Forget the Church. Follow Jesus

That’s the title of the lead article in the Easter edition of Newsweek Magazine. The article defines the decline of the church in America.

Meanwhile, organized religion itself is in trouble. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy lost much of its authority over the American flock with the unilateral prohibition of the pill in 1968 by Pope Paul VI. But in the last decade, whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated. The hierarchy was exposed as enabling, and then covering up, an international conspiracy to abuse and rape countless youths and children. I don’t know what greater indictment of a church’s authority there can be—except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign. Instead, they obsess about others’ sex lives, about who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance. Inequality, poverty, even the torture institutionalized by the government after 9/11: these issues attract far less of their public attention.

For their part, the mainline Protestant churches, which long promoted religious moderation, have rapidly declined in the past 50 years. Evangelical Protestantism has stepped into the vacuum, but it has serious defects of its own. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explores in his unsparing new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, many suburban evangelicals embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich. Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory. Still others insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old—something we now know by the light of reason and science is simply untrue. And what group of Americans have pollsters found to be most supportive of torturing terror suspects? Evangelical Christians. Something has gone very wrong. These are impulses born of panic in the face of modernity, and fear before an amorphous “other.” This version of Christianity could not contrast more strongly with Jesus’ constant refrain: “Be not afraid.” It would make Jefferson shudder.

It would also, one imagines, baffle Jesus of Nazareth. The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear in either Jefferson’s or the original New Testament. Jesus never spoke of homosexuality or abortion, and his only remarks on marriage were a condemnation of divorce (now commonplace among American Christians) and forgiveness for adultery. The family? He disowned his parents in public as a teen, and told his followers to abandon theirs if they wanted to follow him. Sex? He was a celibate who, along with his followers, anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant.

The prosperity Gospel is a farce and is turning off a generation of Christians. And I am somewhat impressed that a major news publication recognizes what so many people on this blog and other places on the internet have come to realize for themselves — You don’t need church to be a Christian.

30 thoughts on “Forget the Church. Follow Jesus

  1. Hey, cat. It’s somewhat difficult to reply about the article because the author addresses several issues in a short space. He disparages organized religion, then moves on to discredit the Scriptures, and finally ends with some remarks about Jesus Himself.

    I might seem to agree with the author in my assessment of organized religion gone awry. But not for the reasons he does, and I would certainly not advocate his reaction.

    I see these issues as sin in the Church, and in need of repentance, forgiveness, and a return to personal Christianity — both in private, in public, and in groups (including church).

    True, you don’t need church to be a Christian. All you need for that is belief and acceptance of the atonement of the Cross and Resurrection. But once you are part of God’s family, it’s nice to worship together with others.

  2. Wow, great find Justin. After reading the whole article I really think this guy hits a home run here when he writes:

    “All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there.
    That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep.
    I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God.
    This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.”

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I’ve really noticed a hatred and disgust towards religion, Christianity and church in a lot of young people (25 and under) that I’ve met as of late. It’s definately apparent that all the church sex abuse scandals, greedy money scams, public hatred towards gays, and lack of genuine love and care shown towards the less fortunate have really turned them off to anything having to do with religion or church.

    Kids have more access now to knowledge and information then they ever have before. They are more aware of the world around them, and they seek genuiness more then any other generation before them. The hypocrisy has just become to much and they are turning away. Christianity is definately in a crisis and unless our very public spiritual leaders give start acting more like Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa and less like Joel Osteen and Pat Robertson, it is only going to get worse.

  3. Oh good for you, Reformer for reading the whole article. I only read the part that Cat posted. In the section you added, the author is making a case for more authentic spiritual Christianity, and it makes a little more sense.

    Maybe public Christianity will continue down its path, and God will let it carry on to its doomed conclusion. Maybe that is the fate of “Dominionism” — whether its a continuation of the religion of the government (as in past centuries), or the new breed of dominionism.

    Maybe there won’t be a public reformation, but just simple personal ones.

  4. I recently had a friend tell me “I believe there is a scorecard for the good and bad that you do…and I believe that there is someone keeping track on that scorecard. Outside of that I’m not sure of anything”.

    At this point, I’m not even sure there is a scorecard but I like the idea of there being one.

  5. I’m glad because of Jesus, my scorecard has been ripped up and forgotten! That’s about all there is to Christianity, sometimes we want to make it way more complicated.

  6. Not to be a braggart, but if there was a scorecard, I would be beating all of my immediate family-like hands down kicking their asses. And I am the only one who is not a Christian. I cannot deny that this makes me feel better about myself and better than them ;P <—– (That is me making that face at myself because I realize that that is silly and generally not a good attitude to have…but still, I win. I am the winner).

  7. But you just got a mark on the bad card for your arrogance…you clearly have such a huge lead it doesn’t matter.

  8. Touche! But doesn’t the fact that I recognized the bad behavior and then felt remorse for it (for the time being, until I feel good about it again), cancel out the bad behavior and I’m back where I started. Really JP, it would probably be a good idea for someone to write out the rules of this scorecard.

  9. You guys are funny with your scorecard! Would that mean Jesus wears a referee outfit?

    My husband either heard or saw the writer of this article last week either on NPR or talk TV. Just the title alone pulls you in! Some of us feel validated just seeing that! However, even though I am not needing church lately, i recognize many still do which is ok since each person’s faith is personal. But before I go off with opinion I better go read the article – so thanks for the link Cat.

    Before I go, another topic the Huz heard on NPR yesterday – Terry Gross on Fresh Air – that sounds really interesting and actually encouraging about faith worth some spare time: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/26/149394987/when-god-talks-back-to-the-evangelical-community
    “Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann studies the personal relationships evangelicals develop with God. In her book When God Talks Back, she explains how relationships with God are often cemented through the power of prayer.” The author, an anthropology professor at Stanford, is not saying Christianity is wrong or right – but is studying why believing in someone who loves you unconditionally is good for your mental health. It sounds like a bonafide study without a bunch of bias. I can’t wait to go listen myself so bye for now.

  10. But God doesnt love you unconditionally…I don’t think it matter’s which religion you believe in…I can’t think of any where God loves you unconditionally.

    • I can see why you think that, JP. We have been led to believe God’s love IS conditional because we spent a big chunk of our lives in MFI churches which are authoritarian in style with pastors who show favor based on a merit system (and based on how much you worship them). The issue of God’s true love is what has been at the heart of detoxxing the past and getting rid of lingering misconceptions embedded in our psyche because of how the system was that we left. It’s all had to be redone and it’s taking a long time.

      But according to scripture, God does love mankind, and each of us individually, whether we believe in him or not. Our belief doesn’t alter his love either way but he leaves us with the choice whether to reach out to him or not. Unlike our former MFI pastors, he doesn’t want to force himself on us by demanding allegience. He wants the two-way street relationship thing, but only if it comes from an honest desire within us.

      At least that is what I believe most of the time. ;-)

  11. Where did this concept of a “personal relationship” with God come from? I don’t believe this is a scriptural concept as much as it is an Americanism or a modern blab and grab it view of the world.

    It sounds good yet if this “relationship” with God is the rule then why doesn’t it work in real life? I could send a letter to my loved one and they would talk to me. In real life that is called a dysfunctional relationship it is not a two way communication. It is the complaint the world over that men don’t communicate with women but that exact model is held in high esteem in our relationship to God. Perhaps a personal responsibility to follow God is a better way to put it and not a personal two-way conversation with God.

  12. Stephen, part of that idea may have come from the exchange Jesus had with his disciples. When he said that he was going away, they were understandably upset. But he told them, “I will send the Comforter, and he will be everything to you that I am.” Another translation of “Comforter” might be “personal mentor.”

    Paul used the same idea to describe the Holy Spirit’s interaction with us Christians. During the book of Acts, the apostles do not seem to feel cheated that Jesus was gone, and they were left with the Spirit. Sure, they had their memories, but not all of their converts did.

    Another place in the Bible that describes a “personal relationship” with God is in Abraham, whom God mentions as his friend. Since these ideas are in the Bible, I think that may be where the idea came from. If that answers your question.

  13. Yeah I agree with Anna. Even though the expression “personal relationship” is not in the bible, the life we receive through the Holy Spirit is clearly described in the New Testament as very personal and close (John chapters 14-16). As well Jesus is our friend, comforter, advocate, brother, and bridegroom. He will never leave us.

  14. For those of us taught that a literal interpretation was the only way–except for tithing of course–yes the Holy Spirit will comfort us and Jesus will never leave us are two different conversations then a personal relationship How much damage takes place because of that erroneous belief. Or religious wars or a narrow worldview?

  15. Abraham was God’s “friend” whom He spoke to 3x’s in 100 years? That’s my point exactly. If we have a personal relationship then we don’t talk conversationally. Really we vent on God, we take comfort in knowing HE IS ALWAYS THERE. And then we interpret scripture according to our belief structure n hope that we listened to the right leaders. We don’t have a personal relationship with God. How many times have u heard this concept pitched to a new convert that our religion is better because we have a personal relationship with Jesus?

  16. I’ll save some time. You’re either a troll trying to get a rise out of someone or you’re dead serious because you’ve been hurt real bad or your idea of God is just plain whack. In any case the New Testament screams out PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP with God through Jesus. There may be a lot wrong with modern day christianity, but emphasizing personal relationship with God is not one of the problems. That would actually probably be the answer to most of the problems.

  17. I am not a Troll but I could see my idea of God being plain whack. Maybe it is whack, that is why I thought I was honestly asking the question or from my experience say that the wording used doesn’t apply to the relationship described. As far as getting a rise out of somebody–nobody is tame on this blog that’s for sure. I have read your comments for over a year Jay and there is no way I would knowingly disrespect the bloggers who faithful contribute their insights. Most of you guys / gals here have a deeper understanding of scripture then I have despite going through 4 years of PBC. I am whack.

    • The modern church model does seem contradictory where relationship with the Lord is concerned … on the one hand, modern church teaches a believer to “go to church” to worship the Lord – so I guess God hangs out in the church building … and people worshiping at the altar, facing the front, raising hands, falling prostrate, it would seem to suggest that the Lord is hovering somewhere over the altar. So if you go to the church to worship the Lord, what about when you leave after the service concludes? Does the Lord go with you?

      About whack, the church teaches whack … ever notice how it is that the minister teaches “the church is people”, but when the time for the offering comes around, the “church is the pastor and staff” … otherwise, if you are really giving your offering to “the church”, shouldn’t you just give it to the guy sitting next to you, if the Lord so leads? And of course, the church is people when there’s work to be done … seldom does that include the pastor in my observation … work parties typically see people working and the pastor not present or loafing …

      Everbody is whack, Stephen ;) – thank God for His son Jesus who labors constantly to make us un-whack … or least as much as is possible in this life.

  18. Hi Stephen, I had this same conversation with my daughter. “How do you have a relationship with God? (a) He’s not tangible and doesn’t speak audibly. (b) The Bible is confusing, and it’s ridiculous to think ‘God’ wrote it, because (a).”

    I totally agree with her. It makes no sense, except… well, after wrestling with these questions myself, I made a decision. I had to choose a worldview: the Bible’s (which is at least tangible), or modern philosophical.

    I looked at the worldviews I could choose to adopt, and came to the personal conclusion that biblical Christianity was the most internally consistent, as well as consistent with the world as I could see it.

    I decided to believe the Bible. It was not an emotional decision made down at the “altar” after hearing the preacher, or watching “Eternity.” I was standing in my kitching doing dishes and thinking: either I believe all this or I don’t. If I believe, then I will act accordingly. If I do not, then I will act accordingly. But I can’t continually wonder and live this uncertain life. It’s uncomfortable to me.

    One of the perks of the decision is a “relationship with God.” It is as real to me as the relationship with my children. He speaks to me in as real a way as other people do — I just hear it with different ears, but it’s processed in the same part of my brain as your voice, or other reading.

    I think it’s healthy to question what you have accepted without considering. Good for you. I just hope that you follow your ideas out to their logical conclusions. And that you don’t just reject a premise because of its source, but you reject it based on merit alone.

  19. This is an email we got from our former church, and it’s no wonder people don’t go to church anymore…

    Subject: Seed Sowing Sunday!

    Sunday, May 27, 2012 is Seed Sowing Sunday in all 4 services.
    (8am, 10am, 12pm & 2pm en espanol)
    Please remember to get a special envelope this Sunday, May 20th to put your seed in.
    Seed Sowing Sunday defined:
    The annual day where the Shiloh Church Family brings a special seed offering to the Lord above their regular tithe to be planted for a great harvest to be release in their lives.

    Over the past 3 years at Shiloh Church we have hosted a Seed Sowing
    Sunday on the last Sunday of May. This time has become one of the
    highlights of the year at Shiloh Church as the Senior Pastors pray over the
    seed offerings and the Elders pray for the people in a Holy Spirit prayer
    tunnel. Once again we ask that you to come ready to give unto the Lord
    a seed offering on Sunday, May 27, 2012.

    We believe that it has been the mind of the Lord to host this day at our
    fellowship because of 2 reasons:

    1. The people of the House are blessed. There have been scores and
    scores of testimonies that have come forth from this day of seed sowing.

    2. The House is blessed. The last Sunday of May is almost like the last
    Sunday before summer vacation. The offering that is yielded on that one
    day oftentimes gets us through summer dips in giving. Although we are
    praying that there will be no summer dips this year. Amen!

    DEFINITIONS:

    Generosity: A deep godly passion of the heart to impart, share & give of
    the blessing God has provided back to Him, to His church & to others.

    Tithe: A regular, willing giving to the Lord of 10% or more of our income.

    Offering: A special monetary gift above the tithe that we give to God for
    His House or a specific project or area of ministry.

    • ” … Once again we ask that you to come ready to give unto the Lord a seed offering on Sunday, May 27, 2012 …”

      Anybody ever say “If I see the Lord, I’ll give it to Him” ?

  20. I had a minister work for me one summer. He started skipping lunch to fast and pray. Finally one day he said to me that God had told him to quit working for me. I was so thrilled that he had gotten a clear word from God that I totally forgot that I would be losing a helper. After pestering him and asking for details he finally admitted it was his wife that told him to quit. I suppose that would be a whacked out expectation that God would speak specifically to anyone to quit a jotb

    • What’s whacked about that, is blaming God for his action and then blaming his wife. His name should be “Pastor Pantywaist”.

  21. If God’s ideal pre-King Saul was to be King to each person what then what would be a way of giving? If every man was doing what was right in his own eyes n God liked it that way then perhaps individual respondsibility took the place of a manatory tithe? If the Church is based on a 2nd best structure so that we can have a king like the other guys. Is it any wonder that it is dysfunctional as it isn’t God’s initial plan?

  22. I don’t know about your point about tithing but the parallel of the people’s unholy desire to have a king rule over them being like the pastoral kingship of some of these modern day churches sure is there

  23. Stephen C. Thanks for your sincerity. Sorry if I misjudged you. I re-read and think I get your point now; that some of these churches say “personal relationship” but in actions contradict it. I still think it’s the right concept, otherwise we’re back to blindly trying to serve an impersonal God by law without love or trust. There’s definitely been dry times in my life and things I don’t understand and even some horrible tragedies, but through the majority of the last 42 yrs. since beginning to walk with Him, God has been very personal to me.

  24. Jay I was trying to make a distinction between a personal relationship n a personal awareness. U have a personal relationship with ur wife n a great personal awareness with this blog. I am just saying the wording implies something different if we say we have a personal relationship with God.

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