The Conflicted 500th Year

October will mark the fifth century since Martin Luther started a debate about the pope’s authority. Luther split Europe by questioning Rome’s power over a person’s spiritual life, control of information, and misuse of money. Limiting Rome’s authority helped remove the institution from the relationship between the individual and Jesus Christ.

Yet as I observe this anniversary, several ironies intrude.

American evangelicals often miss how similar our current situation is to Rome’s then. Like Rome, evangelicals have well-funded lobbyists with political agendas. We also have hucksters like Rome’s, but instead of selling early release from purgatory ours sell prayer-cloths, “healings,” and positive thinking.

The most striking parallel between Luther’s day and ours is skepticism. Rome, marinated in privilege, had lost credibility with the average European, and assumed that the loss didn’t matter. But the skepticism of commoners was powerful.

Today the average American rejects evangelicals’ consumeristic attempts to make spiritual life easy, and their obsession with creating a parallel pop culture where they won’t be offended. Many think evangelicals’ public smile is hiding greed and bigotry. Fair or unfair, this is the skepticism evangelicals face.

The loss of credibility is stark. Too many people have gone forward to “get saved” at mass meetings — only to be abandoned when the hard spiritual work started. Too many have trusted “faith healers” to restore their health, authoritarians to shape their conscience, or politicians to save their culture. And too many, when the gimmicks fail, have been told that it was their own fault.

500 years after Luther, we need another reformation. There are questions we can’t duck. Should pastors “prophesy” that Donald Trump is God’s choice? Are 20-minute TED talk imitations on Sundays really opening the Bible — or obscuring it? Is it right to sell “training” on how to control the Holy Spirit? With practices like these, institutional pragmatism has overwhelmed biblical principle.

Many pastors in our region are grieved by our decline from the Reformation. We are determined to recover that heritage. We are willing to debate these questions candidly. Our goal should be to reset the Bible’s boundaries around the institutional interests of churches, and return to the core of evangelical teaching: the direct relationship between the individual and Christ.

The Churched and the Dechurched

The Barna Group reports that the Chico-Redding area is the 11th most “dechurched” region in the nation. Dechurched people used to attend church but have not in the last six months. In crucial ways, dechurched people are right.

In our region, about 41% of people have dropped out of church. 2 out of 5. Our churches not only fail to gain the “unchurched.” (We’re the seventh most unchurched region nationally.) We alienate our own attenders.

I spend a lot of time with people who stopped attending church, but decide to try again. Here’s what they say to me:

  1. Churches should go deep. Quit with the banners, cliches, and Christianish activities. There’s more to God than sentimentality and cheerleading. Talk to me about things that matter.
  2. Churches should be above politics. Christians can’t keep disrespecting each other when they have different views. If the church doesn’t believe in a power above politics, there’s no point in going. (I hear this from Iraq veterans shunned by progressives and Bernie Sanders supporters shunned by conservatives.)
  3. Churches should be safe. In the shallow, self-absorbed social worlds of churches, backbiting is incessant. Favoritism toward the rich and good-looking is rampant. If you are not secure in a clique, you are ignored. Why should I have to conform to someone’s Instagram fantasy in order to be accepted?

People may have poor reasons for dropping out of church. But these are the three convictions that I hear most from the dechurched who are trying again. And they are right.

Solving these problems will require a change of heart from everyone.

If church-goers continue to see themselves as consumers of programs, then even more people will conclude that churches lack integrity. If, by contrast, the followers of Christ see themselves as citizens of a new Kingdom, they will see different results. They will yearn for more depth in their knowledge of God. Because of that depth, their eyes will lift to the power beyond politics. In the fear of God, they will begin to love one another more than themselves.

This change is not only possible. I see it happening quietly. The alienation of church-goers can stop. But we urgently need to recognize that this problem cannot be solved by marketing, only by integrity.