We live in a nation divided. Extreme factions are firmly entrenched on either side of the political aisle. “Woke” liberals no longer tolerate opposing views, taking offense and “cancelling” anyone or anything contrary to their personal versions of “truth”. The growing ranks of atheists and agnostics, particularly among America’s youth, consider Christian claims of exclusivity arcane and antiquated at best – ignorant and inhumane at worst. Protests and riots rage in our streets, understandably demanding fair and equal treatment for African Americans by civil authorities following centuries of systematic racism – a sordid history vigorously confronted by most white evangelicals yet coldly condoned by others.
Many Christians believe that resolution of the stark differences fueling today’s rampant animosity and hostility lies in the outcome of the upcoming elections. Some readers of my last blog, “Do We Really Want Church to Return to “Normal”?” conflate spiritual revival and Christendom, particularly those inclined to gauge the state of our faith with its political pull. Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post during Meet The Need’s #CastAnEternalVote campaign questioning whether the temporary “reprieve” afforded the Christian community by Trump’s victory would simply perpetuate the status quo. Would the presumed 4 year hiatus from mounting “persecution” under a church-friendly President simply delay the eventual abandonment of the institution-centric definition of “church” that was precipitating its decline?
Persecution typically creates a greater impetus for church reform and personal transformation than complacency. Who would have guessed that Christianity is growing fastest in a nation where it is outlawed (China), while perhaps the fastest decrease took place where the government vehemently defended the right to worship Christ freely (England)? As we approach the end of Trump’s first term, it’s clear the Church’s growth, influence, impact and public perception has diminished during his time in office. Christians have lost their voice in the marketplace of ideas on college campuses, mainstream media and workplaces across the country – despite, and in part because of, their assumed association with the most powerful leader in the world. The political clout Christians gained since 2016 has cost the Church dearly, redirecting the ire of those who detest Trump toward those he protects and defends.
“Victory” often looks quite different to Christ than it does to Christians. External indicators of success in the proliferation of our faith do not always correlate to the internal barometers of Kingdom advancement. It’s much easier to point fingers than to look in the mirror. Restoring our nation’s Christian heritage must be bottom up, not top down. It may begin with pastors preaching powerful messages, but it will end in a groundswell of repentant submission to God – measured in heart change and not church growth. Yet changing the Church’s Kingdom measuring stick from size and status to depth and discipleship at this point may require a disruptive event – such as election results that don’t enable a return to “Church as We Know it”.
When Christ Rules
Christ surrendered His standing, taking the form of a servant. When the crowds grew largest, He preached His most challenging sermon. He rejected opportunities to assume political power, but did not turn away from chances to show compassion. Jesus’ strategy wasn’t to ascend to the top of the 7 mountains, but to endure torment willingly for the sake of those lost and broken. What it looks like for Christ to be in charge looks nothing like the ambition of believers who equate His dominion to Christians being in charge…
- Individuals – Personal ownership of mandates to love, serve, evangelize and disciple
- Family – Strengthening the family unit with parents taking responsibility for raising God-fearing children
- Empowerment – Decentralizing religious structures, releasing rather than usurping authority
- Multiplication – Gospel proliferation via the Lord’s math of making disciples who make disciples
- Grace – Emphasizing truly important laws like mercy and justice, rather than imposing behavioral modification
- Generosity – Ensuring no brother or sister in Christ suffers hunger or oppression alone
- Compassion – Following Jesus’ model of demonstrating His love before telling them who He is
In other words, the ideal “military” strategy for breaking down the walls that divide us in today’s culture war is not an “air war”, dropping verbal bombs via a louder megaphone wielded by more powerful Christian leaders. Instead we should imitate our ultimate Authority and launch a “ground war” with Spirit-filled troops equipped and mobilized to the front lines – with love and the Gospel as our chosen weapons.
When Christians Rule
Throughout history, those who seek and gain power, even Christians, often tend to advance their own plans rather than the Lord’s. How else could slavery and racism have persisted for so long in a nation founded on Christian values? We discussed earlier how Jesus’ plan never involved growing a megachurch or assuming political influence. Yet emboldened at the prospect of having fewer credible threats under Trump, ambitious megachurches and celebrity pastors continued their location-centric, multi-site and platform-building aspirations during the past 4 years. We’ve witnessed meteoric rises to prominence and precipitous plummets in notoriety among America’s best-known pastors. Our institutions got bigger while our influence grew smaller. Church leaders weren’t forced to rethink the consumer-driven “Invite/Involve/Invest” model that’s been effective in filling seats with cultural Christians but not in producing sold-out Christ-followers. Unfortunately, the principles and priorities of theocratic ambitions tend to reward strategies that encourage…
- Size – Praising those who achieve statistical significance based on breadth, not spiritual depth
- Establishment – Promoting organizations, books and conferences featuring America’s most renowned Christian leaders
- Centralization – Reducing church to a place, not people, pitching “come and see” vs. “go and tell”
- Influence – Emphasizing leadership, legislation and elections to turn the tide in “our” favor
- Legalism – Expecting those who don’t know Jesus to obey His laws while not enforcing the Great Commandment or Great Commission on those who do (know Jesus)
- Abdication – Dependence on trained professionals to do our rightful job of leading our neighbors to Jesus
- Compromise – Parents relinquishing their pastoral role to the “village” to fill the void
Society will continue moving away from God if Christians follow Trump’s lead of being outspoken on social issues rather than Jesus’ lead of being bold in Prayer/Care/Share. Non-believers are rebelling against the authority of today’s political and religious establishment. They resent the President and Christians alike for claiming (absolute) truth when our culture teaches that each person determines their own (subjective) truth.
Putting Christ, Not Just Christians, in Charge
Churchgoers would have been better prepared to lead people to Jesus during the pandemic and pandemonium if America’s pastors had flipped the model, applying the 7 principles Jesus espoused to today’s context…
- Individuals – Treat members like Kingdom “employees”, not consumers of religious goods and services, training them diligently to pursue the real “customer” within their circles of influence
- Family – Resist temptations to keep youth group “lite” to accommodate parents who want kids to adopt Christian values, but not get so serious about their faith that they run off into the mission field
- Empowerment – Focus teaching less on relationship advice, and more on in-depth study of God’s Word to prepare members for personal evangelism and discipleship
- Multiplication – Replicate microexpressions of church across the city to infiltrate and touch each distinct group of people, understanding that future economics likely won’t support existing cost structures
- Grace – Advocate empathy, forgiveness and the hope of the Gospel rather than expecting those who don’t know Jesus to follow His laws
- Generosity – Replace the distant “God as Owner, you as steward” framework for promoting giving with a “God as Father, you as child” picture of a loving Parent who supplies all our needs
- Compassion – Equip members to Love Your Neighbor wherever they live, work and play; modeling empowerment, multiplication, grace and generosity
Each of those suggestions reduce the degree of power and control church and political leaders exercise over their constituencies. Each concept is counterintuitive and unlikely to be implemented by pastors who implicitly define “church” as a place and measure Christendom’s “success” in terms of court decisions, election results and public policy.
It’s Your Turn…
Are you observing a trend, possibly driven by Coronavirus and racial division, toward the empowerment-based “church growth” principles that Jesus taught and modeled? Or are churches still fighting to maintain the status quo, with slight adaptations to adjust to a new “normal” and any challenges they may face under a (potential) new President?