KB Categories Archives: Ecumenism

Why the Church Fails

Duane Arnold:

FailRecently I was looking for a bit of inspiration, so, using differing search engines, I entered the phrase, “Why the Church Fails.”  I was fascinated by the results.  The topics that arose were consistently along the lines of the following:

Why the Church Fails Us…

Why the Church Fails Me…

Why the Church Fails Businessmen…

Why the Church Fails the Divorced…

Why the Church Fails Singles…

Why the Church Fails Married Couples…

Why the Church Fails the Gay Community…

On and on the entries followed one after the other.  There was, however, a common thread.  When different authors wrote about how the Church has failed, it was generally about how it had failed “me,” or my tribe, or my profession, or my state in life.  At the root of it was the perception that the Church had failed me personally (or professionally) in one way or another.

In the ecclesiastical cafeteria that characterizes American Christianity, the failures of which they, and we, speak are not usually considered the fault of the universal Church (or, indeed the Church militant and triumphant of which Christ is the head), but more often the perceived failure of this church or that church with which we have become acquainted.  Somehow, the local church that we bumped into failed to meet our needs and so we move down the road to another– another with its own unique set of problems and issues which we will soon discover and, very likely, pronounce as having failed in satisfying our particular needs or desires before moving on yet again. On occasion, the accusation of failure will move beyond the local church to a denomination, association, or even those who hold a particular theological view, such as evangelicals or the Reformed or those with a high view of sacraments.

Something about the tendency to treat the Church as “other,” i.e. outside of ourselves, troubles me.  It troubles me because, in a profound theological sense, we are the Church.  Our Lord said that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is in the midst of that group.  We are individually and corporately the Church.  The house churches of which we read in Paul’s letters were often exactly that– a married couple who opened their home to other believers and thereby constituted an ecclesia– a church.  Yet, despite this theological reality, we still identify the concept of “church” with a building, or a pastor, or a particular group, or a denomination; and in that identification of something or someone outside of ourselves being “the church,” we are quick to indicate how they, or it, has failed us.

Now, life experience should make all of us aware that by and large individuals will fail us at some point in time.  The otherwise admirable husband may forget the date of the wedding anniversary.  The devoted wife may make an ill-timed remark.  These things just happen.  Institutions will also fail us a some point or another.  Asking the highly rated educational institution to send transcripts for the third time comes to mind.  And yes, even those leaders of movements whom we otherwise admire may say or do something that causes us pain and makes us feel that they have failed us.

Yet, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault dear friends, is not in the Church, but in ourselves”.

criticsWe have been all too willing to be spectators and all too often our criticism and speculation on “why the Church fails us” is made anonymously from the balcony, or worse yet, from the outside.  You see, from a distance it is easy and safe to pontificate.  Moreover, this “spectator” syndrome flies in the face of the concept of the priesthood of all believers (in the Reformation/Protestant world) or of the people of God (in the Roman Catholic/Orthodox world).  Both appellations– “priesthood of all believers” and “people of God”– are not only conferred privileges, but bear with them responsibilities.  To put it bluntly, for much too long a time we have looked to others to create, sustain, and lead what we call “Church” while many of us throw in our comments and criticisms from the peanut gallery.

In practical terms, living out our own lives as a vital and contributing member of the Church can mean many things, especially on a local level.  If you are in an unhealthy church situation which, for whatever reason, consigns you to being a mere spectator with no hope of real involvement, leave and find a place where you can exercise your God given gifts.  If you are in a church situation in which there are issues that concern you, take it upon yourself to address those issues. Speak to the pastor or priest, not in anger but in love, and share your concerns.  If the issue is that the church is unfriendly, go out of your way each week to welcome at least one newcomer, or better yet, invite someone.  If there is a lack of meaningful Christian Education, offer to teach an adult class or at the very least organize a discussion group around various topics of interest. If there is not a married couples group, or a singles group, start one.  So much can be done, and needs to be done, and it is not enough to wait for someone else to step up to the task.

When we move beyond the local expression of the Church, matters are admittedly more difficult.  For instance, I doubt that any of us here will have a chance to sit down and talk to Joel Osteen, or Franklin Graham, or Jerry Falwell, Jr., about their approaches to theology or ministry.  We can, however, at the very least, in our interactions with others simply say, “They do not speak for me or the vast majority of Christians.”  Yet, many believe that they speak on the behalf of most believers owing to their media outreach and influence.  Let us be clear, however, in identifying these so-called spokesmen  as aberrations.  In terms of the early Church of the first four centuries, Osteen would be considered as a Gnostic, Graham as a court bishop similar to Eusebius of Nicomedia, and the gun-toting Falwell as near to a politicized moral apostate.  Moreover, when we consider the average salary of a clergy person in the US in 2017 to be about $46,000 a year (half below that amount and another half above it), the annual incomes of Osteen (no salary, but a net worth of over $40 million) Graham ($880,000 per year ) and Falwell ($803,000 per year) are simply obscene, placing them well outside the bounds of historic Christian leadership and norms of compensation.  Moreover, these are merely three among dozens, if not hundreds, that could be named.

Their surest exposure, however, will come not from words on a page or a screen, but when we begin to hold up the mirror of authentic church life and historic theology.  Yet even here, that mirror needs to reflect our own authentic experience of Church and our personal commitment and involvement.  Then, perhaps, we can move beyond the haggard and specious argument of, “Well, they may be theologically off-base, but look at all the good they are doing and all the people attending their church/school/rallies.”  Success is not the measure of Truth, and it is long past time that we continue to regard it as such.

Now, whenever I write about ecclesiology and the issues we are facing, someone will always respond with the reference that Christ said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, as though that settles the issue, no matter what we do or what we leave undone.  As usual, however, the citation is usually taken out of context.  For, immediately after Christ made this promise, he continued addressing Peter and the disciples, saying, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  You see, the promise is connected with the tools Christ gives us to truly be his Church, not as observers or mere critics, but as participants.  It is time for more than posts on threads or critical comments on “why the Church fails us,” it is time for us to actually be the Church.

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Simply Jesus

Donald Richmond:

“And there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast: The same came therefore to Philip…saying, Sir, we would see Jesus.”                                                     –St. John 12: 21, KJV

Simlpy-JesusThe greatest need today is for people to see Jesus. Individuals, local assemblies, denominations and the Church Catholic all ache to see and know him. Christ is the hope of ages and help to all who call upon him in faith. The wise seek Christ.

Individuals need to see Jesus revealed to and in them through all of the complex machinations of what it means to be fully human in a broken world. Families need to see Jesus in and through all of their ardent loves, trying ambiguities and painful losses. Local assemblies, with all of their worshipping blusters and blunders, with all of the complications of living in and as community, need to see Jesus. Regardless of our positions and our postures, whether well-or-ill-conceived, Jesus needs to be seen in our denominations. The Church Catholic must see Jesus or we have absolutely nothing to say. We, in fact, have no being (or purpose in being) without a vision of Jesus. He is revealed, or our existence is ridiculous.

The Church, in all of its expressions, is about Jesus or it is about nothing. Oddly, altering this perspective only slightly, the Church is about Jesus or it is about everything and anything that is non-essential and divisive. If we do not see Jesus we speak what we want, constructing our own Babel. Of course, as we know and have seen, the absence of clear sight (seeing Jesus) has resulted in a massive amount of cluttered speech (speaking Jesus) that is highly confusing and conflicted.  We each go our own way, doing our own thing, because we do not see Jesus.

This is our greatest failure. We do not speak Jesus because we do not see Jesus. As such, we do not communicate Christ, we communicate Christianity. There is a difference. At its best, Christianity is Christ seen, spoken and lived. At its worst, Christianity is man-made religion. Although we can stretch an emphasis beyond the point of reasonability, our failure comes down to making choices between Gospel or Epistle (Letter), Christ or Church, Relationship or Ritual and Encounter or Evangelism. Of course I must emphasize that these polarized choices are slightly exaggerated to make a point.

There is a difference between Gospel and Epistle. The former, Gospel, communicates the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, return and overarching priorities and purposes of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is, so to speak, about him. Epistles, on the other hand, outline inspired yet interpreted understandings of how the living Christ intersects with specific church communities within fixed historic and cultural contexts. Although both communicate the word of God, Gospel suggests an immediate perspective, whereas Epistle suggests an interpreted perspective. Christ, while culturally relevant, is of cosmic importance. Epistle, on the other hand, is culturally conditioned with current applicability. Gospel, over simplifying, discloses Christ whereas Epistle discloses community. One of the critical problems of the Church is that we have lost sight of Christ and, while seeking to communicate his person, we have inadvertently communicated (at best) his message. Of course, a message that exists apart from the person who communicated the message, who in fact is The Message, compromises both the proclamation and the person to whom it was originally attached. It does not work. When we lose sight of Christ, we all-too-frequently communicate church. Epistle is Church, whereas Gospel is Christ. People need Christ, and church only as an extension of his Holy Spirit in the community of believers. “What would Jesus do?” is a far better question than “What does Paul say?”

There is also a difference between Christ and Church. Christ is the message of the Church. There is no other message, and there is no other purpose or power for our existence, beside Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles is, in fact, a history of the actions of the Holy Spirit through the community of believers. The Epistles are little more than inspired Christological interpretations as applied to specific church settings. The Church is therefore the Spirit-infused body of Christians whose calling is to communicate Christ through word and deed. We do not share Paul, or the church, we share Christ. All too often we bring people to meet the Pastor. All too often we bring friends to church to meet the people. All too often we bring people to church to hear some measure of well-delivered and orchestrated proclamation. But what we should be doing is bringing people to church to meet Jesus Christ. To be sure, pastor, people and proclamation are important. In fact, given the economy of God’s mission and method, they are vital. Nevertheless we do not come to church to be Christianized, we come to church to encounter Christ — to “see Jesus.” We come for encounter with God! Without such an encounter, Church is excruciating boredom.

Differences also exist between relationship and ritual. Certainly there are rituals involved in any relationship. The marital relationship has a set of rituals by which we generally abide because, in fact, good rituals revive and renew romance. The Church in its relationship with Christ also has its rituals, Holy Baptism (more later) and Holy Eucharist (more later) being but two of many. However, rituals can also replace relationships. We can maintain structures of relationship without having the substance of romance. This is when ritual becomes dangerous. One church in which I served had so many rituals, with a set time, place and process for these rituals, that the relationship with Jesus Christ was almost entirely lost. People went through the entire process without ever getting to the heart of the matter. I found it darkly humorous that this church never came to understand why their membership was so spiritually ignorant and that so much backsliding occurred. The reason was clear: They had catechesis without Christ. CATECHESIS was written so large (process) that Christ was minimized (Person). They at best knew the Catechism, but knew very little of Christ. They had a philosophy of Christianity but did not embrace the person of Christ. Ritual can have the same dangerous and damnable impact. Ritual can renew romance or it can retard romance. And, sad to say, any and all Church ritual – even God-ordained ritual – can become a relational retardant.

Differences exist between encounter and evangelism, and our current emphasis on evangelism has become highly problematic. Over the past number of years we have harped upon “seeker sensitive” and missional mindsets. (It must be noted, as well, that recent trends in Worship have often emerged from these misguided mindsets.) The “seeker sensitive” mindset is wrong on at least two counts: (1) its grossly misguided theological underpinnings that communicate little more than concessions to our “me-centered” contemporary settings and (2) to “come as you are” almost invariably means that you will “leave as you were.” With “me” as the focus, Christ cannot be found. If I focus on “me,” there will be little room for “He.” Similarly, the function of our evangelistic practices often overlooks having a sustained encounter with Christ. Evangelism is a Christian imperative. It is not a new idea. It does not need “missional” repackaging — with business model orientations and strategies. The “New Evangelization” should, in fact, not be “new” at all. Sharing our faith IN CHRIST is a result of an encounter and relationship WITH JESUS. Evangelism is a response to WHO WE KNOW, Jesus, and his imperative for us to “GO” (Matthew 28). Evangelism is an expression of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Our greatest need today is for the Church to see and speak Jesus; nothing more, and certainly nothing less. Without seeing Jesus, we have nothing to say. Without seeing Jesus, proclamation is purposeless. Without seeing Jesus, proclamation is poisonous propagation.

And seeing Jesus provides us with our greatest opportunity. IF Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, if he still lives and speaks, Jesus can continue to be revealed (even in the midst of our shortcomings and sins), people can be redeemed, churches can be re-formed and nations re-claimed.

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