Earlier this week, I wrote about the continued expansion of Christianity in China, as well as in North Korea, in the face of hostile governments, suggesting that, if American Christianity does not recover from its current illness, it could fall to Asia to fill the space of Christian civilization in the world originally vacated by spiritually comatose Europe.
But what does it mean to say that Christianity in America is sick? It is to say that the American Church is ineffectual, and that the faith is given a secondary place in the lives of most self-described Christ-followers, which amount to the same thing. It is also to say that the Church is poorly preserving its fundamental elements. It is, therefore, weak and lacking.
Reading Anglican theologian N.T. Wright’s Acts for Everyone this week, I was reminded of what the church ought to be in each of these areas. Wright analyzes the well-known passage of scripture in Acts 2:42-47, which begins with what are known as ‘the four marks of the church’ — namely, the apostles’ teaching, the common life (or fellowship), the breaking of bread, and prayer — and ends with a description of how the new church family lived.
More on ‘the four marks’ shortly; examining a piece of the common life of the Acts 2 church is helpful to explain why the faith must be primary for the American Church to be effectual. Surely it seems an obvious truth, but it should be made concrete to better understand the problem and its solutions.
“They sold their possessions and belongings,” verse 45 tells us, “and divided them up to everyone who was in need.” Wright concludes that they did not sell their houses, since they later met in individual houses. It appears rather that they sold extra property they had. This is highly significant, Wright tells us, “for a people for whom land was not just an economic asset, but part of their ancestral heritage, part of God’s promised inheritance.”
This struck me as involving a great deal of trust; it reminded me of the epigraphic quote from Tozer above. To sell even that which was gifted and promised by God for the sustenance of the early church was to commit it to Him. It is to say that it is right even to give up what is rightfully one’s own to insist upon, and thereby to preserve it.
This applies as well to the American Church today, because the American Church, in large part, has relegated the Christian faith to a secondary position out of a fear of losing it. More precisely, in America, Christianity is comparatively comfortable and it is this comfort it is holding onto like sand, which escapes more quickly when squeezed tightly.
The Christian Left is comfortable with fitting in with trendy relativistic cultural progressivism by neglecting to insist that Jesus is the one way to salvation, that separation from God is a reality, and that sin is harmful. The Christian Right is comfortable with its political champion, the Republican Party, even when continued patronage must be bought by the elevation of a party platform to a litmus test of one’s faith.
The problem is that Christianity is not primarily about comfort. While God promises some comfortable things to his people, such as security, peace, joy and provision, his foremost desire for the Church is holiness. And holiness involves, first, refinement and, second, setting oneself apart, both of which can be highly uncomfortable.
Instead of soul-changing sanctification, the American Church prefers easier substitutes — the Left, a feel-good universalism, and the Right, a civic religion — and never reaches a holiness that sets it apart, that makes it salt and light. Both have, in their own way, “taken the world and Caesar’s purple,” to quote Dostoevsky, and rejected Christ. By contrast, the Chinese Church thrives because it is not state-sanctioned conformity, but because it is something more that overcomes even the opposition is engenders. It is compelling for that very reason.
Fortunately, the medicine needed can be found in the four marks of the church mentioned in verse 42. As Wright puts it,
Where no attention is given to teaching…people quickly revert to the worldview or mindset of the surrounding culture, and end up with their minds shaped by whichever social pressures are most persuasive…. Where people ignore the common life…they become isolated, and often find it difficult to sustain a living faith. Where people no longer share in ‘the breaking of bread’…they are failing to raise the flag which says ‘Jesus’ death and resurrection are the centre of everything…. And whenever people do all these things but neglect prayer, they are quite simply forgetting that Christians are supposed to be heaven-and-earth people.
Each of these symptoms are visible in the American Church today: from the equating of Christianity to a feel-good or civic religion that prevails culturally, to our increasingly fractured and tribalistic society, and from the failure to put Jesus above all else, to what is perhaps the most fatal of all in this case, our earthly, temporal and carnal perspective, which causes us to fear the loss of the position of Christianity in American culture should we fail to secure it by secular arrangements.
The cure is to be found in the adherence to the four original marks — teaching, fellowship, ‘the breaking of bread,’ and prayer — to a return to the basics. It is the responsibility of both Christian leaders and individual lay Christians to bring this about, with the petitioned help of God. It also requires an uncomfortable rejection of peer-accepted patterns of behavior that perpetuate the present downward spiral. Concretely, one will have to make a decision regarding abortion or the sheltering of a homeless person following the words of Christ, not the determination of a political philosophy.
Only by standing apart in holiness do we compel the lost to seek Christ, and that is our commission above all others.