I’ve been pondering the topic above this weekend at great length. What spawned my brief fixation was the observant mutual back and forth between my wife and I, that by and large Christianity no longer costs very much to the average Joe or Suzy Churchman or woman. Nor is there a sweeping rebuttal from it’s men of the cloth that this is much cause for concern. Oh some do, to be sure. But they are constantly tempted to quickly change the topic for lack of interest from their hearers. It gives a sort of “yawn” effect to it’s American congregants, and quickly leads to shopping for a new teacher to scratch the itching ear somewhere down the road of buffet-line Christianity. It’s a problem to be sure, and there are no short answers or long ones quite honestly to fix it I’m afraid. This is what our devolution of the faith has brought us to you might say, and we all share a collective ownership of it.
The Organism Suffers
And as I’m sure you’ve noted by now, if you have taken the time to read anything I have written of late, you realize that for the most part when I speak of church positively, I am from my heart of hearts speaking as to what I feel that the scriptures emphasize the most; that of the organism rather than the organization—though I am apart of both. But leaving the organization aside for a moment, in fairness to the organism (you and me), I realize that many today sacrifice much. Not only in the everyday crosses they bear due to living on planet earth, but who add to their cost daily by continuing to fill up what lacks in Christ’s sufferings here on earth, in order to further allow the world to see Golgotha up front and center everyday on their own street corner or on a hill far away. And there are those who suffer not only in this country for their faith in some ways to be sure, but more acutely across the globe in the least concentrated areas of Christianity. Those who suffer in their own bodies and pocketbooks in ways we cannot know, and to whom everyday is a constant test as to their unwavering belief or conceded apostasy. They too are our brothers and sisters, and we mustn’t forget to remember their chains and mistreatment (Heb. 13:3) that is felt as if it were our own.
Now the church organism in the West suffers too as I mentioned. For instance, if we have somewhat individually clung to the old rugged cross with all it’s foolishness that the world has attributed to it, and to it’s increasing unpopularity of thought in the public square, this comes with it’s own brand of persecution. And of course despite whimsical and momentary elections that offer the believing masses rays of hope that we’ll be great along with God again, the trajectory of the western world is moving away and not toward anything that we have or have had to say I’m afraid. This is partly our fault, and partly due to the man of lawlessness (II. Thes. 2:3) that has already settled down in the both written and unwritten code of our culture. I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but I believe inquiring minds have to know this is the new norm if anyone is paying attention; all the while still keeping hope that the church will hold it’s ground and the gates of Hell will not in the end prevail.
And so if we are picking up our daily cross, we should also wrestle with what we see everyday that comes at us now in a pop-up window across our various screens waiting for us as we awaken each day. Things such as another police officer being shot, racial tensions mounting, refugees who haven’t anywhere to go, and the President-elect’s new cabinet member that many speculate is sure to do us all in. These are all collectively cause for concern and discussion, but closer to home I think we have bigger fish to fry. And we are in information overload to be sure, which brings about not only opportunity, but I think increased sadness; easily explained by the Prozac nation of which we are apart of now. Nonetheless, we are perplexed as to what to do about that, and not sure we are big enough and bold enough to do much about it other than pray and send an occasional guilt-ridden check or a like on Facebook. However, within our own families and street corners, as we open our eyes for a brief moment, we struggle with what to do about the countless ills that are within a stone’s throw of our own private castles: things like kids with broken homes; homelessness; and Single Mom’s who haven’t a prayer unless someone sees the face of Christ in their hopeless eyes. We struggle with what part we are to play, all the while trying to cut off just a sliver of an American Dream for ourselves and our families, and yet…the two are very strange bedfellows indeed aren’t they? Oh yeah, the struggle is for real isn’t it? Or should I ask, “Shouldn’t it be”?
The Organization, Maybe Not So Much
I can remember about a year ago talking with a pastor friend about my wrestling with the question I’ve put before us today. I unpacked my life before him about my struggle with these things, and about my experience in opening up my home and pocketbook for many years to the face of Christ I have seen in my own life that were hungry, in prison, naked, or needing some cold water. I remember the conversation and sharing the mêlée I had in my own ability to achieve both the juggling act of trying to lose my life and gain it at the same time—an enigma indeed. His reply was staggering, and I haven’t forgotten it. He said, “Maybe Jesus didn’t want you to do all those things you did”. In other words the quick translation was: Jesus would have preferred I gain my life rather than lose it. I refrained from the chuckling that would have possibly disguised my uncontrollable sobbing just behind my sad blue eyes, and perhaps even scoffing at the stereotypical response by well meaning Christians who believe that if we don’t have a savings account, a 401K and own our own home, we’ve missed God somehow, and simply need a Dave Ramsey class! Its unwritten prose, but its lines are there nonetheless to be seen and read, and many of us in the organism have now memorized their response verbatim. And it is this problem that I believe comes first from the organization at large, and from the broader culture that we are all much more affected by than we are perhaps willing to admit.
I’ve done quite a bit of reading in my day, and for those who know me, they would probably say that is an understatement. Nonetheless, most of that reading has been devotionally and as a discipline in the scriptures themselves, but also in reading very broadly in all areas where the church is concerned; and also historically–particularly honing in on its infancy. One thing is overwhelming clear in this practice that I can’t shake out of my head and heart and it is this: The church understood it’s call to reach out to the have not’s; the have nones; the crippled and the lame; the sick and the dying; and the mentally disturbed, and brought them into their care. This was often accomplished with the extension of the healing touch of Christ’s power from their hands to restore, and the equally therapeutic power of love, a place to stay, with food and a warm blanket to ease their continued pain and suffering–as well as from the stigma of their vulnerability from a world that would just as soon find a way to decrease their surplus population.
Now to be sure, the organizational church has been known for its outreach in these areas that should not be underestimated in the least. In fact, almost everywhere there is suffering in the world, some branch of both the organizational church and individuals that make up the organism will be the first ones on the front line of offering a cup of cold water and some sort of assistance to the disenfranchised that our world periodically spits out of it’s evolutional system of which they cannot thrive in. Yet what has caused me a slight relapse back into questioning the church’s overall approach, is the fact that most of it’s population in America that I am constantly bumping into seems to be mostly concerned with their own self-preservation and achievement of the American Dream. To a point that the calling to sacrifice has become almost a faint whisper that almost no one is even straining to hear anymore. It has been drowned out I’m afraid by the scream of cultural inconsequentialities and a familiar call to compete with new sets of Joneses.
Cost is Caught and Not Taught
One reason I think in particular, and this is sure to get me into trouble with the “I love my church” crowd, stems from the amount of money that goes into the maintenance and upkeep of the machine that is the organizational church. And though many of these same churches have ministries and programs that assuage the picture given that they are involved in the things the church has always been noted for; the truth is: compared to the actual money that comes in the door, 95% in most churches are going to the solemn assemblies and programs we provide the saints– whilst the percentage left to the lost and least of these is negligible to say the least. Part of the reason is because we have become too dependent on paid professionals to do for us what the organism we should be doing for ourselves. And though it is not my purpose today to unpack too much of this, it is simply to point out that this is attributable to a problem I am seeking to highlight–of a Christianity without a cost, where we learn from those who should be exemplars otherwise that self-preservation is to be preferred over giving sacrificially. And while we are commissioned to give more and more to the upkeep of the machine through various tactics and campaigns, we are rarely allowed to peel back the financial statement onion. Yet when we do, we find that perhaps the church needs financial accountability as well to correct this malaise among itself that has also infected its constituents. As the old adage suggests, “Monkey see, Monkey do”! For if I as a minister of the gospel do not by my own example and admonition to my congregants allow Christianity to cost me something and to wrestle with the various faces of Christ I see each day, then how will I truly teach aside from practice. The devil is in the details I assure you. This to me seems to be a huge problem that should not be overlooked.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
As I write this today, I am again asking these huge questions in my own life as an individual. Is my sole purpose to provide for my family, leave them an inheritance and provide them the best life now? Perhaps this is the case, but perhaps not. I struggle with this conundrum of late, and it sometimes keeps me up at night. It does so because of the rightful tension it should have in each of our lives as Christians, as well as my own failure to measure up to a Daddy Warbucks expectation. And how will I be sized up as I leave this world if I continually fail in the eyes of the ones I love and in the eyes of others that will no doubt forget me shortly after my body hits the cold, dirt floor? Or did Jesus perhaps really mean it when he said that though the heavenly Father knew we had need of such things as basic to our human survival and well being, that he really did want us to seek first his Kingdom and righteousness? A Kingdom, that while other kingdoms rage all around us and are concerned with their various agendas, should characteristically be concerned with that one that was lost, and the least of these that may knock on your private castle door today. I submit to you that if we call ourselves Christians in any form or fashion, what our Christianity costs us must go outside of our intimate family circle, what’s left at the end of the month, and not to the exclusion of the five loaves and two fish we already have. Until Christianity passes this litmus test, its doubtful that anyone will make much of a fuss about us in the not too distant future. And for a church that once turned the Roman world upside down in just 3 centuries, we have now in just 17 since then turned it back right-side up…and perhaps the writing is now rather chiseled on the church wall.