Why the Church Can’t Fix Itself

Why the Church Can’t Fix Itself January 13, 2022

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When I say the church, I specifically mean Westernized Christianity.  I’m not familiar with other countries, so I can’t comment.   Some would say they are not as bad as someone else (usually Fundamentalists), but the entire system is broken and doesn’t work for this day and age.

Here are a few things that are systemically broken, to one degree or another.

  1. There are varying degrees of nationalism.  Does your church sing patriotic songs, promote exceptionalism / triumphalism of the U.S., fly an American flag, to some degree believe we are or should be a Christian nation?   Then it may be a nationalist.  Jesus never promoted empire.
  2. The church doesn’t generally heal our trauma.  The church generally recruits and attracts people with trauma.  It promises to help them, but it usually doesn’t have the time to help them, so hurt people continue to hurt people.  It’s not a bad intentions, it’s just that the system doesn’t work very well at all.
  3. Everything the church provides can be obtained easier somewhere else.  We can find friends anywhere.  The best sermons are already on the internet.  We can hear the best music and concerts online or go to a real concert.  We can have communion / fellowship with people at our house.  Small groups are at the house anyway, why involve an organization in that?  We are more likely to have a conversation at home or on a zoom meeting than during a lecture.
  4. The belief systems are harmful and toxic.  Churches still teach that we are basically bad, that God is retributive, and that there is a hell.  Many teach that women are not allowed to do everything.  Others hold on to things like racism.  Almost all church promote politics which can easily move into the drivers seat.
  5. It’s an organization.  When 70% of the money goes to salaries and buildings, there is not a lot left to do anything else.  The primary goals of an organization are to preserve the organization.  Whether they intend to do that or not, most of the energy goes toward recruitment, retention, and putting on the best show.
  6. The system is completely wrong. It promotes teaching and lecture verses discussion.  It provides little to no time to heal our trauma.  It promises family, but it is very little like a good family and more like a dysfunctional one.  It promises community, but provides entertainment instead.  It promotes politics, some times at the expense of the original teachings (promoting warfare, ignoring immigrants, nationalism, etc.)

You may not agree with me that it’s broken, but think with me for a minute why we can’t fix it.  Some would argue that the model we use in Protestant and Catholic churches is representative of what was initiated in the days of Constantine.  We like to think we have changed when we initiate new styles or add on a coffee shop, but the problems remain and we really have not solved the systemic problems.

So, why can’t we change the church from within?

The church is an organization.   See #5 above.  We may say it’s the people, but it’s also an organization.  Organizations may change strategies, but anyone that has ever tried to change anything substantial in a church most likely has the scars to prove it.  We once tried to move some shelving and had an 80 year old woman threaten to get her pistol.

The staff is vested in the current process.  One of the biggest changes needed is a huge reduction in staff.  So, the people that could make that change have little to no interest in doing it. It is probably similar to changes in any other industries.  No one wants to give up their job, especially the clergy.  Having 1000 people burn gas to come hear another person teach is a ridiculous way to get information today, but the person doing that would never suggest cutting that program.  Other examples are similar.

People still don’t like change.  I hate to break it to you – they really don’t!  Try moving a piece of furniture around or changing the order of service.  The changes needed are massive.  We need a completely different experience from top to bottom and people want to keep it mostly the same.  I’ve participated in and watched church plants.  The mood is always extremely high because we envision we’re planting something revolutionarily new and different and the end result is always not that different at all.

People are nostalgic and have idols.  Because we had past experience in a place or organization, we like to think some of that is because that place or organization is special.  It seems that way because it’s familiar.  Have you ever left somewhere and went back there — it’s not the same because we saw and experienced new things and gained perspective.  The familiar clouds our perspective and we fear trying anything different or new because it might be worse.

The church will never experience the change it needs from the inside.  I personally believe it will have to die before it can experience new life.  The pandemic taught us all that most of what we need can be obtained elsewhere anyway.

The church will be reborn outside the walls.  It will have more spiritual directors and way less pastors.  There will be more discussion and less teaching.  There will be way less exchange of money and more and more sharing our lives.  There will be time for trauma work – period — no more excuses or bypassing this area.  Theologies will be open and evolving and insights will come from many sources.  We will not go back to anything (orthodox, 1st Century, etc.) except to pull truths from many traditions — we must live in the present.

I know we can do it, but not from the inside,

Be where you are, be who you are,

Karl Forehand

Order Being: A Journey Toward Presence and Authentic

Karl Forehand is a former pastor, podcaster, and award-winning author. His books include Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart and The Tea Shop. He is the creator of The Desert Sanctuary podcast. He is married to his wife Laura of 32 years and has one dog named Winston. His three children are grown and are beginning to multiply!

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14 responses to “Why the Church Can’t Fix Itself”

  1. I often converse with my liberal-leaning adult son about the current problems in our world, and I am regularly befuddled at his penchant to see a “systemic” issue underlying every current trend or event he finds wrong or unpleasant. More than that though, and sometimes pushing me past befuddled and into grieved, he is very quick to conclude that the only solution to his discontents is to scrap whole systems and start over. It’s something I generally take as the immature reaction of a 20-something full of youthful vigor and idealism but weak in the experience, practicalities and skills of seeing/making changes over long periods of time… but it’s also something I’ve come to realize is a more ubiquitous disposition in the post-modern American cultural climate than I’d prefer to see.

    Let’s take the first assertion in this post, for example, that one of the “systemically broken” aspects of “westernized Christianity” is “varying degrees of nationalism”. Based on the details, I assume the author is referring to the relatively recent nationalistic uprising of many American conservative evangelical churches in response to the current socio-political challenges of globalization. Whatever one thinks of that nationalistic spirit, since evangelicals comprise roughly 25% of Christianity in America (~10-15% world-wide), the overall movement is commonly considered to have begun roughly in the 1700s, and evangelical entrance into the political arena didn’t occur in force until roughly the 1960s, AND since by definition “systemic” relates to the whole system rather than only to a particular part; I would have to hear a much farther-reaching analysis before I could agree that ANY action or stance of such a limited part of Christendom reflects a “systemic” problem… and much more so for one of such proposed proportions that it requires the whole Church to be scrapped.

    Quite the contrary, I see the capacity of the Church to generate and embrace this kind of diversity as one of her “systemic” strengths. A brief study of Church history, esp. since the Protestant Reformation, shows a vibrant, and I would contend even progressive, ebb and flow of movements, divisions, unifications, theological distinctions, focus-causes, etc. that demonstrate to me the Church is more than capable of adapting to, even thriving through, whatever the shifting sands of time may expose to her. If the discovery of a solar-centric planetary system or of evolutionary science didn’t kill her, some political radicals in the South-Central US, stubborn and loud though they may be, probably won’t either! Lol!

    In any case, if one fears evangelical take-over of the Church or even just has a bone of contention with their political bent, by all means, be a voice and contend for the faith… healthy diversity and open civil discussion promote growth and strengthen resilience… or just don’t go to a politically active evangelical church. There are plenty of other options for communal worship, prayer, study, service, missions, etc. (which, btw, evangelicals are also still doing).

    It isn’t necessary, or even reasonable, IMO, to cite this phenomenon as support for the statement that, “the entire system is broken and doesn’t work for this day and age.” Again, I tend to see the opposite in this point… namely, that the rise of a political voice within the Church is actually a very appropriate, even specifically tailored, response for this very day and age that speaks more of the Church’s robust awareness and responsiveness to current issues than it does to her shortcomings. Denominationalism (meaning here, the idea: “one/my denomination is ‘the Church’”) is probably more of an obstacle to overcome than is nationalism.

    Of course, “nationalism” was only one point in the post, and I recognize there’s more to it, so maybe I’ll engage with the other points too when I can (if that’s allowed…. I’m new to this forum and am unaware of any rules regarding comment frequency or length… please feel free to enlighten me if necessary :), but for now I’ll just agree that this “day and age” is definitely unique and challenging, the whole world is struggling to adapt, and the Church is no exception. Certainly the question of if/how the Church might orient toward a radically changing socio-political landscape is an important one to wrestle with and surely many possibilities will be considered and tried.

    We’re going to try to hold on to the old and we’re going to try new things. We’re going to find solutions and we’re going to make mistakes tromping down dead-end paths to fruitless fields. Some old ways may fade, many may be modified, and new ways will emerge. We’re going to experience fear and have strong emotions. We’re going to see things differently and, hopefully, argue about it (preferably, civilly). But through it all, in the end, I believe, we, humanity, are going to find our way and sally forth to the green pastures of a new, updated world that God has already planned for us. And personally, I believe the Church will at least be trotting along with the changes, while my hope is that she might even lead the way!

  2. It used to be enough to get people to agree that church is the center of life in community, and then fellowship gathered around it. I agree that more in-depth sharing and more training of lay persons would get us closer to real community, but that’s a big ask. How about specialists training “deacons” to bring others into closer relation?

  3. Great post. I think the church is way too invested in its perpetuity to save itself from itself. As Sinclair Lewis once quipped, “Never trust a man’s (or woman’s) opinion if their salary depends on it.”

  4. Hi. I’m new to this forum and I’ve submitted a couple comment responses (both, as it turns out, to this author’s articles… I didn’t plan that), but they haven’t been posted. Rather, they seem to have disappeared. So, I’m wondering if there is a problem of some sort? Were my comments received? And if so, were they consciously rejected? And if so, why?

    I contended with the views expressed in the articles and was hoping to open some dialogue because I’m very interested in the work of “peace-making”/conflict resolution at least, and unifying at best, among those who call themselves Christian (I give “definitional authority” for that to the individual… meaning, I accept anyone’s self-designation as a Christian as “valid”). I am grieved by the hostility among Christians as we seek to love one another, and I am looking for a kind of public forum for civil discussion of tough topics toward the aim of increasing mutual understanding. Am I in the right place?

    Feel free to email me at spiritwayministry@gmail.com if you’d like.

    Thank you.

  5. The Churches could absolutely fix themselves if they abandoned the theology of modernity and returned to a more ancient idea of the Church. One wherein the Church understands it’s place as contra to the world, like the early Christians understood themselves contra to the pagan world.

    We could easily return to that, but we must abandon modern presumptions and prefer a radical in group preference. This means the Church has to keep itself clean and excommunicate members who distort it. This means we have be careful of our associations and have a strict attitude towards sin and vice.

    All politically progressive elements within Christianity must die it for it to flourish.

  6. The American church is increasingly a branch of Trump.org and you know what they say about Donald Trump: everything he touches dies. Businesses, marriages, casinos, his “university,” all of it. The church is a grifting crazy magnet; it’s turned the GOP into a Kool-Aid cult.

  7. The presumptions that need to be abandoned in order to return to a more ancient idea of the Church are not as modern as they seem, nor are they so easily abandoned.

    For example, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” is one such presumption, from nearly 250 years ago.

  8. The article should be entitled “Why the evangelical church cannot heal itself” in that many of the observations only fit with that segment. For instance, “everything the church provides can be obtained somewhere else.” Apparently coming from the position of moralistic therapeutic deism (apparently the church is to provide “belonging,” “family” or “community” and trauma recovery as its central “products,” , the article bypasses the central provisions of Catholic and Orthodox churches as if they did not exist, namely sacramental access to (eventually) a love union with God in Jesus Christ (central, but by no means the only offering). It bypasses what Jesus said that the church should provide. It also ignores the fact that over 2000 years the church has indeed had ups and downs, but that reform movements have restored it to proper functioning again and again. So perhaps the particular church communities the author is thinking about cannot heal themselves, but the Church as experienced by about a billion and a half people is not what the author knows about and – albeit with its ups and downs over time – does mediate access to transient realities that cannot be fully accessed anywhere else.

  9. I whole heartedly agree with your article. The westernized church in my opinion has abandoned Christ. Being a minister many years ago, the main job of a person is to preach. The whole week is usually spent preparing a sermon which the listeners forget once he or she is done preaching. As a child, I cannot ever recall my friends’ parents ever reading the Bible. I went to a Christian school and Calvinism was my background. Unfortunately, many church goers are legacy members and truly do not study the Bible. The church needs more Biblical teachings which follow the words of Christ. In my devotional today, Solomon writes, “He who oppresses a poor man insults His maker, but who is kind to the needy honors Him. How can one expect the Lord to bless one’s word when the church continually insult Him by supporting those who oppress the poor everyday. The church needs to focus on Jesus Christ only. The focus is too much on peripheral matters. We need to prayer for revival in America. The church as adopted the ways of the world too much. They need to abandon the practices of society and ask the Lord to send His Holy Spirit for guidance and courage.

  10. I was evangelical for 7 years then became Catholic. Evangelical churches are much more friendly, have coffee together after the service, get to know you, bring you groceries if you are poor, etc. Most Catholics disperse right after Mass. I think one issue affecting all U.S. churches is demographic decline esp in Catholic Parishes, where not many young people attend. Another issue is our lives are all wall to wall with two jobs and time pressure. All I know for sure is that Catholic parishes are going to start closing in large quantities.

  11. ‘Tradition’ is not part of any criteria for truth and abuse by its institutional forms is regularly manifest and today self evident. When founded upon error and unable to question itself, it is equally capable of perpetuating prejudice and falsehood from one generation to the next as furthering any particular ideals of truth, virtue, or wisdom. History, that final of all judges, has discarded uncountable examples of tradition into its own dustbin of oblivion. Real progress in the world has often required that uncomfortable business of discarding baseless reason and useless institution. The process, if often crude, is called revolution. The bloody chore of prying men loose from the myths they have created about themselves, for themselves. Or as noted by Dante in his Divine Comedy:

    For as I turned, there greeted mine likewise
    What all behold who contemplate aright,
    That’s Heaven’s revolution through the skies.

  12. I totally agree! It has become an institution that cannot sustain itself. It has been created on false pretensions. God’s people were to stand out as a group in society to ‘say’ they are different! They are of God! Look to Revelations 21-22 to see what the body of Christ is to be. We should be morphing ourselves into this as we go on in our belief in God almighty.

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