More than ever before the church and its voice have become irrelevant in western culture. The number of people in western culture who regularly attend church is steadily dropping. Some would declare this to be a commentary on the eroding moral fabric of society. Although there’s no doubt as to the downward spiral of morality in our country, I don’t believe the source of the problem lies entirely, or even predominantly, with the culture.
It’s easy to point the finger of blame elsewhere but I believe the cause for these trends lies squarely with the church. By the church I mean we the collective group of followers of Jesus Christ who comprise the church at large. I don’t mean to oversimplify the complexity of the cultural climate and issues involved. There are many factors at play in this social trend. But, the trend has headed into a steep curve because we the church have been busy carrying on the task of the church all the while disconnected from the needs of the culture we are trying to address.
Simply put, people don’t abandon what is effective and meaningful. People aren’t stepping foot in our churches because what goes on inside doesn’t meet their needs and bring the kind of personal transformation they need. One of the many underlying causes is a clash of cultural climates. Today’s culture is all about being authentic and real at all costs. Our church climate is more about correctness, form, and politeness. These diametrically opposed climates push each other increasingly further apart.
This trend away from traditional church involvement used to describe non-believers who seldom step foot in their local church. Yet, increasingly Christians are growing discontent with the experiences found within our church walls. For years I’ve heard more and more of my friends disengaging from the traditional church experience because they are hungry for something more. That’s right – it’s not that they aren’t hungry for God. Rather, the problem is the church isn’t bringing people into a life-changing encounter with God. What the church is offering people doesn’t really meet their spiritual needs. So, people are disengaging from the traditional church experience to spend their energies in pursuit of a deeper encounter with God through other means.
I must confess that throughout my life I’ve had angst about the numerous church experiences in which I’ve found myself. They’ve served more to squelch my hunger for deeper spiritual life than to feed it. It’s felt like I had two options. I could sit in a church experience and be satisfied with the occasional crumbs that fell from the table and in so doing grow as spiritually numb as the rest of the people I encountered there. Or, I would have to find my fill outside the church experience. Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more of my needs met outside the church. I’ve found myself getting little more than a short-lived inspiration boost on Sunday morning that didn’t last much beyond lunch. I needed a hardy spiritual steak instead of dry breadcrumbs. And I’m in a growing crowd of people looking for something beyond static form and ritual. I’m hungry for something much more substantive.
Traditionalists may pass judgment on such behavior and condemn it as a lack of commitment or something even more subversive and downright sinful. Their response is to accuse such thinking as being a lack of sucking-it-up and trying hard enough. But I don’t believe this to be the case at all. A groundswell is developing of people who want something real, meaningful, and effective – even when there’s nothing better in sight. As I keep my finger on the pulse of our culture, I get a sense that something significant is happening – something good and needed. In fact, I believe it is a sovereign move of God. It is a coming awakening, a building tsunami of change for spiritual reformation – but more on that later.
Before I go any further, I would like to set some context for this discussion. Some people who read this article may be bitter and disenfranchised toward the church. They respond to the condition of the church out of a critical spirit with anger and accusation. Yet, this isn’t the best way to respond to the situation. Other people have withdrawn from the church because of relational conflict. They have chosen to disengage from the church out of a wounded spirit. Then, they move toward isolation, independence, and bitterness. Here too, this kind of behavior isn’t productive or helpful. Rather, these are paths to distress, vulnerability, and spiritual death.
Those who leave the church because they are upset and choose to break off relationships because of some interpersonal conflict or something the pastor did with which they disagreed, make themselves a spiritual target. The enemy seeks to separate and divide as a means of conquering people. Being in a community of mature believers where there are transparency and accountability is the key to spiritual health and longevity (exactly what that experience can look like is one of the key questions at hand). The people I am addressing are a growing number of people who are increasingly discontent with the status-quo because they are hungry for more than what they are finding in the traditional church setting (and not reacting out of relational brokenness). This is the group of people I want to address (as well as those who may be struggling to understand some of these trends, what they mean, and how to respond to them).
It’s essential that we approach this situation from a redemptive perspective and not a critical one. Having a critical or bitter spirit is certain to keep us from finding meaningful answers or facilitating needed changes. Those possessing a critical spirit should consider Jesus’ illustration of the person with a log in their eye offering to help someone remove the speck from theirs. Also, it is essential that we not embrace a spirit of superiority, intellectualism, or elitism. At all times, we must check our own motives and attitudes at the door and come to the realization that we don’t have the answer. Rather, we recognize our own brokenness and need for God’s merciful hand of redemption at work in our hearts and lives at all times.
Neither is the solution to tear down one system and build another on top of it. Any man-made, humanistic system is bound to fail us and eventually lead us into the same problems we now face. The solution isn’t to be found in any person, group, or methodology. Rather, the only solution is a complete abandonment of our own broken agendas, systems, and traditions and return to the Lord with all our hearts. But, more on this later.
I want to try to put my finger on some of the causes for this trend as a means of exposing needed changes. I want to cast a vision for something more than what is being offered in our churches. I’m not an idealist who thinks we can accomplish broad, deep spiritual reformation quickly. But, I do think I am a voice calling for change – and there are many others like me. I do believe God is on the move and that His agenda is to cause broad, deep spiritual reformation. We want to be in agreement with what God is doing and to align ourselves with His agenda.
Some churches have responded to this downward trend by offering more entertainment, recreation, and media into their activities. They add gymnasiums and coffee bars to their facilities in an effort to be more culturally trendy and provide more appealing customer service. Yet, these steps aren’t addressing the real heart of the matter and they will do little to stem the tide of change. In fact, I believe they are only compounding the problem. People want spiritual transformation, wholeness, and abundant life. When they want to see a flashy visual presentation, they go to the movie theatre – not to the church.
What’s needed isn’t more flash and glitter. Rather, people are after transformation at the heart level. They are looking for something that allows them to overcome their obstacles, find their true identity, and have a personal encounter with God. This type of transformation doesn’t come about through better media and technology. What’s needed is an encounter with a God who is so much bigger and better than us. That doesn’t happen by installing a coffee bar and filling it with people in the church entryway. Being more seeker-sensitive doesn’t lead to a deeper transformation. There’s nothing wrong with being trendy or appealing. It’s just that it isn’t the answer to people’s fundamental need that brings them into the church (albeit in decreasing numbers). Granted, it may bring more people in the door, but if people aren’t being brought into a life-changing encounter with God when they step through the doors, it’s all just dressing and glamour devoid of meaningful substance. And this is a key reason for the downward trend in church attendance and the underpinnings of a cultural revolution that’s building in this hour.
Most of the time, our worst enemy is the one we greet each morning in the mirror. As such, when we see downward trends, our best response is not to ask what’s wrong with everyone else and point our finger at such factors as moral erosion in our culture. Rather, we need to stop and rethink what WE are doing wrong. And such is the case with the church today. These downward trends are valuable indicators and a much-needed wake-up call. God allows us to experience pain when change is needed. Without discomfort, change would never happen. When things are headed in the wrong direction, it’s time to figure out where we are out of alignment with what God is doing. This is my call here today. Wake up church, things have changed and God is on the move. It’s best that we change our ways and move with Him.
Although I’ve already touched on it briefly, let me delve further still into what I believe our culture is looking for in terms of a spiritual experience. They want to know and be truly known. They want to be unconditionally accepted amidst all their faults and failures. They want to expose their fears and self-doubts and be loved past them. They want to experience real love and genuine fathering. They want to be mentored and coached into their potential. They want to experience true power and wisdom that transforms their life.
Now, let me interject a little reality here lest you think me an idealist. Many people warming church pews regularly are just looking for enough of God to ease their conscience and get their feet through the pearly gates. The current church experience satisfies this level of need just fine, or so they think. The less uncomfortable the experience, the happier they will be about it. Yet, I do find it interesting how ubiquitous this trend is in our churches today and how Jesus proclaimed that MANY would come to Him on judgment day thinking they were in good standings with Him only to discover when it is too late that this isn’t the case at all. The word many accurately describes the percentage of people in our churches who are looking for a couple of hours of tamed, controlled, and predictable God in their life each week. But if we try to put God in our safe little boxes, we worship something other than God. Such empty self-centered religious activity is nothing less than idolatry.
One of the reasons our churches are in the condition they are is because so many are simply after a quick fix for their spiritual deficiencies. Instead of coming face-to-face with the reality of their utter spiritual brokenness and need for a life-changing encounter with God, they want to save face, make an appearance at church and check off a few boxes in their moral checklist as a quick fix to soothe their conscience. That is all that’s ever been demonstrated to them and they don’t know how much more life is actually within their grasp. The thought of going for something more is outside their frame of reference or they think it is just too hard to reach for something more. Maybe they’ve tried on an occasion or two and without the right mentoring failed in frustration. Some are even deluded into thinking that such compromise is better than living true resurrected life through the power of the cross and blood of Jesus.
These are the people who are filling our church pews. They are just sucking it up and biding their time until Jesus returns. They aren’t living lives of abundance. They aren’t living to their potential. They look no different than those outside of the church (except that they carry more religious baggage that weighs them down and burdens them unnecessarily). They haven’t experienced true inner healing or empowerment. So, they’ve learned to survive on a diet of occasional spiritual crumbs. But such experiences have such little lasting impact. They are spiritually anemic and suffocating from a lack of deep breaths of life.
Yet, the number of people who are contented with such an experience is dwindling. Our culture is hungry for something real and life-changing. They haven’t found it in the church and so they are looking for it elsewhere. Little do most of them realize that what they are looking for can only be found in God and His Son Jesus Christ. The problem is that they would never realize that by attending our churches today. What they find in most of our churches is a watered-down message with no power capable of facilitating personal transformation.
What is offered is more of a message of positive thinking than it is the power of God, the blood of Jesus, and His redemptive message. Another trend is for churches to champion a message of shame and condemnation that serves only to drive people further from the arms of a savior filled with redemptive love. Shame leads to a different path than conviction and redemption.
What our churches are offering today is so much less than what our culture needs. When I think of a model that matches the desires of our culture, one clear example comes to mind. Jesus demonstrated this model for us. He lived in close community and friendship with His disciples for years. They lived transparently together. They aired their dirty laundry and Jesus confronted their broken thinking. Jesus pealed back the facade layers and got to the real issues of the heart. He met their needs, fathered and mentored them, and trained them to be world-changers. This is the model Jesus gave us. Why have we gotten so far from it? Our churches today bear little resemblance to the model Jesus demonstrated. Why is it that we think we can accomplish more by using a model that’s so clearly devoid of the substance required for personal transformation?
Jesus didn’t follow form, ritual, or religious tradition. Instead, He confronted religious tradition squarely and condemned it as worthless and counterproductive. The church in His day was filled with people whose motives were primarily driven by money. Jesus chased them out of the church with a whip. What do you suppose He would do in our churches today? Does our Christian church today look much different than the Jewish temple of His day? Would He come bearing words of commendation or touting a whip desiring to restore purity and genuine devotion to God?
We do ourselves a great disservice to assume our agendas, systems, and motives are in alignment with God’s. This was one of the key sins of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They thought they were doing God’s bidding but then God showed up in their midst. Not only did they not recognize Him when God showed up. Not only did Jesus say their religious efforts were making people twice the sons of Hell that they were. Indeed, they hung the Son of God on the cross thinking they were doing God a service. They were going about God’s business and when God interfered, they killed Him for it.
Keep in mind that these were the Bible-believing religious leaders in their day. They were equivalent to our church leaders today. Many may object to this comparison by suggesting that our church is Christian whereas the Pharisees practiced an Old Testament faith. But, when I compare the practices of our churches today and compare them with the behavior of Jesus as well as those of the Pharisees, generally speaking, I see more in common with the practices of the Pharisees. Our churches are more filled with form, facade, and man’s traditions than they are with the love of God that’s being spilled out on the poor and hurting in the streets.
It’s best and safest to assume that God sees things differently than us. It’s ideal that we regularly examine our ways from an awareness that we may be entirely off base from what God is doing. We are not the possessors of truth, wisdom, and the right answer. Rather, God stands unique in His possession of such things. Jesus demonstrated a life of submission to the Father and offered selfless service to man. He didn’t seek to control, manipulate, or influence. He didn’t coerce people to follow His agenda. Rather, He sought the Father’s ways, agendas, and timing in all ways and at all costs. His ways vary dramatically from those of the church today.
Jesus’ version of the church was lived out in the streets where life happened. He went to where people were hurting and He met their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. I suspect that if you followed a week behind Him, you’d find a trail of healed, empowered people. You could track Him down by the debris of wholeness left in His wake. The power of God changed lives everywhere He and His disciples went. This is the model Jesus left His church. How far we’ve drifted from it.
Jesus went to great lengths to caution His followers against the dangers of the religious practices of the Pharisees seeping into the faith of His followers. And indeed the spirit of the Pharisees is alive and well in our churches today. The foundation upon which the Pharisees’ practices were built was self-righteousness and self-strength. They were more concerned with impressing people than knowing and pleasing God. It had everything to do with how you behave (especially in front of people) and little about building a personal, trusting relationship with God. If you didn’t measure up to their standards, you were heaped with shame and accusation. This is the heart of religion and something Jesus sternly confronted.
To an outside observer, the differences between the faith of Jesus and that of the Pharisees might seem insignificant. Yet to Jesus the difference was life and death. Jesus practiced a life of complete surrender to the purposes of God being worked out in His life. The Pharisees just wanted to maintain the impression of holiness without the daily brokenness required to walk with God. And it does require that price. Scripture reveals that Jesus had to learn obedience through the things He suffered. Yet, the gospel preached in our churches has little to do with carrying our crosses daily and following Jesus’ example. Our churches preach a gospel devoid of the ugliness and messiness of the cross and blood of Jesus. They may do lip service to the cross and the blood but their core teachings, values, and priorities aren’t based on each of us living our lives daily through the cross and blood. Instead, the core teachings are based on things prettier, neater, and more comfortable than carrying a cross every day of our lives. The only problem is that this is a different gospel than the one Jesus preached and gave His life to fulfill.
Jesus was willing to fight against the worthless practices of the Pharisees at all costs. Indeed, it was none other than these same religious practitioners that had Jesus crucified on a cross. Jesus offered life while the Pharisees offered enslavement to form, appearance, and religious tradition. He illustrated the dangers of self-focused religion infiltrating our faith as yeast or leaven permeating a loaf of bread. Once you allow any of it into your life, it eventually infiltrates its way into the foundation of your faith and undermines its authenticity.
The problem with the Pharisees was their unwillingness to consider the possibility that they were part of the problem. They refused to examine themselves critically, be held accountable transparently, and consider the possibility that their need for God’s redemption was profoundly higher than they could accept. And this self-righteous attitude is at the heart of countless religious wars filled with two sides who couldn’t fathom how differently God sees things than them.
I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s warnings of the last days’ time in 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (God’s Word edition): You must understand this: In the last days there will be violent periods of time. People will be selfish and love money. They will brag, be arrogant, and use abusive language. They will curse their parents, show no gratitude, have no respect for what is holy, and lack normal affection for their families. They will refuse to make peace with anyone. They will be slanderous, lack self-control, be brutal, and have no love for what is good. They will be traitors. They will be reckless and conceited. They will love pleasure rather than God. They will appear to have a godly life, but they will not let the power and Spirit of God to change them. Stay away from such people.
I find it interesting that the same spirit of self-righteous strength that permeated Jesus’ time also describes the cultural climate of the last days. What is most alarming to me isn’t that Paul’s description matches that of our culture today. Rather, it is that it describes the behavior of believers filling our church pews and leading our churches. Statistical studies have shown that there is little difference in the behavior of believers and non-believers in our society. This trend is easier to grasp when you consider the feeble spiritual diet with which they’ve been fed for generations in our churches.
Again, I want to interject that this message has no undertone of accusation or shame. Rather, it is a call for redemptive reformation. There is so much more available to us. We don’t have to settle for the status quo. We have the ability to facilitate change within our churches, hearts, and culture. The answer has nothing to do with us trying harder or anything about us at all. It’s all about leaving our self-righteousness on the floor and taking on the much lighter yoke of Jesus instead. There is no shame for our past failures. There is only an opportunity to ask God for more because that’s His desire for us.
Let me drive this point home a little further by comparing the values, priorities, and practices of our churches today with those of Jesus.
Unlike Jesus’ model, our churches don’t typically focus its mission on going into the streets in search of hurting people to feed, love, and heal. Rather, we expect people to come inside our church walls. And in so doing they must conform to our dress and behavioral code. They are expected to have their act together, show up on time, and contribute to the topic of discussion in Sunday School. Indeed, our churches welcome healthy, whole people who have their act together – or at least can pretend they do for a few hours each week. Saving face is much more valued and prioritized in our churches than true spiritual transformation. Appearance is given a higher value than substance. To be welcomed in our church, you must have a polished presentation of your spiritual wholeness.
The problem is that people like that simply don’t exist. We are all broken people in need of the redemptive touch of God. If we have to disguise our brokenness to be accepted in our churches, it isn’t likely we will find what’s needed to overcome our personal constraints and spiritual deficiencies. As such, the very climate of our churches directly interferes with its mission. Attendees of our churches are expected to sing along in worship, pay attention to the sermon, and have something nice to say on their way out. And why are we surprised that that experience doesn’t give them everything they need to live full, abundant, empowered lives throughout the remainder of the week. Hence, our pew-dwellers live feeble, anemic lives when it really counts – when no one is watching.
Our churches are filled with programs and events. Yet, people attend for years without ever being truly known. There is little real relationship happening within the walls of our churches. There is friendliness with lots of shaking of hands and pleasant smiles but little letting down of defenses in order to be known. Yet, true love is redemptive and confrontational. It confronts out of love because it sees the potential in those around us and where they are settling for less life than is available to them. It confronts in kindness because the relationship is driven by a desire to do everything in our power to see them become the people God created them to be. It is not self-serving or agenda-driven. Rather, it is all about coaching people to reach beyond the mediocre and into their dreams and potential.
It’s all about calling people into greatness through a close encounter with a life-changing God. Being pacified with a water-down spiritual experience Sunday after Sunday doesn’t fulfill the need deeply ingrained within every human being to know and be known. Once people get a taste of something real, they won’t be alleviated by a shallow facade any longer. When God invited people to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), He knew they would never again be satisfied by the lesser pleasures offered outside of experiencing His goodness. The problem is that people do not taste of God in our churches. Instead, they taste of church – and the difference between the two is life and death. There is no life in a church – there is only life in Jesus. So, we are feeding people the wrong diet in our churches.
The deep cry of the human heart is to encounter God’s redemptive power. We were created by God with an innate need to enter into an atmosphere that allows us to shift our gaze onto God and worship Him with wholehearted abandon. We were made to share our real experiences, struggles, and life experiences with one another. Through this process of transparently knowing and being known, we find fellowship and unity in Jesus. We were created to give our lives away to one another and to the hurting and needy. This is the way of Jesus and the way of the cross He instructed His disciples to follow on a daily basis.
But, that’s not what people experience in our churches. I don’t want to be overly redundant here but I do want to drive the point home. Our churches are performance-based. They are focused on programs rather than a lasting transformation of lives. Worship tends to involve people performing for people instead of a collective people entering into God’s presence to give Him wholehearted adoration. Our church services aren’t focused on ministering before the presence of God but on entertaining each other. It’s self-centered instead of genuinely God-centered. It’s focused on productivity instead of relationship. It’s all about roles and structure instead of identity and experiential faith.
Church leadership, staff, and members are overworked and rewarded for doing so. Our churches grind through our people to keep its programs going. Community and relationship take a back-seat to productivity and timelines. Years of unresolved conflict and anger fester between people. True fathering and nurturing that genuinely helps people get unstuck is a rarity. Coaching and mentoring are the exception more than the rule. Agendas focus time, energy, facilities, and money internally instead of upward and outward. Driving traffic to church programs and events is a high value and priority. A consistent goal is to increase numbers. Bringing people inside the church walls is the primary call-to-action. It’s all about driving agendas and ambitions. How much more might we accomplish if we stopped all our programs and used that time and energy instead to truly pray, worship God and love one another unconditionally, transparently, and confrontationally?
You can see this trend by driving through neighborhoods and reading the church signs. Most feature the service times and some trite saying that does little to feed the deep needs of the people driving by. They focus people’s attention on the activities of the church and offer passersby nothing more than a trite empty saying they found in some church-sign-quote book somewhere. This is why our voice carries no weight in our culture today. The whole experience is a mile wide and a quarter-inch deep.
People just down the street from our churches are living lives unaffected by our presence. The poor are hurting just as much as ever. Our faith, worship and intercession are doing little to change our region. We aren’t destroying the works of darkness. We haven’t closed any porn shops or reduced prostitution. Our members aren’t transforming our workplaces with integrity, love and prayer. Corporate and political corruption isn’t being systemically confronted and dismantled. Sex abusers are feared and shunned instead of being loved unconditionally by a group of people who are regularly experiencing the transforming power of God that could set them free too. Illiteracy is commonplace within driving distances of our churches. Human trafficking is still growing prolifically within the reach of our church doors. Fighting injustice is not a part of our daily efforts to bring God’s kingdom on the earth as it is in heaven.
This is what we are offering up as a demonstration of the unconditional redemptive love of God to our communities? And is it any wonder who is to blame for them not stepping foot in our church doors on Sunday morning?
Why do we have so many churches in our neighborhoods and yet crime and poverty remain so prolific? Are we that ineffective at facilitating change? Are we too anemic and powerless to really make a difference that is visible in the neighborhoods in which our churches are planted? Does our prayer and worship have no residual effect on our geographic region? Is it any wonder why our culture wants something more? If we aren’t stemming the tides of evil in our own communities, do we have anything of real power or value to help them in their own personal battles with evil and darkness? This is the message our culture is receiving from the results of our presence and efforts. When this trend changes so too will our culture’s perception and response to us.
What we are offering up to our culture doesn’t feed their deep-seated hunger to become the people God created them to be. They were made to gaze upon infinite beauty and spend eternity in adoration of all His goodness. They were created to commune with the Creator of reality and know His thoughts. This is the life God makes available to us here and now on a daily basis. But so few in our midst are experiencing it regularly because our church leaders aren’t doing so themselves. Hence, our churches are anemic and powerless.
Instead, what we are offering are PowerPoint presentations filled with tidbit tips and pointers. Our message is focused on exhortation, inspiration, and motivation without real substance to bring lasting internal transformation to turn the tides of the battles most will face in the days and weeks ahead.
But the problem goes much deeper than this. What is most significant isn’t any one of these shortcomings or even their cumulative total. Rather, it is that the true message of Jesus Christ has been undermined in favor of a shallow imitation. The message being communicated verbally and otherwise is focused on a self-based model – here is where you aren’t measuring up, here’s a technique you can try, why aren’t you coming to this service, etc. Productivity is valued over innate God-given value that requires nothing more than being and receiving.
The reality is that there is so much more real spiritual power available to us than what is being taught in our churches. Jesus Christ is the focal point of our spirituality. His blood shed on the cross has the power to completely transform us on a daily basis. It is the foundation of our faith. The onus isn’t on us to fix anything. Rather, our faith centers around the person of Jesus, His completed work on the cross, and His power to do everything we need to experience abundant life.
Like Jesus, we take up our crosses daily and follow Him. When we encounter circumstances too big for us to handle, we don’t control, manipulate, and coerce others to try to get our needs met. Rather, we turn to Him as our sole source of provision and revelation. In so doing, we move beyond self-strength and into a personal encounter with a God who is so much more loving, brilliant, kind, generous, and powerful than anything we know or understand. We bring Him our brokenness, guilt, and shame. In exchange, He redeems, transforms, empowers, and provides for all our needs bountifully.
The true gospel is focused on the person of God. We have infinite worth and value, not because of anything about us. Indeed, there is nothing within us to warrant love. Rather, we have infinite value because the One of infinite worth loves us unconditionally. We bring nothing of value to God. Instead, He is everything we need. We live our lives daily encountering our own brokenness and shortcomings. In response, we don’t play the blame game and shift the focus off of our inherent guilt and shame. Instead, we shift our focus onto the source of life. He is our source for absolutely everything. We look not to ourselves but in all things and at all times, we lean on His glorious grace and provision. This is a life lived through the lens of the cross. It is the essence of a resurrected life.
If we are tapping into the true power of the blood of Jesus Christ in our churches and more importantly in our communities by our churches, we will begin to affect cultural transformation that our society cannot ignore. What is needed in our churches is to move past shallow form and tradition and pursue relationships over all things. If we align our priorities with God’s (Jesus informed us that His two highest priorities are to love God first – then, as He transforms us into His likeness through intimate experiential knowing, we let His love stored up in us encounter those around us), we will once again invite the life-changing presence of God into our churches. Better yet, we will move our churches outside of its walls and out into the streets and communities so in need of a God-encounter.
Our churches will continue to be dysfunctional so long as our faith is polluted with the same self-focused belief systems as those who hung Jesus on a cross. Thinking more positively or trying harder are not steps in the right direction. We have developed an institution that is ineffective and culturally irrelevant. I don’t blame our culture for wanting something more than what is being practiced in our churches. I want more myself. It is time for us as a church to move past systems, strategies, agendas, values, and priorities that don’t work. We can’t afford to continue preaching a message we aren’t living and to live lives devoid of the power of God. Our culture needs His love just as much as we do. Isn’t it time we started really experiencing it ourselves?
Again, this isn’t a message of condemnation. Rather, it is one of the needed reformations. We can do better than this. If we don’t, people will continue to unplug. So much of what goes on inside our churches today have no lasting impact. That being the case, why waste ourselves on what doesn’t work. Let’s unplug from what doesn’t work and pursue God with all that extra time and energy instead.
Our churches need reformation. That reformation can only take place in one place and in one way. It must begin within each of us. There are no exceptions. None of us is experiencing as much life as God has for us. The world at large is desperately in need of a church that is regularly experiencing the power of God. Our culture is what it is in large part because of what the church is doing and more importantly what it is not doing. If God isn’t to be found in our culture it is because He isn’t to be found in our churches. When Jesus gave us a picture of Himself in relationship to the church, it was of Him standing on the outside knocking on the door. We’d do well to answer the door and let Him inside. He’s our only hope of lasting reformation.
We need to return to the message Jesus gave His disciples. We need to embrace a model like His where God’s life-changing power is walked out in a close, transparent community. We must awaken to the reality that our faith, as it is lived out in our churches, has been infiltrated by the leaven of the Pharisees – that humanistic approach to righteousness that is based on us living up to people’s expectations based on our own efforts and strength.
The reality is that none of us are immune to the effects of this humanistic spirit infiltrating our faith and lives. This isn’t a problem others need to deal with. It is alive and well within each of us. The problem is with you and me – not someone else. We are all prone to blind spots that prevent us from seeing ourselves accurately. Our own self-serving agendas are more deeply infiltrated into our belief systems about God than we realize. There is some Pharisee within each of us – and much more than we imagine possible.
It isn’t a matter of whether we are affected but to what degree – and in most cases, it runs much deeper than we imagined possible. It is only by allowing the Spirit of God to reveal what is broken within us that we have any hope of breaking free of the power of self-deception and self-strength. I’m afraid that our churches have so been influenced by this spirit that much of what goes on within our churches does more harm than good. Our churches are as devoid of power and substance as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
Earlier, I mentioned my suspicion that God is involved in this movement of people moving out of our churches who aren’t aligned with their values and priorities. If you look at history, you see a trend around spiritual reformation. Over time, our values and priorities tend to get off track with God’s. We need a fresh move of God to come in and shake us up in order to get us back on track with God’s agenda. I believe we are in the early stages of just such a spiritual awakening or reformation. I believe the Lord is causing discontentment in His people. He wants us to be as hungry for reformation and transformation as He is for us.
And remember, we are the church. We are the church when we are sitting one-on-one in the coffee shop. We are the church when we share a meal and laughs together in each others’ home. And, we are the church when we are talking business strategy at work. That building down the street isn’t the church. That’s just the place where some of us meet… or at least where some of us used to meet. Unless what goes on inside that church building changes drastically and soon, it may be replaced with something that actually makes a positive difference in our communities. Perhaps that would be a step in the right direction.
How about it? Ready for change? Let’s stop doing what doesn’t work and pursue God instead. God has the answers, we don’t. Reformation is needed in our churches and it must begin in me.
My hope is that two things come from this article. First, for those people who are disenfranchised from the church because they want something more, I want you to find hope and a voice that leads you down the path for which you’ve been searching. Second, I hope Christian leaders take a few steps back and consider the possibility that change is needed within the church – change that can only be made by the leaders of the church (and yes I count myself in with this group of people).
Also, I suspect there are two types of people in terms of how they will respond to this article. The first group of people will take the low-road of self-evaluation. They will consider these possibilities and out of a desire to avoid being caught in these pitfalls, will ask God for revelation about any areas of their life where they may be living out of this false religious paradigm. The second group is those who are so deeply trapped by this empty religious system that they are unable and unwilling to even consider the possibility of its infiltration into their own life. When confronted with this possibility, they will take the high-road of pride and self-protection. Just as when the Pharisees were confronted by Jesus, they reacted out of a desire to not be exposed or consider the possibility of their own lack and brokenness. They shifted the blame with violent accusations and pointed fingers. They were so self-deceived by their religious piety that they attacked Jesus because He was exposing something seriously wrong deep within them. Which will be your response?
I know what mine continues to be. I see the brokenness ever-present in me. It goes deeper than I ever imagined possible. And, it drives me to the only one capable of transforming me into His image. I come to Him and exchange my brokenness for His redemptive provision. Like the Prodigal Son, He clothes me with His righteousness. He puts His ring of sonship on my finger. He puts sandals on my feet and calls me His son. He restores all I’ve lost in bountiful provision. He redeems all my brokenness. And so I go about the business of life on a daily basis knowing no good thing will ever be found in me and resting in the assurance that it is His good pleasure to give to me what I could never merit and will always need without end. I bring Him nothing and each day He receives it with delight and pours out on me His endless supply of goodness.
What an amazing plan you’ve concocted God. You have created a being with limitless need in order to exercise your infinite supply and unconditional love. Your infiniteness has newfound meaning and purpose in the context of my unending neediness. You delight in me recognizing my absolute need for you and coming to you in each moment to receive what can come from no other source. I come to you to meet my need to breathe real life for a change. As marvelous as your purposes and provision is God, nothing compares to the worth that is you. Best yet, you’ve given me the most precious of all things – your heart. Therefore, I am the richest of all.
And all that’s required for its receipt is the awareness of my neediness and willingness to come to you instead of trying to meet those needs myself. And this is the difference between the righteous and those in utter darkness. And so I choose life. I choose to come to you instead of trying to control, manipulate, and coerce others in order to get my needs met. Oh that the church would make the same choice. Let reformation come and change our church and please let it start in me.
God, I confess that I need help dealing with this issue in my life. I want to break out of the worthless religious systems that are not filled with Your presence. I ask You to show me where to go to get my needs met. I am hungry for a real encounter with You. I’m asking You to invade my heart and life. Let me taste of Your goodness and encounter Your Holy Spirit. I open myself up fully to You. Come and be everything I need because I am not satisfied with anything this world has to offer. Thank You for hearing me. Thank You for caring and love me so well! Thank You for Your faithfulness to help me! In Jesus’ name, I pray, Amen.
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