“All who wish to live a godly life will be persecuted” – Paul
I’ve been weighing these words as I ponder the recent turn of events regarding Christianity’s perceived loss in America’s culture wars. Having lived in Europe for 12 years, I have been able to retain the advantage of a type of outsider perspective on current American events as they unfold. European Christianity lost these culture wars decades ago, and I had the unique privilege of relearning ministry from the ground up in a post-Christian society.
I’ve been silent. Not because I’m afraid. Not because I’m worried about nailing my colors to the mast. I wrote a popular article for Leadership Journal on this topic two years ago this month. No, I’m not afraid of speaking out. I’ve been silent because most tweets, blogs, posts, and articles are reactionary in nature. To be honest, wading through the responses can give me mental whiplash as I see people coming at the argument from all sides. Sometimes those who are the loudest, resemble evangelicalism’s drunk uncle, causing everybody to duck, and pretend they don’t know him. More often than not, I disagree with the basic premises which the arguments assume. For example, I reject that notion that America is somehow another Israel, and that God is with our country more than others. Sure, we enjoy freedoms based upon the ideals of democracy, and we have much to be proud of, but I become wary when I see a nation claim to be God’s chosen people on earth. Great Britain once thought that. So did France. So did Spain. So did Italy. Now we do. They all learned the lesson that time has taught. There is Augustine’s City of God, and there is the city of man; and we all await the New Jerusalem that will consummate the kingdom on earth.
My concern isn’t that we’ve lost a cultural war. It was never the church’s business to fight that war. Our battle is about the gospel of Jesus Christ and men’s souls; including the souls of those on the “other side” of whatever position we may hold. My concern is that we know how to reach them. This has been my concern the whole time that I’ve been back from Europe training church planters. You see, in the long and short of it, none of these political rulings really matter when it comes to reaching somebody with the gospel. The Holy Spirit isn’t tripped up by this at all, nor are His plans thwarted. If his word goes out, He promises that it will not return to back to Him without accomplishing what He has intended. I’m not indicating that we don’t fight justice issues alongside our business of preaching the gospel, but keep in mind that there were more justice issues to be fought in the ancient world than are seen today. Yet Paul kept focusing believers back on the gospel, and the people who needed it.
As Americans we can be quite isolated from the lessons of history and forget that there were vast empires that existed before us. As Christians, we forget that we aren’t the first evangelicals to have traveled this road either. In Great Britain, the crucial war was lost in the church itself. In the early 20th century the men Great Britain bravely fought two world wars in the European Theater. As faithful gospel men answered the call to serve as chaplains on the field of battle, the pulpits of the UK emptied out. The replacements of these ministers were readily found from the local seminaries. However, the younger generation of theology students had been influence by the neo-liberalism of the theologians who were still struggling to come to grips with the atrocities committed by man against man during WWI. Those theologians took a view of God that differed strongly from their predecessors. As they attempted to reconcile recent history with theology, their philosophies replaced biblical truth as the final word. The pew was also emptied of men who knew their Bibles and had been taught strong theology, and with it, the ability to think critically. Had they survived the carnage of the European Theater, they may have been able to preserve the gospel from the ground up. As the young seminarians imbibed a new version of Christianity, they took to the pulpits to soothe the wounds of a society recovering from the trauma of two world wars with a more palatable God.
As these young men told their audiences that it didn’t matter what you believed, so long as you were good, true to yourself, kind to others, and embodied the “spirit of the gospel”. The result was startling. Rather than swelling with throngs of people responding to this message, the churches began to empty. To put it simply, there was no need for God anymore. Morality became a joke once it had been divorced from God’s holiness. People didn’t need God to do these things. It sounded nice, but was seen for what it was; trite sentimentalism. The church had compromised its beliefs deduced from a faithful reading of the scripture, in hopes of drawing people into itself with a “more reasonable faith”. This more reasonable faith had the opposite effect of driving people away. If the church had nothing more to say than what the common blue collar worker already thought, or knew in his or her heart, why bother with church at all? What good was it?
Thus, in attempting to reach the world by becoming more relatable and relevant to the modern age, the church had become irrelevant.
I am convinced that this is happening today in America. I’m not so concerned about how the decision of the Supreme Court went. What concerns me is the response that we’ll witness coming from the pulpits in America. Pastors who believe that conforming to popular opinion will cause people to flock back to our churches will become the very ones endangering it. I also believe that those who make sexuality the ongoing theme in the pulpits, blogosphere, and social media platforms in the coming weeks will merely cause more alienation between the church and those from alternative lifestyles. Nor do I think that the battlefield should be over morality, the definition of marriage, or any other political issue. I believe that the battle is for the souls of men and women, and that the enemy has always worked hard to take the church’s eyes off the prize. In order to reach them, we need to hold tightly to the gospel itself, and trust in the authority and power of the Holy Spirit to bring men to himself through the words He’s already spoken.
What concerns me is the trend of Christian leaders to go after people at any cost. I wrote a book called Church Zero, which called Pastors to account for choosing numbers over mission. Today, I see the pattern. Pastors want to be popular. To be popular, you must say popular things.
There is a glaring problem with this.
A lot of what is laid out in the Bible is unpopular.
The dilemma of trying to attract a populous with an unpopular message is an unavoidable one. Therefore the birthright of biblical truth gets sold for the additional twitter follower pot of stew. I’ve watched many unpalatable truths be made into something more popular. As if God needed helping out. Make no mistake, God knew what he was saying when he wrote the Bible. Like Bono said, “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady”. He doesn’t need us to try to make him look good.
But that’s not really what we’re concerned about.
It’s that we look good.
So they keep coming.
And we get popular.
In evangelicalism today, many preachers no longer believe in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, the infallibility of scripture, or the miraculous. None of this is new. It’s just new here. New to us now. This all unfolded in Europe decades ago, and I feel like Sarah Connors having the same dream on the playground all over again. I’m watching Church Zero become true.
My concern is and always will be mission. By building your following today leader by this method today, you are compromising mission tomorrow. Don’t compromise the message to reach more people. It just won’t work. Other generations have tried…and failed. Their churches are empty today, scattered across Europe as stone monuments to a once vibrant religion. I’ve stood in huge ornate chapels converted into carpet warehouses, or nightclubs where the gospel once rang out boldly. Where the gospel is preached, the church grows. Statistics prove that in Europe, the fastest growing churches are evangelical churches that believe in the power and authority of the scriptures. And there will be blood…Paul said that “All who desire to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted“. I don’t think that many of our leaders today could bear losing points on their clout score, more less persecution for the gospel.
Leaders, the scripture lays a choice out in front of you…you can be liked, or you can be useful. You don’t get to be both.
Today’s church needs to desperately learn the bitter lesson: Break the gospel, break the church. It’s the mantra of the church planter, just inverted “preach the gospel, build the church“. Europe broke the gospel, and the church fell apart.
No, my concern isn’t what happened in the Supreme Court. My concern is what will happen in the church.
I don’t believe that the church will learn the lessons from the past. I raised the point in Church Zero that much of what I wrote in that book would be ahead of its time…but wait ten years…twenty…But by then, it’s too late. I wrote Church Zero as a wake up call to the church today to become the church that will survive tomorrow. The church that will survive the cultural revolution of any age, will be the church that learns to cut a channel through the tossing of every wave and wind of doctrine and stay the course. Will our leaders rise above the struggle to be liked, to be popular, and exhibit true leadership in the coming age? Maybe. Maybe not. Nonetheless, when they choose popularity over faithfulness, there will be an increasing need for guys like me, and ministries like New Breed. After planting in churches and living in Wales for 12 years, I’ll welcome that cultural change. We’ll be forced to go back to New Testament principles of ministry and mission.
What others call the disturbing winds of change, will be to me, a missionary breath of fresh air.