The Prodigal Church

Andrew Sullivan, the former editor of The New Republic, opines on the mess that passes for Christian institutions in America. The article is Christianity in Crisis (quite accurate) and is sub-headed, Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, writes Andrew Sullivan, and embrace Him.

Like most of Andrew’s work, the article is thoughtful and well-written, often offensive, and sometimes profound. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the sub-heading is way closer to the truth than any of us would like: our faith has been nearly destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them — please! And embrace Jesus.

Wow. Well said. I’m with Andrew to this point. Sure, his faith is a mixed bag that most Evangelicals would abhore. He doesn’t really take the Scripture seriously except where it meets his subjective approval. Virgin birth? Unlikely. He reproves those who are “adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry.” It all depends on which scholars you choose. But these things aside, he makes too many good points. The Church has made a mess of things, often proving to be more about its own agendas of power and influence than about the beauty and love of God, and then working for the healing of creation.

But what about the sub-head on the cover of Newsweek? What about “Forget the Church and follow Jesus?” Is such a thing possible or desirable? For those of you who are Jesus followers, can you imagine Jesus Himself making such an argument?

Or do we need to be just a little more subtle, and as Andrew implies, distinguish between the organizations that advocate Christianity, and the people that follow Jesus? It’s the age old tension, discussed on more blogs than I have books, between “organized” and institutional Christianity, and the simple daily following of Jesus. It’s not really too hard to love Jesus, but to love the Church? Yeah, that’s a challenge.

But if the Church is a broken, compromised, human organization, who of us is not broken? Who is not compromised? As the old joke runs, I would like to find and then join the perfect church, but as soon as I join it, it will be imperfect. As GK Chesterton once opined when asked what is wrong with the world– “I am.” It’s important to make this discovery early in life, because people who exercise influence without humility tend to do more damage than they do good.

So is our imperfection an excuse not to address the brokenness we find in our churches? Of course not. To love the church is to want the best for it, to deeply desire its faithfulness to Jesus, and to work for reform. Do we have the option, as the Newsweek sub-head suggests, to simply forget the church and follow Jesus? Can we leave behind all hints of organizational structure and ordered leadership and just follow Jesus?

The New Testament does not leave us this option. We are saved into the community that follows Jesus and that expresses His purpose in the world. The theological word for this is the “body” of Christ, and we have a bunch of metaphors that help us understand this reality as it is expressed in the world by the work of the Spirit. The people of God are a body, a family, a temple, a flock, and more. All the metaphors express life, structure, and collectivity. Any attempt to express the reality of God’s work in the world that ignores any of these facets may be well-intentioned, but knows nothing of Scripture.

One analogy that may be helpful in thinking through the issue is offered by Mike Breen in another context. He raises the body metaphor to compare two groups and describe why they need each other. Group one are like the skeleton, group two are like the muscle. Structure is like the skeleton, it provides tracks for us to run on, and simplifies the ability for people who work together. The people themselves are the muscle. And we need both parts.

You can get a skeleton to stand up, but you can’t get it to move.
You can get muscle to move, but it won’t stand up.

Perhaps one reason that large groups tend to mess things up is that large groups collect power, and power and status go together. SO the temptation of those who lead large groups is always to abuse the power and status they are given, or to make them an end in themselves. Small churches have fewer illusions about what they can accomplish, at least, what they can accomplish without the empowerment of the Spirit.

I confess to nearly giving up on the church in the year 2000. My wife and I left “organized” religion behind for nearly six years. We did not, however, leave our faith behind, and neither did we leave the church. We left “a” church, but we remained connected to the reality of church life through a number of networks, both local and trans-local. We continued to serve Jesus, and we understood ourselves as connected to the Body of Christ in less formal ways than we had previously known. Less formal — but not necessarily MORE spiritual. It was a learning journey.

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Perhaps you remain unconvinced. Perhaps you have been hurt by the church, as I have been, and have decided it’s not worth it. But I wonder if we can truly love someone or something that has never hurt us. It is possible to really love where there is no cost? The life of Jesus would seem to indicate otherwise. Like Jesus, we are wounded in the house of our friends, but the blood on the road is mysteriously transformed. It is not our own.

I leave you with some thoughts from Leonard Sweet in So Beautiful.
*** ***

There was once a broken-down old mainline/sideline/offline church
traveling on the road from yesterday to tomorrow when it fell among
postmodern culture. It was stripped of its place in society, leaving it beat up,
left behind, and more than half dead.

Now by chance there was a doctoral student going down the road who passed by
on the other side. “I’ve got papers due, and besides, that dead old denomination
hasn’t got any life left in it.”

In the same way a prophetic pastor came to the place, saw the broken-down church,
and whispered to himself, “O Lord, let me retire before it finally dies.”

But then a complete nobody, who didn’t know enough not to get involved,
and who had failed the Jesus course, found the church and had compassion on it.
She/he bound up its wounds, pouring on the oil of hope and the wine of Christ’s blood,
poured out the oil of forgiveness of sin; then set it on his/her own beast and took it to a place where it could re:flect and re:fresh and find healing. He/she said to the keeper,

“This poor old church is almost dead.
It may or may not have anything to say to a new world;
but make it as comfortable as you can ,
spend whatever you have to, until I come back…”

By the way, if you are left with the vague feeling that living for Jesus is all about being a good person, read this interview with Matt Chandler.

5 Comments on NEWSWEEK – Forget the Church and follow Jesus

  1. robin dugall says:

    I read the article and have tweeted it and Facebooked it to everyone I could think of … you are right, alot of people wouldn’t like his biblical takes…but that’s his point (and the point of Christian Smith’s brilliant book on biblicism)…we are beating each other up over doctrinal issues…the “Church” is in shambles because we have bought into megachurch-driven, popularity worshipping methodologies…simply being part of a faith community and living and being a person who loves and follows Jesus isn’t enough for many people…you know Len, I’m SO TIRED of all this church “competition” thing…I’ve pastored large and small churches…why God does what He does in one and not all is His business…but it is the Body and Bride of Christ…I just want to affirm what the Lord would affirm…love and generosity of heart and spirit with people period. I’m keeping your reflections on a Word doc…good job as usual!

  2. I totally agree with Len’s article and what says Pr. Robin Dugall. We also, in Brazil, have facing this terrible “Prodigal Church” crisis: a time when the Church has run away from God like Israel did long ago. And maybe the fruits will be the same. We are in a very dramatic and strategic point of the History and just a few people have been seen it, unfortunately….

  3. Heather says:

    I read the article, hoping to find something edifying. I was so disappointed. The article is theologically very mIsleading, someone with such radically fringe beliefs should not be the one telling the “rest of us” what we are doing wrong. Basically, he cherry picks Jesus’s teachings, and tells us to cobble together an understanding that suits us. His own political views are apparent, and he justifies them by saying Jesus never addressed homosexuality or abortion. Sullivan is as guilty of distorting scripture as any of the churches he criticizes. We should be reading the bible, all of the bIble. We are told to search he scriptures. Anything that we hear from the pulpit should be examined in our bible. I am disgusted that someone who clearly cares only for his own political agenda wrote an article telling his fellow Christians not to be “so political”. It is poisoned by half truths and distortions to the point that a non ChristIan reading the article would think either, “Hey, I don’t need Jesus after all.” or “Whoa, those bible beaters are even crazier than I thought.”. Sullivan makes one decent point: Jesus teachings are more important than any religious institution. So just read the article title, put down the magazine, and go read your bIble.

  4. Heather “gets it!” 🙂

  5. Biblical Christians identify with Christ and not a man made church or denomination. We follow what the Bible says to do or not do.And we do so not to please our selves and make Christ more palatable to men. But to be the salt and light to the world. If that makes us unpopular then so be it.