In 2003 Reggie McNeal was one of the most respected American Christian voices expressing serious alarm over the trajectory of the American Church. He opened the first chapter of his book The Present Future saying, “The current church culture of North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order” (1).
According to Reggie and other forward Christian thinkers around the turn of the century, there was a new world order coming to be which needed a new kind of Christianity and a corresponding new form of Church. Though Reggie may have believed then that the six new realities he wrote about in The Present Future were radical, I would venture to say that he and others have realized that no significant change in the American church culture has occurred since they began ringing their alarm bells. In fact, things have gotten worse, much worse, for American Church in the ensuing period.
I believe a more drastic approach needs to be attempted, one that will enhance and grow the Church throughout the world, not just help the American Church survive a little bit longer. And I believe the American Church can be a huge part in the transformation of the world.
Interestingly, Reggie expressed sadness and some fear when he wrote his Present Future book thirteen years ago, because he thought he would lose a lot of friends over the “radical” things he was proposing (and he probably did, especially Evangelical ones). Similarly, I feel like this post is going to get me in a lot of trouble with many of the in-group people that call me friend, pastor, relative, etc., though I hope we can continue to dialogue over some of what I have to say. However, I do believe that if what I am proposing would actually occur, no matter how unrealistic, the result would be the utter positive transformation of the entire world for Christ and humanity.
- Identify/Equip/Deploy Laics
The local church was never intended to be cleric run, or to become a complex, heirarchical organization. Jesus prophesied for a movement of believers who live and worship together in small egalitarian community spread throughout the world. The intention of Jesus was for the establishment of a “kingdom not of this world” made up of every-believer-priests (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9), not a small group of religious elite who rule over the laity (Luke 22:25-26). The Church in the first century, though by no means ideal, exemplified Christ’s intention. Today, this practice of small, home/village based church groups has already been practiced with excellent results in South America. Leonardo Boff in his Ecclesiogensis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church, said that these local churches were characterized by “the absence of alienating structures, by direct relationships, by reciprocity, by ideals, by equality among members” (26). The local church by definition is an assembly of equals.
Thus, the first step in the American Church’s contribution to transforming the world for Christ begins with a three year process in which every church leader in America (priest, pastor, minister, evangelist) of every institutional church (one that owns or rents a worship center, e.g., church building, hall, etc.) will identify, appoint, and train one person for every ten to twelve church attenders. These appointed persons will become the ‘pastor’ for the tens/twelves, and these new cell/house churches will be launched as soon as possible over the three year period.
This first step shouldn’t be viewed as controversial, as the notion is eminently Biblical (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32). Furthermore, many post-modern, missional, and emergent church leaders have been urging this form of organic church for quite some time.
- Divest And Invest In The World God Loves
After the three year training and deployment period is complete, each church leader and/or their governing authorities will sell all of their church property and fixed assets. Those churches renting will officially declare that they will not renew their leases.
Now, this may seem like an outrageous (and extremely unrealistic) suggestion. And it is. Yet, it is why I believe that this action has the ability to transform the entire world. Nevertheless, the current trajectory of the American Church will see most churches closing their doors anyway in the next hundred years or so. Look around at your own communities; I am sure you have seen the For Sale signs, or the broken down abandoned church properties, or in many cases churches which have been converted into apartments or pubs. Recently it was reported that for every new institutional church started three close down. As my wife said, after I discussed this “crazy idea” with her, “They are all going to close down in the not so distant future anyway.”Maybe this idea isn’t so crazy.
Thus, worship services at these “church” locations will end after the three year period is concluded, and corporate worship will continue only in the homes of the appointed ‘pastors’ of tens and twelves. These new church communities will multiply, not grow, so that after twenty or more begin to attend any house/village church, they will split off into two, and so on and so on.
Now, what will the denominations and independent churches do with the untold billions of dollars received through the sales of their buildings or the increased amount of cash not being spent on capital expenses? This is a little tricky, but off the cuff, denominations and independent churches could use the proceeds to support the transition of all the “professional” church staff to missionary status or provide them a generous severance package.
There would still be potentially hundreds of billions of dollars left to invest in and for the world. Perhaps the remainder of the funds should be directed to feeding the poor, caring for refugees, supporting free hospitals, or other direct needs in accordance with Jesus’ call to care for those who are less fortunate (Matthew 25:31-46).
- Proclaim (Teach/Demonstrate) A Simple Gospel of Grace and Love
The next step (interconnected with the first step) is not to reduce the Gospel message, but to focus on its simplicity. Yes, the Gospel is multi-faceted like a beautifully complex diamond, but the Gospel message and corresponding actions were to be always based on the simple message of God’s unconditional grace and love in Christ—his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return (John 3:16).
St. Peter exemplified this simplicity when he proclaimed, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:3-5). St Paul preached the simple Gospel as well to the Galatians, “When the right time arrived, God sent Jesus the Son into this world (born of a woman, subject to the law) to free those who, just like Jesus, were subject to the law. Ultimately God wanted us all to be adopted as sons and daughters. Because you are now part of God’s family, God sent the Spirit of Christ into our hearts; and the Spirit calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ You no longer have to live as a slave because you are a child of God. And since you are God’s child, God guarantees an inheritance is waiting for you” (4:4-7).
JD Greear in his book Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity said it another way, “In Christ, there is nothing I can do that would make [God] love me more, and nothing I can do that makes [God] love me less” (2011, 40). Now, that is good news. God loves you completely and perfectly in Christ Jesus.
So what does that mean for us as proclaimers of that incredible Gospel message? First, we do not have to worry about winning the world for Christ; Jesus has already won the world. We simply have to be God’s grace and love to those who have yet to experience God’s salvation in Christ. Can the Church, you and I, love people unconditionally like God, no matter how “good” or “bad” they or others think they are? That’s the trillion dollar question. Unfortunately, a lot of American Christianity seems to me to be quite the opposite. What I hear often from official Church leaders/spokespersons sounds like a litany of what and who the Church is against. But if our pastors, priests, ministers, or evangelists of the Gospel would stick to preaching in word and deed the simple Gospel message of unconditional love and grace and leave all the commentary out, what a world this could be.
- Proclaim (Teach/Demonstrate) The Gospel of Peace
This fourth step (also intrinsically tied to the first step) is another point of instructional emphasis.
Henri Nouwen asked in his Peacework, “How would the world look if all Christians … were to commit themselves without reservation to peace? How would the world look if all Christians – young, middle-aged, or old – were to say loudly and clearly in words and deed: ‘We are for peace’? And how would the world look if all Christians – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox – were to witness together for him who is the Prince of Peace?” (2005, 17).
The American Church is woefully nationalistic. There is way too much patriotism that passes itself off as faith and religion, especially in the United States. Since Jesus is the Prince of Peace and has called us to be peacemakers, every Christian will finally follow the Gospel of peace and no longer support or participate in any armed aggression against anyone. No person who self-identifies as a Christian should join the military of any nation. Additionally, every house/village church and church member will no longer support the political agenda of any politician or political party, but give allegiance to Christ alone. Furthermore, Christians who enjoy watching MMA, boxing, or other violent sports, must authentically encounter the Gospel of peace to be converted to Christ and his non-violent/non-competitive heavenly view.
Leo Tolstoy, widely recognized as the greatest Russian author, said of this gospel of peace in The Kingdom of God Is Within You, “Among the many points in which [the Church’s] doctrine falls short of the doctrine of Christ … is the absence of any commandment of non-resistance to evil by force. The perversion of Christ’s teaching by the teaching of the Church is more clearly apparent in this than in any other point of difference” (4). Instead of preparing, supporting, and waging war against other humans made in the image of God, Christians should clearly be known for preparing, supporting, and waging peace in the world.
- Stop Arguing, Accusing, Anathematizing Other Christians
The final step in the transformation of the world will be the only purely negative or prohibitive instruction to the Church, and probably even more difficult to accomplish than step two.
The Church is sadly divided over some of the most inane doctrinal teachings. Unfortunately, it is also divided by some pretty important teachings as well. However, it is an abomination against Christ that any local or denominational church would have its own distinctive teachings (1 Corinthians 1:12-13a), and then accuse or curse other Christians/Churches over these distinctives. This should not be. The Gospel, even in its complexity is very simple, as was said before.
Renowned Anglican missiologist Leslie Newbigin said, “We cannot, with any hope of being believed, preach to men the word of the Lord that he, when is lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to himself, if we continue to stubbornly to say that even his love is not enough to draw us close to one another and enable us to live together as brethren in one family.”
Listen, important theological doctrines such as Eucharistic presence, justification by faith alone, Arminianism, Calvinism, Biblical inerrancy, Marianism, etc., are all impossible to prove rationally. These theological distinctives are all theories created by humans and based ultimately on philosophical/theological speculation. I say this even though I believe some of these theological distinctives to are grounded in the truth of God’s Word. Yet, creating division over these theories is extremely counterproductive and is clearly contrary to the Gospel and the cause of Christ (John 17:21).
I believe in the Church. I love the Church. I believe the Church is worth dying for, and certainly worth losing some relationships over, which Jesus said would happen if we truly followed him (Luke 12:53). But the Church as institution has reached its end. The Church as a resurrected, unified, multiplying single-celled organism is its next evolutionary stage before the return of Christ.
Now, back to the title of this post. I know it is cliché to say, “I didn’t say this would be easy, I said it would be simple.” Nevertheless, nothing in the Christian life was supposed to be easy, but everything about Jesus was meant to be simple: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
© Paul Dordal, 2015