I have become increasingly conscious of the gulf between the church as described in the pages of the Bible, and the church as I see it today. The church as recorded in Acts 2:42-47 was vibrant, and alive. The people engrossed themselves in God’s word; they understood the concept of community. As a consequence, God was able to bless them, and the church grew. In contrast, today, the church seems to have lost that spark, and it seems to portray little understanding of the biblical concept of covenant community. So it is, perhaps, not surprising that much of the church in the western world is in decline.
Of course, one of the problems for the church today is that it lives in an increasingly godless and individualistic society. God’s principles for living are increasingly set aside, and the rights of the individual are often emphasised to the detriment of the community. But complicating that has been the church’s willingness over the years to immerse itself in western culture, so that, for many, the church has become indistinguishable from the society in which it lives.
My belief, then, is that the church is in a mess – and it’s in a mess of its own making. And we should not be surprised that the message of the Gospel, and the godly way to live, is not getting through.
Now this is not the first time that the church has got it wrong. Over the years the church has got off track many times before. Indeed in the sixteenth century there were a lot of questionable practices and teachings that needed to be addressed.
The question for us today, then, is can we identify the questionable practices and teachings of our own? And if we can, have we got the courage, with God’s help, to deal with them?
Of course identifying problems is one thing, working out how to fix them is another thing altogether. So what do we do? Well I believe that we need to get back to basics. With so many things that we do being very different to the practices of the New Testament, we need to come up with some sort of gauge; we need to be able to assess the authenticity of the things that we do.
In 1517 Luther identified some problems with the church. He then nailed his Ninety-Five Thesis to the Wittenberg Church door. So maybe we should come up with a statement of our own, by which we can gauge the things that we do. And if we did that, and using the passage from Acts 2, we might come up with a series of principles that we can nail to our church doors too. For example:
1. Devoting ourselves to teaching
2. Spending time with one another
3. Sharing meals with each other
4. Praying together
5. Having the expectation of miraculous signs
6. Sharing everything in common, as there is the need
7. Praising God
We might also need to include principles from other passages in the Bible, like in Matthew 28:19-20:
8. Sharing the faith outside of the faith community
Of course getting the principles together is only just the start. We would then need to gauge everything we do by them. We would also need to be willing to start, keep, change or even abandon certain practices, depending upon how they fitted the criteria.
So, for example, if the church has an emphasis on meeting the expectations of the outside community, to the detriment of the mission of the church, then that is something that would need to be addressed. If the church has an emphasis on running government funded welfare programmes, whilst ignoring the needs of the church community, then that too would need to be reassessed. After all, these programmes may make us feel good inside, we may even convince ourselves that they are part of the mission of the church, but even the early church was more concerned about building up the church community than those outside it. It is no coincidence that when the seven deacons were appointed (Acts 6:1-7), that the deacons were appointed to care for those inside the church, not for those outside.
Now I don’t want anyone to get me wrong here. It’s not that we shouldn’t care for those outside the church. We should. However if we get the church right, then everything else will follow. But it doesn’t work the other way around. Indeed, having worked in welfare, for both the government and a Christian Church agency, I know only too well that many members of the public see the church’s role in society as simply another non-government not-for-profit organisation – an organisation they go to for government welfare programmes. And they see little or no connection with the Christian faith as described in the pages of the Bible.
Now I think that’s rather sad. It’s also indicative of how much the church has lost the plot.
For me, a reformation of the church in the 21st Century is a must. There is simply no other option. Because having become aware of the failings of the church, we have the responsibility, with God’s help, to get it back on track. Of course, the process of reform could be a very positive and uplifting experience, but it could also be very painful too. Luther and the other reformers of the sixteenth century did not find reforming the church from within an easy exercise at all. Indeed many were rejected by the church. But shooting the messenger instead of dealing with the message didn’t solve the problem then, and it won’t solve it now.
As members of God’s church, I believe it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure that God’s church remains on the straight and narrow at all times. So when it veers off, we need to try to get it back on track. My hope is that we can recognise that we have a real problem and, with God’s help, are willing to give it a try.
© 2015, Brian A Curtis