The modern evangelical church shaped my early life to a remarkable degree. I was so deeply embedded in the church subculture that I unconsciously believed that being part of that culture was synonymous with knowing God.
I’ve lost faith in the church. I’ve lost faith in the people who have set themselves up as God’s spokesmen on earth. I’ve lost faith in the institutions which I was taught to believe in. I’ve lost faith in my long-cherished belief that being part of that subculture led to knowing God.
But as I’ve lost faith in all the earthly people and institutions which I was taught spoke for God, I’ve strengthened my belief in the God who I’ve always struggled to know and define and understand.
The church as I knew it was just a subculture — a little subset — of modern American culture. We were shaped by our national culture and then we unconsciously shaped our religion to be an acceptable part of the middle class culture we cherished.
If the Christian church is just a subculture of modern American life, what is the point of its existence?
The modern church seems determined to be exactly like the rest of the world except for holding to slightly different standards of dress, speech and conduct. If the church is distinguished just by those outward appearances — which seems increasingly to be the case — then the church has been completely co-opted by the world.
To the early Christians, following Jesus meant those people were fundamentally changed. They weren’t just normal members of their society who had some slightly different conduct rules. They were people who believed that something had fundamentally changed about them. They didn’t just walk down an aisle or get baptized or repeat a rote prayer to “ask Jesus into their hearts.” (As a side note, that last idea is nowhere in the Bible. It stunned me when I finally realized that.)
The early Christians were risking everything to follow something which most of the world scorned. They were outcasts. They were opposed to everything their culture stood for.
As Christianity was adopted by politicians as an official religion in Rome — and then in other places — it was changed. Being a Christian no longer meant you were a radical who was different from others. It just meant you were following what was normal for your society.
Where is the power of God in that? What’s the point in that? Why not just join Kiwanis or the Chamber of Commerce instead?
Every human society has developed the concept of religion. In every society that I’m aware of, religious norms and religious leaders were used to shape the people to be more acceptable to the rulers in one way or another. You might quibble that today’s leaders aren’t very religious, but that’s not the point. The point is that various people and groups use religious teachings and religious institutions to control people’s behavior and to seek power for themselves.
It’s not just the evangelical church which has gone down this path. My perspective is from the evangelical point of view, but the progressive church has done the same thing — just with different aims.
The conservative evangelical church is more about pursuing political power to pass laws to control the social behavior of society than it is about seeking and knowing God. Some people within those churches certainly have good intentions and some people can even feel closer to God as a result of being part of churches — but knowing God is always ultimately secondary to teaching people to conform to the dictates of the subculture.
The progressive church (and various other groupings) are similarly more interested in pursuing political power to force people to behave in certain ways, too. Those of such groups believe they have come up with what God must want, so they seek to put progressive politicians into power to recreate society in accordance with what they want.
The socially conservative church and the progressive church are remarkably similar. Both groups are deeply invested in gaining political power to force other people to act as they claim God wants humans to act.
There is no evidence that Jesus was the least bit political. He seemed remarkably uninterested in political power. Although the Romans feared he wanted political power, there’s no indication that such power interested him. He asked people to listen to his message of love — and voluntarily change their lives to love other people.
Jesus never once asked his followers to force others to obey his message. He never once suggested that a government be instituted to enforce his will. Jesus was interested in people voluntarily learning to love and voluntarily changing their lives in ways that led to knowing God.
It’s easy for me to see that the modern church has failed, but the more I think about it, the more I think the church has been failing for close to 2,000 years. The church became an institution — an instrument of the government and an instrument of the cultures of a thousand different nations.
The church has become a way to convince people to conform themselves to this world — which is exactly what the Apostle Paul warned against in Romans 12.
The longer I live, the more I see my deep need to know the God who I see as Creator, but the less I see my need to be part of a subpar subculture which is more interested in political power and cultural control.
If Jesus were to walk among us in the flesh today, I doubt he would be very comfortable in our churches. I doubt he would be interested in the sermons or the political actions or the glorified social clubs. And I doubt very many churches today would welcome the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount.
I don’t claim to know the solutions to this deep issue. I don’t claim to know how to reform the church. I honestly suspect it’s past reform as an institution.
I also know that those of us who seek God and long to know that spirit we recognize in our hearts need a community where we can join together in our quest and where we can join together in fellowship. Not where people can tell each other how to live or what to believe, but a place where we can give up the need to control others and learn to focus on our own issues. This is what makes it so dangerously appealing to say — once again — that it’s time to start a new church and “finally do it right.”
I’m not arrogant enough to say that. I’m not arrogant enough to be that person. I don’t claim to lead anything or to tell others how we ought to live. But like an Old Testament prophet, I do feel like pointing a finger at the institution which has been such a huge part of my life and saying, “We have to turn away from our evil and controlling culture and turn toward the Living God.”
I once planned to become a pastor or missionary. I was licensed to the ministry by a Southern Baptist church when I was in college. I served on a church staff. But I’ve seen enough to say that this institution — this subculture — is the wrong way.
Our institutions have failed. Our institutions and leaders have become corrupt and and in some cases evil. For those of us who feel an ache in our hearts to know the spirit whose presence we feel dimly, the subculture needs to die.
Our hearts need to be open to God to do a new work in us today. I have no idea what form that needs to take — and I’m not sure I’d trust anyone who claimed to know.