I want to do three things. I’m usually not a three-point-sermon kind of preacher, but I want this to be as easy as possible to understand. First, I want to help us understand how we got here. Second, I want to tell you how this threat is affecting us. And third, I want us to consider a future centered on community, not individualism.
So, first, how did we get here? Well, it didn’t happen overnight! In fact, I think you have to go back about 500 years to one of the most influential periods of human history, the Reformation! It really is difficult to overestimate the importance of that time in the church. Virtually everything having to do with the church was questioned. Centuries of traditions and longstanding theological positions were challenged, and many were discarded. For the first time in the history of the church the Bible became the absolute authority for the church, and the Bible was translated into many different languages. Within a generation, it was not uncommon for regular people to have access to Scripture. They read it on their own. They interpreted it on their own. And not surprisingly, they did not all interpret it the same way.
So, one unforeseen byproduct of the Protestant Reformation was a sudden proliferation of churches. Before that time, the church was basically unified. Yes, there were problems! Yes, there was significant corruption. And there was the Eastern Orthodox Church that had been functioning separately for some time. But by and large, the church was one. When Martin Luther and John Calvin and others began to put the Bible into the hands of regular people, things changed, and new movements within the church were born.
And something else happened that accelerated this process: America! Not only could people read and interpret on their own, now they had the freedom to choose!
I can worship this way or that way.From a historical perspective, almost overnight, the church went from being one to many. Hundreds in fact, today, thousands. So, instead of viewing ourselves as part of the larger Body of Christ we began to see ourselves as individual Christians who interpret the Bible alone. Or, as individual congregations that are not really connected to the larger Church. So, that is how we got here. Now another important question:
I can be a Catholic or a Protestant
I can be an Anglican or a Baptist
What effect has this individualism had on the church? Before America was born, people could not choose their religion. For most of history, the church was one! After the Reformation, you still had no right to choose. Your religion was determined by the choice of the King or Queen. If they were Catholic, so were you! If they were Lutheran, so were you! But in America, everything changed. I can choose to be a Baptist, I can choose to be a Methodist, I can choose to be a Catholic, and I can choose to go to this particular Baptist church or Methodist church or Catholic church.
Do you understand how radically that reshapes the mission of the church? Before, the mission of the church was centered on the externally focused Great Commission. Move outside these walls and bless the world. Move outside these walls and proclaim that Jesus has come and now salvation is available to everyone. But when people are given a right to choose their church, now, church leaders become increasingly interested in growing their specific congregations. The mission shifted. Before, the mission of the church was to move outside these walls. Now, the mission of the church was to get people inside these walls. That is a significant difference. And that shift has had a dramatic effect on Christians.
You and I have been trained to look for congregations that meet our individual needs. As we consider joining a specific congregation, we think of what that congregation can offer us. We church-hop until we find one that fits our needs perfectly. And when something doesn’t go our way, we move on to the next one. We view the worship as a show. And if the show isn’t good enough here, I’ll go there. We’ve become consumers and the church has become a dispenser of goods and services. But let’s not just blame the consumers; church leaders are not innocent. The American church has trained Christians to act this way. We have perpetuated this consumeristic system. I heard it said once that a system is designed perfectly to get the results it is getting. So, if the church is producing consumers that is because we’ve set up a system to produce consumers.
Think of the emphasis the church has placed in recent generations on making people happy. There are entire sections in the Christian bookstore on “guest services.” We are trained in our schools to create perfect church programs that will draw people in. When people decide to leave and go somewhere else, we are trained to track them down and ask them, “What can I do to make you stay?” We have created and perpetuated a system that makes the church a dispenser of goods and services. And brothers and sisters, this system is not healthy for anyone! It is not healthy for individual Christians. It creates consumer Christians—people who view the church primarily as an institution that exists to serve them and meet their needs. It is not healthy for the church. Instead of focusing on the mission of God, we focus on our new goal: keeping people happy and attracting new people (not necessarily to God, but to our congregation).
Folks, I don’t mean to hammer you or the church, but I think this subject is so very important. If there is one thing hindering the mission of God today more than anything else, I think individualism is it. But, God has something so much more powerful in mind for the church. And if we will just let go of our focus on self and lean into God’s Spirit, there is no telling what God could do through us! Here is a picture of what the church could be:
Read Acts 2:42-47 (CEB)
You see, when you look to the needs of others, when you focus outside of yourself, that is when the church grows. That is when the church becomes the church. Like the early leaders of Churches of Christ, I get excited about efforts to unite the church. We spend so much of our time within our own individual congregations, or within our own individual Christian movements (or denominations) we rarely all come together as the Church to impact the world.
Over the last several months, I have been meeting with church leaders from around this city. We meet once a month for lunch and discussion and prayer. I found out that I’m not the only church leader who gets excited about efforts to unite the church. I want to let you know of something that will be happening on May 13. There will be a work day in North Tyler. Christians from around the city will meet together and work—yard work, painting, clean up. In short, the church will come together to bless our community. So mark you calendars; there will be more details to come in the next couple of months.
There are two really good things that happen with efforts like this: First, the church is able to do what it was designed to do, bringing glory to God by blessing the world. Second, the world is able to see the church come together. They don’t see individual Christians, they don’t see individual congregations, they see the united Church coming together to bless their community. May God’s Spirit provide more and more opportunities for the church to become the church.