Why I'm pumped about the future of the American Church
Published April 27, 2009
It’s fashionable to decry the current state of Christianity in America.
But frankly, I don’t buy it.
Some of the most popular conference speakers on the circuit today excel at drive-by-guiltings. They paint a picture of a church that lacks guts, cowers from dying to self, and lives out a self-satisfied, what’s-in-it-for-me Christianity.
In most cases, I like these speakers. They are good guys. I respect them. But I just don’t agree on this issue.
I’ve noticed that their audience is usually a room full of charge-the-hill-type young leaders who eat it up and then return home to look with disdain upon other churches, pastors, leaders, and often their own congregation (oblivious to how much they have in common with the self-congratulatory zealot in Luke 11: 9-14).
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll agree that we have lots of carnality and self-centered living in our churches today. But come on, that’s nothing new. It’s been like that from the beginning. It’s simply not accurate to paint a heroic picture of the early church without also pointing out its many failures. In reality, the early church was pretty messed up, about as messed up as the American Church.
Have we forgotten . . .
- Those who willingly sold what they had to share with those in need thought Jesus was returning any day. So when the Pentecost pilgrims who stayed rather than return home ran out of money (no one carried a debit card) the Jerusalem Christians sold possessions, fields, and homes to meet their need. I’m sure I would too if I thought Jesus was returning in the next couple of weeks.
- They ended up broke. So much so that the Gentile churches took up a special collection for the impoverished saints in Jerusalem. Between persecutions and previously selling much of what they had, the Jerusalem church ended up in poverty. Perhaps Acts 2:41-47 is descriptive rather than prescriptive. After all, I know of no one who suggests we should be meeting daily, in Jerusalem, in the temple courts.
- The early church ignored Jesus’ command to take the gospel to the world. They flat out disobeyed. They stayed in Jerusalem. Eventually God had to send a great persecution to drive them out of their holy huddle and jump start the expansion of the kingdom. That’s the only reason they left according to Acts 8:1
- The early church was unwilling to share the gospel with Gentiles. And once they did, they didn’t want to allow them full status as Christians. Only after a contentious debate at the Jerusalem council did things change. And even after that, the battle raged on. That’s one of the major reasons we have the books of Galatians and Hebrews in our Bibles.
- The Apostle Paul’s church plants were so messed up (both doctrinally and morally) he later had to write a bunch of letters to get them back on track. The Corinthians were visiting temple prostitutes, ignoring sin in the name of grace, hoarding the good stuff at church pot-lucks. And they seem to have forgotten that the resurrection really mattered. Timothy had to be reminded not to appoint the town drunk as an elder. The Galatians’ and Colossians’ flirted with heresy. And that’s just the beginning of a long list of sins and goofy thinking that had to be corrected.
- The early church leaders were as feisty and flakey as today’s leaders. Paul and Barnabas had a messy split over how to handle a young intern named John Mark. Peter fell into hypocrisy and pretended to be a legalist until called out by Paul. And didn’t everyone skip out on Paul during his time of greatest need?
- Jesus also had some rather unflattering things to say to the New Testament churches. Most of the churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3 hardly set an example I’d want my church to follow.
So when we call for a return to the New Testament church, do we really know what we’re asking for? In many cases, I think not.
And in light of that, here’s why I’m so pumped about the future of the American church.
- Jesus said he would build his church and the gates of hell could not hold it back. So I’ll bank on his promise despite some occasional setbacks.
- As seen above, things might not be as bleak as they appear. Yes, we’re messed up, but so was the early church; and God used them to turn the world upside down.
- God has already hand-picked a new breed of leaders and shepherds to care for his flock and beautify his bride. In my travels around the country, I run into them all the time. I wish everyone could see what I see and spend time with them as I do. They are the real deal. Many are already leading huge churches at a young age. Thousands more are heeding the call to become church planters. A plethora of church planting networks and organizations have spontaneously formed to recruit, train, and deploy these folks into ministry. It’s not only encouraging, it’s humbling.
Does that mean they will win our nation back?
I don’t know. That’s out of their control. They can only be faithful and prepare the horse for battle. God will determine the outcome.
I said I was pumped about the future of the American church – not America.
So what do you think?