Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about what’s wrong with the church. Being a full-time vocational minister, I suppose it’s not that unusual as there has long been a nagging spirit of discontent and discouragement rampant among that crowd – just check out the pastor’s resource pages on Amazon. As of late, however, these conversations have undergone a noticeable change in tone. We haven’t been spouting off about our congregation’s discontent regarding a new worship practice or how one faction in the church has offended another. These things still come up, don’t get me wrong, but there has been a noticeable shift in the conversations I’ve been having and a lot of the material I’ve been reading. I’ve talked with pastors from a diverse theological background and the problems seem consistent from one group to another.
Take Roger Olson’s blog post from earlier this week, “A Shocking Conclusion about American Christianity” – a reflection on Christian Smith’s Therapeutic Moralistic Deism detailed in his book Soul Searching. The article is well worth your time as he helps succinctly articulate some of the conversations I have been having with so many other ministers. At the end of the day, we are struggling with the depth of faith of our church members. We can talk all day and all night about this worship practice or that leadership trend and dress it up in the latest, faddish church-ese, but at the heart of the matter is whether or not our members have had a life-changing encounter with the Gospel. Olson makes the following provocative statement which helped sum up my reflections from over a decade of full-time ministry:
“I am afraid that it is becoming increasingly harder to find the gospel in America. It is either wrapped so tightly in the flag as to be virtually invisible or relegated to a footnote to messages about “success in living,” being nice and including everyone.”
The more I’ve reflected on this statement throughout the week, the more I’ve been looking in the mirror. It reflects, too well, I’m afraid, my church; and if I’m honest with myself, my own faith. We are all wrapped up in our Amercan suburban culture of comfort, success, and felt needs. I know the hearts of our people is to do good, but I’m beginning to wonder if we have become confused about what exactly “good” is. I sometimes think that we have convinced ourselves that if we round up our grocery bill at Kroger to feed the hungry we are living out our faith calling. But I want to be a part of something. It doesn’t have to be big and it doesn’t have to be flashy, but I want it to matter. It’s a feeling I should have being part of the church, but, at least lately, I haven’t had that feeling.
I’m struggling so much to find the Gospel in America today that, I even turned on the local Christian radio station today on the way to the office seeking inspiration and encouragement for the day. I hardly ever turn on Christian radio anymore having grown tired of the whole “safe for the whole family” schtick, but I still do find the occasional CCM song to be inspiring and, even once in awhile, prophetic. I prayed to myself in my old truck that such a song would be played this morning on the way to the office, and my prayer was granted as the song, “Children of God” by Third Day began to play.
The song begins with the powerful lyrics, “Praise to the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ our God and our King to Him will we sing” and Mac Powell’s voice belts the chorus, “Children of God, sing your song and rejoice For the love he has given us all; Children of God, by the blood of His Son We have been redeemed and we have been called, children of God.” All powerful Gospel reminders that encouraged me to start the day today.
Then, as the song comes to a close, a chorus of children sing the following melodic refrain: “We are the saints, we are the children, we’ve been redeemed, we’ve been forgiven; We are the sons and daughters of our God.” Say what you want about Third Day, about the shortcomings and sins of the contemporary Christian music industry, and all of that . . but these are powerful lyrics to hear piercing through my speakers over the open airwaves. No doubt in many parts of the world if this was happening I would have a better appreciation for it. So would the radio personalities . . . I hope.
After this song came through and had given me encouragement and kind of refocused my attention for the day, and in my spiritual revelry, I forgot to change the station as the DJ’s started talking. The morning show broke immediately to a bit talking about the latest invention to hit the marketplace: Kohler’s new touchless toilets. Now, my wife and I saw a commercial for these toilets earlier this week and it was a quick conversation starter. I didn’t pay much attention to what the DJs said because I was in spiritual whiplash over what had just happened.
I had been singing the lines over and over again in my mind, “We are the saints, we are the children, we’ve been redeemed, we’ve been forgiven,” and with no segue or acknowledgement to these eternally significant assertions – these radio heads begin talking about toilets. Toilets. And it dawned on me that this experience and the struggles of our churches go hand in hand.
We’ve become numb to the Gospel. We hear its life-changing words that have cost so many people their lives, that have changed lives and literally moved mountains, and we shrug our shoulders and go on with life as usual. The words of that song have been a matter of life and death to so many martyrs throughout the world. Yet we hear the Gospel preached and are more concerned with whether or not we liked the songs that we sang. We read about a Savior who washed feet but bitch and moan about the slightest inconveniences to our lives. The Bible proclaims the gathering of his people sacred and holy, but we have too many other things to do. We hear children singing about being saints and children of God, and are moved to mindlessly talk about toilets.
So, in a way, I throw my hands up. After Peter preached on Pentecost, Acts says that the people’s hearts were pricked. I want to be a part of something that has pricked the hearts of people. Where people are inspired by their calling from God and seek out his guidance for their lives. This is not a sky-is-falling reflection, but, like Olson, the church is living in troubling times. So often that is said reflecting on the surrounding culture, but the truth of the matter is that it’s troubling times for the American church herself as we have lost our way and we just keep doing whatever it is we have been doing.