Hey Church, We Need to Talk.
“The sound of honking cars disturbs the silence in the prayer room. Layered on top of this street noise are distant explosions. Iraqi Monk Raeed looks out the window. Cars line up to leave the city. What he has feared for weeks has now come true. The ISIS army is approaching. Raeed calmly grabs his stuff. ‘Whatever happens, Jesus will be with me.’” This is the story of a man who recently converted to Christianity, and dedicated himself to a life of prayer in a small monastery (“small” meaning Raeed and four other men), who were made refugees when ISIS invaded. Now, Raeed and the other monks have set up a church in a refugee camp outside of Erbil, and the services are so full that they have no room for all the faithful believers to worship. If you are thinking that this sounds nothing like any church you have ever been to, you are not alone. Most churches that I have attended go something like this: members of the congregation trickle into the eleven o’clock service, hot coffee in hand in an attempt to stay awake during the thirty-five minute, three-point sermon, that will inevitably follow a short series of radio worthy worship music. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that coffee is wicked, or that we should never venture away from the hymnal, but I hope that you can see the difference in the Iraqi refugee church and the average one down the street. We call them both “church,” but they are totally different. The most astonishing thing is that the persecuted church is thriving all over the world, and the Western church is plateaued and declining. So what is this thing called church really about? To answer this question, it would be appropriate to look back to the First Century church, and see what caused this discrepancy, and where we go from here.
So let’s talk about the state of the church, not just a church but the Church, the “ecclesia”, the body of Christ, the community of believers. If we read about the First Century church in the book of Acts and most of Paul’s letters, I think we can all agree that the average Protestant church in the United States looks almost nothing like the church established after Jesus ascended. So what’s going on here? If we zoom out from the United States and look at the global church, we find some truly staggering statistics. Thom Rainer of the Malphurs Group states that eight out of ten churches of the 400,000 in the United States are either plateaued or in decline, in terms of membership and attendance. Perhaps we should back up and define a plateaued church. Rainer defines a plateaued church as one that is growing beneath the population growth rate of a particular community. So with that in mind, we contrast by shifting to the global church. There has been an incredible explosion in the number of believers in non-Western cultures. According to Krish Kandiah writing for Christianity Today, in 1900, there were nine million Christians on the entire continent of Africa. One hundred sixteen years later, there are 541 million African people professing Christ.
But rather than focusing on the depressing dichotomy in church growth, it would be valuable to look back at where the church began. We use the word “church” almost as cheaply as the word “love” nowadays. It’s a common modifier for words like: music, service, people, food, building, nursery, you get the idea. So what does it actually mean to be a church? The dictionary defines church as “A building used for public Christian worship.” But is the church just a building? If we look at scripture, we find a very different definition. Acts 12:5 says that while Peter was imprisoned, the church was earnestly praying to God, and Ephesians 5:25 commands husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church. These are just a small sampling of the scripture referring to the church as a group of believers rather than a building.
So what is the job of the church? Why would God even bother to create a group of sinful people to be His witnesses? And while there is no answer to that question outside of God’s amazing grace, Ephesians 3:10-11 gives a great answer to the purpose of the church: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to His eternal purpose that He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In the surrounding verses, Paul refers to the “Mystery of Christ” as something that we are privileged to know that previous generations did not. The mystery is explained in verse six: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Paul is very clearly stating that the job of the church is to make known the good news that the salvation of Christ is for Jews and Gentiles, Christ died for all, and everyone can become an heir with Him.
With the purpose of the church in mind, let’s look at how Paul’s original audience, the First Church, carried out this commission. In Acts chapter two, when the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, Peter immediately preaches the gospel to anyone and everyone, the simple message “Repent and be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38), and verse forty-one says that 3,000 were added to their number that day. This was the practice of the First Century church, a simple message about Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit. Not only was the message powerful, the fellowship that they had together is striking. Acts 2:42-47 says about the church:
“They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer…all the believers were together, and had everything in common…every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Wow. If that is what church is supposed to look like, we are missing the mark in a big way. However, it would be foolish for us to think that this church flourished in this way because they were living under ideal conditions.
The life of the First Church was marked by suffering and vicious persecution at the hands of the Roman government, as well as Jewish leaders like Saul (turned Paul), who intended to stamp out the spread of the gospel. We can look at events such as the stoning of Stephen, or the multiple imprisonments of Paul, or the believers’ frequent trips to the Roman colosseum, and be left wondering how on earth Christianity spread across the Roman empire like wildfire. Pastor Mike Riley conjectures why the church grew under such opposition, and one of his reasons is that the believers “preached the gospel without fear or favor…” in other words, fearlessly proclaiming Christ while knowing the potential consequences, and doing so knowing that this would not gain them favor with others who did not want to hear the message.
While it is true that the church tends to thrive under persecution, to be fair, that is not always the case. Marc Cortez writes that we must not grow calloused to the suffering of our brothers and sisters, believing that what is happening in hostile countries is all right because it will cause the church to grow. And persecution has not always grown the church. Cortez gives an example of the church in North Africa that was all but snuffed out in the Muslim invasion during the Crusades. I agree with Cortez in that the correlation of persecution and church growth does not equal causation, in that one directly causes the other. Church growth under persecution simply means that the suffering believers cling to God, and refuse to back down in the face of opposition, and because of the power of the gospel, it can spread even the most hostile of places. I think that’s the reason that the First Church grew so rapidly, the Holy Spirit was very much alive in the hearts of believers, and they believed so strongly in the resurrected Christ that they were willing to die for the sake of the gospel. How could that kind of gospel fire not spread?
Now that we have looked at the First Church, how and why it grew, and how they operated, let’s look at the modern, non-Western churches, and see how they are reflective of the First Church. As previously stated, the church in Africa is multiplying, and the Chinese church is seeing rapid growth as well. According to the Berkley Center, the number of Protestant Christians has multiplied from less than one million in 1949 to sixty million today, and that happened whilst the Chinese government aimed to “suppress and eradicate” Christianity through intense government restriction. So what’s the connection? If we were to look at accounts of believers who attend underground churches, and hold secret prayer meetings, and are incarcerated for their faith, we see a striking resemblance to the church of Acts. Perhaps these churches that existed millennia apart are growing the same way for the same reasons. They have tasted and seen the power of the gospel, and its ability to transform lives. They refuse to allow fear to prevent them from serving the one true God, and continue to believe James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.”
So where does that leave us as the Western church? What happened to us to make what we call “church” look so vastly different from the first church? We may find an answer by looking at the existing cultural differences. As Mark Sayers points out in his book Disappearing Church, The United States is wildly individualistic compared to the communal living and sharing of the church in Acts. This individualism that is so deeply ingrained in our culture seeps into the heart of the Western believer, and thereby entering the church. One of the main manifestations of this is “church shopping” or the practice of attending church after church until you find one that fits your needs and wants. And the typical criteria that we may look for as we church shop include: modern or traditional worship styles, the friendliness of its members, the energy level of the preacher, but most of all, that the church causes you to “feel” connected to God through its practices. Therefore, the church no longer means “fellowship of believers” but rather a building that we go to for an hour or two on Sunday mornings to get enough of Jesus to last us through the week. Maybe that’s our problem, our culture has redefined church to make it mean something that it was never intended to. The church was never meant to be a building, it was never meant to be all about us, the church was always supposed to know God and make Him known.
Unfortunately, we cannot blame the inadequacy of the Western church entirely upon our culture, because whenever there is a group of sinful and selfish people, there will be problems. We have set ourselves apart into different camps that we in the Christian realm like to call “denominations.” According to Christianity Today, there are over 45,000 Christian denominations worldwide. That is a staggering figure, especially when you take into consideration that in 1900, there were 1,600 denominations, meaning that the church is 2,712 percent more divided now than it was just over a century ago. A large amount of the splits occurred because of doctrinal concerns, but mostly the splits occurred because of personal disputes or differences in practice, such as music style, communion practices, etc.
These statistics disturb me greatly. We are supposed to be the body of Christ, united by the cross of Jesus, but instead we split apart because of small differences, instead of bearing with one another in love. Romans 12:4-5 demonstrates how we are supposed to live as the body of Christ: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” So why do denominations exist? I would offer that we have forgotten who the real enemy is. The Baptists see the Presbyterians as their enemy, Lutherans see the Methodists as their enemy, and so on, to say nothing of the Protestant-Catholic schism. In this respect, I would say that the devil has the church right where he wants it, divided and battling each other instead of fighting him, who is our true enemy. Ephesians 6:12 says “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Nowhere does the Bible say that our struggle is against those who sprinkle instead of submerge, or use hymnals or not during worship, but it consistently says that the devil is our adversary, and one of his most powerful weapons is division, and no one is guiltier of that than the Western church. Perhaps that’s why the first church was such a force to be reckoned with, they were unified as one body, firmly planted together in the gospel, each member encouraging and edifying the others.
So here we are. 21st century America, looking at what’s wrong with the Western church, and most likely feeling sufficiently discouraged about the its condition. So what can we do? Although the First Church was nowhere close to perfection (just read 1 Corinthians), I think that they are an excellent model for us to look at and use to shape our churches. If we are going to try and model our churches after the First Church, I think that we should begin by bringing the message back to the gospel. So many churches feel the need to “sell themselves” by hiring a hipster worship pastor, or installing a coffee bar, or making the youth ministry the highest energy in town, when the whole point of the church is to preach the good news! And the best thing about that is, the gospel of Christ is enough. We don’t have to present it in the prettiest package to get people to listen. The Son of God is sufficient; we should preach Jesus to the masses because the church is truly all about Him. We can find rest in that. So many pastors get burnt out constantly trying to come up with the next gimmick to get people in the doors, when all along, the answer has been to preach the good news of Christ’s salvation and watch the Holy Spirit move people to repentance. Maybe the answer is to give people what they don’t know they need, instead of giving people what they think they want.
The second step we can take is unity. In almost every area of life, there are two or more “camps” and those camps typically hold great animosity toward each other, but we can be different. Unfortunately, we cannot dissolve age old boundary lines by ourselves, only God can do that. But we can work to understand our brothers and sisters better, maybe just beginning there, realizing that they are your brothers and sisters in Christ, instead of focusing on all the things that you do not have in common. Learn about other denominations, visit a church different than your own, and maybe you’ll realize that your friend of a different denomination is not quite so different after all. Take the advice of Colossians 3:14: “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
While it can be upsetting to look at the church in the West and the state of decline, there is hope. There is hope not because the people in the church have the capacity to fix all our problems, but because we have a God that is the Head of the Body, the Church, and as the Bride of Christ, we can rest in knowing that the good work that God began in us is not over. If we as the Church would allow our God to move in our hearts, and to change us from the inside out, however painful or uncomfortable that may be, I can’t even begin to imagine what God can do.
For this reason, I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of His glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people to grasp how wide and how long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge-that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. Ephesians 3:14-21
Ashley Sharp is a sophomore psychology major at Bryan College, pursuing a career in marriage and family therapy. Ashley is passionate about the Lord, about people, and hopes that her writing will inspire Christians to know the Lord and experience their faith on a deeper level.