack of discernment concerning our real condition in America—especially by the Church—is both appalling and horrifying.” Although he may have used somewhat alarmist language, I essentially agree with his point: By and large, the American church today is complacent and lacking in discernment. But what does this have to do with biblical equality? Not a whole lot. However, I would like to observe that if, indeed, the church is in such a sorry state, it would seem rather disproportionate that there should be so little concern on this matter, yet such rigorous and tireless efforts exerted to ensure that women are kept from full use of their gifts in the Body of Christ. Even if (hypothetically) God did intend from the beginning for women to be curtailed in certain areas of life and ministry, despite God’s creating them with these capacities, what would be most displeasing to the Lord? That a woman do more for the Kingdom than God intended her to do? Or that the church carry on blithely in a state of spiritual complacency and lack of discernment?

I should also note that this blog is not dedicated exclusively to discussion of gender issues but also seeks to understand and comment on the larger picture. The “mission statement” at the head of this blog says, “This is a forum for thoughtful discussion and reflection on the state of the church in America, with a particular emphasis on clarifying and understanding the issues at stake in the long-running debate over differences between men and women in ministry and in marriage.”

Having thus made my apologetic for this post, let us consider: What is so wrong with the church in America today?

Why should anyone assert that there is something seriously amiss in the American church? Is not this the nation in which a significant majority of the population claims to be Christian? A majority, mind you! Is not this the nation in which the evangelical church wields political power even in national government? Is not this the nation where sprawling, prosperous megachurches frequently dominate the landscape? Where huge Christian advocacy ministries take their message to the populace through national media outlets? And in this great nation is there not, in every small town and city suburb, a church on the nearest street corner? (Well, perhaps not in our neighborhood, but never mind that.)

Even if there is (virtually) a church on every street corner, even given the ease, comfort, and freedom with which American Christians attend services and practice their faith, even given the prosperous industry that Christian faith has become in this nation, the question remains: What does this prove about the spiritual health of the American church? The underground church in China is 100,000,000 strong and growing exponentially, despite severe persecution from the government authorities. Yet the only churches on any street corners in China are the Three Self churches, which are highly regimented and government controlled. The true church in China does not flaunt church buildings. They meet in homes, and they believe that this is all any church needs. Their funds (such as they are) flow out toward the work of missions and evangelism, not the work of bigger and better church buildings with lots more space to accommodate various fun activities for the parishioner’s various felt needs.

The Apostle Paul speaks in 2 Timothy 3:5 of a time when the church will have a form of godliness but not the power thereof. Have we Christians in America arrived at that point?

Chinese house church leader Brother Yun, a man full of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of God who has experienced many miracles, as well as many severe persecutions, writes in his recent book Living Water, that “The Lord calls people who realize they cannot function at all apart from His grace and empowerment. Such an attitude results in complete dependence on God, and this is good in His sight. If we can accomplish tasks without God, then He will not get the glory” (p. 59-60). Paraphrasing Hudson Taylor, Francis Schaeffer makes a similar statement in his book True Spirituality: “The Lord’s work done solely in human energy is not the Lord’s work any longer. It is something, but it is not the Lord’s work” (p. 59). It’s no wonder that a pastor from Asia commented, after visiting Christian churches and institutions in America, that “it is remarkable how much they are able to accomplish without the Holy Spirit!” Yet God does not bless and empower a church or ministry that runs primarily on human will and strength.

Could it be that the lion’s share of Christian industry in America is, in God’s eyes, “wood, hay, and stubble” (1 Cor 3:12-15)?

Brother Yun’s riveting autobiography, The Heavenly Man, demonstrates how he lives on the knife-edge of obedience to God’s calling. This man—along with the millions of women and men serving in the Chinese underground church—daily live the Book of Acts. How many American Christians can say that for their Christian life? For that matter, how many American Christians have even read the Book of Acts recently? How many know what the Bible even says? (Brother Yun and his fellow Christians have memorized whole books of the Bible.)

Yes, the American church enjoys institutional power in this country, and the polls (Americans are always taking polls) show that a majority of Americans consider themselves Christians. But so much of it is only a form of godliness—only an image (in American culture image is everything). It is not the real thing. A hip, slick, with-it image is a pathetic substitute for the presence and power of God.

Has the church in America become the church of Laodicea?

We seem so often pleased with our accomplishments for the Lord. So ready with our implicitly self-congratulatory rhetoric (which we carefully cloak in God-talk). Well, we may be impressed, but the Holy One is not. God does not provide spiritual power and blessing for a church or ministry that runs primarily on human will and strength.

But perhaps we do not realize that we are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. Perhaps we desperately need to buy from the Lord gold refined in the fire, so we can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so we can cover our shameful nakedness; and salve to put on our eyes, so we can see. Jesus said to the Laodiceans, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (see Revelation 3: 17-19).

Below are two posts that suggest a different, perhaps more spiritually serious approach to Christian faith. The first is from the blog of Douglas Groothuis, “The Constructive Curmudgeon.” It is a compelling exhortation to the American church to forswear the Church of Laodicea and to exchange its form of godliness with the actual power thereof. The second is a short essay in which I chronicle my reflections and observations of Brother Yun’s recent visit to Denver Seminary.

9 comments:

Rick said...

You might be interested in considering my recent book, The Yawning Church, based on Revelation 3. The author page is theyawningchurch.com and the video is christian.com/view_video.php?id=2139

Dr Rick

Amy Shane said...

Hi, Rebecca. I've enjoyed getting to know your husband and thought I'd look at your blogs (as a diversion to studying for finals?). I, too, agree that there is a lot of complacency in American churches. My only comment would be that I would be careful lumping all of the 3-self churches together or judging them solely on Br. Yun's words. There is an element of the house church that dislikes the 3-self, but there is also a large portion that work together with them toward a single goal - that of winning China. There are many 3-self churches in China that preach the Gospel fully. Every city in China is different in how much they try to regulate the church. In our former city, there was one 3-self church that grew to 8 in addition to a strong house ch. movement. They all work together, have started services (that are held in the 3-self)for other language groups in the area and have started a seminary. Good things are happening in all arenas in China. And people are being saved and growing in both types of churches.

Doug Groothuis said...

Amy:

I see your point, but when a church submits to a secular state concerning what it can and cannot teach, it becomes compromised. The church is under God first and foremost, although it must function within particular societies. Christians are to submit to the ruling authorities (Romans 13:1-7), but when the Apostles were told by the authorities to not preach the Gospel, they disobeyed them in favor of obeying God (Acts 5).

For these reasons, it seems that the Three Self Church is problematic in principle.

Amy Shane said...

Thanks for your response, Doug, but I would respectfully disagree on a couple of points. In China, the gov't restricts what may be preached from the pulpit. After all, church is not what occurs in the buildings, but it is made up of the people. It does not restrict private conversations. Those same pastors are able to speak of restricted topics on a personal level freely.

Secondly, God never says that one has to teach the entire Bible in equal time increments. If so, many pastors who emphasize the NT over the OT or the epistles over other teachings would be amiss. (Our pastor just finished up TWO YEARS on Acts.) He says that you shouldn't add or take away from Scripture, but I believe that refers to the written form.

My third point is that each city is different - though China, on a gov't level, restrict teaching children, in my former city there is a full Sunday school and seminary run by the 3-self pastors. (Unfortunately, there are cities where the control is very tight and where the gov't church exists more as a political entity. But I know many of our students have gone on to gov't seminary and are very genuine in their faith and commitment to the Word.

And finally, when the disciples appealed to God's authority to preach, you must remember that there was no written/collected New Testament. The people had no other way to hear the good news. Today, all have the opportunity to go to Scripture and read it for themselves (assuming they have access to Scripture and can read). In China, Bibles are now readily available at 3-self churches, as are other study aids like the Jesus film (which, at the end, speaks of the restricted topic of the second coming), and marriage and family books from Christian authors.

So, yes, the church CAN be compromised, but it not NECESSARILY compromised.

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Joy said...

Thank you for your perspectives on women in ministry leadership. Having come from a conservative, fundamentalist church background and then wrestled with arguments for and against women in ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary, I've now come to believe in empowering women for ministry, but often find myself in contradicting circles. Reading your blog helps me to clarify my thoughts and articulate my stance. Thank you so much!

St Aloysius said...

Good post. Why aren't more American Christians thinking this way? For many of us on the other side of the world,the great evangelical circus in the United States has little in common with the man from Nazareth. Rather a lot with the scribes and pharisees.