The modern man found the church too simple exactly where modern life is too complex; he found the church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy. The man who disliked the plain fasts and feasts was mad on entrees. The man who disliked vestments wore a pair of preposterous trousers. And surely if there was any insanity involved in the matter at all it was in the trousers, not in the simply falling robe. If there was any insanity at all, it was in the extravagant entrees, not in the bread and wine.
If I wanted to arouse animosity among many Christians and Christian leaders today I might say something like, ‘‘Let it be clearly stated that there can be no service acceptable to God in this age that does not center in and spring out of the church.’’ And I might surprise many of them by noting that I had just quoted A.W. Tozer, a renowned Alliance Church pastor. Such statements, earlier in this twentieth century, were easily received and practiced by believers of varied denominational stripe. At the end of this century, however, many Christians cringe at such a forward statement.
In 1994, David Briggs wrote an article for the Associated Press titled, ‘‘Study: Americans spurning their religion.’’ He began by saying, ‘‘In the high-stakes game of denominational musical chairs, the big winner of the 90’s may be no church at all . . . It’s become quite acceptable these days to be nothing throughout your life . . . It doesn’t really matter what you are anymore.’’ In a telling admission Briggs noted that liberal Protestant denominations, to stop the attendance decline, ‘‘can’t go out beating the bushes with the old-time Gospel.’’ Why? Because, of course, they don’t believe it! He called these ‘‘inherited religions’’ because church life is handed down, not accepted by faith. The point of the article was that to keep these ‘‘inherited religions’’ going, churches were ‘‘updating’’ statements of faith and church policy to ‘‘a new kind of realism’’ in an attempt to ‘‘keep its culture strong.’’
This is not new, of course. In 1990, Newsweek ran an article titled ‘‘A Time To Seek,’’ in which churchgoers said, ‘‘Instead of me fitting religion, I found a religion to fit me;’’ ‘‘Unlike earlier religious revivals, the aim this time is support, not salvation, a circle of spiritual equals rather than an authoritative church or guide.’’ No wonder a Gallup poll reported that two in five unchurched adults say they have ‘‘made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ,’’ but not, obviously, to the church which He built. Louis Harris said that religious faith ‘‘is contained within the individual rather than reflected in slavish loyalty to church attendance or to the letter of the dogma of a particular religion.’’
It is becoming increasingly difficult for churches to keep a local church emphasis without feeling the squeeze put on by both the Christian and non-Christian culture. We have been familiar with ‘‘para-church’’ organizations for a long time but it is not so much an issue of ‘‘para’’ as it is ‘‘multi’’ and ‘‘dis’’ as in multidimensional, multifarious, multifaceted and diversity, diversion, divarication. I find myself coming back to this often in my reading and thoughts. Our generation is busily ‘‘celebrating diversity’’ but has little to no clue about what it is that unites people (whether a belief in God that unites human beings or a common intellectual doctrine that unites Christians). It is no surprise that an emphasis on a unified local gathering seems out of sync with today’s view of the church.
The supreme example of balance between unity and diversity is the Godhead. Ravi Zacharias recently wrote, ‘‘A proper understanding of the Trinity not only gives us a key to understanding unity in diversity, but also brings us a unique answer to the great struggle we face between races, cultures, and–for that matter–even genders.’’ It should also help us to keep a balance and not go overboard in one direction or the other. The pendulum has swung to both extremes for sure but now it seems to be swinging away from the gathered emphasis and far toward the scattered.
The one group, the one method, the one picture of believers we find in the New Testament is the church. It cannot be everything our culture wants it to be nor should it. Yet, it is truly amazing what we can find in the New Testament to qualify as business of the church. And the more it takes us away from a simple, unified gathering the more popular it seems to be. Somehow our gatherings have come to be seen as a boring tradition which, because it is biblical, we must continue to perform. But we can’t wait to get away from that assemblage and on to more exciting and diverse things!
Now if you know me you know I don’t advocate turning the clock back nor ignoring all new ideas or methods. If we have let our assemblies grow cold and stale we need to recognize that and deal with it. No doubt, it is easy to keep our churches from being diverse enough in ministry and make-up. It is our mission to take the gospel outside the walls of the church but in the process we cannot abandon the most common and obvious biblical model we have. We don’t abandon the car when it runs out of gas. We fill it up again.
One thing is sure in this present cultural climate–if an alternative can be found to the local church assembly, people will take it! If problems can be solved in a psychologist’s office rather than at a church altar, if service can be performed at a coffee shop rather than in a classroom, if character can be learned in a stadium rather than in a pew, if learning can take place with entertainment rather than with concentration, then there is no further ethical mandate needed than that! Even for God to ask otherwise would be recalcitrant.
In C.S. Lewis’ second Screwtape Letter, Screwtape (the master demon) says to Wormwood (his nephew), ‘‘One of the great allies at present is the Church itself. . . All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. . . Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. . . Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. . . He will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. . . Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.’’
The catch is, of course, that it is not the gates of hell that will prevail!