Is the Church in the US on the decline? Our influence upon society is not as great as it once was. We have numerous false teachers claiming to be part of the Church. And to a degree we ourselves seem more intent upon working for societal change than for spiritual change. Could it be that the Church is dying?
Not at all.
With little effort, we can learn about the growth of the Church in unexpected places–places that persecute Christians and places with economic struggles.
And yet, there is a distinct pattern developing. Look at the churches the Apostle Paul established on his missionary journeys. Over time, they disappeared as salt in their world. Look at the churches spread throughout the Roman Empire. Who today is worshiping in the great cathedrals of Italy, Denmark, or Belgium? Or what about those churches established after the Reformation by Martin Luther and John Calvin and John Wesley? Where is their witness in Germany or France or England?
One might wonder if Christianity doesn’t just play itself out after time, and perhaps the Church in the US is experiencing the downside as Biblical faith is ushered out the door. There may be some truth to this concept, but not as a part of inevitability due to some endemic problem with religion or, specifically, with Christianity.
The problem is with Mankind, not with Christianity.
Interestingly, the Bible forewarns the Church of the possibility of losing our place in society. I’m referring to Revelation 2 and 3, in which John, via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, records a message to seven specific churches.
Here’s the thing. Should God by His mercy give many more years to this world, then the Church in the US must pay attention to what Scripture says, or we too can lose our place in the evangelism of the lost.
So what is it we find in Revelation? First, to the church in Ephesus:
But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent.
– Revelation 2:4-5
My question, then, is this: Has the Church in the US left its first love? Do we love God as much as we love liberty? Or our family? Or our health? And our wealth?
Perhaps the worst mistake a church can make is to operate as if there is no error in us, or within us. Certainly Paul didn’t approach the churches he wrote to in the New Testament as if, now that they’d come to Christ, sin was a thing of the past. Instead he warned, reproved, confronted, and forgave.
These elements are also present in John’s writing in Revelation. No surprise, since both authors wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What I like about John’s passages is that the messages to the churches categorize the sinful behavior–for them and for us–he’s warning against.
However, in an enumeration of specifics, it’s easy to use those in prideful comparisons. Well, I gave the newspaper delivery guy a $5 Christmas bonus last year, and I know my neighbor didn’t. Too bad he’s not as generous as I am. And while I’m thinking about it, thank God, I’m not like those selfish Wall Street CEOs.
Looking at the overall command–love your neighbor as yourself, for example–forces us to either examine our own lives or ignore the commandment. Neither option will lead to pride in connection to law keeping. If we examine our lives, we will repent or rebel. If we ignore the commandment, we’ve already chosen to rebel.
The angel’s admonition from God to the church in Ephesus was to repent because they had left their first love. The second church to receive similar instruction was that in Pergamum:
But I have a few things against you, because you have some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality … Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.
Here John points out what these people were doing by relating their actions to those of an Old Testament prophet–a prophet, it turned out, who was trying to work both sides of the fence. He had said he would only report what God told him to. God’s message was a curse on the army opposing Israel. But it was the king of Israel’s enemy who hired the prophet. So he turned around and told the king what he could do to erode Israel rather than defeat the nation outright.
Pergamum was tolerating just such people–those who taught others how to chip away at truth and lead God’s people into turning their backs on Him. They were, in fact, tolerating false teachers. Might this not be something the Church today should guard against?
I’m not talking about the leaders of a particular body or denomination. I think all of us who name the name of Jesus need to see if those we listen to are consistent with Scripture. Or do our teachers direct us to political action more than to prayer? To demand of God rather than repent before Him? To express our anger toward Him instead of praise the Giver of good gifts? Or any number of other ideas that square with psychology, societal norms, or what have you, while clashing with Scripture.
Who on my bookshelf holds to the teaching of Balaam? My prayer is that the Church in the West will repent. But that starts with me.
Originally posted as Part 1 and 2 of a miniseries “A Christian Worldview of the Church”