One cannot help but notice the chasm between expectation and the performance of Jesus’ bride, the church. Think of the lofty lyrics of traditional hymns extolling the virtues of the the gathering of God’s people. “Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion city of our God…”. Not so glorious things are being said today! Birthed in the book of Acts she is marked by passion, devotion, commitment to Christ and community, and zeal to spread the good news of regeneration. Gathering for worship, teaching, prayer and fellowship was fervent. Of course problems arose and were addressed, and of course opportunity for self-promotion and profit reared its ugly head, and not surprisingly there was an almost immediate distortion of the message by some wanting to refit the movement to accommodate their own moral/religious constructs. One thinks of that passage in Revelation where the woman births a child and the dragon waits to swallow it up – hell will not stand idle as God moves on earth. Despite all this the message spread like a contagion and the church grew. Throughout history there have been the bright spots and ugly corruption, but the influence of Jesus (if not the church) is unmistakable. Unfortunately the simplicity has been lost, institutionalizing prevalent, commercializing dominant – especially in the US. Yet Jesus said the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Is what we speak of as ‘church’, with its huge buildings, celebrity culture emphasis, business model structuring, and political posturing what Jesus was referring to?
It makes one wonder if what we see today in America, especially the politically enmeshed evangelical wing, is an accurate depiction of what God intended for His people. He undoubtedly called us to community. Christianity is not lived out in a vacuum, but today it is difficult to locate a gathering that prioritizes adherence to His teachings. The danger of the mainstream church is the restructuring of Christianity to accommodate culture, but the New Testament subculture churches have their issues too – prideful condescension to those who do not have the same vision, the risk of personality dominance, the ever present (for all expressions of church) threat of suffocating legalism. So one is swimming in rough waters if seeking an authentic community. Even if you do find a church that is serious about being the “pillar and ground of the truth”, the Bible centered churches subtly fall into the mindset “ I know that” equals “I am doing that.” Lots of leaves (knowledge) without fruit (action). Human nature is slow to give way to the spiritual, a reality that requires wise, perceptive, courageous shepherding to address. And if you might lose your job by confronting it, then there are plenty of other innocuous sermons one can give.
Calling out un-Christlike attitudes in the church, holding our brethren to account, turning the other cheek – these are not standard procedures in the hyper-individualistic church world. Society’s values have invaded our gatherings. The Gospel presentation even reflects that kind of thinking, with its emphasis on Jesus and me – heaven bound no matter how I live on earth. Salvation breeds holiness, and defaming the reputation of Jesus with a disorderly life was unacceptable and addressed in the early church. Now one can be rude, crude, demeaning and belittling to skeptics while holding the cross high, even earning social media kudos from other ‘Christians’. This is a mystery to me. Where is the accountability? Our predecessors changed their world by living a life of love – first for Jesus, then their brethren, then their neighbors. Without any political clout, in fact largely despised by their society, they loved people into the kingdom and lived out the humility of their Savior. And the Gospel flourished.
It seems one difference in the book of Acts is that the Spirit was the initiator, director, empowerer and sustainer of the church. Nothing happened without consulting Him and good plans were set aside because He said “No”. He opened hearts to faith, and faithful brethren obeyed Him. Just maybe, as our decline rapidly continues, we could wake up and do a reset. Could it be that we are the fig tree without the fruit? The externals are present but disciples are the exception and not the rule. We could get serious about prayer – fervent, insistent, repentant, expectant – and not just the half dozen in the congregation who usually pray, but the whole church. Think of that upper room filled with men and women waiting for the promise to come. The Lord is willing, the world is desperate. Judging from the fruit, this system we have built is flawed. Pastors sleeping with their secretaries while extolling the virtues of God, people unwilling to go out and share the good news yet marching in political rallies, nationalism blinding our morality. Consider this media image – the American flag, the Confederate flag, and the Christian flag lined up at an event that turned seditious at the capitol building. Really – what message does that send?
Isn’t it time for us abandon the celebrity worshipping, program dependent, numbers driven template for the church of which Christ is supposedly the head? Who knows what could happen if we relinquished the reins and let the Spirit control? What if everyone brought a prayer, a hymn, a psalm on Sunday morning and waited to see if the Spirit wanted us to share? What if two or three brought a message from the Word and the rest evaluated? What if we opened our homes to our brethren regularly for fellowship, prayer, Bible study and worship? What if we had campaigns in our cities to share our goods and talents as well as the Gospel? Who knows what could happen if Jesus was given back the headship? Maybe the tree wouldn’t end up cursed after all.