I remember when I was taking classes to become a lay speaker before I went into the ministry. In the initial class, I will never forget that our instructor said that the best thing we could do when we preach is to do what John Wesley instructed his early preachers to do: “Offer them Christ.” This instruction meant when we spoke we should give the hope of Jesus Christ to the congregation. As years passed and I studied more of John Wesley’s teachings and theology after I entered pastoral ministry, I began to realize that Wesley’s instruction could actually be summed up in another way: “Offer them Christ and nothing else.”
I find the fact that the church in the US has long forgotten its mission to be very sad and, honestly, pathetic. I often hear and read people lament about the “good old days when everyone went to church” being gone but, let’s be honest: Many people looked at church attendance as a means to an end that had nothing to do with glorifying God. There was a time when going to or not going to the “right church” could cost someone a job, standing in the community, or a customer at their own place of business. Church attendance was looked at as a social norm because it was expected. Often, one attended a church without really being a Christian. They were Christian in name only but their private lives reflected anything but discipleship. This is the epitome of cultural Christianity in the United States.
After the 1950s, this began to change and Christianity in America began to decline (so says the experts). So, every so often, a group like Pew Research will conduct a survey to find that there are fewer people who identify as Christian. Next thing you know, preachers are screaming from their pulpits about “the world getting to our kids” or blaming the decline on some group that they personally oppose. Church growth “gurus” will start coming up with books they can sell and programs they can pitch to stave off the decline. Bloggers will blog (yes, I realize the irony of my own actions here). Pearls will be clutched and hands will be wrung with worries about, “What if the church dies.”
Well, what if it does? I’ll tell you what will happen: God will still be on the throne and the kingdom will continue. That’s what if.
When we look at the state of the American church versus the early church and the church in the so-called third world, it’s no wonder that Christianity in the US is “dying.” Years ago, the American church took a faith based on a middle eastern Jewish divine man and turned it into something that could be used for personal gain and political clout. A prime example of this is the rise of the so-called “Religious Right” through Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Christianity became equated with politics and parishioners and preachers were just fine allowing this to happen because this meant they had power too. If you want to look at where the decline began, it was around that time after the 1950s and 1960s where people became disillusioned with this junk and began to turn away from the church and from God altogether.
I can’t blame them.
If I believed that God merely wanted me to be the head of a social club that endorsed certain brands of politics and helped people achieve wealth, I would turn away too. I would never have entered the ministry and likely would have never been a Christian in the first place. The gospel is about Jesus’ work resulting in the reconciliation of us to God and to one another and for the hope of all things being made new and set right. God does not care how we vote, he only cares that we love him with all of our being because he first loved us. He further wants us to love one another as we love ourselves.
Our mission is not to go forth and make sure only certain politicians and parties win elections, our mission is to go forth and make disciples of Jesus Christ. Our mission has nothing to do with prosperity and everything to do with preaching and practicing grace. But, yet, the church forgot this. We let ambition take over our pulpits which impacted the pews. A lot of people got tired of it, left, and have not returned.
In other words, we did this ourselves. May God forgive us.
The way this situation changes is not what many would like to hear. It’s not going to be another program, a multi-campus church plant, or even by having a pastor that wears the right clothes and looks a certain way. The only way to stop the decline and to win people back to Christ is to do what John Wesley taught his early preachers. Offer them Christ and nothing else. Forget the ambition, Forget the politics, Forget the prosperity. Just preach, teach, and live the teachings of Christ. Stop alienating one another and blaming other groups for the church declining. Reconcile.
We need to practice what we claim to preach. We need to get back to our roots.