It’s not uncommon for me to hear people talk about their worries for the future of the church in America. It’s easy to look at Europe and see how they’re churches have become museums. What if that happens here? What is the American church dies?
If you’re looking for actual evidence of this, check out the way church attendance is dropping. “In 1990, 20.4 percent of the population attended an Orthodox Christian church on any given weekend. In 2000, that percentage dropped to 18.7 percent and to 17.7 percent by 2004.” At the same time, population has grown by 18.1% – so not only is the church shrinking, it’s also not keeping up with population growth.
While it might be tempting to blame growing persecution (which is actually still quite minimal when you compare to the what happens in other places) or “the war on Christmas,” the reality is there are far greater threats. In fact, the Bible actually tells us there will be persecution and we do not need to fear it, because God will ultimately prove victorious. Not only that, but there were several efforts to destroy the early church (with stories both in the Bible and out). Instead of destroying the church, however, persecution only managed to spread the Gospel.
The first example is in Acts 8:1b “And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” If you go on to read the rest of Acts, you will see that Saul gets converted and becomes a great missionary, and the scattered believers brought and shared the gospel wherever they went.
Should we want persecution? Of course not – but we do not need to fear it, either.
Instead, when you look through Scripture and throughout history, you will find the following threats to the church. Some of these threats are becoming increasingly prevalent in the American church, and we need to seek God and work together to ensure these threats don’t grow.
1) Preaching Moralism instead of the Gospel
There were multiple religious/political groups during the time of Christ. The Pharisees and Sadducees are the two most people have heard about, mostly because they clashed so often with Jesus. This video explains who they are well:
The Pharisees, in particular, clashed with Jesus over moralism. They had taken the laws of the Old Testament and added to them (thanks to their “oral tradition.” They failed to recognize that salvation came through faith and instead worked to build their own righteousness through works. Not only did they worry about their righteousness, but they also worked to enforce their rules on everyone else through legislation.
Contrast this with Jesus and Paul’s missionary work. Instead of trying to petition Herod, Pilate, or Caesar to change laws that would force people to act morally, they chose to preach the Gospel. This is because they recognized that salvation doesn’t come through moral works, but rather through grace of God. As Ephesians 2:8-9 say, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.“
There is nothing wrong with God’s moral law. I genuinely believe we should love the law and that following it leads to a better, more satisfying life. But the key to following God’s law isn’t trying harder or forcing people, it’s knowing the truth and allowing God to transform your heart.
While you may believe that individually, it’s also important to remember that this is true culturally as well. If you want to see American people (and people across the globe) following God’s law, then don’t preach moralism or force them to follow laws they think are pointless. Instead, follow the model of Christ and preach the gospel. Share the good news, allow God to work in their hearts, and if they come to believe then you will see real change in their lives and our nation.
We’re not done talking about the Pharisees yet.
Jesus tells the following parable in Luke 18:9-14, “ He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Self-Righteousness goes hand-in-hand with preaching moralism over the gospel. When we begin to believe our moral actions will lead us to salvation, we start to think really highly about our own abilities and find ways to ignore our own sin. This self-righteousness breeds contempt and judgmentalism, and as Jesus says, ultimately does not lead to justification.
Why is this a threat to the modern church? Two reasons:
First, one of the most popular terms people outside the church use to describe those in the church is “judgmental.” I’ve heard countless stories of people who left the church because others in the church treated them with contempt. Who wants to join a group of judgy people? If we attempt to build up our own self-righteousness, then we’ll tear down the future of the church.
Second, self-righteous is dangerous because people think they’re saved, but they’re actually not. It means we depend on ourselves instead of God, and the church can only truly grow through God’s work.
Time for the Pharisee trifecta. This one comes from Luke 15:1-2, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The Pharisees tended to believe that they should stay completely separated from sinners because they didn’t want to be tainted. In fact, most scholars agree the Hebrew word for “Pharisee” actually means “separatist”.
Many Christians are living in an increasingly secular world. Despite becoming exiled in their own Earthly nations, this doesn’t mean Christians should stay inside a Christian bubble.
Jesus spent time with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and more. The Holy God of the universe sought these people out, ate with them, laughed with them, and showed them love. In doing so, he changed their lives forever.
If we want to see the church grow, then we can’t keep to ourselves. We need to actively engage in our communities, workplaces, and family. We need to embrace exile and seek the good of all those around us.
4) Trusting in Chariots
The Pharisees finally get a free pass this time. Instead, we’ll take a look at the Old Testament. Isaiah 31 says the following: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord!”
At the time of this writing, Egypt was the most powerful nation on the planet. Israel chose to turn to them for help instead of trusting God. The results weren’t good.
Because many Christians fear the church dying, persecution, or losing their place of influence, it can be tempting to trust in chariots. Granted, we don’t have chariots anymore, but metaphorically they represent anything we turn to for protection instead of God. It could be our military, political leaders like the President or the Supreme Court, the neighborhood we choose to live in, and so on.
Again, this isn’t to say that it’s wrong to have chariots or a strong military or Supreme Court justices you think will uphold your liberties. Nehemiah 4 gives a great example of men working, praying, and carrying swords. “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.”
What is wrong, however, is to trust in the might of men instead of God. Isaiah 31:5 offers the people this promise, and I believe it still holds, “Like birds hovering, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it; he will spare and rescue it.” Jerusalem represents his people, and so today we can say the same thing about the church.
5) Our Own Sin
The nation of Israel was destroyed several hundred years before Christ and went into exile for 70 years. Israel was taken captive by the Assyrians, and then Judah was taken by the Chaldeans. The exile wasn’t the result of a strong external threat, instead it was a result of their own sin.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament define the reasons for their exile. Israel continued with many of their religious rituals, but they sinned openly and their acts of worship were void of any authenticity.
While the American church isn’t in as dangerous a place as the ancient nation of Israel, we must be careful here. There is a growing number of church attendees who go through the motions of religious ritual, but don’t live the Gospel. There are far more stories of sexual abuse and sin in the church than there should be. Divorce rates are high. Greed is common. Contempt can be found almost anywhere.
The reality is, the church is filled with people and people are sinners. We tend to spend a lot of time worried about the sins of our nation, and while that is important, we should be more concerned with the sin in our own church.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is livid. A man inside the church of Corinth has been sleeping with “his father’s wife” and bragging about it. He gives clear instructions on what to do with this man, but then goes on to say the following: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”
It’s a difficult text, but ultimately Paul is saying not to worry about the morality of those outside the church. Instead, we need to hold people accountable who claim to be Believers. The church isn’t threatened by the sin of others, but it is threatened by our own sin.
Ultimately, if we want the church to grow, then people need to see our faith as authentic. If we say we believe in Christ but still live a life full of sin, we’ll seem hypocritical. If no one sees anything special about the church, then no one will waste their Sunday morning for a service they see as pointless.
But if they see Christians living differently, full of passion and joy, they’ll take notice.
How do we fight against these threats?
If you want to see the church grow and prevail in your community and country, then it’s really simple: pray and preach the Gospel to yourself and to others.
First, we need to preach the gospel to ourselves. We need to remind ourselves of the truth. We need to pour into God’s word and allow Him to transform our hearts. When you do this, you won’t be deceived by moralism or your own self-righteousness. You won’t be tempted to live in isolation from non-believers or trust in chariots to keep you safe. Although you will still sin at times, God will continually be working to renew your heart and empower you to live righteously.
Second we need to preach this same message to others. The world doesn’t need our moralism or self-righteousness, they need the truth. If the good news can transform my heart and your heart, than it can transform anyone’s heart.
Third, as you preach the gospel, don’t forget to pray that God would give you words and that He would work in the hearts of those you preach to. Great moments of revival are always surrounded in prayer. The reality is, it is through his work and his alone that the church can grow and thrive.
Photo by James Whitesmith