Why the American Church is failing

The Christianity practiced by the American Church has made it largely impotent and a shadow of what it is supposed to be.

Lord, where to even begin?  I guess the first place is to note that, while this critique is aimed primarily at the White American Church, there is no version that is blameless and, likewise, that is indeed the case for the Western Church in general.  And whether the churches in these places claim to be orthodox or progressive or conservative or liberal or whatever, they are all complicit.

I’ve long rejected American identification with ancient Israel and even wrote an extensive post pointing out the error in this analogy, but there is at least one point at which the American Church and the religious establishment of Israel during the time of the Kingdom period intersect: it is long overdue for us to listen to the voices of prophets screaming at us that we’ve lost our way.

I’m a theology nerd, so I’m sympathetic to loving discussions and debates about the nature of God and the Church, but I think this is indicative of one of our largest shortcomings – we’ve valued having head knowledge about God over heart knowledge to the point that a large number of us, maybe even most of us, don’t realize there is more to being a Christian than “knowing stuff” about God and believing the right ideas about God.  We’ve neutered Christianity to the point that it’s become about thinking certain thoughts, and that’s it.

That has never been what Christianity is.  The heart of Christianity is a radical transformation of an entire person through his or her encounters with God and intentional training in a new way of being human molded in the pattern of Jesus of Nazareth – it’s about the experience of knowing God, of knowing Christ; bowing our knee; and allowing God to rewrite everything we thought we knew and everything we thought we were as humans.  Right belief is important, but it is far, far from being everything. 

We have to experience God, to rest in the presence of God, to be saturated by God – we have to feel God in our bones, not only think thoughts in our heads.  And we have to allow God the room to correct us, to help us realize we were wrong about how to understand Jesus, how to understand humanity, how to understand all aspects of life.  If we aren’t radically challenged by engaging the teachings of Christ and engaging God directly, then we aren’t doing it right.

We’ve abandoned discipleship and sanctification, abandoned the possibility of experiencing the divine.  If I hadn’t had my own experiences of God’s presence to fall back on, I’d have left Christianity a long time ago, but much of the Church acts as if that either isn’t possible or isn’t important, as if our traditions and scriptures don’t scream the exact opposite.  Even the best of our churches, the ones who encourage encountering God, often leave us at that point, leaving it to us as individuals and God to go on from there, as if Jesus and the Church didn’t leave pretty detailed accounts of the Church’s responsibility and role in actively cultivating discipleship for us.

Instead, we’ve limited the Church to just being a place in which we show up once a week to be lectured and partake of sacraments, then go about life as usual.  It’s supposed to be a group of people that we routinely interact with and are intentionally shaping us into looking more like Jesus through our thoughts, through our actions, through the way we engage the world.  It’s supposed to be challenging, to require effort.  In our laziness or in our fear of offending, we’ve abdicated these responsibilities.  We’ve become echo chambers for repeating our preconceived versions of who Jesus and God are – either purveyors of a distorted idea of freedom and ‘Murica on one extreme or enablers and hyper-relativists on the other – and not allowed our God and our traditions to challenge everything we think we know.

Because we’ve largely become social clubs with what seem like random rituals instead of places of divine encounter through purposeful rituals that foment and guide radical self-transformation, people are understandably leaving.  They see our hypocrisy and our unwillingness to challenge ourselves and take ownership and accountability and, most damningly, try to continually become better human beings.  I can’t blame them for wanting nothing to do with that: neither do I. 

And look, I’m no paragon of an ideal Christian – while I ache for authentic discipleship, I likewise am scared to death of it because I know just how hard it is.  I’ve been stewing in my dissatisfaction with the Church being the way it is and have used this Godforsaken pandemic as a convenient excuse to distance myself from it instead of more actively trying to be an agent of change within it.  Absolutely none of us are free from hypocrisy, but that doesn’t make this critique any less true.

The Church needs to repent and, well, come to Jesus.  Just probably not Jesus as each individual church currently “knows” him, but instead strive to know him for who he truly is and not the Idol in Jesus-Clothing we’ve likely thought him to be, the “Jesus” who acts as a god for our personal desires.  We need to tell everyone that the point of Christianity is in entering into and experiencing life with God that includes divine encounters and will result in a radical change in what it means to be a human being.  And we need to actively disciple and lovingly hold people accountable in their journey to truly becoming more like Christ.  Only this level of authenticity, reclaiming of our original purpose, and reliance on the power of God can save us so that the Church can regain the identity Christ intends for it.

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