We have lost our way.
I am not given to overstatement, so I reluctantly write these words, but I am growing in my conviction that the Church in America has badly lost sight of her purpose and values. This is not a question of theology per se. I believe it is a question of idolatry.
What idol has become the object of our worship? Personal and institutional success.
Pastors crave platforms, book deals and fans of their preaching. Church leadership craves membership, large budgets, and influence. Parishioners want to be part of a well-oiled machine for children’s programs, social engagement, and bragging rights with their neighbors. COVID and political polarization has complicated that task, but we have sought to “go with the flow” and co-opted the outrage by helping to stoke it. With shared outrage, we are able to gather people under our banner and hide from the “wickedness of the world” behind the walls of the growing church campus, thanks to that recent building program.
We keep selling and selling the church. And we keep buying and buying a sense of shared outrage or association with spiritual celebrity.
What is the impact on the Church? There are many cancers running rampant in our communities.
- We let in the wolves as leaders because they promise us greater attendance numbers and prestige. How many stories of scandal among pastors do we need to read about before we take stock? Before we comes to grips with the fact that something has gone horribly wrong in a systemic way? We watch as gifted and charismatic leaders fall, creating havoc in their wake and undermining the witness of the Church and say: “next time we will find the same kind of personality who just doesn’t lie as much.” In my work at the regional church level, I caught a lead pastor lying to his elders involving over ten thousand dollars and as I sought to engage those elders in accountability, the response was “Yeah, but he’s done so much good.” Our lust for success keeps us from seeing the truth: we want to feel cool and successful more than we want holiness.
- We have driven out pastoral ministry in favor of programs we can market to the masses. We want greater and greater efficiency so we can have the most people under our banner (the banner of First Church, or Community Fellowship, or some slick brand like Rad or Baxter’s Lot… not the banner of Christ). We need more and more professional staff to run the Disney Park like experience and so we need bigger budgets and impressive facilities. The messiness of shepherding is profoundly inefficient. As I worked as a pastor with fellow elders, seeking to help struggling marriages, many elders pushed back on the effort. “By the time we know anything is going on it too late so let’s not get involved.” The assessment was that there is not enough return for our investment of time so let’s move on to more productive efforts. Pastoral ministry is simply too costly. I am glad the Lord didn’t make the same assessment when it came to me!
- We have driven out leaders and pastors who have not led us to the Promised Land of large crowds, increased giving and prestige in our communities. In my own experience as a church planter, though I was used by God to turn around a failing plant, helping to grow both attendance and giving, when we plateaued for 9 months, I was told by some elders if I didn’t leave, they would. “You just aren’t getting the job done.” How many times has that story been repeated? The blood, sweat and soul that many solid and kind shepherds poured into their people is despised. Those people are thrown out of a moving car, left to tend the wounds of their families that are considered simply co-lateral damage? These people have become sacrifices we are willing to make to the god of “success.”
- We have used parishioners as tools to advance the prestige of pastors and congregations. We recruit idealistic and energetic people… often gifted or wealthy… to help us build our programs but when they become burdensome because of a crisis or they begin to ask questions about behind the scenes shenanigans, they are dumped. The increase of articles and podcasts chronicling the stories of the spiritually abused is clear testimony of this truth. When these people complain, either to church leadership or in the media, they are demonized. They were “troubled personalities” or “immature and divisive.” There is a growing movement in Evangelicalisms called Deconstruction. It can be described in many ways but simply put, formerly engaged people became disillusioned with their church experience and it left them asking hard questions about their faith. Many well known Evangelical leaders decry the movement… perhaps because they see excesses… or perhaps they sense the need to defend their well-oiled machines that give them celebrity but grind the sheep in their gears.
Is it every church? No. But it is prevalent. The wolves we have let in are feeding on the sheep. Am I writing to simply complain? No. I am writing to make a plea to those that took the time to read this and have been vexed by what the church in America has become: don’t give up on the Bride of Christ! The Gospel is life so seek out faith communities living in it and living it out!
Don’t settle for churches selling you what you want because they are sure to demand back their investment from you five-fold… tenfold. Don’t be seduced by slick programs and charismatic speakers because the church that wins you with these things, wins you too those things: personality and product. These will not redeem you.
Instead, seek out a community that is sincere and simple. Seek out a congregation that embodies the Christ of the scriptures:
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejectedby men,
a man of sorrowsand acquainted withgrief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Trade in the triad of worldly values… attractive, cool and successful… with those of scripture: hope, faith and love.