Europe was the birthplace of the most significant growth of the global Church for more than 1500 years. The Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions there reached out to the world in significant missionary movements to North and South America, Africa, and Asia. Today Church observers and researchers voice concerns of the post-Christian culture of Europe and North America. The world often mocks us for being out of step with reality and relevance.
The consensus seems to be that, while Europe has slipped significantly away from its Christian heritage, the United States has remained significantly more adherent to its Christian faith, though even that adherence appears to be slipping as well. The “American Religious Identification Survey (Aris) 2008” reports that from 1990 to 2008 religious self-identification as Christian among U.S. citizenry dropped from 86% to 76%.[i]
“Adherence” among those 76% is also questionable as only about 40% of the U.S. population attends weekly worship services.[ii] The data suggests that of the 125 million who attend weekly services (40% of current U.S. population at 313 million[iii]), about 95 million are regularly practicing Christians (effectively just over 30% of the general population). Many suspect that these data reflect a declining interest in religion in general in recent decades (and surely there are humanistic trends that have gained favor with many) but research on historic trends suggests that the movement toward organized religion, from just 17% of the population at our nation’s birth to 62% in 1980, has generally been on a positive trajectory.[iv]
So questions arise: Why is there a perception that the church is becoming less effective in its mission? And if it is actually becoming less effective, why is it? Is the Church simply inept, given its empowerment by the Holy Spirit to transform individuals and cultures?[v]
Disunity is likely the greatest detriment to ecclesial success. More than a decade ago, there were reportedly 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world.[vi] Given the track record, there would seem to be little to encourage us that that trend has been reversed but that the splintering of the church will just as likely continue toward exponential divisiveness.
I see the disunity of the Church operating simultaneously on the spiritual plane and the functional plane. On the spiritual plane the divisions have largely come due to doctrinal differences motivated by the inability and unwillingness to “live and let live” (or in Wesleyan parlance, to think and let think) in the liberty of the Spirit we have all inherited from Christ. This inability and unwillingness is too often grounded in the politics of power. It may as likely be caused by lacking the intellectual wherewithal necessary to dig deeper in our faith and the Word to discern the spirit of Truth and then, in humility, accept where we might each be wrong or to rejoin having reached consensus that there are issues where God has chosen to not yet reveal “final” truth. Personally, I find it difficult to think that whatever nonessential doctrinal beliefs I hold are the definitive answer to theological questions. I believe what I believe while fully recognizing that I have incomplete knowledge (ignorance) and that I (can it be?) may have drawn wrong conclusions along the way to establishing those beliefs. At worst I hope that I am willing to hear “the other side” of issues but I will not separate myself from other Christians simply because we cannot agree on points that ultimately have little direct bearing on “loving God and others as myself.”
Doctrinal differences are an enormously spiritual issue because how we interpret things may or may not be wrong. But love covers a multitude of sins. If we are not gracious to brothers and sisters in our disagreements with other traditions or interpretations, how are we better, more intellectually responsible, than the humanists of the world who assume human knowledge and wisdom are the end all? Trying to relate to one another through the relationship with an infinite God means that we are each, as finite beings, ill-equipped to judge what we assume to be in the heart or understanding of another. There are times when being fruit inspectors (Matthew 7:17) may require our going separate ways but we often turn to doctrine to determine our alliances before we consider the outcomes (the fruit) of the lives of those with whom we disagree.
The practical issue manifests from the spiritual disunity, whether it be born out of the fear and pride of political and spiritual fiefdoms, ignorance of God’s desire to overwhelm the world by the inward-loving (John 13:35) and unified witness of His Church (John 17:22), or the lack of strategic initiative and intelligence required to work cooperatively and collaboratively to advance the single agenda of the Great Commission, to make disciples of all nations.
Our family owned a small business in Montgomery County, Indiana for nine years. The whole county has a total population somewhere around 35,000 people. Given the conservative and nearly homogenous nature of the community (predominantly white with a significant Hispanic influx in recent decades), one might assume that the 76% cited above (self-identification as Christian) could be closer to 90%. But if only 40% of the 90% are active churchgoers, or roughly 12,600 (a little over 1/3 of the general population), it would divide their church attendance among the more than 120 churches county-wide. Each church then would have an average weekly attendance of just over 100 people. Do you suppose there was any kind of practical organization even remotely similar to United Way operating within that county’s church community? I think you can guess the answer is “No.” There were a few churches which cooperated on a few fronts as concerned food and clothing banks, and such (and usually limited to a single digit participation of churches) but nothing suggested the churches might share building spaces for various functions, or form a cooperative to purchase goods and services at discounted prices, or even consider seriously having joint worship services (other than the Easter sunrise service) to promote unity of spirit and purpose….let alone outreach ministries or community development.
My point is that the church does not often think about the realities of operating on a business model where practicalities of revenues and expenses restrict effectiveness (scarcity in a blessed community where there should be one–Deuteronomy 8:9). While churches do operate on budgets, the one aspect of the business model we could easily leave behind, if we were to so humble ourselves, is competition. We all claim the aim is for the glory of God but any other organization with dozens of facilities and disconnection of function under the headship of a single leader (as we are under Christ) really should face scrutiny as to its worthiness to receive financial and volunteer support. The level of disservice to our witness as salt and light to the world, cause by our disjointedness, tends to overwhelm our effectiveness…and seldom with even a passing thought in our church staff or committee meetings.
Over many centuries the influence of the Church has accomplished astonishing things, like the advancement of public education, the spread of quality healthcare, and the abolition of slavery. But how much more could we do and be in mission if we simply stepped back from the fear, pride, shallow theology, or stupidity we so easily slip into to avoid confronting the challenges, the iron sharpening iron, of Church unity. Is it any wonder Jesus referred to us as His sheep?
We are living in a day of unprecedented global connectedness. We are also witnessing God empowering and releasing His people where they work. Marketplace Christians have the opportunity to advance the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in ways and with impact never before seen. Will we use the gifts and talents God has given us, of revenue generation, of marketing and communications, of logistics, of strategic planning…all these for His glory? The opportunities are right in front of us to coordinate our good works, to let our Light shine before the world in ways the institutional church and its multitude of denominations have yet to accomplish, and likely cannot.
It is right that we attend and support our local churches for fellowship, pastoral care, and teaching. But if we can come together we can “move” the church outside its own walls. Working through the mechanisms and disciplines of the marketplace and setting aside the non-essential disagreements of the teachings of man, by the Holy Spirit, we can witness to the world in unity, actively demonstrating the Gospel in new and dramatic ways. We tend the Garden in a myriad of vocational disciplines but we have been called to work together for such a time as this.
[i] Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar (2009). “American Religious Idenitification Survey (ARIS) 2008”. Hartford, Connecticut, USA: Trinity College, 2008. Available at http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/ARIS_Report_2008.pdf.
[ii] Robert D. Putnam and David E Campbell. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[iv] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1992.
[v] The mandate to influence culture is hotly contested within and across denominational lines. I would recommend Christopher J.H. Wright. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.
[vi] David B. Barrett, et al. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press USA, (2001).