The Church’s Biggest Problem

If you’re ever bored with small talk and have a group of Christian friends around, try asking what they think the major issue in the American church is. You will almost always start a colorful discussion where everyone throws around serious issues like cynical confetti.

When it’s my turn, I’ve never been able to summarize the area I’m most worried about. That is, until I finished my latest read, which is actually not an examination of the church, but instead something much more personal: a memoir called Single, Gay, Christian by Greg Coles.

What I love about this book, the need I think it fills in the church, is that it isn’t a practical theology book (although there is a chapter that explains why Greg couldn’t interpret the Bible to allow same-sex unions even when he wanted to). It’s a story.

From the first lines of the book’s prologue, you get the sense of an invitation to empathy: “Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other….If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me. Wait until you’ve heard everything. Wait until you know me.”

Greg

Seriously, read this book. It’s amazing.

As I read, the story became less a justification of Greg’s stance—why he uses the term “gay” to describe himself even though he’s committed to celibacy or what he thinks about the insistence that prayer can “fix” sexual brokenness—and more a challenge for me and the church in general. (Have you noticed that we’re much more open to being confronted about something when we feel like we know and trust the person saying it? That’s the effect this book had on me.)

When Greg said, “Obedience is supposed to be costly,” sure, I heard it as a reason why he felt he shouldn’t act on his attractions. But I also thought of something larger when he went on to explain, “In the Western world, lulled by freedom of religion and unprecedented opulence, we so easily lose sight of what words like suffering really mean. We begin to believe that ease and safety are the baseline experiences of humanity.”

It sounded strangely familiar. The very argument that many theologically liberal Christians use to justify gay relationships (“God loves us and would never create someone to deny their sexual desires…that’s not fair”) is used by many theologically conservative Christians to justify remaining snug and secure in their faith communities (“God loves us and wants us to be safe and encouraged and blessed, so he would never ask us to do anything hard or risky.”) Both of them put our happiness as the main goal of life. Neither of them seem to get that from the Bible.

Here’s Greg again: “Maybe the calling to gay Christian celibacy stands in twenty-first-century America as a precious reminder of just how desperately, helplessly devoted we were meant to be to the cross of Christ. A reminder that every sacrifice we make will pale in comparison to the sacrifice made on our behalf. Maybe the problem isn’t that faith costs some of us too much, but that it costs all of us too little.”

(Read that last line again. Go ahead. I’ll wait.)

Lots of theologians have written about costly discipleship. We pay more attention to Bonhoeffer because of how he lived it.

If the events of the past few years have taught me anything, it’s that Greg is right. When we ignore the call to radically sacrificial faith…bad things happen. Here are a few reasons why I think this is the number one failing of the church in America:

  • Because, as Dr. Theon Hill points out in a Christianity Today article, while the gospel gives us every imperative to oppose racism, the church has a history of temporarily speaking in outrage…and then falling silent before any real change has been achieved.
  • Because when I went to ESL training, everyone else at my table was shocked to find out that many of the immigrant services in my community are run by Christian groups or ministries. “I don’t believe it. All the religious people I know want to send these people back,” someone said.
  • Because in Single, Gay, Christian Greg reminds us with stories from his own experience that we don’t know how to treat those from sexual minorities…and it’s driving many away from Jesus instead of toward him. (I talked about this more here.)

Those are bullet points, but they felt like bullets to me, reading them. I hope they did to you, too, because what they represent is the failure to love like Jesus.

Can I be blunt? I am deeply, desperately afraid that we are destroying our witness in our pursuit of the Christian version of the American dream. The world is looking at what we’re doing—and not doing—and coming to conclusions about the God we claim to serve…and they’re not always good.

Sometimes, we are silent when we should speak. Sometimes, we talk too much when we should listen first. Sometimes we just run away.

I love the church. Please, if you’re new to my blog, know that. There are entirely too many people whining about and giving up on the fellowship of believers that Jesus loved enough to die for, and that’s not what I want to do. I’m also fully aware that I’m often part of the problem.

What I want to do in join with the voices who are calling us back to the words of Jesus, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” And I’m going to start by asking myself, and asking you, “What has your faith cost you lately?”

The list of action points is basically endless: Have a heart to listen to others who are different than you. Ask someone what they think about something. Learn more about an issue that catches your attention. Look for opportunities to simply tell the story of what God is teaching you. Pray for more love for others. Read a book or blog to learn more about a different group of people. Be a good neighbor.

Those things sound simple, but they’re harder than they seem because they require a shift in thinking. With these priorities, it isn’t enough to go to church and page through your daily Bible reading and listen to a radio station that’s “uplifting, encouraging, and safe for the whole family.” According to Jesus, that’s never been enough.

We’ve settled for a half-hearted faith that doesn’t cost us anything. Yes, today’s messed-up world with its moral chaos and depressing headlines is what happens when non-believers do whatever feels right. But it’s also what happens when the church rejects costly discipleship for something a little safer, milder, more comfortable.

Christians, there is no issue too difficult for us to discuss. There is no area of life the gospel doesn’t relate to and transform. There is no person outside of God’s ability to save.

Only if we believe that—really believe it in a way that transforms our actions, not just our church’s doctrinal platform—will we be able to obey the command to radical discipleship and love others like Jesus.

8 comments

  1. Yes–I totally agree that the Christian Dream is destroying our witness. A few years ago I gave up blaming “our culture” for the issues the church faces today. Not that our culture is all sunshine and rainbows, but the church has prevailed through much worse hell on this earth. We lose our light not when darkness exists, but when we neglect the gritty, unglamorous work of love and faith and thereby dim our own lamps.

    1. I love the way you put that, Rae. I’m not sure exactly where we’re going from here. Part of me hopes that nominal Christianity drops off and those who still choose to identify with Jesus seriously consider what that means.

  2. I enjoyed your post. What I took from it is that the Freedom of Religion given to those who live in America has caused them to become complacent in their Christian faith (i.e.“Maybe the problem isn’t that faith costs some of us too much, but that it costs all of us too little”). The Freedom of Religion is a unique American experience that allows some people in the world to be almost suffer free, but elsewhere in the world persecution over religion is as active as ever and Christians are still being beheaded to this day.

    The Christian Church has always been persecuted. Jesus and the Apostles were persecuted and executed by the government and religious authorities of their day, and for the many centuries after that the “church” burned anyone alive (as a heretic) who disagreed with their interpretation of scripture. The last person executed as a heretic was in 1826, so such things were still taking place even after America’s founding. I am not a history buff, and was surprised to learn that at one point in time there was a Kingdom of Jerusalem; it only lasted 191 years, but in perspective, the United States has only existed a few decades longer than it did. We take the Freedom of Religion for granted, and expect that it is not a God given right (as America’s founding fathers believed), but if our government collapses, American values might become a footnote in history, similar to the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

    As for Christian values existing within a diverse society, I think that is how it was in the early days of the Christian church. You can be a Christian even if society considers you a slave (1 Corinthians 7:21), because in Christ, there is neither man, woman, slave or free (Galatians 3:28). Living in a society where everyone who disagrees with you is burnt at the stake or beheaded may enforce the ideas of the majority, but it does not make them right. America’s freedom of religion allows everyone to worship God according to their own consciences, but that means with our freedom of individuality, there will be disagreements among us. We are to live quiet peaceful lives and mind our own business (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12), but we must not allow our society to fall into such depravity that God abandons us (Romans 1:24-25). We are to be there for those in need (Luke 10:37), but we must also recognize that sometimes telling someone something they don’t want to hear is the loving thing to do (Mark 10:21). We must also realize that sometimes, we must accept that some people are lost and must “leave them” alone to go to their own destruction (Matthew 15:13-15). We do not need to remove all evildoers from our society – as misguided religious people have done in the past (John 16:2) – but the weeds and the good seed are to grow together until the time of the harvest (Matthew 13:30).

    So, I’d say the biggest problem in the church today is finding the right balance as to when to take action and when not to. When should we be good Samaritans, when should we tell others the things they don’t want to hear, and when should we leave them alone – knowing they will fall into a pit. The answer to those questions requires wisdom and discernment, which I believe is one of the purposes of our lives; that God has given us to be exercised in (Ecclesiastes 1:13, 3:10).

    1. Hi DWP! I agree that freedom of religion–a very good thing–does also contribute to complacency. I’d add that we’ve got a crazy level of prosperity going on as well, which makes it so very easy to make an idol of comfort and safety.

      I love your summary of what was beautiful and compelling about the early church. Sometimes I also read through the letters at the start of Revelation and find similarities (in challenges, joys, and dangers) to our current culture in each one.

      Balance is incredibly difficult. (One tiny quibble: I’d say there is no time where we are not called to be a good Samaritan and love our neighbors as Christians. It’s just that what that love looks like may not be as recognizable as bandaging someone up and paying for a hotel. But I have a feeling you’d agree with that.) I also believe that God will give us wisdom for the difficult choices…as long as we’re seeking after it.

  3. It’s the same here in Sydney, Australia. A rise in what I call ‘comfortable Christianity’ is one of the biggest problems, if not the biggest problem in the church in Australia. A denial of self that we are called to is less and less common. To deny self, to die to self is the call of Christ. This should mean that being found in Him is our identity above all else. Yet, as the social pressures of living in the West increase, a culture of being complacent and casual in being a follower of Jesus has risen up to be a norm.
    So, I completely agree with you. The challenge of the faithful Christian is to die to ourselves daily for the sake of Christ, in order that we may bring Him glory by taking up our cross and following him with all that we are.

    1. Well said, Tom. One thing I’m trying to pray for in my life and in those I know are victories in the tiny moments of denying self. I get really overwhelmed when I look at the whole cultural picture and feel there’s nothing I can do, when in reality, I’m not called to change the world. I’m called to love God and love my neighbor, and that is hard enough to occupy me for the rest of my life. Glad to have you and my brothers and sister in Australia trying to figure out what that looks like together, even across oceans.

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