Friday, December 5, 2008

What Is So Wrong with the Church in America Today?

I would like to comment on Dutch Sheets’s remark (which I tagged on to my November 16 post) in which he said, “The complacency and lack of discernment concerning our real condition in America—especially by the Church—is both appalling and horrifying.” Although he may have used somewhat alarmist language, I essentially agree with his point: By and large, the American church today is complacent and lacking in discernment. But what does this have to do with biblical equality? Not a whole lot. However, I would like to observe that if, indeed, the church is in such a sorry state, it would seem rather disproportionate that there should be so little concern on this matter, yet such rigorous and tireless efforts exerted to ensure that women are kept from full use of their gifts in the Body of Christ. Even if (hypothetically) God did intend from the beginning for women to be curtailed in certain areas of life and ministry, despite God’s creating them with these capacities, what would be most displeasing to the Lord? That a woman do more for the Kingdom than God intended her to do? Or that the church carry on blithely in a state of spiritual complacency and lack of discernment?

I should also note that this blog is not dedicated exclusively to discussion of gender issues but also seeks to understand and comment on the larger picture. The “mission statement” at the head of this blog says, “This is a forum for thoughtful discussion and reflection on the state of the church in America, with a particular emphasis on clarifying and understanding the issues at stake in the long-running debate over differences between men and women in ministry and in marriage.”

Having thus made my apologetic for this post, let us consider: What is so wrong with the church in America today?

Why should anyone assert that there is something seriously amiss in the American church? Is not this the nation in which a significant majority of the population claims to be Christian? A majority, mind you! Is not this the nation in which the evangelical church wields political power even in national government? Is not this the nation where sprawling, prosperous megachurches frequently dominate the landscape? Where huge Christian advocacy ministries take their message to the populace through national media outlets? And in this great nation is there not, in every small town and city suburb, a church on the nearest street corner? (Well, perhaps not in our neighborhood, but never mind that.)

Even if there is (virtually) a church on every street corner, even given the ease, comfort, and freedom with which American Christians attend services and practice their faith, even given the prosperous industry that Christian faith has become in this nation, the question remains: What does this prove about the spiritual health of the American church? The underground church in China is 100,000,000 strong and growing exponentially, despite severe persecution from the government authorities. Yet the only churches on any street corners in China are the Three Self churches, which are highly regimented and government controlled. The true church in China does not flaunt church buildings. They meet in homes, and they believe that this is all any church needs. Their funds (such as they are) flow out toward the work of missions and evangelism, not the work of bigger and better church buildings with lots more space to accommodate various fun activities for the parishioner’s various felt needs.

The Apostle Paul speaks in 2 Timothy 3:5 of a time when the church will have a form of godliness but not the power thereof. Have we Christians in America arrived at that point?

Chinese house church leader Brother Yun, a man full of the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of God who has experienced many miracles, as well as many severe persecutions, writes in his recent book Living Water, that “The Lord calls people who realize they cannot function at all apart from His grace and empowerment. Such an attitude results in complete dependence on God, and this is good in His sight. If we can accomplish tasks without God, then He will not get the glory” (p. 59-60). Paraphrasing Hudson Taylor, Francis Schaeffer makes a similar statement in his book True Spirituality: “The Lord’s work done solely in human energy is not the Lord’s work any longer. It is something, but it is not the Lord’s work” (p. 59). It’s no wonder that a pastor from Asia commented, after visiting Christian churches and institutions in America, that “it is remarkable how much they are able to accomplish without the Holy Spirit!” Yet God does not bless and empower a church or ministry that runs primarily on human will and strength.

Could it be that the lion’s share of Christian industry in America is, in God’s eyes, “wood, hay, and stubble” (1 Cor 3:12-15)?

Brother Yun’s riveting autobiography, The Heavenly Man, demonstrates how he lives on the knife-edge of obedience to God’s calling. This man—along with the millions of women and men serving in the Chinese underground church—daily live the Book of Acts. How many American Christians can say that for their Christian life? For that matter, how many American Christians have even read the Book of Acts recently? How many know what the Bible even says? (Brother Yun and his fellow Christians have memorized whole books of the Bible.)

Yes, the American church enjoys institutional power in this country, and the polls (Americans are always taking polls) show that a majority of Americans consider themselves Christians. But so much of it is only a form of godliness—only an image (in American culture image is everything). It is not the real thing. A hip, slick, with-it image is a pathetic substitute for the presence and power of God.

Has the church in America become the church of Laodicea?

We seem so often pleased with our accomplishments for the Lord. So ready with our implicitly self-congratulatory rhetoric (which we carefully cloak in God-talk). Well, we may be impressed, but the Holy One is not. God does not provide spiritual power and blessing for a church or ministry that runs primarily on human will and strength.

But perhaps we do not realize that we are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. Perhaps we desperately need to buy from the Lord gold refined in the fire, so we can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so we can cover our shameful nakedness; and salve to put on our eyes, so we can see. Jesus said to the Laodiceans, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (see Revelation 3: 17-19).

Below are two posts that suggest a different, perhaps more spiritually serious approach to Christian faith. The first is from the blog of Douglas Groothuis, “The Constructive Curmudgeon.” It is a compelling exhortation to the American church to forswear the Church of Laodicea and to exchange its form of godliness with the actual power thereof. The second is a short essay in which I chronicle my reflections and observations of Brother Yun’s recent visit to Denver Seminary.

Desperation for Today

The Constructive Curmudgeon

Saturday, November 29, 2008

[I wrote this in the context of many years of frustration about the American church and my own experiences within it. It was prompted more than anything by the visit of Brother Yun to Denver Seminary about two months ago. He is a Chinese Christian who, until he had to flee China in 1997, was part of the underground church there. These comments in no way indicate doubts about the truth of Christianity; they rather concern the spiritual state of the church today.]

What can be done about the hyperactive deadness of so much American Christianity? We can enter into the desperation and radicality of the underground Chinese church, as exemplified by Brother Yun. Yun engages in strange, strenuous activities in pursuit of God’s Kingdom. As a new convert in his teens, he fasted and prayed for 100 days to get his first Bible, eating only a small bowl of rice each day. He went on a supernaturally long fast in prison, seeking God’s release and blessing. He is willing to take up the cross and deny himself in dramatic ways in search of what is uniquely from the Holy Spirit. (See his biography, The Heavenly Man.)

Why is it that God seems often to require such intense devotion before he manifests himself supernaturally? Why cannot we simply ask God for something, and then get it—even miraculous healings, mass conversions, and more? The reason may lie in the fact that because God is the superlative being in the universe, he deserves all of us. We should love him with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Matthew 22:37-39). We should “hate” our family in comparison with our love of God (Matthew 10:32-39). We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23-25). The cross killed people; you did not survive a crucifixion. We are commanded to take up our cross because Christ took up his on our behalf. We must die to our sinful selves and live to God, because Jesus died to sin and lives to God (Romans 6:10). This theme is everywhere in the Bible. Paul says:

14 For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Cor. 5:14-15).

How can we miss it? But we do. We look past what is right before our eyes. This is because we are stupefied by worldliness and compromised Christianity—Christianity lite and undemanding, a Christianity denatured by consumer values and lifestyle choices.

How can we press in and press through into the supernatural realm? In True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer wrote that we live in a supernatural world, but often act as de facto naturalists, thus demonstrating our “unfaith.” How can we find a faith that moves mountains in Jesus’ name? I believe it will take protracted desperation demonstrated in desperate and radical acts of obedience, especially prayer and fasting—in season and out of season. This needs to be done alone in the prayer closet (Matthew 6:16-18) and in groups of God-seekers (Acts 13:1-3) open to the move of the Spirit (John 3:8). We need open seasons of seeking God together, times of worship, Scripture reading, and earnest calling upon the name of the Lord, as David did in the Psalms. Even Jesus himself called upon his Father:

7 During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hebrews 5:7-9).

We must pour out our hearts and souls and minds before our Maker, for he is our God and we are his people, the flock of his own hand.

In order for God to hear and answer, we must repent as never before. God cannot bless a divided and unrepentant heart. It would violate his own holiness (Isaiah 6:1-8). Yes, he saves us out of that condition—spiritual death (Eph. 2:1-7)—but those who bear his name must do all in that name. Living in the name of Jesus does not merely mean tacking on “In Jesus’ name” at the end of prayers. It means living in the entire spirit of Jesus in all we think and feel and do (Col. 3:17).

Actions prompted by these considerations will all seem strange and silly to business-as-usual, status-quo-for-all-we-know American Christianity. We have not experienced significant renewal, revival, and reformation for many decades. We have grown cold and hard, despite our large churches, big budgets, and Christian celebrities—or perhaps because of them. Therefore, God-seeking, world-denying, flesh-hating actions—individually and corporately—will be belittled as extremism, for we are extremely worldly and lukewarm. The resurrected Jesus has an extreme word for us:

14 "To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me. 21 To those who are victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:14-22).

We need to hear the words of holy and loving rebuke from the One seated on his heavenly throne. Who has ears to hear? Who will let Jesus in to take over completely? What is required of us?

I am not sure, but I care deeply to find out. The example of Brother Yun, the Bible itself, and great Christians in the past tell us to pursue God with all our being. Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness and all this will be added as well” (Matthew 6:33; see also 1 Cor. 10:31). Seeking first the unshakeable Kingdom of God means forsaking lesser alignments and allegiances and entanglements. It means, as Francis Schaeffer taught us, depending on Jesus Christ moment by moment. “Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6).

We need to regain a Christocentric and cruciform existence. This is nearly unknown in the postmodern world. We keep Christ at arm’s length. We try to domesticate him. We have invented a designer Jesus. We must cast aside comfort and respectability, cast aside “leadership principles” inherited from the world and the flesh (perhaps even the devil) and stop leaning on the arm of the flesh, no matter how muscular and impressive it might be (to the world). This means radical, sustained devotion to God alone. May God help us. May he shake the world again through us, yielded vessels of his transcendent power (2 Cor. 4). Apart from Christ, we can do nothing; but in Christ and with God, all things are possible (John 13-15: Matthew 19:26).

Brother Yun at Denver Seminary, September 23, 2008

It was an amazing evening. The Seminary Chapel was packed out. People were standing around the walls and sitting outside the doors. This was not a Denver Seminary crowd (although a number of students and quite a few Asians from the Seminary were in attendance). A group of young people were sitting near us; the young woman next to me said she had read The Heavenly Man twice. I told her that my niece (from whom we had first learned about Brother Yun) so wished that she could be here, that it would be like meeting Jesus or one of his disciples. “Oh, Yes!!” the young woman exclaimed excitedly. She and the others with her were part of a group from a large church in Colorado Springs who had visited China. She was so encouraged that so many had turned out for the event. “God has saved 7,000 for himself,” she declared, her eyes glowing with joy. I piped up, “Yes, like God said to Elijah.”

The room was not just full of people, it was full of the Holy Spirit. I thought to myself, “I never would have believed it possible!” It has been more years than I can remember since I’ve known such a powerful sense of the Spirit’s presence. But I should not limit God so. If Brother Yun had one central theme, it was that Jesus is alive and will do whatever he pleases to do. Mighty miracles are an easy thing for the Lord to do, and when he determines to do a thing, he does it.

Well no, that was not the central theme. Another theme was also central to his message, namely, that we absolutely must have wholehearted, unconditional love for, and trust in, the Lord Jesus. No matter what.

The best part of the evening for me was when Brother Yun recounted a time he was imprisoned and had been tortured and very badly beaten. He had been taken back to his cell and he lay there, wanting to die. The guard taunted him, saying he was crazy and would never get out of there alive (which certainly looked to be the case). Then the Lord brought to Yun’s mind a verse from Scripture (I forget what it was), and he was heartened and emboldened by this truth of God’s Word. So he determined that he would defy the guards and his circumstances and commence to praise the Lord. They thought he was crazy? So, he would act crazy! He began to sing Psalm 63 as loudly as he could. And at that point in his talk, Yun commenced to do just that. The translator was quiet as Yun sang through the whole psalm. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was just pouring out his heart before the Lord, as though he were back in that prison cell. There was no sense of self consciousness. He was not trying to impress anyone. He had no singing voice to speak of. But oh, it was beautiful. It was like stepping into the anteroom of heaven.

Both Brother Yun (which is pronounced somewhere between yun and yoon) and his translator (a middle-aged Finnish man, who also had been imprisoned in China), were so patently earnest, real, and zealous for the Lord. It was obvious that they didn’t just talk the talk, as they say. Their testimony was the real thing. It was Paul and Peter and Jesus. For two hours the audience was riveted to the podium. I found all this spiritual reality wonderful, but also rather difficult to bear, and I couldn’t help weeping slightly throughout the whole time (used up quite a few tissues blowing and blotting). I felt quite silly, when I stopped to think about it, which wasn’t often.

You don’t need power point and anecdotes and endless references to American popular culture, you don’t need to limit the length of the message to 30 minutes lest people lose interest, you don’t need loud music with subwoofers and proudly prancing “worship” leaders on stage. You don’t need any of that, if you can just have the presence of the Holy Spirit. And his presence in fullness is possible only when the Word of God abides in hearts that are sold out to Jesus, live or die, come hell or high water.