The embarrassing church
As my friend Donald Guthrie, professor at Trinity International University and president of Ransom’s board is fond of saying, it’s hard being the local church in America at the beginning of the 21st century. And I would add that for many believers—especially young adults—it can be hard being in a local church in America at the beginning of the 21st century.
Strong cultural crosscurrents are buffeting Christ’s church today. Polling research (and anecdotal personal experience) indicates that if America is not fully post-Christian it’s rapidly moving in that direction. Many church leaders are uncertain why that’s the case, how to reverse it and how to react if the trend continues. What is more, the pluralism of our world has made the faith of Christian young adults feel fragile, a sociological fact that few in the church have even begun to consider with care. As Alan Noble, professor at Oklahoma Baptist University points out, the difference between a Christian in 12th century England and one in 21st century America is that the American is aware every moment of every day that they need not be a Christian, that there are other options available, that many thinkers and friends they admire choose against Christianity, and that they are not able to prove their faith sufficiently to convince their unbelieving friends that it is true. Even if they aren’t personally struggling with doubt, the pluralism of their world has fragilized their faith. And to make matters more difficult, the culture wars of the last few decades have failed, though many cultural warriors have yet to notice. In the eyes of our politicized world, the culture wars have made the church appear to be little more than one more tribe angling for political power, and the warring has made Christianity unattractive and greatly increased hostility against the church and its message of grace.
Is it any wonder, then, that it’s hard being the local church in America at the beginning of the 21st century? Or that it can be difficult to be a thoughtful Millennial in an evangelical church in America today?
Still, we should keep all this in perspective. Compared to those parts of the world where the church is facing systematic and violent persecution, the American church has it pretty good. I’d much rather live as a believer in America than in North Korea or Saudi Arabia or China or Iran. Besides, everyone in a broken world faces adversity of various kinds. Organizations rarely live up to our expectations, groups we join often end up disappointing us and as the old joke goes, if we find a perfect church it’ll begin going downhill the moment we join it. The center of gravity for evangelical faith has shifted from America and the West to the growing, vibrant church in Africa, Asia and South America. Our difficulty, to some extent, stops at our border.
Nor is it the first time in history that the church was ineffective or on the defensive or in some sort of disarray or a source of disappointment to believers. In 1889, for example, Vincent van Gogh painted Starry Night, the view from the window in the asylum where he was living, hospitalized for mental reasons. The night sky is aglow with stars, a swirling illumination that is gloriously set against a blue expanse. In the foreground is a town, lights glowing in the windows of homes. Only one building is dark: the village church. I am usually so overwhelmed by the starry night that I fail to notice the sadness of van Gogh’s vision.
We have so much choice today I find it hard to imagine what it must have been like for a devout believer in such a village where the church no longer embodied the gospel or was strangled with legalism or saddled with thoughtless or unfaithful leaders. If things get bad enough, I can easily drive to a church in the next town or listen to a recorded sermon at home, but both options weren’t available to the vast majority of Christians over the last two millennia.
And it isn’t as if Christ didn’t warn us that it could be hard. “Do not think,” he said, “that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). And the division cut by that sword will extend, he promised, deeply in our most beloved relationships. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ words this way:
Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God… If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself (Matthew 10:34-35, 38-39)
Modern PR theory would suggest saying such things is not a good way to launch a religious movement, but Jesus apparently had not read that memo.
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. (John 15:18-22)
Still, there is a difference between facing hostility because people hear, understand and reject the claims of Christ as Lord and Savior, and facing hostility because the church has somehow lost its way. It’s a special type of misfortune when in this broken and uncertain world Christ’s church becomes a source of difficulty in the experience of believers.
Of course, the church has always faced difficulties from within as well as from without. The church is a community of sinners, redeemed but still sinners, and sinners can be trusted to find ways to subvert the truth, to argue endlessly about Holy Scripture, to refuse proper authority and to choose their own way over God’s word.
In the 19th century, for example, Anglican Bishop John Colenso (Natal, South Africa) published a book that questioned the orthodox view of Scripture and undercut the veracity of some Christian doctrine. Samuel Stone, an Anglican clergyman in Windsor, England defended the orthodox understanding against Colenso’s attack and in the process sought to educate the people of God in the truth. To that end he wrote a series of 12 hymns, each one based on an article of the Apostles’ Creed. The one he wrote on the church, based on “I believe… in the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,” is the famous hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.” Notice these two verses:
Though with a scornful wonder
men see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up, “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.
’Mid toil and tribulation,
and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation
of peace forevermore;
till with the vision glorious
her longing eyes are blest,
and the great church victorious
shall be the church at rest.
The church is a place of hope, Stone insists, waiting for the return of her King, a hope generated because the church is not yet a place of rest and victory but of struggle and difficulty. The list of difficulties he includes in his lyrics is daunting, and enough to generate more than one night of weeping in the hearts of sensitive believers who love Christ’s bride.
So, it’s easy to understand why it is hard being the local church in America at the beginning of the 21st century. And why it can be hard being in a local church in America at the beginning of the 21st century.
It isn’t merely a sociological fact; it is an intensely intimate experience—and it is at this point that the cultural situation bleeds into personal pain. At times the church itself becomes a source of adversity for believers.
I feel the tension. Ever since I emerged from my spiritual wanderings convinced that Jesus is Lord, I have been proud to consider myself an evangelical. The term is an old one, stretching back to the time of Martin Luther, John Calvin and the Protestant Reformation. It refers to those who seek to center their lives and hearts and minds on the gospel of Christ, the evangelion. They are found in every Christian tradition—Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Protestant—as those who want always to faithfully speak and live so as to demonstrate the truth of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The mystery of faith—that Christ came, lived, died, rose, and will come again—is at the core of their convictions and the story of scripture that unfolds in creation, fall, redemption and restoration is the story which they seek to live out day by day for the glory of God. The particular tradition of faith to which I belong is important to me, but it pales almost to insignificance compared to the centrality of the gospel itself.
Yet, recently I have been distancing myself from the term evangelical. The reason is not that my convictions have changed but that I find the American church that self-identifies as evangelical to be rather embarrassing. More closely aligned with a conservative or, more accurately, an individualist nationalist political agenda than with the gospel, it is not an identity I am willing to assume. This is not because I do not agree with anything in this political agenda, but because I believe the church should never be associated with any ideological agenda. “I’m not an evangelical,” I told a non-Christian recently who asked. “I am a historically orthodox follower of Jesus Christ.” I felt better; they had no idea what I meant.
It breaks my heart to write this. I love the long, noble evangelical tradition that stretches back in my case through Francis Schaeffer, Abraham Kuyper, John Calvin, St Augustine, the apostles and my Lord Christ. In the past I have been pleased to be known as an evangelical but no longer. The evangelical church in America at the beginning of the 21st century has become far too embarrassing.
But the pain of my embarrassment is nothing compared to what some of my friends have experienced. My discomfort is a minor irritation, a small issue of what I call myself when asked to describe what sort of Christian I am. A little disappointment that I no longer feel free to use the term I have long loved. What is to me an inconvenience is to some dear friends a crisis of faith. Though no one may have intended this, the embarrassing church is sometimes a source of such adversity that it effectively becomes the evicting church—and lives are changed, and faith challenged or overturned as a result.
Over the past several years Margie and I have had numerous conversations with young adults who have walked or are walking away from the evangelical church. In some cases, they have walked away not just from the church but from the faith. Others have chosen to remain in the church but do so without enthusiasm. To us they express discomfort and say that before their secular friends they feel embarrassment. People ask them why they would associate with the evangelical church and they find they have no answer that satisfies either their friends or, more devastatingly, themselves. They don’t feel they quite fit into the evangelical church, but never intended that to be the case.
When we ask them why, they can tell us their reasons, a ready litany of concerns. You’ve probably heard them yourself, and if you are like me you may share some of them. Here is some of what we’ve heard in these conversations. I’m not expressing their concerns in the terms they shared with us—but the meaning is the same.
Most of the time they don’t give a reason so much as tell a story. The actual concern can be found between the lines, bubbling up from the trajectory of the story they’ve told. This is partly because we’ve asked them to tell us their story and so they do. And it’s partly because what they are wrestling with is primarily existential and only secondarily cognitive. They haven’t come into our living room to discuss a series of ideas or to sort out how their ecclesiology has been altered by their church experience but to try to make sense of where they find themselves. It isn’t a rational, abstract conversation but a personal, intimate one, a reflection on church, their church, and how to make sense of that church in a world where that church seems to have become irrelevant to their lives.
One theme that has appeared often is the surprise at how well their lives are going since dropping out of church. They had always been taught that church attendance was essential to the Christian life. That Christians needed the church and that life would be lessened somehow and problems multiplied if they walked away. And now they have walked away and report that everything has been fine. Some of them have had to deal with guilty feelings initially, or with the shame evoked by disapproving parents, but they expected that. They sleep in on Sunday mornings, give their tithe to charities doing work they support and find this new weekend routine is actually more helpful than church in getting them ready for another week of work. If attending church is so essential why has walking away from the church been so easy and cost free? Why has their post-church life been so satisfying?
After listening to their stories and asking questions and listening some more I’ve parsed those stories to distill out the following list of concerns about the church. Please read them and reflect on them with an open heart and mind. Even if you think some aren’t true, they represent the perceptions of people who loved Jesus only to find the church—either the evangelical church in general or their local church—to be a stumbling block to their faith. Even if they are entirely mistaken at every point—and I do not believe they are—their reasons for walking away are worth hearing with care and compassion.
* The evangelical church has become politicized. And this politicization leads to at least three problems. One, its members do not have a distinctly biblical political philosophy growing out of the long tradition of political philosophy developed by great thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, the Reformers and Abraham Kuyper. Instead, they merely adopt a secular conservative or progressive agenda and add a few biblical proof texts to make their views appear religious. And of course, to outsiders, to the millennial generation and to anyone who cares about a thoughtful rooted faith this represents a fatal lack of authenticity. The second problem is that except in churches that reside along the fringe of the ecclesiastical galaxy, most churches do not address the pressing issues of our society and world in fear of offending members. Leaders see this a way to remain neutral; it is actually the way to be irrelevant. The most important issues that people deal with all week are never mentioned, to say nothing of explored biblically and thoughtfully in church. And three, significant segments of the evangelical church have become identified with a specific political ideology—like white evangelicals supporting a nationalist ideology tainted by racism—that effectively blocks the non-Christians who refuse that ideology from considering the truth of the church’s message in the gospel.
* The evangelical church has failed to be a center for creativity, art and craft. Just look at church architecture—case closed. Captive to consumerism and the aesthetics of pop culture new churches often tend to look either like warehouses or arenas. While the medieval church was a patron of the arts the church in the world of advanced modernity seems to have forgotten that the Lord they profess is not only the God of all truth (John 14:6) but also the God of all beauty (Psalm 50:1-2).
* The evangelical church has encouraged, even enflamed the culture wars. Sometimes the encouragement has been explicit, and at other times the failure to address such issues implies no problem exists. The truth is that the growing hostility to the Christian gospel can be traced to the tribal attempt of conservative Christians to use political power to force their vision of the good life on a resistant population.
* The evangelical church holds a sexual ethic—especially in relation to the LBGTQ community—that is profoundly offensive to postmodern sensibilities. Even those evangelical churches that claim to be welcoming would restrict LBGTQ members in what they could do within the church in terms of teaching and leadership.
* The evangelical church spawns believers that tend to be less than admirable. More specifically, many Christians tend to be judgmental, negative, withdrawn from the wider community, critical of the arts, slow to care about issues of race, economic inequality, or for caring for the earth and environmental degradation, and are often ghettoized within their own tribal schools, activities and groups. This means that evangelical Christians appear by and large unattractive—or to lead unattractive and restricted lives—to many of their non-Christian neighbors. It’s thus hardly surprising that some believers are hesitant to be identified as evangelicals.
* The evangelical church does a poor job demonstrating how the orthodox doctrines of the faith creatively address all of life and reality and provide intellectually satisfying answers to the most pressing questions of our age. Many services of worship include a recitation of the historic Creeds or Confessions but rarely are the assertions of such documents shown to be intimately relevant to ordinary, everyday life. A chasm exists between doctrine and life.
* The evangelical church seems to be always hurrying to catch up. Rather than anticipating the questions and challenges of the next generation, the church seems to address issues only after the wider culture has raised them and then moved on. It does not lead the world but follows it, and often ends up saying too little, too late to make much difference.
* The evangelical church seems to be unnecessary to human flourishing. Young adults who decide to walk away from the church find that their lives, relationships and careers continue to unfold and that little or nothing seems to be missing. If the church is really all that it claims to be why should this be? Why wouldn’t those who leave find a gnawing emptiness in their hearts and lives that nothing other than the church can fill?
* The evangelical church rarely serves its neighborhood so that unbelievers will miss it if it closes its doors. It claims to believe that all people are worthy of care and justice, but most local churches exist primarily to serve its members, its foreign missionaries and to perpetuate itself as an institution. When churches fold—and many do as larger churches with better facilities and range of activities compete for a declining pool of evangelical believers—one almost never hear neighbors say, “Well, I didn’t agree with what they believed, but I will miss the way they cared for and sacrificially served the needy. It cost them but they never complained or asked us to make it up to them. They showed all of us what justice and compassion really looks like.”
* The evangelical church wounds its own. Questions and challenges are met with formulaic answers, favorite verses of scripture, and quotes from famous preachers. What’s really needed and wanted, of course, is someone to listen and to walk alongside as doubts are examined and life is shared so that our experiences can be brought into connection with the Christian story. So often doubters are made to feel marginalized as leaders claim to be entirely doubt-free and provide sweeping solutions for very personal struggles. Though the church may mean well, this approach not only does not resolve doubts, it wounds the doubting believer by making them feel like an unbeliever. Such wounds can be debilitating to faith.
* The evangelical church makes little or no effort to translate its message into terms that resonate with those who live in the world of advanced modernity. Often it seems as if the leadership doesn’t realize that many Christians live outside the evangelical ghetto. They need to hear the gospel in terms that their closest neighbors and friends—outside the church—can easily comprehend and appreciate. Instead, sermons are given that reflect the language of theological commentaries and the way the church has been talking to itself since the 19th century—or the 17thdepending on which church you are attending. Evangelicals claim to believe the gospel is for every age but seem frozen in the recent past.
* The evangelical church is often defensive and reactive. If it is truly Christ’s body and so his presence on earth, if it is truly indwelled by the Holy Spirit, if it truly possesses the means of grace in word and sacrament and if it’s Lord is truly Redeemer, King and Judge of all the cosmos, why does it not act as if this is the case? It should be neither defensive nor triumphalist before the world but instead always willing to demonstrate the power of sacrificial love even at cost. It should be humble because it knows that though its message is true there is no way to definitively prove it so that everyone will find its credible. And it’s members should demonstrate a fearlessness in admitting “I do not know,” with the quiet reassurance that they are willing to work on the issue as if it is a matter of life and death—because for the person raising the question it just might be.
* The evangelical church seems to be reacting to our increasingly pluralistic and post-Christian world by choosing one of two extremes. Some try to make church more entertaining, hoping to save it by making it more attractive to a distracted world. The problem is that no matter how hard they try, far better entertainment can be found in the world and online. If the church competes here it will always lose. And others double down on getting the truth right, making certain they stand for the right values and teach the right doctrine. The problem is that this always slides into legalism and is more concerned with maintaining purity than demonstrating love.
Those are the concerns—or some of them, at least—that Margie and I have heard over several years of talking to people who are or have walked away from the church. I realize this is not a scientific poll but merely anecdotal evidence, but we’ve heard it enough times in a variety of ways to make me believe it represents something real. I wonder if you have heard similar things, or perhaps felt them yourself.
I should mention that my interest in this involves several things. The first is, as you might guess, how Margie and I can best care for the people telling us their stories. They are precious, often wounded, and needing not a lecture on church attendance but a listening ear and someone to demonstrate that Christianity consists of something far more deeply rooted and mythic and real than their church experience has led them to believe.
This also interests me because I believe the church is actually essential to faith, even when it appears not to be. Without going into the details of my doctrine of the church, I am convinced from Holy Scripture that in word and sacrament the church dispenses grace that can be found in no other place. Often the people who have walked away from the church mention how they find experiences of glory or awe in nature, on walks, for example. These are moments of worship for them, an adequate substitute, they say, for worship in church. I always acknowledge their experience and agree—God’s glorious grace can indeed be found in creation. I believe, however, that the church was given word and sacrament by her Lord linked to a special promise, that when the church gathers the Lord Christ is present, actually and really, in her midst. I don’t know how it works but I believe that in receiving scripture, bread and wine in church I am receiving God’s grace that can be found nowhere else. Nowhere else. And that remains true regardless of the condition of the church or her ministers. On Sunday mornings I hear and taste, “This is God’s word… This is Christ’s body… This is Christ’s blood…” and I know I have reached past the interface separating the visible from the invisible sides of reality and been touched by grace in the real presence of my Lord. And that, I am convinced, is available nowhere else.
And my interest in this resides in the fact that I believe the church is resilient. It may appear rigid and breakable in its local manifestation as an institution, but it remains Christ’s beloved bride (and so will never be abandoned) and indwelt by the Spirit (and so even the gates of hell cannot prevail against it). Like the mythical Phoenix it always rises with new life from the ashes into which it most recently crumbled. So, regardless of the condition of the church in any society, believers can remain people of hope.
In church a few weeks ago we sang “Build Your Kingdom Here” by the Rend Collective, an Irish folk worship band from Northern Ireland. In the form of a prayer, it captures well the Christian hope for the church. “Build Your kingdom here,” the chorus goes, “Let the darkness fear.” Absolutely. Even when shadows have penetrated into the sanctuary in the end it is the darkness not the church that has reason to fear.
And there is more. Dr Thurman Williams, a Presbyterian pastor in St Louis, MO argues that Philippians 1:12-14 is key to understanding the gospel in times of adversity.
I want you to know, brothers [and sisters], that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
Notice St Paul does not say the gospel is advancing in spite of the adversity he is experiencing, or even in the midst of it. Rather, the apostle insists the adversity is the means, the instrument God used to advance the gospel.
Imagine the apostle’s delight, Williams said, if God had told him that through him the entire Imperial Guard in Rome would hear the gospel. “Great!” Paul would likely have said, “How’s that going to occur?” Easy, would be the divine reply. You’ll be thrown in jail for a very long time and the Imperial soldiers will be your guards. You’ll get to know them and demonstrate Christ’s love for them. What the enemy uses to try to interrupt the advance of the gospel God subverts to his own purposes. Not only was the Guard evangelized but the church was encouraged to live and speak the truth with greater courage.
I have no idea how God will use the embarrassing church to advance the gospel in America in the 21st century. And I may not live long enough to see it. But to all those who are discouraged because St. Paul has been tossed into prison, I say, just watch and see. Just watch and see.
Sources: Alan Noble and Thurman Williams in lectures at Covenant Theological Seminary in October 2019 as part of the 2019 Francis Schaeffer Lectures, “Advancing Through Adversity”; Information on hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” online; Information on song, “Build Your Kingdom Here,” online