I am a huge fan of the church. It is, and we are, the bride of Christ.
The local church is the hope of the world.
Which is why we should be relentlessly committed to ensuring we do the best we can with the mission with which we’ve been entrusted.
This post and the next post are about 5 issues I see in both the mainline world and evangelical world that I think we’d be wise to address. If you’re a mainline Christian (I served as a Presbyterian pastor for 12 years), don’t worry. My next post will address 5 epidemics I see growing in the evangelical world. (I’ve been a lead pastor in an evangelical non-denominational church for 5 years now.)
An epidemic is something that is ‘over’ or ‘above’ a population…that sneaks up on people and spreads faster than expected that results in ill health, or even death.
The culture we live in can impact and affect our thinking, and like the churches addresses in Revelation, I believe we have a responsibility to stay as clear headed and on mission as we can.
I write these posts with some fear and trembling. Who am I to point out flaws in anyone? All I can say is these issues drove me in each context I’ve served, both mainline and evangelical. So I don’t claim I’ve mastered them. I’m just scared enough of them not to want to end up there. So if anything, they trigger something I have to guard against personally.
And if they make the church stronger, we’re all better off.
Here are 5 epidemics I think mainline church leaders must face:
1. Dilution. A growing drift toward diluting the message of the Gospel is compromising mainline churches. When Jesus becomes a way to God, not the way to God, the world begins to wonder what we really stand for. I personally agree with Ron Edmondson, we need less religion and more Jesus. I think about it this way. If I was to convert to Buddhism, I would want to become a Buddhist, not a diet Buddhist or Buddhist light. I worry that when church leaders dilute the message, the message loses its power.
2. Replacing Trust with Right Thinking. I actually learned this distinction in a mainline seminary, so again, I’m thankful for my heritage. But often mainline debate is characterized by positions of ‘right and wrong’, ‘liberal v. conservative’ (not that the evangelical church isn’t.) I believe doctrine is important (see point one), but sometimes what gets lost is that the Christian faith is about more than right thinking; it’s about trust. It’s about a relationship of dependency and trust in a personal God and a personal Saviour. Being right – whatever your position might be – isn’t the end goal. Leading people into a personal relationship with God is.
3. Glorifying Past Methods Over Present Mission. I love history and actually have a degree in it, but sometimes walking into a mainline church is like walking into a museum. A great approach to the past is to honour it without living in it. Sometimes mainline debate can be characterized by a desire to preserve past methods rather than advance a present mission.
4. Calling Ineffectiveness Faithfulness. Okay, I can get a little emotional over this one. It drove me crazy to hear leader after leader say “we’re small because we’re faithful”. Well, being faithful does de facto not make you small. And being small does not necessarily make you faithful. You can be large and faithful, or small and unfaithful. Sure, some churches are small and faithful. But some are small because, well, maybe, they’re just ineffective.
5. Dismissing Churches that Reach People as Having Sold Out. There is more a bit of suspicion on mainline culture that any church (particularly evangelical church) that has grown as sold out. They’ve watered down teaching, put on a rock show, or done some other thing to ‘dupe’ people into attending. A good antidote to this kind of thinking is to get to know people who have come to faith in those churches. Sometimes you find conversions that aren’t deep. But often you will see the conversion is deep, compelling and genuine. When we all stop dismissing and criticizing each other, we will be better for it.
I believe if we eliminated these 5 epidemics, the mainline church could be stronger, healthier and more effective at realizing its full mission.
I hope you see these critiques are born of love. After all, one of my favourite can’t-stop-listening-to preachers right now is Tim Keller. In my view, Tim embodies the best of the mainline church, and the entire church is richer for having people like Tim who serve in a mainline context.
What would you add to this list?
And just a final word. Play nice in the comments. We’re going to spend eternity together.