The American church in the 21st century is rife with many problems; morally, theologically, etc. Although I am no church historian or even a lifelong Christian I have seen, in just a few short years, the downward spiral that seems all too familiar with issues of the past. It seems almost cyclical, like the stories in Judges, where God’s people tend to fall away from His teachings, His commands, and His desires for how we should live. The invisible church of God shall never perish, but it is the visible church in America that I write about and pray for today.
If you look across the mainstream denominations and/or para-church organizations in America you’ll see that it is absolutely bent on placing people at the center, or the core, of all matters concerning the Christian life. Christianity has become a “self-help” guide to a better and more prosperous life, while ridiculing and attempting to shed the fundamentalism of previous generations. Granted our forefathers, having the same imperfect sin-riddled disposition as all of us, have made devastating errors in their efforts to react biblically to given situations and in turn have left many hurt, ashamed, and/or disenfranchised about the church.
With the continued rise of victim advocacy in modern culture many voices have been amplified and praised who oppose fundamental systems of thought or fundamental groups that could have caused or allowed people harm. There are many modern churches, denominations, and Christian groups in America, in an effort to increase membership etc., that appeal to those who have been victimized and appeal to the modern liberal view of Christian morality. There are many preachers and teachers who could fall into this category; such as Adam Stanley, Tim Keller, Rachel Hollis, T.D. Jakes, Steven Furtick, Paul White, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Tony Evans, Joyce Meyer, John Pavlovitz, Jonathan Merritt, etc. (the list is endless). These individuals tend to swing against fundamentalist/conservative views and teach polar opposite, often unbiblical, ideologies.
While some of these ideas, such as the views concerning sexuality, are relatively new the appeal of man-centered teaching is nothing new at all. The traditional orthodoxy of the Puritans may have once dominated the Christian worldview during the early settling of the New World, but it was quickly replaced with deism, pantheism, and arminianism due to the rise of the “common man”. The Reformed Christian worldview of the early settlers was replaced with what was most compatible with the ‘American Dream’. Many scholars of those days attempted to replace God’s sovereignty and authority with a humanistic “social contract”, making men responsible to men rather than to God. With the rise in reliance of human reason to discover the truth, one’s own happiness became the focus rather than the glorification and enjoyment of God.
Out of this period in American history many ideas arose (a resurgence in most cases) of Universalism, Eternal Subordination of Christ, and a denial of: the deity of Christ, the Trinity and repentance. What had become the focus of Christianity was merely the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus and a salvation that was based on works. The individual had become the ultimate authority and judge of what was true or false/right or wrong, the “Human Experience” became the authoritative doctrine of truth, instead of the Bible. Does any of this sound familiar in today’s modern views and where we’re headed?
This downward spiral inevitably led to the Great Awakening(s) where great men like Jonathan Edwards attempted to swing the pendulum towards Orthodoxy. While a great many were pulled back during these periods, the damage of liberalism had already been done. One of the most well-known preachers of the 2nd GA, Charles Finney, was a major proponent of liberal Christianity. He denied such things as Original Sin and Substitutionary Atonement. He was also an advocate for Christian Perfectionism; the idea that men can become sinless in this life. His preaching style and “crisis conversions” drastically changed the methods of evangelicalism in America. Because of his incredible oratory abilities and his work concerning social issues of his day, his influence on modern Christianity is still evident today.
So we have in our day the current swing of the pendulum towards liberalism as we attempt to correct the errors within the church. Just as in the past, it has become commonplace for individuals to use experience, along with the heavy influence of culture in the information age, as the lens in which we view the world over and above Scripture. We have these shared similarities of the past, such as the deconstructionist attitude toward traditional orthodoxy, but in many cases we’re creating and addressing new problems as we push mankind’s progression forward towards “perfection” in this life. While it is good and proper that we address the failings of the present and past, we must do so by the authority of God’s Word, not by mankind’s flawed sense of right/wrong in a modern cultural setting.
I believe that in our day we have some of the most biblically illiterate people of any generation (excluding those who hadn’t received it, or it was withheld from them). What is common among the modern American Christian, in my opinion, is that what most understand to be the truth about God and man is what they are taught in their mainstream church and they go to that particular church for entirely the wrong reasons. What is being fed to the Body is not of spirit and truth, but the same feel-good self-centered works-based humanistic garbage of the past. We have modern day sermons that focus on elevating the externals, the material, and the perishable, while skipping over the hard and much needed truths. We have books and articles that focus on addressing the modern “Human Experience”, while ignoring what God says about such things.
People are demanding ‘feel good’ worship services that are both entertaining and non-confrontational. The mainstream church, with its focus on success, gives them what they want and these churches seem to be flourishing. Messages about sin, damnation, apostasy, wrath, and Hell are not so popular and often are not preached out of fear of losing potential growth. To take it a step further, some are even preaching social and cultural agendas that would have traditionally been considered unbiblical or even unheard of from the pulpit. This routine of catering to cultural norms and/or sin is not only dangerous, but it breeds ignorant groups of people whose theme is “Judge not the sinner or the sin and do what feels right!”.
If we understand who we are and who God is we know that we deserve nothing less than death. We understand that our only hope is in Him and the work finished at the Cross. As Christians we do our best to love God and neighbor, seeking holiness but understanding there is no perfect people no perfect justice in this life. God has used fallen nature and fallen men to grow His church, infallible as we might be. We aim to fix what can and do what’s right by God’s standards while we’re here, but we realize that the root cause of our failures is not eradicated until death. But while we still draw breath we must mourn the loss of loved ones, sympathize with those who suffer, and praise God for giving us such hope in a broken world. We must restore the American church to the glorification and enjoyment of God, to give people a joy that doesn’t come at the cost of truth. May God bring another Great Awakening, and bold men to lead us towards Orthodoxy once again.