Saturday, December 31, 2016

The State Of The Church 2016

What a very odd year. It was odd in general and it was particularly odd for the church. It was a year that seemed to be the dawn of a new Dark Ages for the church, an era of spiritual darkness. Conservative Orthodox writer Rod Dreher wrote hundreds of essays about what he calls "The Benedict Option", a plan for religious conservatives to preserve the best of Western religious culture for a day in the future when things didn't suck so much, to the point of absurdity because he managed to insert the topic into every post he wrote. Other stories focused on the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, with collective hand-wringing over the rapid diminishing of religious affiliation and public practice in America. As it became apparent that Donald Trump, a man who sucked all of the oxygen out of the room/nation like a single person never has in my lifetime, was going to clinch the Republican nomination for President, it seemed also likely that the reprehensible Hillary Clinton would become the 45th President. For many "leaders" in the church that was an impending apocalypse that warranted what at the time seemed an awfully far-fetched Hail Mary pass by leaders of the Religious Right to throw their support behind Trump in the hope that he would somehow pull out a victory. Well as it turns out he did manage to win and suddenly the Religious Right and rank-and-file Christians alike were collectively like a man who had received a last second pardon from the Governor with the hangman's noose already around his neck. Visions of replacing Antonin Scalia not with a far left judge but instead with a reliable conservative danced in their imaginations and it wasn't long before people started to look at the ages of the remaining liberal justices and start to ponder, if not openly hope, what might happen if one or more of them were to retire or die. It does take a math genius or a Constitutional scholar to add two vacancies plus a Republican controlled Senate and come up with Roe v Wade being overturned along with Obergefell and other cultural shifting decisions. Given the emotional state of the church six months ago, we have seen a pretty serious about-face in optimism levels. For a lot of people, and I admit I have been far too active in this even as someone who didn't vote for Trump, what put the icing on the cake was the absolute meltdown by "progressives" especially among the coastal elites and special snowflake college students. Much of it was risible and deserving of scorn but a lot of it is also pretty ugly and has led to the end of friendships, rifts within families and a general sense that the acrimonious election never really ended and in fact promises to continue into 2017 and beyond. I need to constantly remind myself of the need to be a peacemaker while also being a voice calling attention to places attention needs to be paid.

What is missed in the post-election exuberance is that the same ills we bemoaned prior to Trump winning the election are still there. As far as American culture, many American cities are extremely violent, with Chicago on pace for 800 murders this year. Homosexual marriage is the law of the land and other sexually deviant behaviors are clamoring for their own acceptance. The participation of men in the workforce, especially men in prime working years, continues to plummet at the same time that more and more children are born out of wedlock and in many cases are the latest in a multigenerational pattern of children born out of wedlock and often the corresponding life of poverty. We have an unimaginable number of children and young adults who have no idea what a stable family looks like, and especially no clue what a home with both a mother and a father looks like. A record number of Americans are out of the workforce entirely, a statistic missed in the rosy announcements of a low "unemployment rate". In almost every possible way, American life is coarser than it has been in years past and this is especially unhealthy for children.

For the church in America, the malaise continues in spite of (partly because of?) the victory of Donald Trump. I think virtually every ill in the church in America can be attributed to one major and one related factors. The biggest issue is and continues to be the obscene level of general Biblical illiteracy in the church. It seems to me, just from personal observation, that many Christians in America grow up in the church, live their entire lives in the church as "good" church members and go to the grave with only the most rudimentary understanding of critical issues of the faith like justification and the new covenant. The related factor that goes along with this is that very few people in America, and not just in the secular media, really seem to understand what Christianity is, what the church is and who is or is not part of it. Like most nations with essentially no cost to public identification with Christianity, it is common for people to assume they are part of the church by virtue of occasional church attendance, baptism as a child or simply many years previously, coming from a family that identifies as Christian or just being a generally moral person who lives in America.  This is compounded by a lot of "pastors" who refuse to disabuse people of the false notion of their personal salvation as long as they keep showing up and "tithing". If there is one serious flaw in our discipleship that I want to see and to help overcome it is our tendency to focus on symptoms of Biblical illiteracy instead of the actual problem of Scriptural illiteracy itself.

From a more personal standpoint, since I have written about the church quite extensively for years, if I can sum up my feelings about the church right now it is this.

How the church should operate is rarely how the church does operate because how Christians really behave is rarely how they should behave because the way humans should be is rarely the way they actually are, even for those of us who are new creations in Christ.

I don't see what is commanded and modeled in Scripture as an unattainable Utopian ideal but I do see it is something we should strive for, as the church, together. My mistake has been seeking the ideal first. Others err in making the church form primary which, as I have said over and over, has led to a number of pretty sketchy teachers or even outright heretics getting favorable treatment because they do church "the right way" or at least talk as if they do. Church form is not the ultimate

That doesn't mean that church form is unimportant because it absolutely is and it also doesn't mean that many church forms that are most common are largely not only unhelpful to the mission of the church but actually harmful to the spiritual growth of Christians because they are. What I am saying is that when it comes to reforming and renewing a spiritually vibrant church, the form of the church and specifically the gathering is one of many factors of health. A highly institutional church where the people love one another and are equipped and the teaching is orthodox is superior in every way to a non-institutional church where the teaching is heterodox and the people are only equipped to preach a false gospel.

The church in 2016 here in America had all sorts of problems that are going to carry over into the new year: widespread biblical illiteracy, an unhealthy obsession with money and political power, denominational divisions that never cease, professional clergy that are more concerned with building their own little kingdoms and preserving their jobs than they are with shepherding the flock. We face many headwinds like an increasingly militant atheism and an correspondingly hostile culture.

On the other hand, the church is still the Bride of Christ. We still have the promises of God that we can rely on absolutely. The church in America is full of kind, loving, humble servants who don't seek personal acclaim but are content to serve in relative anonymity. We have more access in more ways to the Bible and a seemingly infinite number of resources, many that are free, to aid our Bible study. Compared to the church in the rest of the world and throughout all of history, we have more access to an embarrassment of riches when it comes to God's revealed and preserved written Word than our forefathers could even dream about.

So we have reason to be optimistic heading into 2017 even amid the concern. We know that God is faithful and that He is victorious even though the actual timing is shrouded from our sight. I am hopeful that 2017 can be a year when our witness is more clear and our discernment is even sharper but that it is in all ways more tempered by love and patience with those who are sincerely seeking the truth. If the church will let Scripture be our guide we can accomplish much for the Kingdom of God, indeed we have no excuse for anything else given the advantages we enjoy. So happy new year to you and yours. Keep your eyes open, your mind sharp and your heart open to the Spirit and let everything we do be done to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ!

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