How the West was Lost – One Reason the church is Dying in America and why a “mixed drink” will help

The first few minutes of this video (or the print version of the article) reveals a trend in the United States whereby a larger and larger percentage of the populace move toward the “religiously unaffiliated” category.  The trend is happening across every age demographic, but is particularly pointed among millennials.

In the wake of the survey results, there’s been no shortage of diagnostics offered, and further dicing of the data.  Words have spent explaining why:  Homosexuality.  Science.  The creeping effects of secularism.  Theological compromise.   Bad music.  Justice.  Bad coffee.

It’s the same song, different verse, that we’ve been hearing now for forty years.  It’s mostly finger pointing, and “speck in your brother’s eye” stuff that we’re talking about.  Emergent types are looking for a bigger tent as they read Richard Rohr and drink Scotch.  The new religious right quote folks fighting for the all important doctrines of election and inerrancy as they gather for coffee and sound their battle cry.

Blah blah blah.  About three years ago I grew weary of taking part in these conversations, fearing that I was just another voice in the midst of the myriad of sound and fury.  It became clear by talking with close friends who’d quit the church that only those on the inside care about these arguments anyway, that our internal arguments just reinforce the outsider’s view of our irrelevance.

I still feel that way now, only now it’s hard to even listen.  The whole thing appears, on the surface anyway, to be an exercise in rearranging the chairs after the boat’s hit the iceberg.  “How shall we set the chairs so people will come?  Circle?  Rows?  Small groups of four?  Three?  Stacked in the corner?”   Nobody cares.  The dramatic shift toward unaffiliated is because people are moving on.  Any plan that claims to offer a ‘way back’ is, in my opinion, misguided.

What is needed though, is for we church leaders to do some serious introspecting about our own hearts.  The truth is that it is we leaders of the past two generations, with our priorities and world view, that allowed the ship to hit the iceberg.  We should ask about our own health, not in hopes of getting people back into their fold, but in hopes of fixing the leak in the hull, for the good news is that the church isn’t the Titanic—by virtue of Christ’s life, the ship can be healed!

I’m slowly coming to see that a big reason there’s a hole in the hull is because we’ve failed, often catastrophically, to let Jesus be Jesus.  Instead we’ve used some sort of fabricated replica of Jesus, some plastic mass-produced thing, that highlights some elements of Jesus that we think will play well in our time and place.

The real Jesus can’t be fabricated by religious efforts.  The real Jesus can only grow in us and express life through us to the extent that we are yielded to his rule and reign in our lives.  What grows out of that yieldedness won’t be easily brand-able, marketable, or reducible to sound bytes and Twitter posts.  But this requires the hard slow work of spiritual formation, and trusting God with results; hardly the stuff of our upwardly mobile, market share, and metrics driven world.

The way of recovery is to realize that, ironically, the pure Jesus is a mixed drink almost every time, usually of two seemingly incompatible ingredients.  The cup that is Christ’s life is filled with apparent contradictions, and the only way the real Jesus shows up is if both sides of the contradiction are present.  Here are two examples of what I mean:

Leadership as a Servant – The testosterone saturated view of leadership that’s prevailed for the past many decades has not only marginalized and disempowered half the church; it’s created a situation where, behind the veil, domestic violence and spouse abuse occur unchecked.  This is because we have a hard time seeing “servant” and “leader” in the same sentence.  And yet the reality is that this is the mixture that is the real Jesus.  He led by taking a towel and wrapping himself about, serving his followers the way a slave serves.  Though he’s a bridegroom and longed for intimacy with his people, and yet refused to force himself on them in the name of headship, so wept at the gates of Jerusalem because they wouldn’t let him in.  Every element of his leadership was saturated with submission and servanthood.  Wow!

What if marriages worked that way?  What if pastors led that way?  What if we prayed and confessed that we don’t really understand how to lead and serve at the same time because  the hierarchy embedded in our culture is so strong that we can’t see how to do this, apart from divine revelation?

I’d suggest that we leaders start there, and then take next steps by finding some ways to serve our spouses meaningfully, if we’re married, and our team at work too.  Do you think this would make marriages in the church healthier?  Might churches becomes more joy filled, less fearful?  This has been a profound revelation for me lately, both at work and home.  I’ll have more to say, perhaps, when I’ve walked the road a bit further.  For now, it’s enough to say that I’m tired of the plastic Jesus I’ve fabricated who leads like a tank.  We need to find ways to lead by serving.

Grace and Truth – There are churches that take holiness and transformation seriously, so much so that people are afraid to present their real selves to the community for fear of being viewed as immature, weak, ‘fleshly’, or whatever other derogatory adjective you’d like to choose as the descriptor.  The disconnect in these places is between what people present themselves to be, and who they actually are, and it’s this way because there’s no grace.

There are grace churches that essentially have jettisoned truth by saying, “Come as you are.  Stay as you are.  You’re forgiven; heaven bound.  It’s enough.”  These places too, are conspicuous in their lack of transformation; still drinking too, or too greedy, or too self-absorbed, after 30 years of participation.

What happens though, when grace and truth are brought together, filling the cup that is our life?  For starters, we’ll be free to be authentic with each other and God, knowing that our depths of failure can never diminish the God’s infinite love and acceptance of us.  However, we’ll not feel free to stay where we are.  We’ll embrace the reality that because God loves us infinitely, he is infinitely committed to our transformation.

These mixtures don’t happen with humans at the helm of the ship.  When we’re in control we always drift.  Leadership at the cost of servanthood, truth at the cost of grace.  You get the picture.  And then, boom!  There’s a hole in the hull.

It won’t be fixed by fair trade coffee in the foyer, or better lighting.  For the church to be the church requires letting the real Jesus show up in all his mysterious contradictions.  I can only pray we’ll have courage to move in that direction.



2 thoughts on “How the West was Lost – One Reason the church is Dying in America and why a “mixed drink” will help

  1. WOW indeed! your truth with this article is exactly what it needs to be and is in this piece. I need to leave as short a note as possible so that it will be read. Taking prayer out of the schools and the cavalier way in which marriage is handled are two reasons; children and family; why our culture is headed for disaster. The Word of YahWeh has many stories which show what happens when the church takes in the pagan practices of the society around them. Moses, Joseph, Jonah, Abraham etc. give us reason to give today’s world the most grave and serious reasons as any that I’ve known known in my 60 years in this situation. Things like slavery, be-headings and whales have been used by our FATHER to give us, in our hearts, reasons for paying attention to prayer and family and righteousness of which, since at least the 60’s, have been secondary to the pagan practices of our culture. I grew up in the turbulent 60’s; Assassinations, war and a myriad of other woe’s; and I have yet to see a church that even comes close to what it should be. And I have attended a dozen of them, of different states, denominations and styles. OK, maybe two of them have come close. As far as marriage is concerned, the fact that I have had four of them might give you reason to read the rest of this note. On July 9, 2009, in about three seconds, my entire reason to and way for living ceased to be. I fell, had a traumatic head injury, severed my spine by breaking my back and in a coma for a week. This took my abilities to think, sing, play, taste, hear, swallow and believe, the day before my 54th birthday; on a trip that I wouldn’t wish for the worst of enemies (Christ said to love even our enemies). You are also right in saying that our attitude toward our world represents more of hatred than love, I.E. 9/11. I digress. My fourth wife has shown me that she really meant the vow of ‘in sickness and health’ more than I could ven have imagined. She has kept me from killing myself, given me 24/7 constant care and having a masters degree in psychology, she has helped me to get back the reason to live; which is, of course to follow HIS attributes of loving the world and taking up our cross. On this 7/9 I have existed for six years carrying my cross in the belly of a whale because of my dear wife’s support. I knew what it felt like, once again, to be a non-believer for the first 5 years and remember what Divine relief a non-believer receives upon putting their trust in the CREATOR and the awful existence without that belief. I have thought of other nations, people and even ISIS must be feeling without a SAVIOR and found the reasons why they can drink, drug, be-head and scores of other Satanic practices. Without HOPE in HIM, all humans are left with is a fallen nature. I expect the fallen ones to try world domination because many have tried before who were fallen and only found that the CREATOR changes their plans drastically. In closing, may I plead with all believers to pray as though their life depended on it, which it does.

  2. My new blogging website is still under construction, but here are my initial thoughts on this post. I slept on them first. 🙂

    Okay, okay. So the Pew Research Center has released a study about young people leaving behind their *official* affiliation to a religious institution or denomination. It’s being spun by CNN for the purpose of creating some drama and some facile discussion about the political implications of this statistical trend, but just because it got pepper-sprayed across the Internet, church folk are reacting to it — viscerally.

    Have you read the study? Have you even looked at the study? Or searched for it? It’s more than 70 pages long, so I imagine most church folk don’t have time for that. It was also RELEASED IN 2012!

    PEOPLE! This is nothing new, in more ways than one, because a) the study was issued AND covered many years ago and b) it has always been true that people are leaving behind those things that impinge upon their development. Americans have perfected the practice of leaving with our individual freedoms license. We leave school, church, marriage, family, pets, goods, garbage — everything except our daily food supply and the things that feed our egos, apparently — but people walked away from Jesus, too.

    Occasionally, He wept about it, but He didn’t run after them or insult them or make them into object lessons and He didn’t let it deter Him from His mission, which was TO ESTABLISH THE KINGDOM OF GOD IN OUR MIDST BY RIGHTEOUSNESS AND TO DISPLAY THE CHARACTER OF GOD IN UNASSAILABLY CLEAR TERMS.

    So let’s not get all blubbery and righteously indignant about Ashleigh Banfield making political hay out of an aging set of findings that were self-selected responses by Pew’s study group population.

    I mean, it’s not untrue that people are leaving church and it’s not insignificant if your goal is to win an election and your constituency is changing. That sort of thing is crucial to a successful campaign strategy and politicians will have to rethink how they address the voters, but the Millenial population has not historically had high turn-out numbers. Even the interview panel from this clip covers that factoid.

    The thing that church folk need to KNOW is that the same God who grants the gift of faith to those who reverence Him in spirit and in truth is the God Who goes with us into the darkness of that *outside world*. He never said, “You will never leave me.” What He said was, “I will never leave YOU.”

    As one who spent a great many years running from the plastic god who leads the institutional church like a tank? I am still breathing in order to say that HE MEANS WHAT HE SAID. In every dark and dank and unChristian place that I have been, even in moments and places where the shades of hell were visible and terrible, the God of our salvation came to save me and to lead me out of doubt and disbelief. He answered my questions, but only after I had the context to understand the answers. He proved His faithfulness, for I thought I could only know the truth after I died and met Him in person, but He showed up time and again to comfort me, to call me back to the way, to convince me that it wasn’t my imagination or a mental disorder or a demon (as certain church folk had told me) that held me close, it was the Living Breathing Saving Word and no one could pluck me from His kind and holy hand.

    That outside world is brutal and unreliable and false in every way that matters to a human, but God is faithful — even there. If you love someone who walked away, I’m begging you: Don’t judge. Give your anxiety to Jesus. Trust in His UNFAILING LOVE, His INVINCIBLE AUTHORITY over our lives, His INEXHAUSTIBLE MERCY. Pray that the Word that has been sown in that soul will take root and remain vibrantly alive to nurture your loved one in the faith. Believe that the Spirit is with your beloved FOR THEIR GOOD. Dust off your welcome mat and keep the lights on. Wag more. Bark less.

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