At the beginning of a new decade, my heart is breaking. I utterly mourn the state of the church in America.
Since graduating from seminary over a decade ago, I have witnessed and heard things I never imagined possible from those who call themselves disciples of Christ. It is apparent that many, perhaps a majority, of American evangelical Christians (Baptists included) do not find their identity in Christ. Instead, identity is found in secular politics. It is found in professional or collegiate sports, in hobbies and consumerism, in wealth and worldly gain.
Since entering vocational ministry, I have had to ask a junior-high Sunday school teacher to step down, because instead of teaching 12- and 13-year-olds the Bible, he saw it as his mission to indoctrinate them with partisan politics and religious fundamentalism.
I once preached on God’s concern for the poor, drawing heavily from Matthew 25 (the “least of these” passage) and the Old Testament prophets. One gentleman left the sanctuary in a huff, telling me on his way out that I was clearly a socialist. I never saw him or his family after that. (I’ve had this encounter repeat itself nearly a dozen times in different ways in different congregations.)
“People in our pews come to the Scripture with different views on its truthfulness and authority for their lives.”
I recall preaching on God’s call to see all people as made in God’s image, and how we should love our neighbor, including refugees at the border. Afterwards I overheard two of our church leaders talking. One said of the United States president, “I don’t care what he does, as long as the economy is good.” (In case you’re wondering, that happened during Barack Obama’s first term.)
During a decade of youth ministry, I found it increasingly difficult to organize retreats, camps and other events for teenagers. Participation in sports programs has taken over in most families as primary weekend activities – and during the most formative years of students’ faith.
Scripture teaches the people of God to “train up a child in the way they should go and when they are old they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Tragically, the way many Christian parents train their children is, in reality, to encourage them to depart from church and faith for the pursuit of temporal activities and pleasures, and when they are older, they do not depart from that training.
I have watched people visibly huff and roll their eyes when I mention creation care as a form of biblical witness. A youth parent once accosted me because I led the youth ministry to participate in an “adopt a highway” cleanup project. The parent angrily stated that he wasn’t interested in raising his sons “to be tree huggers.” That family soon left that congregation and no doubt “blessed” another church with their presence.
Like many pastors and youth ministers across the country, I have counseled teens who were fearful of physical violence or being kicked out of their homes and families because of unexpected pregnancy, coming out as an LGBTQ person, or daring to question the politics of their parents. As I reflect, it’s stunning that I have had many of these conversations in my capacity at a minister, in relation to those professing to follow Christ.
The American church is largely guilty of pushing people away from the body of Christ and from the full witness of Scripture. Those we have not pushed away have been pulled by misplaced priorities in a world that values winning more than worship and achievement more than laying down our crowns at the foot of God’s throne.
Add to that the societal erosion of objective truth. On any given Sunday, regardless of what church I’m in, I know there are a number of people who view truth differently than I do. With so many competing voices for “what’s true,” does the enduring truth of Scripture not get lost in this mix?
The reality is that people in our pews come to the Scripture with different views on its truthfulness and authority for their lives. Many would cling to truth claims about orthodoxy (the virgin birth, Christ’s bodily resurrection, the second coming, etc.) but ignore truth claims regarding God’s justice in the world, the Kingdom of Heaven breaking in and God’s love of the poor (and vice versa).
I urge you to consider with me this vital question: What will it take in 2020 and the decade to come for us to snap out of our slumber and live out the bold kind of faith we are called to embrace as followers of Jesus?