“In Step with the Spirit”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
As our culture turns its back on God more and more with each passing year, many religious leaders are grappling with the question: how can we keep our numbers up? Regardless of what new and exciting methods are implemented, the number of congregants steadily declines, while the average age of the remainder steadily rises.
There are many factors that contribute to this problem. To crassly borrow a term from the world of economics and business, we operate in a saturated market—that is, everyone has access to “church,” by the broadest definition, and there are more suppliers than the current level of demand can sustain. This makes it a challenge to reach new people, since pretty much everyone has heard at least the most basic form of the Gospel. Then, churches are in competition with each other for a shrinking number of churchgoers, so there’s always a seemingly greener pasture for anyone who gets annoyed, offended, or just doesn’t feel sufficiently served wherever they attend.
On top of that, there’s some level of burnout among established church members, who grow tired of feeling judged, or feeling like there’s no point, or feeling ignored, or forgotten, or overburdened, or any other of a host of emotions that reflect a deeper issue: “the love of many will grow cold” (Mt 24.12). At the same time some of these are slipping away, it seems the Gospel doesn’t “stick” with the children of even devoted members, so the up-and-coming generation is scarcely found at church. Much of this comes from the broader culture’s ever-increasing efforts to…dysangelize. That horrible term is borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century pompous blowhard intellectual who made the phrase “God is dead” famous. The Gospel, the euangelion, means “good (eu-) news (angelion).” Yet many loud voices find a broad platform in today’s society for preaching very bad (dys-) news. This dysangelion is simply the mistaken notion that the physical is all that exists.
In the face of all this, what is the solution most religious leaders have dreamed up? That is neatly summed up in a recent (11/17/20) headline from The Babylon Bee, a satirical news website: “Youth Group Kids Leaving The Faith At Alarming Rates In Spite Of Unlimited Pizza and Mountain Dew.” The reason it elicits a snicker is the kernel of truth at its core. They’re jumping headlong into the category of “enemies of the cross of Christ,” whose “god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Php 3.18-19).
It’s not limited to food and drink, unfortunately. Many who claim to follow Christ have turned worship into something between a rock concert and an indeterminate spiritual experience that may or may not have anything at all to do with Jesus. Then the preachers focus on offering motivational platitudes rather that truths that may be difficult to say and hear, the entire group silently agrees to ignore God’s condemnation of whatever sins society happens to be supporting this week, and the only thing that seems to guarantee keeping the organization viable is turning it into a Political Action Committee aimed at building heaven on earth by whatever means are necessary, perhaps missing the sarcasm when Paul asks in Romans 3.8, “why not do evil that good may come?” Has it worked? Clearly not.
This is all about trying to make people feel good. It’s an appeal to the flesh.
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! (Ephesians 4.19-20)
It’s very sad to see Christianity—even warped as the mainstream denominations already were—shrinking and losing both membership and cultural clout. We live in the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world—a title it holds by no slim margin—partly because of vast natural resources and conveniently defensible borders, but also in part because it was founded by people whose main aim in life was to serve God, although they certainly did “stumble in many ways,” as do we all (Ja 3.2). That commitment to loving God and neighbor is what built such a strong nation, by God’s blessing. Over time, this country “grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation,” as Israel did so long ago (De 32.15). The flesh now supersedes the spirit, for many even who profess Christ. What did God tell us about this?
“Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Ga 5.13), we are told. Sounds sacrificial, rather than fun. “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (v16) comes next. How many respected, avowed Christian leaders have been caught in fornication, drug addiction, financial corruption, or tyrannical leadership? “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v21). On the contrary, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (v24), and are thus enabled not only to stay on the member rolls at church, but far more importantly, to actually be Christ’s hands and mouth in serving and teaching this miserable, hurting, and utterly lost world. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (v25).