The Passing of the American Church

The tragedy of the decline of the American church cannot be limited only to the lives of practicing Christians. The effects reach far beyond that. The Proverbs tell us that when the righteous prosper, the city rejoices. A rising church lifts all boats, you might say.

The martyred El Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero understood this well. Citing the parable of the yeast in the dough, Romero said that

“Bakers know how the little bit of yeast that is placed within the dough leavens the entire mass. This is what Christians should be: the smidgens of yeast that go on to transform their families, their neighborhoods, their communities, their towns, the entire country, the world! But now we are yeast without strength, and that is why we have not been able to leaven the mass.”

The trouble, of course, is that yeast works quietly and gradually. You must be patient. But American Christians, and evangelicals especially, lack this patience. And it isn’t just Christians who suffer as a result.

LEAVING BEHIND THE MASSES

When we turn to the broader question of public life in America, we find that the American republic is faring no better than the American church. Though by some measures the American economy is strong and robust, that strength has primarily benefited a select few. The masses have been left behind.

But the malaise is not purely economic. Sociologists have coined a new term, deaths of despair, to describe the skyrocketing number of deaths due to suicide, drug overdose, or alcoholism occurring in much of rural America and now beginning to become more common in American cities. Similarly, loneliness is on the rise as three-fourths of Americans report having two or fewer close friends they can share their great joys and anxieties with. Today’s American teen is more anxious than ever before.

In such a world the Christian church could be a powerful force for good. Liberated Christians, set free to a life of service and sacrifice by the death and resurrection of Christ, could be the glue that holds homes, neighborhoods, and companies together. The great English poet W. H. Auden once said in a letter to a Christian friend that if it were not for “a few like you,” he would have been lost to despair. This is the ministry the church could have.

The bad news is that for the most part today’s American Christians have come to look like the corrupt, self-satisfied, rich Roman Church of the late medieval era. The good news is that even now we can find a few small places where this gospel of self-sacrifice is being embraced and practiced.

GOOD NEWS FROM THE HOME FRONT

In my hometown of Lincoln, the city’s largest and most successful homeless shelter is run by a Pentecostal pastor who gave up a lucrative career in the business world to become a minister with the particular goal of loving and helping the poor.

A friend of mine runs a successful architecture firm that employed a number of people prior to the housing collapse in 2008. Even in the midst of that collapse, which saw almost all of the firm’s work dry up, my friend paid the salaries of his employees from his personal funds for as long as he could afford to do so. He lost his house in the process, but his employees had a paycheck for far longer than almost anyone else in their field precisely because of the Spirit-empowered generosity of a good Christian man.

One of the best examples of this is the work of John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association. After being nearly beaten to death by a white policeman during the civil rights movement, Perkins dedicated his life to the work of reconciliation in American cities. The organization he founded, CCDA, has proven instrumental in bringing peace where once there was violence and pain. The organization has grown to nearly ten thousand members and over a thousand partner organizations, most of which work in impoverished urban settings.

THE NEED FOR RECONCILIATION

Even so, the dominant narrative of our age remains one of decadence, an aimless and meaningless search after wealth and power for no reason save one’s own personal peace and affluence, as the evangelist Francis Schaeffer anticipated nearly fifty years ago. The result has been a rending in the fabric of the American republic. In such a time of chaos and mistrust, reconciliation is badly needed. And the church has, Scripture tells us, been given precisely such a ministry.

But the story of reconciliation runs counter to not only the story currently ascendant in America but the story that has for too long been dominant in the American church. Because we have mostly forgotten that in God’s economy the way up is the way down, we have been too eager to measure ourselves by worldly standards of success and therefore have forgotten the story told in Scripture of God’s people. In that story we are told that God’s people are brought to life by God and called to a certain sort of life in his world.

In their book Reconciling All Things, Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice tell this alternative story well:

“There are two movements in [the Christian] story and the order is important. The first movement is about God and what God has done in Christ. The second is about the transformation this first movement has enacted in the world and in the lives of people.

Already we see that one way of misreading this story about reconciliation is to immediately bring ourselves into the picture. In our action-infected world, we are tempted to first ask what we must do, jumping into action without dwelling on the gift God gives. But the story of 2 Corinthians 5 reminds us that before reconciliation is about us, it is about God. It is God’s mission in the world.”

They continue later,

“We begin by attending to the story of God. We remember it in worship. We tell it to our children. We memorize its most poignant phrases and ask where God wants to speak them again through us. . . . Because a Christian vision of reconciliation is rooted in the story of God’s people, we can grasp the vision only as we learn to inhabit the story. The story shapes us in the habits of God’s peculiar people; the more we get it down inside us, the easier it is to resist the temptations of this world’s prevailing visions.”

And this brings me back to my childhood hometown of Havelock. The gift I received there was a picture that told me in no uncertain terms that nothing was more important than loving Jesus. And loving Jesus did not mean a life of comfort and wealth; it meant a life of sacrifice and difficulty, but also of beauty and joy. I grew up on stories of beloved family members who exemplified the quiet virtues of Christian love.

FAMILIAL FAITH

My grandfather Bert worked a blue-collar railroad job for thirty-five years to support a sick wife and his three kids. On one occasion, he was caught between two boxcars and broke several ribs. But he didn’t have any saved time off and so the next day he was back on the job. His family needed him. Mom tells me she never once heard him complain. This is a picture of Christian sacrifice, of the quiet fidelity of an ordinary man who blessed his family and his neighborhood with his constancy.

My great-grandmother Elise was an immigrant farmwife living on rented land in the early twentieth century, married to an admirable Swedish man who worked hard but was prone to bouts of depression. You already heard about his first suicide attempt the night before their wedding. It was not his last. In the mid-1920s he went out on a stormy night and used a ladder to climb up a power plant near Oakland. From the ladder he grabbed an exposed wire. The shock nearly killed him, and it caused all the power in the town to go out.

In the aftermath of that attempt on his life, Grandma Elise cared for the entire family and the farm, making sure that the boys (including a young grandpa Bert) did the farm work that their father was not able to do while he was recovering. And through it all she maintained a rich devotional life. Bert could recall till the day he died the sight of his mother sitting quietly in a rocking chair as he came downstairs at sunrise to begin chores. She was reading her Bible and singing beloved hymns in her native Swedish. Elise held a family together through her simple faith in God. And her descendants are still feeling the impact of that nearly one hundred years later.

My mother has taken care of my dad, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in December 2015, round the clock ever since that awful day. Dad spent two weeks in a coma in the ICU after a drug complication caused a massive bleed on his brain, which caused his brain to actually shift eight centimeters inside his skull. Doctors told us he may not make it, and not long before he miraculously woke up one doctor suggested that we begin planning a funeral.

But Dad woke up.

GAINING THROUGH LOSING

For me and everyone who knows my parents, the past several years have been an extended object lesson in the patient endurance of the Christian, the call to a life of sacrifice for the good of the beloved, and the steady hope in a future resurrection. About a year after his injury, my parents were talking and realized that they had both come to a similar conclusion about Dad’s injury: through their suffering they had gained more than they had lost.

Dad had mostly lost the use of his left hand, lost virtually all of his independence, and lost the ability to hunt and to work around the house. Mom lost much of her independence as well. And they both lost a good bit of money as their sole source of income became the combined benefits of an employer provided long-term disability plan and state-provided Social Security payments.

And yet for all that, they both saw that the things they gained through that difficulty, most notably a greater dependence on God and a deeper patience and love for God’s people, somehow exceeded what they had lost.

THE FAILURE—AND OPPORTUNITY—OF THE AMERICAN CHURCH

This call to hidden fidelity does not mean there are no broader ramifications of the Christian faith. I have already said that there are. But it means a church that loses hidden faith will not be able to sustain public faith.

It will, rather, become what the Pharisees were in Jesus’ own day—white-washed tombs, cups scrubbed clean on the outside but filthy on the inside. Scripture teaches us plainly that “man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7 NKJV).

The failure of the American church is that we have become indifferent to the heart. This is because fidelity of the heart will compel us toward an external fidelity that is frequently uncomfortable, demanding, and dangerous.


Taken from In Search of the Common Good by Jake Meador. Copyright (c) 2019 by Jake Meador. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.

Jake Meador is vice president of the Davenant Institute and the editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy, an online magazine covering the Christian faith in the public sphere. He lives with his wife and children in his hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska. Learn more at jakemeador.com.