In my last post (Why I’m Pumped about the Future of the American Church) I pointed out that most of those who bash the state of the church today don’t understand what the early church was really like.
Their glorious descriptions of the church in Acts are pure historical revisionism.
But that’s not the only place they err. They also miss it when they bemoan our waning cultural impact as if cultural impact is an accurate scorecard of spiritual faithfulness. Culture is not and never has been an accurate scorecard of the church’s faithfulness.
That’s not to say that we’re not supposed to try. The Great Commission sends us all on a life mission. Salt needs to get out of the salt shaker. Light needs to be set on a hilltop. The gospel must be articulated and defended.
But the results are out of our hands. If you’re a Calvinist you know that the response of people depends upon God’s irresistible call. If you’re an Arminian, you know it’s determined by freewill and choice. If you’re neither – well, don’t worry about it.
Our Waning Cultural Influence
Admittedly, the American Church has lost much of its cultural influence. We are no longer the religion of power. We no longer determine cultural values or political correctness.
But does that mean that today’s Christians are any less godly or faithful?
I don’t think so.
Cultural impact has far more to do with who’s in political power than whether or not the church is living up to its calling. And those times of unique visitation we call revivals are much more about what God is up to than what we are up to. Fact is, the church of high cultural influence is just as likely to be filled with hypocrites and sin as the church of low cultural influence.
LOOK AT ROME: It took a few hundred years for the early church to spread its influence to the point of dominance (don’t miss that, we think in terms of what happens in a 20-70 year time span while history tends to play out in centuries). And once Christianity became the official religion of Rome it may have appeared that a faithful church was winning the day, but I would argue that it was actually losing – and losing badly.
The ascent of Christianity’s political and cultural power caused lots of people to claim to be Christians in order to gain the social acceptance and power that came with it. But the continued widespread moral decline, decadence, and eventual fall of the Roman empire leads me to believe that even as the church was growing more and more influential it was becoming less and less faithful.
LOOK AT AMERICA: Much the same thing holds true when we look back at the so-called heyday of the American church’s influence upon culture. I’m not so sure that we were as faithful or our culture as godly as we paint them to be.
Yes, Biblical values were more likely to be articulated than today. And our laws and courts were far more in tune with God’s laws – that is unless you happened to be a black man during the days of slavery; or later during the Jim Crow era; or a single mom seeking a good paying job; or a Jew trying to join the country club, or . . .
And as far as the glory days of Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and stay-at-home moms; were they really that great? And if they were, how did they end up producing a generation of sex-crazed, free-love, dope smoking hippies who grew up to be self-absorbed boomers?
Fact is, the heyday of our influence wasn’t necessarily the heyday of our faithfulness.
Faithfulness and Impact
In fact, if the faithfulness of today’s church is to be judged by the measure of our cultural influence, then Jesus, the prophets, and the Apostles have a lot of explaining to do.
Jesus drew big crowds during his earthly ministry. But they included lots of losers and sinners (not former losers and sinners, current losers and sinners). I’m sure some of the critics of today’s church would have lambasted him for the low quality of his followers. And no doubt they would have noted his dismal long-term impact as the crowds dwindled down to 120 hiding in an upper room after his death and resurrection.
The prophets weren’t much different. Take Jeremiah. He was no spiritual slouch. But his impact upon his contemporaries was practically nil. And the same goes for most of the others.
Ditto for the Apostles. Didn’t all but one of them die a martyr’s death? That’s hardly winning the culture wars. I’m sure lots of books and conference talks could have ripped on their inability to win over the world around them.
Fact is: Sometimes culture responds to Godly living and truth – sometimes it doesn’t.
Yet the harshest critics of the church today seem to ignore this. They assume that if we’d just play all our cards right – and live out our faith exactly as God wants – then large numbers of people around us would automatically respond to the gospel. It’s an assumption that neither scripture nor history supports.
None of this is meant to say that the American Church today is the epitome of spirituality. On the contrary, we’re messed up big time. But before we pick up stones and start throwing them at our brothers and sisters (have you noticed that all the critics always exclude themselves and their tribe or movement) we need to remember that struggling with sin and carnality has been the plight of God’s people throughout history. Maybe that’s why it’s called grace.
Jesus continues to build his church. He promised he would despite our failures and shortcomings. That’s why I’m an optimist. As I survey the national landscape, I see a new generation of passionate and godly leaders being raised up by God. Many are unknown at this point, some already have mega ministries. But these men and women are fully committed and well equipped to reach their own generation. I’m confident they will fight the good fight.
Will they win large crowds?
I don’t know.
Will they win the culture wars?
I have no idea.
But I do know that I won’t judge their faithfulness by the response of those they are trying to reach. Instead, I’ll let God judge it by the only thing that He’s ever held his people responsible for, their faithfulness, not their cultural impact.