Renewing Our Church, Renewing Our Nation

Renewing Our Church, Renewing Our Nation July 30, 2011

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.”

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  • For most of my college years, I viewed the American Church with contempt, cynicism, and anger–I knew that it had lost its way and saw only the unlovely things. I wanted nothing more than to abandon it, and was frankly embarrassed to be a part of such an institution. Yet I realized during my senior year that the very thing I found so unlovely, Christ called His. And I came to have a deep, abiding love for the American Church–a love that made all my cynicism look very small. All this to say that I think you are right on in your words, Tim. The Church in our country has lost its way, and that is a major part of the deterioration of our nation. But I think (and hope) that Christ is changing a lot of young hearts like he changed mine–those of us who wanted to ditch the American Church (or America itself) because of its flaws now want nothing more than to be part of Christ’s restoration.

  • This was one of the very best sermons i ever herd and there was only truth here like the angel of the Lord spoke to the churches, that they will have there candle stick pulled from them and they will walk in darkness and under strong delusions. The answer to the question was why and i say “The fear of the Lord is the begining of wisdom” No one fears or respects each other or God and the holy bible, they would rather listen to others so they are not giving in a church to support it or are they helping in the missionarys or the teaching of children and all who seek him.People are all for the easy way out and leave our wonderful Father at the curb standing there and waiting, but they don’t know the time is short and they have to get on their go- ye- shoes, and the whole armour of Christ to withstand the wiles of the devil.We are in two houses technicaly, the house of God and the house of the government when it comes to the house of God his house should be first. This started very slowly in the fifties and 60’s satan snuck into the schools and churches and laws all the time we were making money they were planning and scheming to take this country and make it a one world system watch what happens if we are not in prayer for our government. Pastor Tim i hope it is not to late and we can all pull together and shout it on the house tops that Jewsus Christ is King and he is on his way, so get ready or you will not make it just because satan said you would because he uses love to get people to sin and people think all love is from God but there is a foolishness under the sun, satan uses all that God uses becuuse he is a copy cat the imitation of Christ and cheap trick.Paul said to stand 1Cor:2:51 1Cor:15:30 16:13 Eph:6:11:14 Then even so stand!
    Father I ask for desernment for all of those who are entering into your grace and kingdom for we need strength and we need a runner, preacher,prayer partners to get toghther and pray for the churches in our nation and the governmentIf it were popssible to go back to the fifties or even the 40’s and drop the devewsit right back downnasit wqas and start over again ortax the rich everoone shoouldm pay in i am a firm belierer. Render to ceaser what is his and never briddle the bull!

  • John Haas

    Fascinating stuff.

    “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.”

    That’s awesome! Not only are you a philosopher, but you’re an economic historian, too, and you’re able to theologize about all those topics together, to boot!

    A lot of people would be a little intimidated about tackling so many daunting subjects at once. Bravo, dude!

    So, it would seem you’ve divined that it’s “character” that’s basic to prosperity? Hence, the more “character” the more prosperity?

    That’ll work! By 1860, more millionaires lived along a thin stretch on either side of the lower Mississippi River than in the rest of the United States combined.

    And why? Well because of “the genius of” the nation’s “founding documents” (which they soon repudiated) and “the character” of those people.

    Of course! It’s all so very simple!

    Thanks for the illumination.

  • Larry

    Lovely … fiercely so. Our efforts should be bent toward knowing Him … in knowing Him we become like Him. It is in encounter with a living and now Jesus Christ that transforming grace is liberated in our lives. It is in knowing Him that following Him occurs naturally … that our lives are ignited as fiery witnesses. Not consumed with a vision or agenda … but by an irrepressible joy and an irresistible love. We’ve witnessed the ebbing of a cycle of renewal … and creeping death and its attendant corruption have presented themselves now with regularity in the Church. But now we find ourselves in the periphery of a fresh and building wave of renewal … and the intimate knowledge of a living and very present Jesus. I can’t wait …

  • Larry

    A vibrantly alive church is as infectious as it is rambunctious … salt and light cure the ills of a society and culture whose dying spawn decay.

  • One nation under God……that is where we started and when we chose to adopt the self serving and moraless ways, we the people and consequently our country has suffered immeasurably. Many of us, including myself, profess our belief in God yet never go to church, don’t spend much of our time giving to others and only when we are in the depths if dispare do we turn back to God and beg for help. If ever there was a time when we need to become closer to God and the love that comes from the source, it is now. Let’s all do more then talk but walk the walk. Vote out all members of Congress who live moraless lives, who want only to get re-elected and vote not on the good of the country but on the good of themselves. Take our country back. I am not a Democrat but I agree wholeheartly with John Kennedy’s famous quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country,” Right now the best thing we can do for our country is vote out the entire Washington members and start fresh. Balance the budget!!!!! Stop spending! Stop giving billions in aid to other countries. Stop giving money to useless parents who won’t work and don’t take care of their children. Stop giving credit cards for food. Give food instead, We all want more free time ;and want to work less. We all think we are worth more then we are. Stop buying your kids $100.00 plus dollar sneakers and instead have at least one parent home if you can possibly do it. We are going the way of the Roam Empire when it fell. We should take heed! Back to basics. Back to family, back to marriage, back to happy times.

    • ellen you are very nice and on target, children are very spoiled now days and the more you give to them of material things the more they are in need. We all had chores to do and homework on certain nights and only on weekends we watched TV.My mother made most of our clothes and we wore what they had given us with a cheerful heart.On Thanks Giving we had a wax turkey on the table and lit it up and prayed and thanked the Lord for the bean s and hot dogs and the wax turkey that we could light up.We listened very hard when our parents talked and we knew if we asked again we had not been listening and that was a no no.I am allot different then you i don’t want to go back to any point in my life not for any amount of money in the world. I want to keep on keeping on and go to the Lord and stay there forever more.I’m with you ellen vote them all olut of office and we need to organize this before the polls coming up in every town accross this country! God Bless you!

  • Perhaps you will be enlightened witht his ditty???

    Search ResultsTruth Provided Newsletter -ONE WORLD CHURCH OFFICIALY STARTED! – CachedSimilar
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    Jun 27, 2000 – The Pope not only has control over the One World Church as of June 26 … WORLD CHURCH, THEN A ONE WORLD COURT, THEN A ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT, …

    • John Haas

      Very interesting. I especially liked “They need to know “if it’s time” yet to enforce the MARK OF THE BEAST yet!”

  • This world is in a bad condition and blind are it’s inhabitants! Live Laugh Love! Who really cares???