Christianity’s Greatest Enemy
Christianity’s greatest enemy is not atheism. Nor is it Islam or any other religion. Nor is it secularism. Nor is it immorality in culture. No, Christianity’s greatest enemy is—complacency.
A few months ago an acquaintance struck up a conversation about my blog and mentioned that he thought I must “like stirring the pot.” Yes, I confess that I do. But not for the sake of stirring the pot itself. The point of stirring the pot, so to speak, is to stir people out of their complacency.
So what do I mean by “complacency?” It is contentment with the status quo. Among Christians it is contentment with the way things are—in one’s own spiritual life, including the life of the mind, and in the churches.
Some years ago my family and I were members of a church that had fallen into a state of complacency—contentment with “the way things are and always have been.” The congregation had become lifeless, lacking any dynamic. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) A few of us dreamed up the idea of a “revival”—a time of spiritual challenge and renewal. During a business meeting the idea was floated as a trial balloon. One influential member stood to oppose the idea saying “Things are fine here just as they are.”
I believe “things are fine here just as they are” is never an authentic Christian attitude. Christianity ought to be and is at its best always in a state of challenge and change. Again, that is not to promote challenge or change for their own sakes; the point is to move ahead into greater approximation of God’s future kingdom.
Far too many Christians, however, are perfectly content to stay in one place; they fear and even dread change—especially if it moves them outside their comfort zones. Too many go to church to find comfort—not only in affliction, which is appropriate, but in their spiritual and theological complacency. The status quo is their god.
I believe God is a dynamic, ever changing God. Not in the sense that God’s character or essential nature changes, but in the sense that God is ever seeking new ways to challenge his people, the church.
I am not denigrating tradition; tradition can be powerful as a source of change—from inauthentic to authentic faith. Digging deeper into our Christian heritage, retrieving our best sources—the church fathers, the reformers, the great revivalists, the social reformers—can be challenging toward discovering a new sense of authenticity of faith. Rather, I am denigrating love of the status quo because it is comfortable.
My students have heard me give them this advice: When being interviewed by a pulpit committee, ask them if their congregation is open to change. Assure them you are not going to come in as a bull in a china shop destroying things. But let them know you, as a prophet of God, feel called to challenge a congregation toward spiritual authenticity and that it will mean conviction and possibly repentance. It will mean stretching beyond comfort. “No pain, no gain.”
If the pulpit committee (or whatever it is called) says no, then look elsewhere for your first or next pastorate. A church that is afraid to change is already dead. Many churches need to change their names to “Ichabod”—“The glory has departed.” Oh, they may actually be growing; numerical growth is not the measure of authenticity. Passion for the kingdom of God is the measure of authenticity.
Three traits characterize a church with passion for the kingdom of God: vulnerability, accountability, and availability. By “availability” I mean coming out of individualism into true community; making one’s self and resources available to the cause of God in the church and in the world. By “accountability” I mean coming out of individualism into true community; becoming transparent and open to correction in the common purpose of God’s kingdom. By “vulnerability” I mean coming out of individualism into true community; being real with God and each other in the church—acknowledging to each other our frailties and inviting prayer and support in order to be more effective with others in the mission of God.
Theologian-prophet Stanley Hauerwas has rightly said that the main “job” of the church is to be the church and the signal that a church is being the church is that God is busy among the people. I believe God being “busy” among us requires us, Christians, to be open to and even anxious for change—again, not for change’s sake but for the sake of greater approximation of the kingdom of God within the church. Changing the world is God’s business and he may use the church, but too much focus and attention has been given by conservative Christians in America to “changing the world” and too little to being the church as God intends it to be.
I have noticed over the years a tendency on the part of many preachers to treat preaching as information delivery without challenge to change. At the end of many sermons I hear I want to say “Bring it home, preacher.” By that I mean, don’t stop with a point of information; only stop when you have told us, God’s people, what to do with the information. What does it mean for us in terms of decision and action? I assume one reason many preachers avoid “bringing it home” and stick to facts and ideas is they know people get upset by being challenged, convicted, told their love of the status quo, is sin.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I am not promoting “beating up the congregation.” That, too, is wrong. But proper conviction about spiritual complacency is not the same as beating up the congregation—even if some congregants stuck in spiritual complacency will always interpret it that way.
I had the privilege of growing up in a form of Christian life that highly valued the dynamic quality of the Christian faith and congregational life. It was far from perfect, and “beating up the congregation” certainly was too common in the pulpits. However, it imbued in me a sense that spiritual complacency is one of the deadliest diseases within congregations, among God’s people. Our church, the one I grew up in as a child, in the 1950s, sang many songs that emphasized spiritual conviction and change. We truly believed God would be very visibly busy among us if we remained open to that with supplicating prayer for the Holy Spirit to convict us and drives us to deeper (or higher) spiritual transformation. One such song, I assume borrowed from an African-American Christian tradition, a “spiritual” we often sang, went something like this: “Move on brother; move on sister; this is the moving day. Move a little closer where the stream is flowing; move on brother, move on. The move is on, my Lord, the move is on. The move is on, my Lord, the move is on. I can hear the rustling in the mulberry bush and I know, I know the move is on.” Like so many other spirituals the song drew on biblical imagery that would be completely unknown to most Christians today because they don’t read the Bible that much. The point of the song was to let go of the status quo and “go with the flow” of God’s Holy Spirit among us. Later, another similar song, very popular especially in the charismatic movement, was “God is moving by His Sprit, moving through all the earth. Signs and wonders, when God moveth. Move O Lord in me.”
The question every Christian individual and congregation needs to be confronted with—at least occasionally—is “Is God busy in your life, among us?” Where are the signs and wonders? I’m not talking about emotionalism or even supernatural manifestations, although I think many American Christian churches could benefit from greater openness to emotion and miracles. I’m talking about visible Christianity where visitors to a church say “I felt God’s presence there.” Many years ago I had the privilege of belonging to a church and eventually serving on its ministerial staff where visitors often said that—“Something’s different there. I felt God’s presence.” We were not stuck in “the way we’ve always done it” or bogged down in complacency. The dynamic work of God’s Spirit among the people was evident. Unfortunately, if I described that more vividly here many readers would immediately picture television evangelists because that’s all they know of that type of Christianity. But we were not like that; nothing was being manufactured and no one was being manipulated. The ethos of the congregation was one of total openness to whatever God wanted to do—within biblical boundaries.
My passion here and everywhere is to challenge Christian spiritual complacency; to stir the pot—not because I get some satisfaction out of being controversial but because I am convinced we all have a natural tendency to settle down in our own comfort zones and not want to be made uncomfortable. When I go to church, I want to be comforted in my affliction, if I am afflicted, and afflicted in my comfort. I’m usually more comfortable than afflicted. A sense of conviction about my comfort level with the status quo of my own spiritual life and that of my congregation and of American Christianity in general is what I long for. May 2016 bring revival, renewal, proper change toward greater approximation of the kingdom of God happen in American Christianity.