The Naked Church – Chapter 2 – Rise Up and Walk Podcast
The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end? —Jeremiah 5:31
America has begun a spiritual awakening. Faith and hope are being restored. Americans are turning back to God. Church attendance is up. Audiences for religious books and broadcasts are growing. In college campuses, students have stopped shunning religion and started going to church.
Impressive statement! And all the more so when we realize it was spoken by an incumbent President of the United States. This was President Ronald Reagan’s assessment in 1984 of the spiritual temper of America as he addressed a convention of evangelicals. He is certainly not alone in his jubilation. Everywhere we look in the 80’s and 90’s we seem to see the church recovering visibility after a notable decline in the 60’s and 70’s. The evidence seems overwhelming.
- In 1995, 85% of Americans claim belief in the Christian God and 67% say they have made a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today.” seventy-six per cent say they attend church at some time during the year, 40% on any given week. Eighty-seven percent say they pray sometime during their daily lives.
- In 1986, the top seven media evangelists alone took in more than 750 million dollars. Forty seven billion dollars was given to churches and religious organizations in l991.
- At last count 138,452,614 people were on the church rolls of America and Canada. Thousands of churches are spread all across the world today and missionaries are in virtually every corner of the globe. Super churches, those numbering more than 1000 people, dot our cities, and one in South Korea grows toward a million members.
- According to George Barna religious media continue to enjoy growing popularity in the 1990s. “Tens of millions of Americans watch religious TV programming every month. Christian radio programs are even more widely absorbed by the public. Religious book sales are climbing every year. Christian music has passed several other categories, such as jazz and classical, in sales volume.”
- Time magazine may have called 1976 the year of the Evangelical, but the church’s political influence has only strengthened into the 90’s. You would think we’re in the middle of a great revival, and that’s exactly what Pat Robertson, head of the Christian broadcasting network, concluded at Amsterdam ‘83, an international gathering of evangelists and many voices agree:
I wouldn’t wish to exchange this moment for any other time in the history of mankind… in these days ahead, I believe that it will truly be said of the church of the lord Jesus Christ, “This is her finest hour.”
A closer look in the face of such success and accolades, one would have to be foolish to even suggest that the church is naked. Or would he? While Pat Robertson may be accurate from a worldwide perspective, with revival reports coming in from China, Africa, and South America, a closer look at the church in the West might yield a different conclusion. Not everyone is as impressed with the state of Western Christianity. Chuck Colson is deeply concerned: The church has been brought into the same value system [as the world]: fame, success, materialism and celebrity.
We watch the leading churches and the leading Christians for our cues. We want to emulate the best-known preachers with the biggest sanctuaries and the grandest edifices. Preoccupation with these values has perverted the church’s message. Mr. Colson saw something hidden behind the impressive statistics I listed earlier. Selected statistics can accentuate the positive while ignoring the hurts. It’s easy to write up the four people who got healed at the last healing service and ignore the 400 who walked away unhealed, feeling that God has somehow singled them out for rejection. Here is another list of facts about American Christianity. Don’t they make Chuck Colson’s conclusion a bit more credible?
Though 95 percent of Americans believe in God, a Gallup poll also found that only 12 percent of the populace “could be considered deeply and highly spiritually committed.” between 8 and 13 percent are engaged in evangelism and only 3 to 5 percent use spiritual gifts. By 1991 the number of highly committed believers fell closer to 7 percent. One maxim given to church leaders is that 10 percent of the people will do 90 percent of the work, while the rest come along for the ride.
- Dare we ask if our billion-dollar industry is merchandising the gospel with a vengeance unknown since Jesus drove the moneychangers from the temple? Many Christian suppliers are owned by non-Christian corporations and function with greater zeal for profits than for ministry. I know a recording artist who was denied the opportunity to sing in jails by his producer because “it won’t sell records.”
- One study estimates that 53,000 people in Europe and North America leave the church every week and never come back.
- From an interview question posed by Leadership Journal: “Here are two stark figures from the World Christian encyclopedia on conversions 19701980: the united states— with all its evangelism programs, training seminars, books, crusades and media ministries—showed a net loss (minus 595,900), while over the same decade the soviet union saw a net gain of 164,182 [people]. What are we doing wrong?”’
- Immorality and financial impropriety on the part of our Christian leaders are daily fodder for the secular press. Our television celebrities think nothing of purchasing luxury cars and large homes in our nation’s resort cities. They board their private jets even as their video tapes beg for finances to keep the ministry going. In a 1996 confidential poll by Fuller theological seminary, 50% of church leaders admitted to using pornography with some regularity. At a recent pastor’s conference, the president of a large denomination confided to me that a recent survey of their medical insurance revealed that Prozac was the most prescribed drug among the clergy and members of their family.
- The same problems that plague society also flourish in the church. “The late George Gallup, sr. discovered a most bewildering paradox: religious interest is growing at an unprecedented rate, he said, but so is immoral behavior. Gallup’s poll revealed ‘little difference between those who go to church and those who don’t.’” Divorce and promiscuity abound. Businessmen fudge on their taxes, excusing themselves with “it’s the only way to survive.” a friend of mine tried out recently for the choir of one of southern California’s better-known churches. His excite meant at having passed the audition was quickly squashed by the reality he encountered in the choir room. Off-color jokes and backbiting against others in the choir abounded. He eventually quit and floundered for months in his spiritual experience, alienated by the hypocrisy he found at what he thought was one of the best churches that America had to offer.
- Even after 25 years of the science of church growth, the Western church still shows a net loss, or as the experts like to say, a ‘negative growth.’ Thirty-two percent of the US population claimed to be born-again in 1995; down from 35% in 1982.19 of the 40% who claim to go to church on a given Sunday, half of them aren’t being honest. In actuality only 20% of Protestants and 28% of Catholics actually show up! Of those who do go, fully 71% never expect to experience God’s presence in a church service.
- There may be more truth than any of us would care to admit in Gene Edwards’ conclusion: “this era—the one I live in has proven to be unquestionably the most bible centered age since the days of the Pharisees; it also rivals their age for being the least Christ centered. (And men today get just as mad as men of that former age when someone points out that fact.)”
- And what of the weak sheep, those who can’t seem to nuzzle their way into the high-tech, fine-tuned programs of church professionals? What of the lamb that needs more than a 45minute counseling appointment or a 20minute exposition of the Word to understand how to walk with God? Whenever God measured the effectiveness of his shepherds in the Word, he always counted how effectively the weak were cared for, not how many of the strong muddied the pond. Too many people are falling through the cracks of the church’s impersonalized structures.
A view from the trenches; sobering, isn’t it?
It’s hard to believe that these two lists sum up the same entity. Is the church beautifully clothed, or is she naked? It all depends on where we look. On a grand, sweeping scale, enough statistics and stories can be garnered to set us at ease. If impressive architecture and elaborate programs fulfill our hunger, then we can sit back and have a cup of coffee. All is well.
If, however, our goals lie in Jesus Christ being glorified in our world, where the needs of people are met even as they are being shaped after Jesus’ image, then perhaps our coffee break is premature. To answer this cry we need to look more closely at our society, beneath statistics which can so easily gloss over personal pain. We need to look at people with names and faces, the very people we already know. Take a look down your street: What do nonbelievers around you think of Jesus and his followers today? Do they hold them in respect or in contempt? Look down the pew: Why are people who are so faithful to the rituals of the church so empty and disheartened? Is Jesus a practical source of help for them? Look into your own heart: have you settled for Christianity far beneath the one you read about in God’s Word?
Walter Wangerin calls this looking from the downside up. “I look from the downside up at the systems of the world: governmental systems, economic systems, class systems. From the topside down they look good; they comb their hair very well. From the downside up it doesn’t look as good.” he found his vantage point in pastoring an inner-city church, and the view was painful. “I would rather not see from the downside up because I know many of the people who are participating in it. I like them. I don’t want to be a prophet.”
Who does? That’s why we resist looking too closely, and instead turn away to comfortable generalities. Every pastor or evangelist caught in adultery, every money grabbing appeal for funds, every person whose deep hurt goes unhealed, and every empty person sitting through another Christian ritual breaks God’s heart. He has offered us so much more.
From the downside up you can see the pain and emptiness that infects our generation and the powerlessness of the church to fill it. Feel the horror of rejection which a young mother feels when her prayer request for a leukemia stricken child is seemingly ignored as she listens to how God answered someone else’s prayer to be a great football player or a miss America. This is the view which the late David Watson must have seen when he concluded, “We live today in a sick church that desperately needs God’s healing.” Our dilemma is no better illustrated than in an encounter which Thomas Aquinas, a theologian of the thirteenth century, had with Pope innocent IV.
One day Aquinas found the Pope counting a large sum of money. “you see, Thomas,” Pope innocent said, “the church can no longer say, ‘silver and gold have I none.’” these are the words Peter and John, two of Christ’s disciples, had spoken one morning when a lame beg gar sought money from them. Instead, Peter and John healed the beggar’s legs and sent him home dancing. Aquinas thought about the Pope’s statement for a moment and then replied, “True, holy Father, but neither can she now say, ‘rise up and walk.’ “Though originally spoken as a lament for what Aquinas perceived as an unrecoverable past, these words could well serve as the epitaph of the Western church. It is far easier for us to handle money than to touch the real needs of hurting people—so much so that many people doubt whether or not God cares about them.
If you had to choose between a church that was poor but powerful and one that was rich but powerless, which would you prefer? Do you think God would choose any differently? But someone might object that one need not exclude the other. Perhaps inherently not, but it always seems to work out that way. today we are rich in the things of this world—money, political clout, even buildings that double as tourist attract ions—but what appears to be our success may only testify to our failure. Colson points to how the gospel has been compromised in our push to make it popular: “much of the Christianity we slickly market is nothing but a religious adaptation of the self-seeking values of secular culture.” Such success is empty—only an illusion. Howard Snyder has been calling the church to radical renewal for more than two decades now.
“Even if the church seems to be succeeding, growth outruns depth and outward success masks inward emptiness.” both of these voices, and others like them, have fallen on deaf ears. Even where church leaders agree with their assessments, they continue to embrace the priorities that thwart any hope of change. In the face of hurting people our success by numbers euphoria is woefully irrelevant. For those who have hoped for something better, I have great news: the heritage that Jesus bequeathed his church is more valuable than gold and silver, answering the deepest cries of our hurts and hungers.
Nothing makes me hungrier for a dynamic Christianity than reading about the first-generation church. They weren’t rich, perfect, or even culturally acceptable, but they exhibited a vitality of faith that stirs my heart. Four characteristics are particularly noteworthy.
- They were preoccupied with Jesus. To the early church the resurrected Christ was not a mere theological fact. He who had ascended before their very eyes had returned, alive and present in his people—loving them, guiding them, and empowering them. Jesus himself said that his life in them by the Holy Spirit would be better than if he stayed with them (John 16:7), and the early church found it to be so. He was both the center of their message and the lord of the church. They sought to hear his will and they obeyed it, not fleeing to the false safety of top heavy institutions or name brand celebrities. Christ’s presence was real enough to take them through anything. His presence should be no less real among us today, yet we lack a Christology of the present. Scholarship has wrangled over the preexistent Christ, the incarnate Christ, and the Christ of the Second Advent but is woefully deficient in a theology of the Christ of the present. For many he is only a distant voice of compassion even though he wants to be so much more.
When we lose that presence, spiritual death follows. George Whitefield was stirred by that loss in his generation early in the American colonies: I am persuaded [that] the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ. The reason why congregations have been so dead is because they had dead men preaching to them. Remember how real God’s presence was when you first surrendered to him? He only wanted it to get better from there.
- Their community had reality. Unity and heartfelt love was the earmark of the early church. Even people who didn’t accept their message marveled at how much they loved and cared for each other. Every person, regardless of class or race or past lifestyle, found acceptance in the church. The rich and the poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, served the lord side by side. They never even contemplated homogeneous church ministry. Today we can’t find a workable mission theology without it. In their fellowship they did more than cut across cultural barriers—they sacrificed for each other’s needs. They even sold land to buy food for others. Their love drew them to visit each other in jail even when doing so resulted in risk of their own arrest. Someone’s weakness became an opportunity for someone else to serve, rather than judge or gossip. What a contrast to the backbiting and political infighting that characterize so much of what passes for Christian fellowship today!
- Their ministry had power. “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words,” wrote the apostle Paul, “but with a demonstration of the spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (I Corinthians 2:4, 5).
Everything I have learned about ministry was geared to the art of persuasion through articulate and inspiring speech. I can weave a biblical argument around someone until he has no choice but to agree with me. Sadly, though, I’ve never seen it produce enduring change. Paul dissociated himself from such tactics, preferring to demonstrate how real the spirit of God is, so that people trusted in God because they knew his reality.
Christianity to the first-century Christians was not primarily a confession of correct theology—it was God active in his creation to redeem broken people. The early church healed sick people, raised some from the dead, and liberated people taken captive by evil spirits. Today we can only comfort the sick and bereaved, and argue about the existence of demons. Yet God wants to share his power with us so that we can know how real he is and how practically he cares about us.
- They were willing to sacrifice. The early Christians didn’t follow Jesus to gain new cars and Lake view cabins. They followed him because he was lord, and thus endured the violent reactions of a hostile culture. They were thrown to lions, boiled in oil, imprisoned and stoned. Yet their faith only grew.They faced conflicts with their own desires but sought the will of God above personal gain. Their values were not in the material realm because they understood the abundant life not as temporal comfort but as living in the fullness of Jesus’ presence. Today many people are afraid to admit they are Christians for fear of being ridiculed. Rare is the believer who spends even fifteen minutes a day cultivating their relationship with Jesus. Too often we soft sell Christianity, pretending there’s no cost because we’re afraid we’ll offend the Sunday morning only churchgoers. Sadly, too many people walk away from the church, never having known a God worth sacrificing for. All this is not to say that the early church didn’t have problems. We know of occasions where evil men infiltrated the ranks of the church to exploit people for their own gain, where incest was tolerated, where believers lied to achieve status, and where communion was turned into a food fight. But we also see that these were the exception rather than the rule, and were dealt with openly and honestly. We know that believers were not perfect and that not everyone was healed of every sickness, but those who sought after God were increasingly changed into his likeness.
In comparison with this model I can only conclude that the church today is naked. What God has offered us is better than what we’re living. We can know the same reality of the resurrected Jesus, the closeness of brotherly love, the power of supernatural ministry, and a joy far deeper than the lures of this life.
Not only did that first-century church touch this experience, but throughout church history there have been others who have captured a similar hunger for God, and experienced similar results. Though such people were not usually in the mainstream of the established church structures of their day, God made his life available to those who hungered for him.
Even today reports from overseas tell us of believers finding this same reality. And if you look carefully you can find groups of believers who are discovering simple and powerful ways to live in God’s life and share it with others.
You can find it too. These characteristics we’ve examined all grew from the same root—from a depth of intimacy with God himself that is still possible today. The early church wasn’t living up to a slate of expectations but was simply doing what came naturally to people who loved God with all their heart.
God wants us to experience that same vital Christianity. In the pages ahead I want to help you discover it.
Recorded with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.