There has been much conversation about the diminishing influence of the church in today’s American society. The church was noticeably silent in the political campaign last fall. Some contend the evangelicals(Protestants) passed on this Presidential campaign, due to the fact that the nominee of the Republican Party was a Mormon. I think the answer is deeper and more related to the church. We have a President that embraced same-sex marriage, and was vocal in his support, as well as a pro-choice stance on abortion. Yet, Mr. Romney, and Republicans in general hesitated to defend the alternate positions. The Republican Party just passed on cultural issues.
The church in America, both Protestant and Catholic, do not command the authority, respect, and power, as they once did, to sway opinion on cultural issues. To remain silent, as the President embraces same-sex marriage, is conclusive, as to the health and Biblical direction of the church. So, what happened to the Christian church, which has established the moral authority for the nation, from the very beginning ?
The church, year by year, and decade by decade, starts looking more like the world at large. The church, far from being a separate and distinct bastion for humanity, now tends to blend.
What has changed from the era when the church claimed a more eminent position in our society ? While I have read, or otherwise received some information on this phenomena, my most reliable knowledge comes from observation. I grew up in post WWII at a time when the church was not active in politics, but was dominant in moral authority. The teaching of the Protestant churches, often translated to a moral decision in government, or at least represented a prominent and vocal position amongst our nation as a whole. These Biblical truths were not only taught in Bible classes, and preached from the pulpit, but, also talked on the street and workplace. But today we live in a maturing secular state with generally secular leadership. A large and growing portion of the country holds the admonitions of the Bible in disdain; at times this disdain extends to open hostility.
When I recall the content of the churches from my youth and compare them with the content of today’s churches, I find a noticeable neglect of some themes that could be responsible, in part, for the shift we’ve seen in our society. Among the neglected themes I find:
There was a time when whatever the preacher chose as a text; he seemed to end up in Proverbs. The book of Proverbs is a book of virtue and admonition. Billy Graham says he still reads a chapter in Proverbs each day. When my children left home, I gave them a study book on Proverbs. The book of Proverbs may be many things to many people, but who could deny it is personal.
The general theme of the nation’s great evangelists, from Jonathan Edwards to Billy Graham has been the high cost of personal sin. From hamlet churches to large urban congregations the message did not stray far from personal sin and the church effort to bring repentance to errant souls.
What are our salient sins today ? Maybe, there are too many sins to count, for all of us. Proverbs says: “a high look, and a proud heart, and the plowing of the wicked, is sin.” The pulpits of America may not be saying it out loud nowadays, but there is a lot of plowing going on, and hubris is at epidemic levels. While there are no private sins, there are innumerable secret sins which Proverbs addresses in chapter 28:13; “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper, but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” Any honest person will tell you, even if he dabbles in sin, that it claims a high price. Sin will take your peace, your money, your health, and finally your years.
Proverbs teaches that righteous people make a righteous nation. It reads, in Proverbs 14:34 “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” Alexis de Tocqueville concurred with this teaching when he traveled to America in the 19th century, as an observer and chronicler of American life and American democracy. Tocqueville thought righteousness was the glue that made the American experience the marvel of the world.
Today’s churches are tempted to moderate their message and make it palatable and inoffensive. I think they call this “non-threatening” church. If the motive is to retain parishioners by a softer touch, it doesn’t seem to work very well. It seems those churches that are more virile are the churches that dare to challenge sin at the personal level. This virility also produces more worshipers, more evangelists, more teachers, more missionaries, and a larger impact on their communities.
Who is cognitive of his death ? Thomas a Kempis, the 14th century theologian, says it is a happy person. Death does march on; however it appears a little mum in the churches. Death is no respecter of persons and does not have good manners. It can, and usually does, show up at the most inopportune time.
When you are young, you can project a distance and feel, maybe death should not be a current concern of yours. Historically, churches in America have resisted such thoughts, and bore down on the minute uncertainty of life, even among the very young. After all, we have had regular wars, accidents of all types, and deadly illnesses which affect all ages, indiscriminately.
Death and judgment were central to the Biblical message expounded from the pulpits in bygone times. Little thought was given to frightening people, and making them uncomfortable, as physical death is reality. It is probable to attend church, regularly, for months and never hear the death word, as it applies to individuals in the audience. It was a sad day when the church discourse canceled death.
Many live life as there were no physical death, but death should be a tempering agent. Properly contemplated, many of the cares of the world would be vastly discounted.
Even many of our funeral services are trending toward disrespect of the dead. They can be like comedy shows, with jokes and, so-called, funny stories about the passed-on one. Separation, naturally, should produce grief, and solemnity, or else, you might be suspicious of the relationship of the “love ones.” The best honor you can pay someone is giving them a respectable closing ceremony, without all the perversion and escapism.
If this world is a proving ground for the next, the church conversation about eternity seems to drift to the abstract. In many churches there is little conversation about streets of gold, both from the pulpit and maybe even the classroom. I remember a story from long ago about the late author, William F. Buckley and his effort to get Heaven properly treated in grammatical terms. He sent a draft to his publisher, who edited it, and returned it to Buckley with the word Heaven is lower case. Buckley, then sent his draft back and told his publisher that Heaven should be capitalized, as it was a place just like Scarsdale, NY.
Some of the great music of the church age has been songs about the “prepared place” of no more death, or sorrow, or pain. It seems I rarely hear these songs in church anymore. Likewise, some of the most powerful testimonies of church congregations have come from near-death experiences and visions of members. Families, can often recount those moments from their own family members.
A common interpretation of Ecclesiastes 3:11 claim we have eternal longings. This longing is a part of our nature. Yet, when have you heard, from the pulpit: “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love him?” Hell is even more distant from the pulpit. The eternal place of separation and punishment often spoke of in Holy Scripture and by Jesus, is often thought of as symbolic, if at all.
Eternity is the scoffer’s playground, and maybe some churches have become intimidated. If so, church leaders need to get freed-up from their fears and inhibitions and be bold and insensitive to worldly decadence. If not, they should bury their reticence and expound and exercise the blessed assurance of life everlasting.
Nothing is more central to the church than Redemption.
“Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling”
It is a dreadful discovery, when quickened by the Holy Spirit, and have your sins rolled out, vividly, before your eyes, like a tapestry. It produces a terrible awareness of your emptiness and helplessness. Most of the world is sunken in private guilt. All need relief. All need peace. So many people have experienced gross sin. But all have had a front-seat vantage in today’s declining culture. Secret sins abound.
So naturally, redemption is a miraculous, out of body, experience for repentant souls. Most churches have traditionally practiced open, honest, and public repentance. Repentance is transforming; nothing remains the same. Our actions, our thoughts, our demeanor; they are all re-ordered by the power of redemption and the indwelling spirit. Then the beautiful words of Isaac Watts will start making sense:
“All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood”
So, it is no surprise that full realization of our forgiveness, makes us natural to be joyful, natural to weep, and natural to raise our hands in praise. The chains of our emotions are broken; obvious to all. Sometimes worship becomes animated, as with the young of today and saints of yesterday. Redemption supplies hope. No other word in our language is sweeter and more powerful than redemption. Our churches should relegate redemption below nothing !
In summation, I think author John McArthur says it best, in only a few words:
“Reform is no answer for a culture like ours. Redemption is what is needed, and that occurs at the individual,not societal level. The church needs to get back to the real task to which we are called; evangelizing the lost. Only when multitudes of individuals in our society turn to Christ will society itself experience any significant transformation.”