On my way to drop my son off at school, I pass a mile stretch of road where four churches are each within a sand wedge of the others; three of these churches are right across the street from each other! Each one, I am sure, uses the same Bible, prays to the same God, believes in the same Jesus, takes communion of some kind, receives tithes and offerings, and sings similar hymns.
According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, there are an estimated 350,000 religious congregations in the United States (including Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox churches). They also estimate that 40% of the population (somewhere near 118 million people) attend church on a given Sunday morning.
And yet, everywhere we look, crime is on the rise, prisons are overpopulated, inner city schools are underfunded and oft forgotten, media permeates our culture with sex and violence, poverty and homelessness fill our cities, and young bellies rattle for lack of food.
I cannot help but think that something is amiss here. In a culture saturated with churches, one would think that, 2,000 years after Jesus asks his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and take care of the stranger, the world might be a better reflection of the God whose heart continually beats for the widow, the orphan and the outcast.
If the Church, whose mission I take to be rooted in the divine call to create an alternative ethic to that of the culture, has left so little impact on the culture, something has gone wrong. In other words, with over five thousand years of Judeo-Christianity offering a vision of shalom centered in sacrifice, compassion, and the prophetic pursuit of personal and communal well-being behind us, why is there still so much immorality, viciousness, vice, addiction, high divorce rates, crime, poverty, and homelessness? Apparently, whatever we mean by Church has very little relevance in the culture writ large.
(**I do want to qualify that when I speak of “the Church” I am speaking of the Church as a religious institution in the entirety of its forms and manifestations at the macro level, knowing full well that there are many churches at the micro-level living out in the flesh the ethic of Yahweh amongst the vulnerable in their communities).
The problem, I believe, is that the Church has lost its relevance because it has ceased to understand, embrace, and live out the ethic of the Kingdom of Yahweh. The current story of the Church has so little impact because it has so little to offer (for a greater exploration of this idea, see my earlier post, “A Story Worth Telling“). There is very little of the Prophetic Imagination at work in our current theological discussions, and even less that has any bearing on the culture beyond the pews.
The current narrative in far too many churches sounds more like an Amway convention (each one reach three others who will reach three who will reach three more for exponential church growth!) than one rooted in turning swords into plowshares, proclaiming good news to the poor, and setting the orphan in families.
To put it simply, the Church no longer has relevance because the Church as it operates now no longer matters. It does not matter to the larger culture when it entrenches itself in its inward focus on its own doctrine, dogmas, programatic offerings, and personal growth with no clearly intentional mission to engage in justice, righteousness and compassion amongst the most vulnerable in its community.
The Church has made attendance, decorum and attire more important than sacrifice, suffering and repentance. The larger cultural narrative (ease, luxury, power, privilege, prestige) has come to define the Church rather than the prophetic call to enter into the broken places, bear up the wounded, embrace suffering, and lay down one’s life. The morality of the marketplace becomes the Pater Noster sung Monday through Friday, regardless of what is sung on Sunday morning.
The Church today, with all of its millions of attendees, has yet to make any headway into offering up its alternative narrative of blessing, virtue, flourishing, and personal and communal well-being as part of the fabric of the larger cultural narrative. In fact, the Church has ceased being the Church and has, therefore, lost its credibility and culture-making influence regardless of how high the attendance numbers are.
And yet, the message of the Church is needed now more than ever.
In his book, The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark takes a look at how Christianity grew from a small, obscure movement on the fringe of the Roman Empire with a mere 1,000 people in the first century (less than .0017% of the population) to over 6 million people (a whopping 56.5% of the entire population) three hundred years later. The answer he posits may help shed light on our current problem.
Of the several key pieces of evidential research he puts forth, the one that is most telling details the Christian response to the two great plagues (measles and smallpox) that ravaged the second century A.D. that killed between a quarter to a third of the entire population, including the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The fascinating discovery Stark makes is that the growth of the Christian movement happens in direct correlation to the suffering experienced during these epidemics.
While both the pagans (whose gods offered little consolation or concern for the suffering) and the philosophers (whose teachings gave no meaning to the suffering caused by these “natural conditions”) ran away from the dying to hide in the hills, the Christians (with their theological understanding of meaning in suffering and their mandate to suffer with [show com/passion]) came along the diseased and dying and offered solace, care and comfort. The Christians served their communities in ways no one else would, leading Tertullian, an early Church father, to say, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!'”
The Christian response to the suffering in its midst had two effects:
1. The simple provision of food, water, cheer and comfort provided persons formerly too weak to cope to begin to recover without any proper medications. By just offering love (at great personal sacrifice, for many Christians themselves died tending to their pagan neighbors), many were able to build up enough immunity to live to fight the disease.
2. The pagans who did survive converted to Christianity at a staggering 40% per decade! In other words, by laying down their lives in sacrificial service, the Christians were able to transform whole communities.
So what is the takeaway for us today? When the Church has mattered historically it is when it has served its community in ways that are sacrificial, literally “making holy” (sacra/fice) whole cities transformed by their love and service.
The Church has mattered when it engages in the visions of Isaiah 61, Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 6:17-45, and Revelation 21-22: loving enemies, practicing non-violence, offering drink to the thirsty, proclaiming freedom for the addicted, rebuilding cities of hope, working to empty foster care shelters, educating refugees, providing literacy to the impoverished, working for peace, providing dignity to all neighborhoods, ending human trafficking, solving hunger and homelessness, reimagining education, and restoring dignity, purpose and complete human flourishing to all.
The words of the prophet Amos are as true today as they were 2,700 years ago:
21“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice (taking care of the most vulnerable in your community) roll on like a river,
righteousness (putting to right that which is wrong) like a never-failing stream!
Jesus never asked for church building projects, Sunday School drives, or deacon elections; what he did require was that his followers engage in the most vulnerable places amongst the most displaced people, without care or concern for their own personal well-being, in order to bring healing to disease, blessing to barrenness, restoration to brokenness and light to dark places. This is something our culture, with its emphasis on materialism, accumulation and consumption, has little stomach for.
The call of religion must no longer be to get people to come to church, but to get people to become the Church.
This is why the Church is needed now, more than ever.