We've identified the gospel with a political and social perspective that few people can identify with who haven't been raised in it. Scot McKnight passes on a letter he's received in his most recent Letters to Emerging Christians segment. The complaint of the letter-writer essentially involves the fact that being an "evangelical" has become too identified with a particular brand of conservative American politics. A few quotes:
- Conservative Christians [frequently] conflate Christianity with American patriotism and/or the Republican party. One commentator says Jim Wallis can’t call himself an Evangelical because he’s a “left- leaning socialist” who made a speech on the Democrats’ weekly radio address!
- Dobson & company, attacking a member of the NAE for daring to suggest that global warming might actually be a problem.
- I read the quote from D. James Kennedy, a pastor and seminary leader in Florida: “The publication and promulgation of the 1599 Geneva Bible will help restore America’s rich Christian heritage and reclaim the culture for Christ.” What!? A 1599 Bible which, incidentally, comes with a middle-English glossary to help you understand what the heck they were saying, is the answer that will reclaim the culture for Christ???
And then I read Dan Kimball's excellent post, "Hope, depression, hope." He cites a sociologist and student of church growth and leadership:
He shared that the reason church statistics regarding attendance may be staying around the same level is because those in the churches are living longer. There are now a ton of old churches with elderly folks living longer which keeps that statistic up. He also shared how the already Christians in churches who have babies also keeps the percentage leveled out.I don't think it's a great leap of logic to see these two issues as being related. We've identified the gospel with a political and social perspective that few people can identify with who haven't been raised in it. We've essentially said, "You can't join our club unless you're willing to subscribe to all twenty-six points of our worldview." And then we wonder why our churches stagnate, growing, if at all, through transfers from other churches. We are relevant only to one another. Welcome to the Christian ghetto.
What isn't happening however, is the growth of the church from people outside the church coming in. We aren't keeping up on the population growth at large. I was reading that the church has leveled out in attendance over the past 15 years but at the same time our national population has grown by around 50 million people. So we can celebrate that churches are remaining relatively the same attendance-wise, but now there are more than 50 million people who aren't part of the church.
Can't we see the wisdom of the Apostle Paul, who "resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2)? Paul wasn't a "culture warrior" in the modern sense. His aim was not to "take a stand" and then have his already-convinced buddies pat him on the back for not backing down. His aim was to reach as many people as possible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Period.
The tension between the standards of the already-converted and the imperative of reaching the larger culture is nothing new. Jesus was accused of being "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and 'sinners'" (Luke 7:34; cf. Matt. 11:19). Peter became the first to take the gospel to a Gentile audience. What was the response from the Christian community? "So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, 'You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them'" (Acts 11:2-3). Peter himself compromised his own principles and broke off fellowship with Gentile believers in order to satisfy "the circumcision group"; he had to be publicly rebuked by Paul because his "hypocrisy" had infected even Barnabas (Gal. 2:12-13). The pressure to conform to so-called "higher standards"--even at the cost of ostracizing some for whom Christ died--is intense.
Kimball continues with words that should be of particular interest to some who regularly read this blog, "It will be horribly sad if in 30 years or 40 years the church of America is a tiny thing, and we are still fighting each other about whether one is a Calvinist or Arminian or whether you preach verse by verse or preach topically etc." Obviously, I think divine election is a worthwhile thing to discuss, but it must be kept in its proper place. There's a lost and dying world out there. We have answers, but we're fading into irrelevance. We're squabbling with one another instead of trying to reach that world. We're telling people that they must oppose abortion and homosexuality, that they must support Israel and capitalism and lower taxes, that we must win the War on Terror and support our president, oppose the environmentalist wackos, and stand up for God and Country. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that these are all noble and worthy goals. I just have one question.
Where did the gospel go?
If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?