Reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station, the Ukraine , exploded on April 26, 1986. The result was death and contamination from the tons of radioactive debris that was spewed into the air and carried aloft for hundreds of miles. This disaster, which began deep in the core of the reactor, has been called the worst nuclear accident in history.
Many parallels can be drawn between Chernobyl and the church today. The lack of success at transmitting the life-giving message of the gospel today can be traced to practices within the church. We don’t need negative outside influences. Death and destruction are emanating from within the church itself.
We can certainly provide spiritual-sounding reasons for the failure of the church, particularly in the West, to live up to its mandate to be salt and light to the community. We need go no further in our search for answers, however, than the thirst to belong. The church today, in many instances, is more interested in cultural conformity than in reforming the culture. Os Guinness wrote of this quest:
What is historically certain is that cultural conformity is never the end of the story for the church, any more than it was for the nation of Israel. To both, God has said: When you want to become like other nations… “you are thinking of something that can never be.” Cultural conformity, it seems, is only a stop along the line. That line either doubles back through grace to renewal and reformation or continues straight on to judgment and destruction…
For the fact is that our real enemy today is not secularism, not humanism, not Marxism, not any of the great religious rivals to the Christian gospel, not even modernization, but ourselves. We who are Western Christians are simply a special case of a universal human condition to which Pascal pointed earlier: “Jesus Christ comes to tell men that they have no enemies but themselves.” Or as it has been put more recently: “We have met the enemy and it is us.”1
So what are the problems within the church that are so harmful? They are legion. For this brief look into our—very solvable—problems, however, I will focus on just four. These are a lack of genuine warmth, fighting the wrong battles, the seduction of Christianity, and reactionism.
It’s cold here in Maine as I write this article. Temperatures are at record-breaking lows. Yet, these frigid days are nothing in comparison to the reception some visitors receive in Christian churches. Many years ago I moved to a new town and was looking for a church home. While my family was away, I visited the two churches in town. First, I went to the Congregational church. The worship and the sermon were shallow. I tried to benevolently chalk this up to a bad day. I went down to the fellowship hall after the service for the coffee hour. Not one person spoke to me. I left and put my name in the visitors book. I never received a call.
The following week, I attended the morning worship service at the Baptist church. This proved to be a fiercely independent, fundamental, we’re-the-only-ones-who-can-possibly-be-right-about-anything church. I had signed the book on the way in. I did not stay for coffee. The pastor did call, however, and invited me to come visit him in his office. When I arrived, he spent an hour trying to convert me because he discerned that I was Reformed.
Imagine a newcomer with deep spiritual needs seeking solace in such places as these. This careless attitude does not go unnoticed by the world. Roxanna Robinson, in a review of a novel by Dorie Friend, a former president of Swarthmore College, described “the Presbyterian ethic” as the setting for the book. She wrote,
This Protestant code is, of course, as admirable as any. Based on Puritan ideals, it encompasses a strict moral regimen, a Spartan approach to misfortune and a stern commitment to charity. When the form is observed without the content, however, the result is a sad parody of the original: behavior that is cold, secretive and unloving, and that is governed not by morals and ethics, but by silence and distance.”2
Why are we like this? Basic human conservatism is one answer. There is general comfort in being an “insider.” We work hard to be in the right circle of friends, both within and without the church. We often exude the attitude, “I’m comfortable here. You’re an outsider.” Sometimes we may be so caught up in greeting our friends, or “doing ministry” that we have precious little time to reach out to newcomers who are standing there shifting from one foot to the other simply waiting to be recognized and welcomed.
Our “issues,” of course, also blind us to human need, at times. Orthodoxy is certainly important. Heresy must be fought. We spend so much time, however, paying attention to whether we are Orthodox or liberal, liturgically correct, or socially conscious enough, that real hunger and thirst for righteousness are pushed aside. Each year, at the general assemblies, synods, and conventions of various denominational groups, precious time is spent on judicial cases. Protestors line up to rail against theological stances, policy statements, even worship services. This time and energy may, in some instances, be well spent. More often that not, however, the same amount of effort expended in evangelism, hospitality, and winsome exploration of the claims of Christ would produce more fruit.
Finally, fear is a major factor in our seeming inability to reach out to people in the name of Christ. Some people simply push us to the edge of our comfort zones. While pastoring a church in a foreign country, I often went out to speak with residents in the area around the church building. Many of these folks were part of a cult. In case after case, after I invited them to come to church, I would be told that they—or a friend—had tried to attend worship services at the church. They had been turned away, however, because they weren’t wearing suits.
It’s much easier to marshal our forces against a hideous enemy than it is to “clean up our own act.” The first step is to recognize that we are the problem. Christians have an obligation to reach out to the world with the message of Christ. We cannot do this when we have a fortress mentality. We can’t hide behind the walls of the church, enjoying our latte and our yoga classes, while the world rots outside. Christ reached out to the lowliest segments of society. In most of our situations, we are simply being asked to mention the name of Jesus to our societal peers. What is holding us back?
The church will survive. The church is Christ’s bride. Our collective task, as followers of Christ, is to be obedient. For, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”3 In the next few installments, I will address fighting the wrong battles, the seduction of Christianity, and reactionism, as well as offering responses from God’s word.
1. Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 232.
2. Roxanna Robinson, review of Family Laundry, by Dorie Friend, New York Times Review of Books, 18 January 1987, 10.
3. 1 Peter 4:10 (NIV).