I received an invitation recently to a regional denominational missions conference.
It took me a few minutes to discern that’s what it was, because upon reading the card I did not know it was an invitation to anything even vaguely church-related. The conference promised attendees that they could become “influencers” in their communities, able to share “a personalized vision” with “cutting-edge intentionality.”
Here’s the honest truth: I sometimes feel at sea in the modern church.
Of course, I understand that the church has to change, to some degree, to reach the culture. People are more mobile now than ever before; families don’t put down roots and stay for generations in the same place. The internet has connected us in amazing ways and we are all closer, while being farther, than ever before. People work seven days a week, or sometimes multiple jobs. The world has changed a lot since the days of small country churches and big-tent revivals in the United States.
So I don’t begrudge churches trying to figure out how to address all of that. I’m not disturbed by the addition or shuffling-around of services to address the needs of people who might not be able to make it on Sunday. I understand why a church might need to evaluate the traditional Wednesday-night service if no one ever shows up. And I get that churches might need to modernize worship, or even take advantage of technology to reach out and keep everyone in the loop.
Yet I am bewildered by church events and church teachings that are indistinguishable from a Silicon Valley tech-branded event for Google or Facebook or Youtube influencers. I am alarmed by Christianity-by-proxy, where being around stuff that is Jesus-related is accepted as a fine replacement for knowing or reading Scripture or engaging in traditional spiritual practices like prayer. I am disturbed by how many churches have outsourced the work of love to small groups which in many cases aren’t mimicking the Scripture-heavy teaching-and-learning gatherings of the New Testament church so much as they are simply adopting the fellowship and community part of it and dropping all the rest.
I am deeply weirded out by the fact that my own church has set up inside its building a store – a store! – selling branded church merchandise, regardless of where the money goes. I fret about believers who memorize the entirety of the Scripture they know from Instagram and Facebook without ever reading the context from which it came. I don’t know how I’m supposed to respond to branded sermons offered up from books by Christian authors who are themselves interpreting Scripture.
In The Imperfect Disciple, Jared C. Wilson references a study that examined the practices of multiple (Protestant) denominations to see what practices might lead to sustained spiritual growth and development. Was it small groups? Was it discipleship? Accountability? Evangelism?
All of those practices contributed in some way another to spiritual growth, of course, but the answer by a mile turned out to be simple: it was reading the Bible. That’s it. That’s all. The one key thing every believer can do to strengthen themselves spiritually to grow, to disciple others, to evangelize, to do anything, according to Wilson, is listen to what God has said.
It really is that easy.
But we live in a world that doesn’t want it to be, or doesn’t think it can be, and so as a church we desperately try to keep up with the culture. When the world becomes immersed in technology we immerse ourselves with it. When the world has “influencers” and cares about things like “vision” and “voice” we adopt those terms so we can wrap Jesus and Scripture up in them. We repackage ourselves constantly as Christians. And in the worst cases we manage to be both unfaithful to our own mission, and inauthentic to the world in a way that non-believers quickly pick up on.
I think it’s easy to forget that Christianity is an ancient faith, stretching back over a very long time. At its heart, the core beliefs are the same. And the ways to love God and to love others, those remain the same, too. Read the Scriptures to understand the heart of God. Obey what He says. Rely on Jesus Christ for your salvation. Talk to God. Listen for Him.
Christianity is, at its core, a simple faith. One does not need tools with which to practice it, or a special education, or branded items or a particular skillset. One must simply show up and be willing to listen and to believe and obey what God has said; that’s all. Sometimes I worry that our desire to dress all of it up to make it more palatable to a world changing by the moment undercuts the wonder of it, the beauty of God’s love made freely available to all.
And it sabotages us, too. Because when we get away from the fundamentals of our faith, I think sometimes we lose the capacity to understand what it is we’re missing.