I don’t disagree with a thing Bill Easum wrote in his adjoining column in the May 2012 On Track newsletter. Jesus is more than just the reason for the season. But I want to put another slant on the importance of theology in the church.
Over the years I’ve heard suggestions that the reason XYZ church is growing is because it’s more “conservative” in its theology. However, in my experience I’ve seen churches on both the right and the left sides of center struggle with church growth. And I’ve seen churches on both the right and left sides of center growing like mad. And though, as Easum suggests, Christology is significantly important, there is another reason many left-of-center congregations struggle to grow … and some right-of-center congregations make the same mistake as well. That mistake can be identified by a single word.
When I say “issues” I’m referring to those social issues the church so often gets passionate about that drive the congregation. You know the ones I’m talking about:
- Women’s rights
- Human trafficking
- Pro Israel
- Pro Palestine
The list could go on and on, but you get the idea.
The problem with the church (or a denomination, for that matter) championing an issue is that the issue indubitably distracts the church from the biblically mandated mission to make disciples. And as worthy, good, or important as any/all of these issues may be, if they sidetrack the church from its mandate then the ultimate winner won’t be the righting of a wrong. In fact, if recent history is any teacher at all, the church must realize that its attempts to legislate/lobby morality or causes or rightness have minimal lasting results, let alone positive results.
A couple examples should suffice.
In the 1920s the church rose up mightily against alcohol and was largely responsible for getting Prohibition through congress. How did that work for us?
In the late 1930s and early 1940s the church again stood in unity around pacifism and against involvement in the European war. Indeed, the church was so powerful that the President and the government at large had to be very careful in how it supported its allies “under the table,” so to speak. In fact, the church was largely successful in its efforts until December 7, 1941.
In the 1960s the church again largely joined in solidarity against abortion. Again, the results pretty well speak for themselves.
Now, there are those who suggest that the church’s role in the civil rights movement proves their point. However, I’d like to suggest that if we’d been all that successful, we might have been able to move on to other issues some fifty-plus years later. Instead, we still face the reality that Sunday mornings at 11 AM is still the most segregated hour in North America.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all suggesting that Christians should be silent about issues such as these. But this article isn’t about individual Christians, I’m talking about the church … the organized body of Christ that has been tasked with being the very presence, the hands, and the feet of the risen Savior. Indeed, I maintain that the church, the organized body of Christ, should take up the same causes Jesus himself took up during his three-year ministry.
And so, let’s turn to the Gospels to discern how Jesus dealt with the serious social issues and inequalities of his day:
- How did Jesus address the institutionalization of poverty?
- What did he say about the unfair, brutal Roman occupation? Indeed, how did he instruct his followers to respond to their injustices?
- How about the shameful treatment of women, especially the plight of the widows and human trafficking?
- Aren’t there clear mandates on systemic bigotry, prejudice, and racial inequality in his instructions?
- Surely he at least addressed the institution of slavery head on … ?
Hmm. A careful, or even a casual, reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus didn’t address the social issues of the day by making an issue out of them. Indeed, when it came to Jesus’ response when confronted with these issues he either accepted them as a reality in a fallen world (“There are always going to be poor”) or else he modeled alternative personal behavior (“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”).
Nowhere in the New Testament is there so much as a hint that the church should get involved in directly challenging or correcting society’s dysfunctions on an institutional level. In fact, the inverse appears to be the case. Jesus, Peter, and Paul all instructed their readers to not make waves, suggesting they should keep a low profile and live by the governing rules of the land.
If that’s the case, how is the church expected to change the social constructs? How can the church right social inequalities?
The answer lies in being faithful to what Jesus commanded, what he modeled, and what he taught his disciples. The priority of Jesus’ mission was, is, and always shall be the Kingdom of God: make disciples who are obedient to Jesus’ teachings. Faithful, practicing disciples of Jesus Christ model Kingdom living in every aspect of their lives (note that the key words are “faithful” and “practicing” – membership in a church or even faithfulness in attendance doesn’t come close to suggesting discipleship). Faithful, practicing disciples put away childish behaviors such as racism. Faithful, practicing disciples deal with social issues as they confront them. Faithful, practicing disciples are a blessing to everyone the encounter. And the organized church does everything it can to raise up their members to be the most effective, faithful, sold-out disciples of Jesus Christ possible.
Changed hearts was Jesus’ mandate to the church, not equitable laws. Change a heart and you change a slice of society. Change enough hearts and you transform society. On the other hand, change a law and society tends to find a way around it, under it, over it, or to simply ignore it.
The church has a woefully poor track record whenever it’s risen up to legislate or lobby societal justice. And individual churches that take up the issue-driven banner have a woefully poor track record of growing disciples, both in making more disciples and in making more faithfully practicing disciples.
If you’re a member or leader of an issue-based church who’s committed to growing your church, it can be notoriously difficult to transform the focus of a congregation. However, as a congregation measures success based on how many adult baptisms it’s doing, how many of its participants are involved in life-changing spiritual development, and how many of its members are engaged in mission beyond the walls of the church building, then not only will the local church experience transformation, but the church may have a shot at real, lasting, systemic change as well.