As a pastor, I believe in church and love her deeply, especially when the centerpiece of all she is and does is the Gospel of God’s pure Grace and the all-inclusiveness of Jesus and His unconditionally unconditional love. Yet sadly, these values are increasingly far from what is being manifested in most segments of American Christianity. Instead, as difficult it is to say, church has largely become a self-righteous, spiritually arrogant, sin-focused, Bible-weaponizing, and people-condemning kind of monster that has lost much of her credibility among thinking, human-loving people. In fact, the emotional, spiritual, and even physical carnage created by significant segments of American, conservative church-world ironically makes it perhaps the most prominent, antichrist force on the planet today.
Don’t believe me? To those willing to hear, countless are the gut-wrenching stories of people who have experienced great suffering, tragedy, abuse, and condemnation exclusively at the hands of Christianity and its church. The hand-washing claim that “no church is perfect” doesn’t even come close to fitting nor justifying the spiritually militant, aggressive, and narcissistic tribe we have become, nor gains any appeasement among those whom we have broken. The truth is, if we don’t make significant steps towards returning to the heart of God who is Love and His Gospel of peace, we will further become the very evil we claim to be against, and surrender our voice and influence in furthering all that is good and of God for generations to come.
Yet, amidst these daunting realities there is still great hope that we might awaken to the heights from which we have fallen and chart a new path. With that desire for renewal, here are five things I suggest every church must become before it’s too late.
We Must Become Grace Driven– Despite what is believed and taught within most segments of the church, there is no other Gospel nor message from God for humanity other than Grace—period. Grace boldly and accurately declares that all are in Christ, deeply and unconditionally loved and affirmed by the Father. Every person is a finished work of the cross—holy, justified, sanctified, righteous, and whole apart from and despite their performance in life. Faith is not a decision, heart invitation, or commitment to good behavior. Instead, to truly “believe” is to simply rest in the goodness and Grace of God through Jesus Christ.
Therefore, contrary to what is widely understood, the Christian life is not to be one of sin-management, “to do” steps, rule-keeping, or spiritual striving, but rather the journey of completely awakening to the incredible and unfathomable goodness of God and the wholly complete person one is already and will always be in Christ. In short, it’s our actions catching up with our true identities.
In fact, in a very real sense, under Grace, there is nothing “to do,” self-improve, or become, but everything to believe—and as one increasingly believes in the purity and goodness of who they truly are in Him, they will live it increasingly in and through their actions, and that—effortlessly. For there is no power in all the universe other than Grace that changes people and influences them towards living the ways of Jesus—hallelujah!
In fact, it is the Law in command or spirit, in whole or in any mixture, that actually entices and imprisons people to sin and embody all that is bad. Its diabolical rule-keeping mantra focuses our attention on sin, entices our religious pride to believe we can master it, and places trust in ourselves and our capacity to spiritually out perform it. This is a futile pursuit destined for failure, straight out of the hands and heart of the devil. For where you have any call or sense of need to please and appease God to gain, keep, or grow ones relationship with Jesus, there you will find every form of self-righteousness, judgmentalism, spiritual pride, hypocrisy, sin-stronghold, religious spirit, and evil.
That’s why the sure and true reason why America is in such moral decline and countless people are walking away from “church” (and rightly so) is actually because of us and our love affair with a mixed-messaged gospel of Law and Grace—a message that, in truth, is the rampant cancer, not the cure. For any other message than the pure and thoroughly sufficient Grace of God in Christ Jesus is a sure death sentence of humanity to a hellish life of self-righteous imprisonment.
We must become Grace-driven—countless lives are in the balance.
We Must Become Unified By Diversity- For far too long, the church has based its sense of unity upon that which people must agree. Denominations and individual churches align their membership qualifications to certain sets of beliefs and behaviors people are required to adopt for inclusion. In the process, the concept of “making disciples” has been reduced to a church’s pursuit of assimilating people into thinking, looking, and behaving just like them. People become projects of conformity, diverging beliefs become threatening and inferior, and churches become clubs of like-minded people huddled around their “this is what the Bible says” ideologies.
Tragically, this has morphed many a church into a spiritual black hole where doubts are quickly buried, free thinking is demonized, spiritual growth is restricted, people have to pretend they truly agree, and churches live in denial of the real disunity that exists under the surface conformity of their congregants.
In increasing measure, people are justifiably turning away from spiritual communities where one is either deemed to be “in” or “out.” They are resisting the applications of labels upon themselves and hunger for the God-given freedom and liberty that comes in being personally guided in all truth by the ever revealing Spirit—not a cut and pasted creed nor a patriarchy of so-called biblical leadership. Good people are opening their eyes to the selfish agenda of churches that see people as prospective notches on their belt with the goal of assimilating them into their spiritual Borg that they might increase in their capacity to spread their pre-packaged religious ideologies among the masses of people they deem to be “lost.”
Churches must become more like tables where every person and every belief-set has a seat in the discussion, where doubts, differences, and disbelief are valued, and where unity is based upon a church’s willingness to embrace disagreement and harbor diversity much more so than what is necessary to be agreed upon. Spiritual growth must be allowed to truly flourish through the considering and potential adopting of views, perspectives, and beliefs that are even contrary to what is widely held.
Churches must become belief fluid, where a confidence in the person of Jesus and His Truth ringing true in the hearts of all humanity creates the secure foundation from which all beliefs can be considered, explored, and find community instead of exclusion—all without fear.
Then, and only then, can true unity flourish, true spiritual growth emerge, and true freedom in Christ be realized—all centered on God who is Love and Jesus who is Grace.
We Must Become Fierce Defenders of the Oppressed and Condemned- People are not projects, attendance charts, giving units, baptismal stats, or even our conversion mission—though nearly everything about our attitudes and behaviors as the church would indicate so. Rather, our highest mandate from God is to stand with, defend, empower, and become a voice for the oppressed, especially those religiously condemned and marginalized—all of us on equal footing. It’s not enough to merely extend our sympathies, minister to a need here and there, or put people and issues on a prayer list. Solidarity in thought, word, attitude, and deed with the marginalized and condemned is the way of Jesus and our Christian calling in every arena of life—even political.
Grace is not weakness nor passivity in the presence of evil. It’s not turning a blind eye nor restraining ones voice as an effort to take some kind of highfalutin, spiritual highroad concealing what is ultimately a self-serving “grace” copout. Rather, Grace is brave and confronting in the face of religious and cultural oppression, injustice, condemnation, and discrimination.
Those who would portray God as less than all-loving, His message as bringing any measure of condemnation, and His ways as embodying any level of religiosity, self-righteousness, or conditionality will always meet the fierce correction of Jesus. Those who would shrink back from the unrestrained defense, solidarity with, and mutual humanity of the “least of these” will always be met with the buzzsaw of Jesus’ pure oneness with those who are cast aside or cast out.
The nonviolent way of Jesus is not passive, impotent, nor powerless, but rather the sure model that makes our solidarity, defense, empowering, and voice with and for the oppressed and condemned our greatest responsibility, honor, and calling. For there is no greater litmus test of a church’s alignment with the heart of Jesus than how it stands with, defends, empowers, equally includes, and gives voice to the “least of these.” Until that day comes, growing numbers of people will rightly discern the fallacy and religious scam that sadly has become much of American church.
We Must Become Equality Minded– Grace is the great equalizer—none are better only different. This is the message of the Gospel that infuriates and frustrates the self-righteous, white, male-driven, patriarchal churches of America. There should be no sense of privilege of any form in any church, only people—all equally loved, valued, affirmed, and imaged by the Creator.
The sexist churches of America continue to grieve the heart and message of Jesus and send countless women (and men) searching elsewhere for safe contexts where true God-given equality is embraced, and the utilization of the equal calling and gifts bestowed by God upon all genders is empowered.
It is spiritually criminal that the church, who should be leading the way at embodying the culture of heaven upon earth, is in actuality largely standing against it—women are not seen as equally gifted and called, skin colors matter, economic status is evaluated, sexual orientation is discriminated, and sin is rationalized in favor of the privileged.
This is deplorable, evil, and antithetical to Kingdom of God.
The church will never truly manifest nor follow the ways, message, and heart of Jesus until our every step leaves a sure and undeniable footprint of true equality for all.
We Must Become A Contribution Centered Community- One need look no further than the me-centered worship services and programs that dominate much of American church for evidence that we have become selfish, consumer-centered Christians and churches. In fact, most of modern church planting is strategized around starting a state-of-the-art worship service with hopes that a church will somehow grow out of it. The thrust of most churches new or old is to attract people to “visit us, join us, and serve among us” with emphasis on the “us.” With facilities, budgets, programming, and marketing endeavors taking center stage, competitive-minded ministry thrives and the incubator for pastoral celebrity and church franchising becomes full born.
Sadly, when it’s all said and done, as much as we spiritualize our endeavors, much of church has become largely about “us”— our spiritual growth, our style preferences, our convenience, our inspiration, our agendas, our power, our importance, our rights, and the preservation and furthering of our privilege.
In times past, many have been mesmerized and seduced by the contemporary lipsticks we have used on the pig of our self-centeredness—but not any more. Growing numbers of good people are seeing through the clever lighting and carefully positioned fog. Either they have lost at playing the church game, or witnessed the pain and brutal carnage of someone else having done so. Regardless, people not only want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, they want to be a part of something that is clearly and concretely not about themselves or an agenda other than pure Love.
The truth is, much of the church in America is losing influence and credibility, and rightly so. The awakening of Grace and its full application in the life of the church is among us, challenging and haunting the religious as it spawns.
Before it’s too late, may we become Grace-driven, equality-minded, contribution-centered communities that are unified by diversity as we fiercely defend the oppressed and condemned among us as Jesus modeled and purposed for us all along.
Grace is brave. Be brave.