A pall hangs over America and her churches. There is a sense not merely that our economy has fallen into a slump, our political system has deteriorated, and our culture has lost its way, but that something essential to our national character has been lost and may never be recovered. A sense not only that the greatness and prosperity of America have dimmed, but that whatever produced them in the first place may be gone.
As Peggy Noonan wrote not long ago, “The biggest political change in my lifetime is that Americans no longer assume that their children will have it better than they did.” I won’t pretend to foresee a “coming collapse” of our society or our Church. But I will say that I’m increasingly concerned not only that the material conditions of our prosperity are disintegrating, but that the deeper moral and spiritual conditions of our prosperity have long since degenerated. What made America’s democracy and economy so uniquely successful was not only the genius of her founding documents but also the character of her people, a character born from faith and nurtured in houses of worship. Yet now it appears that our collective moral musculature has so severely atrophied that it can no longer power and guide the engines of the American economy and government — indeed, can no longer prevent those engines from flying off the rails.
With regard to the economy, we find ourselves asking whether this is not the middle of a Great Recession but the beginning of a Great Decline. The American economy was never driven primarily by greed, but by a strong sense of familial responsibility and the virtues of industry and self-reliance. A free market flourishes when the people within the marketplace believe in the dignity of work, the value of working hard, and the pride of working well. It flourishes when the culture emphasizes saving and spending wisely, living simply, dealing with one another honestly, and building loyalty between employee and employer, vendor and customer. Shame functioned as a hedge against shoddy work, broken promises, conspicuous consumption, and foolish debt. Today these virtues seem quaint, and shame is politically incorrect. What if the moral and spiritual capital that once sustained the growth of our nation is now spent, and we have begun to slide in reverse?
With regard to the government, the debt-ceiling crisis has done a fine job of illustrating its dysfunctions. But what if the problems that beset us cannot be rectified by a new President, a new party, new policies? What if the problem is us, that we no longer hold our representatives accountable; that we no longer vote and legislate on the basis of principle but according to the whims of fashion and self-interest; that we too (and not just our representatives) are addicted to government spending and unwilling to confront the appalling realities of our collected indebtedness and the sacrifices it will require of us; that we have self-segregated into a thousand warring camps, and would rather bicker and demonize than stoop into the trenches of social problems and strive together with every bone, muscle, and tendon to solve them?
With regard to the Church, the intuition is felt especially among younger believers: that the American evangelical Church, in spite of the good it still accomplishes, has lost its way. In the vision of Christian life that has been passed down the stream of generations, something essential seems to have been lost. Call it a hunch, buried deep in the inner folds of the spirit, that Christ calls us to something more than this. God did not become incarnate, endure the indignities and humiliations of the human condition, suffer rejection and persecution, torture and death, so that we could live comfortable lives of suburban complacency, lives more characterized by rampant consumerism than radical obedience, by cultural accommodation than counter-cultural witness, by potlucks and stewardship seminars than the persecutions and sufferings of the saints. Again, this is not a matter of leaders who indulge in extramarital affairs, who are quicker to squabble than serve together. It’s a matter of us, all of us. We must be who we are called to be.
Each of these intuitions, in my view, is correct. And all are related. Christians are existentially committed to the proposition that Jesus Christ is the hope of the world. The Church is the bearer and messenger of that hope. If our nation has lost its hope, it is because the Church has failed to be the Church. If the light of our nation is fading, it is because we are failing to be the light.
Yet what exactly is the disease that ails the Church, that prevents the church from shaping and enriching the culture in the way it should? Interpreting an intuition is no easy matter, and evangelicals have differed in their sense of it.
Some would take the Anne Rice option and reject “Christianity” for “Christ.” It may be tempting to separate oneself from all the faults of the Church in one shining moment of righteous defiance, but this cannot be right. Scorning other Christians does not make you are a better follower of Christ. It means that you suffer from spiritual pride, a desire to curry favor with the world, and theological incoherence. The Church is the body of Christ in the world — a broken body, not a congregation of the sanctified but a fellowship of sinners seeking to follow Christ together. Christ loves and guides and edifies the Church not in spite of its faults, but in and through them. It is in our sinfulness that God teaches us His grace, in our weakness that we see His strength, in our foolishness that we learn His wisdom. We cannot become who we are meant to be apart from the community of believers. And its teaching authority, its sacraments, and its ministries, are sorely needed in a hurting world. Christ does not abandon his Bride — and neither should we.
What truly ails the Church, I’m convinced, is that it has rejected the call to the imitation of Christ. Christ did not die upon the cross so that we should never bear crosses of our own. He calls his disciples to take up their crosses daily and follow. The way of Christ is the way of the cross, and the way of the cross is diametrically opposed to the way of the world. Yet we do not bear crosses anymore; we bear the sweet burdens of worldly idols and ambitions. The Church fell in love with the extravagant comfort and consumerism of American society, its sumptuous materialism and endless distraction — and became unwilling to follow Christ into sacrifice and suffering, into the life of the disciple that is fiercely focused on walking in the Savior’s footsteps. If the Church today lives at peace with the world, it is because it has become so like the world, so harmless to it, that it no longer presents a substantial threat to the ways of worldly sin.
Living our lives in the imitation of Christ is not required in order to be saved, but it is required of the saved, as it is essential to our sanctification. In imitating Christ we are shaped into his likeness — in becoming more like him we come to know him — and in coming to know Christ we come to know God. Apart from imitation, faith is a matter of cheap grace or therapeutic sentimentalism. It was not coincidental that God the Son became incarnate at a moment in history when He would be put to death, as though Jesus simply happened to live in a particular time and place that was especially averse to what he taught. No, the world of the flesh will always despise Christ, for Christ reveals the truth that we are dead in sin and will only find true life when we trust in God’s grace and die to ourselves.
Since the Church can never so radically transform the culture of the world that the world of the flesh will cease to hate the truth that Christ makes visible, Christ will be persecuted wherever and whenever he lives, whether that is in 1st-century Palestine or in the lives and communities of those who imitate him today. Christ calls us to “remain in me,” but Christ was always on the move. It is only in imitation that we remain in Christ: in teaching in the synagogues and cleansing the temples of our society, in meeting seekers at the wells and pools and porticos, in preaching the truth when the crowds are deserting us, in reaching out to those whose faith is faltering and whose feet are sinking beneath the sea, in bearing the love of God into the slums of the needy and the corners of the outcast, and in walking the long and blistering path to the cross where we sacrifice ourselves for others. That sacrifice will look different for other Christian, but of every Christian the sacrifice of Christ is required, whatever it may be.
If the world persecuted Christ, won’t it persecute those who bring him to life again? And if the world is not persecuting you – or me – then what does that mean?
Since we have failed as individuals to follow Christ and be shaped into his image, the Church has failed to be the Church: the Militant Church in the classical sense, the Suffering Church, the Church that stands always for the grace and truth of Christ, the Church that images Christ in teaching the things Christ taught and walking the way Christ walked. It is not the fault of “the Church,” as though the Church were set apart from us. It is our fault; we who follow Christ are the Church whether we like it or not.
I love the Church, and many excellent churches do valuable work. Yet the intuition felt broadly across American Christendom is not wrong. The American Church is failing to be the Church — it is only when people speak this message with scorn or with transparent political motivations (as though the adoption of a new political platform is the solution to our problems) that they discredit the message. Failing to serve the poor (though we do not all agree on the policies that best serve them) is a symptom of what ails us. Those who are calling for reform in our doctrine and those who are calling for reform in our practices are both right — but the fundamental problem, the reason we have failed to bear the fruit that nurtures the culture around us, is that we have failed as individuals and communities to live the life of Christ. And we have failed to live the life of Christ, I think, because we are not remaining in the Spirit and living by its power.
This is not cause for despair. Only those can fail to have hope for the world who fail to have hope in the Church. And only those can fail to have hope in the Church who fail to have hope in Christ. Yet our Lord is one whose power even death could not contain. I believe God’s call to American believers right now is to recommit ourselves to the imitation of Christ as individuals and communities. When we are following Christ and remaining in him, then our churches will have their proper effect on the culture, making the truth and love of God known to the world. This does not mean that our economy will sing again (as though that should be our motivation), but it means that the true and the good and the beautiful will leaven culture again.
Those who do this will do so because they are empowered by the Spirit and they love Christ more than all things — and then the transformative effect upon the world will be profound. Then, although we will always face scorn from some and persecution from others, and although the world of the flesh will always be at war with Christ, we will more deeply and powerfully shape the communities and structures and institutions around us. Then we will be the salt that preserves what is good within our culture, and the light that shows the way. Then through our words and deeds we will make plain what is truly True and truly Good and truly Beautiful. .
I don’t know whether or how this will happen. But I know that the Church is the Bride of Christ, and he will never abandon her. The call to imitation must be fleshed out in the context of our present lives — where we have demands upon our financies and our time, and everyday faithfulness takes extraordinary wisdom and discernment. This is more like a call to arms than a battle plan. And I myself am extremely far from fulfilling this call to imitation. But I believe it is Christ’s call upon my life.
So let the renewal of our nation start with us. Let it start with us starting again with Christ. Let us turn away from the idols that infest our lives and our culture and renew our commitment to Christ, to live Christ’s life, to yield our lives to him so that he might live within us. If we’re concerned that our economy has entered a permanent decline, that our political discourse is locked in animosity and sin, and that our culture has lost its way, then let us follow Christ and be the Church and be the salt and light of the world, restrengthening the character of our people and renewing our witness to the transformative power of Christ.
Note: This is adapted from “On the Dire Need for the Imitation of Christ.”