Over at First Things, Jared Wilson posts a passionate call by Ray Ortlund Jr. for a recovery of the Gospel in modern America. It’s a needful call I utterly support.
Yet despite the clarion nature of Ortlund’s words, a fundamental problem exists that we Christians in America have been entirely unable to overcome.
I don’t believe that American Evangelicals don’t know what the Gospel is. I admit that no one person seems to grasp the entirety of the Gospel and its implications, but most people who self-label as Christians get the Gospel to some point.
But the messes we’ve made of living out the Gospel in a redemptive way, those many tangents that Ortlund describes so well that distract us from the real Gospel, are what they are because of a fundamental problem with America and American Christians.
The following quote from Kierkegaard captures the problem in a nutshell:
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?
The Gospel demands something of us. It also forces us to see with a different set of eyes, God’s.
The person confronted by the truth of the Gospel is like the person in the world of the movie The Matrix who is given the choice to take the red pill and see the world as it is from a different set of eyes or take the blue pill and stay blissfully doped against reality.
And that person, confronted with the truth of the Gospel of Christ, MUST then come to grips with these truths:
The American Dream is a vicious and all-consuming lie.
The way the American economy functions is antithetical to the Gospel.
The way we Americans live socially in our communities denies the Gospel.
The values we American hold dear more often than not war with the Gospel.
The Gospel demands the death of self, while the American ideal demands the exaltation of self.
The American system is cracked to the core and is rapidly failing, yet misguided American Christians spend enormous amounts of time and energy attempting to seal the cracks.
As Kierkegaard so ably said, if we American Christians genuinely lived the Gospel we say we believe, every single aspect of how we live, work, love, commune, and bleed would be radically altered. Almost none of the way we live would resemble the lifestyles we have becomes so enamored of. We wouldn’t recognize our old lives at all. And we would look so profoundly different from the rest of the world that it would have to sit up and take notice.
Ortlund makes the obvious statement:
To a shameful degree, we Christians are morally indistinct from the world. Why? One reason is that we think piecemeal, and our lives show it. We do not perceive reality from God’s perspective. We perceive reality from the perspective of our ungodly culture, and then we try to slap a biblical principle onto the surface of our deep confusion.
We all know this damning final assessment of the rich young ruler:
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
Our problem as Christians in America 2009 is not simply that we are more wealthy than 95 percent of the world’s population, but that every single aspect of how we live, work, love, commune, and bleed MUST be “sold” to follow Jesus.
And we are simply unwilling to take that step.
But instead of going away sorrowful, we construct a syncretistic faith that melds the parts of the Gospel we can stomach with the life we cannot leave behind.
What makes this so troubling is that not a single one of us is immune to that syncretism. In fact, we have made it our religious security blanket, the warm, comforting deception that gets us from one day to the next. We marvel at the rich young ruler’s stupidity and yet we ourselves are even more deceived.
More than anyone, I want Ortlund’s call to resonate. But I fear it won’t. If we truly re-examined the Gospel and sought to live it purely, then nothing we experience in America would be free from questioning. In fact, everything that is not the Gospel MUST be questioned.
Yet who today will put up with those people who question the foundational shibboleths of the American Way of Life? We instead remain mute because too few of us are prepared to be martyrs for the cause. Taking the red pill may not only wake one up from the stupor, but it may also mean being attacked—and even from our supposed brothers and sisters in Christ.
If you and I truly stepped out in faith to live the Gospel we say we believe, it may well be that we would have to drop out of the corporate treadmill, suffer a freefall in the company hierarchy, watch our income plummet, and suffer the American indignity of no longer being able to keep up with the Joneses. It may mean we cannot get our children into the fancy private school, the top division sports team, and subsequently fail to send them to Harvard to mint their perfect future. It may mean that we reject consumerism and globalism, returning to a local economy that celebrates community and works to see that no one suffers at the expense of the richer among us, no matter how difficult it will be and what it will cost us. It may mean that we have to let go of long-time friends who suddenly hate our “class descent” and no longer want to be around us. It may mean that we live among the rejected people of the world (as we have become rejected ourselves). It may mean that we rediscover what the Lord meant by “give us this day our daily bread.” It may mean thousands of profound changes to the way we think and live that put us out of the mainstream and make life more chllenging, though in the end we realize the challenge is where Christ Himself dwells.
Believing the Gospel will destroy our American lifestyles. But as long as we are Americans first and Christians second, we have nothing to fear from the Gospel, and we can be thankful we downed the blue pill.
I am not confident that what Ortlund writes will make any difference. When the call for change comes from the very people who are enmeshed in the system and prefer it that way, hope comes hard. I know that every day I struggle to put off the shackles from which Christ has freed me. He unlocked the chains, but their weight upon me has become too comforting, too familiar. I am like a man for whom the entire world is a chain, because that is all I have known—and anything that is not a chain is too difficult and frightening to understand.
18 thoughts on “Why Christianity Is Failing in America”
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand.”
Amen – Quite simple.
Doesn’t Jesus call us to be disciples and make disciples?”
And to be a “Disciple of Christ” it will cost you;
A “Disciple of Christ”
Hear His voice…
Love not the world…
Love not their own life…
Just want to know Him…
Count all things but dung…
Always take the lower place…
Do nothing apart from Jesus…
Take on the form of a servant…
Make themselves of no reputation…
Count others better then themselves…
Gives thanks for all things… All things? Yes.
Deny themselves and pick up their cross daily…
Counts all the shame, “joy,” for what lies before them…
Love the Lord their God, love their neighbors, love themselves…
Forsake all honor, glory, praise, power, profit, prestige, recognition, reputation…
A “Disciple of Christ”
Lord it over…
Seek their own glory…
Be called rabbi/teacher…
Be called Master/leader…
Receive honor from man…
It’s a clash of Kingdoms…
I have been meaning to email you about this, but this post is on the same note. I am going through a free ebook called “The Starfish Vision” with a group and it has really been rocking my life. Really ties together a lot of the Kingdom principles I have been discovering over the last few years.
It’s a quick read. ~80 pages. At least scan the table of contents and see if it is something that catches your eye. After following your blog for the last couple years, I have a feeling it will.
Hey, Dan. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve written. How do we get from we we are, though, to where we ought to be? Have you already abandoned the American Way Of Life and left everything to follow Christ? If so, how did you do it? And how do you recommend the rest of us do it? Those are deeply sincere questions. Thanks.
I’ll echo Barry’s comment above. How do we do that without becoming some sort of Amish Lite?
Also, how do people retrain themselves to work in this non-corporate small-town economy? I’d be more than happy to leave my college teaching job, but have struggled to find anyone to hire me (or even interview me) for anything else due to being overqualified.
“It may mean that we reject consumerism and globalism, returning to a local economy that celebrates community and works to see that no one suffers at the expense of the richer among us, no matter how difficult it will be and what it will cost us.”
Preach it Comrade!
And once we have Soviet Socialist Worker’s Paradise all will be well!
The call is simple; the application is too. However, it may look different for each one of us. That is where it gets complicated and why it is difficult for Dan or anyone else to spell out how any particular individual should apply it.
What is God asking of you? Do it with all your might. He is the Shepherd and we, the sheep, know His voice. Listen to it and obey it fully. Dont’ obey the voices of our culture. Don’t have a divided heart.
I don’t think this is anything new. When the bible mentions people who need to bury their parents, try out the new oxen, or ponder the merits of giving everything they own to the poor, then methinks this is an old issue. Of course we are self-centered, sinful, prideful, misanthropic, despicable…well, the list could go on and on.
So what will I do about it, having reality thrown in my face?
Like someone who visits a therapist, it’s one thing to learn about a problem and admit that there is indeed a problem; quite another to act on it and be transformed.
It’s an individual journey, but one we must all take together as a body. And therein lies the particular failure of American Christianity. We accept the individual responsibility, but reject the corporate responsibility. If a church body holds us accountable, we leave and find a more amenable body. Conversely, if teaching in one church is in error, we leave and find one that does better. We seek that which gratifies us, not that which is Kingdom centered.
I watched 2012 over the weekend, guffawing over the destruction, as that was the purpose of the movie (anyone who takes it seriously needs to consider oxygen treatments) but as any “endtimes” movie does, it got me thinking about the real thing, the one that is coming and will test the hearts of believers like fire tests gold.
I wondered, as always, if I am ready to have my precious “rights” taken away should I persist in this foolish belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, triune God. Suppose my debit card doesn’t work one day because I refused to sign a piece of paper that challenges my beliefs. Or if my driver’s license is revoked because to keep it requires me to approve something that I believe is wrong. Suppose I face jail time because I refuse to pay into an insurance system that kills the unwanted?
One day the choices before me will not be voluntary, or simply something that makes me stand out from the crowd. If I am unable to make simple choices that only affect my comfort today, how can I reasonably expect I will be able to make more complex choices that affect life and death tomorrow?
“Count the cost” Jesus said. Not something we bring up in VBS, is it? Being a Christian for many is a death sentence. For Americans it’s merely something that makes our conscience twinge a little now and then. The way of this world is death. The way of the cross is life. But only to those who can tell the difference.
I struggle immensely in my own life because I am painfully aware that the compromise always starts small. Imagine how the entire world would change for you or me if the driver’s license bureau said those simple words you mentioned, “Sorry, sir. You cannot renew your license.” I think about that all the time and realize there is no fallback because we have not even broached the issue. Even as we talk about the very last last days, we live as if they will never come. Hey, we’re all going to be raptured out of here before that happens, right? So why lose sleep over it? Why think about consequences? Why plan?
Well that is about the most sober assessment of the situation I have read in a long time, and its two years old at my reading. Yeah, we are duped, and the duping machine is in high gear – the external one as well as the internal one.
May the Lord see and act. May he bind together the hearts and lives of those who are willing to understand into another move of God in the earth in the Name of Jesus.
One of the best articles written on point. We have been trained politically and not spiritually to know and understand based on a secular criteria. Christianity itself has abandoned the “mystery” of the gospel allowing for interpretations [exegetics] based on secular rationales, common sense and wholly material explanations inconsistent with the warning that we are to be “in the world, but not ‘of’ it.” Until we are willing to follow Matt 25,[feed, clothe,visit, care for] we shall fail at attaining the preliminary instructions intended by Jesus to free us from our humanity and its gross self interest and make us like Him.
I distance my self from christianity because i feel they get all up in arms over people and the sins they are committing are terrible and against God etc. Yet gluttony, Love of money, Materialism etc are all part of the 7 deadly sins and christians dont like to find fault with there own vices only other peoples vices. There the first to condemn people. I got turned off by christianity when they helped kill off the native americans and force christianity on them. Then a lot of the churches forced blacks into slavery and treated them worse than animals. Adultery is suppose to be a sin with christians yet look at all the christian slave owners that had kids with there slaves and pushed it under the rug. I’ve pretty much have had enough christianity for 1 life time.
Thanks for stopping by and for posting.
Can I recommend a book? The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark addresses many of the issues you raise. Stark is a noted and respected historian. He is not a Christian apologist. What he does show in his book is how much of the historical record cited by opponents of Christianity is not only untrue, but it borders on vicious propaganda promoted by people who actually know better.
I think you might be surprised at how much “common knowledge” about the many sins of the Christian religion are actually based on scholastic falsehoods promulgated by people who have an axe to grind. In fact, Stark does an excellent job noting that the accusers often are the ones who promoted the very sins they accuse Christians of committing.
It’s a case of “everything you think you know is wrong,” and I think it’s good to set the record straight. Stark doesn’t gloss over the bad things done in the name of Christianity, but he does an outstanding job showing that much of what we have been told of those sins is not accurate.
If anything, the book shows one major truth: All men are fallen, and if anything, Jesus is the only way to deal with that fallenness.
Thanks for the comment and book info. I grew up going to the Pentecostal church and all through my young life and teens heard constant preaching about how evil other people were etc. All other religions were going straight to hell etc. I left home and ran away to the military I stayed for 20 yrs I’ve met all kinds of people with lots of different religions. No offense to Christians but it seems like they can pull up every sin in the book that i’m doing and yet they are sinless(supposed) I shouldn’t feel this way but maybe but I just got burned out of Christianity. Most everbody in the united states is Christian and that’s fine but I wish they would be a little more tolerable to other religions too.
A few thoughts:
1. Christianity makes exclusive truth claims. When Jesus says that He alone is the way to God, that’s exclusive. No other ways are acceptable. If this makes Christianity “elitist” and “arrogant,” then that’s the problem of the person insisting on those labels. The fact remains. People must deal with it. Christians have died to ensure people understand that exclusivity and don’t wind up eternally separated from God.
2. Are some Christians jerks? Can Christians fail to live by “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Sadly, the answer is yes. But that’s not Christ’s way. Instead, His way is to love others and to care about how believers should deal with others in love. Dealing with others in love while also making exclusive truth claims is a delicate dance too few Christians pull off gracefully. That said, it’s not impossible to do, but it requires great humility and a recognition of the log in one’s own eye when dealing with the speck in a brother’s or sister’s. Also, I’ve been around long enough to know that people who make a habit of ridiculing Christians for being jerks are most likely even bigger jerks; they just fail to acknowledge their own jerkdom, which is the bane of all human existence, pride.
3. Every genuine believer in Jesus is in process. That process looks smoother in some people than others. Sometimes that process doesn’t even appear to be happening. But it is if someone is genuinely submitted to Jesus. We must always remember that. Everyone’s process looks different, and we can’t always judge another’s process by our own.
4. I have a confession: I’m burned out of Christianity too–as a religion. But not as a relationship with Jesus. There’s a difference, and I hope that everyone learns it at some point. If you’re seeing Christianity as merely a system of rules, then I hope that understanding changes in you. Because Jesus didn’t come to replace the Old Testament Law with a New Testament Law, yet that is how many Christians live. That’s a profoundly flawed understanding on their part. If we turn the Christian faith into just another “do a bunch of rules to earn your way to heaven” religion, which is what 98% of religions teach, then we’ve stripped the Gospel of all its truth. We can know God intimately and be empowered by Him to serve others because Jesus came and showed us Himself. He alone bridges the gap between God and Man because His sacrifice on the cross took away the barrier that sin erected. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. That’s where true freedom comes from. That’s why so many “religions” and “religious” people are still in bondage; they still seek approval from God and from men. As the Apostle Paul notes, all that weight of religiosity, performance, and approval-seeking is utter crap, yet that is what many embrace in their religion. To the genuine Christian, watching other people wallow in religiosity is like watching someone cut himself with knives. Jesus saves people from religiosity, if they let Him.