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Don’t drink the water: How culture has corrupted the American Church

August 18, 2011

One of the things we have to develop if we are to be missionaries to those around us is the ability to step back from our culture and observe it carefully and thoughtfully. We do this so we can best connect the Gospel of Jesus — of his available Kingdom — with the culture we live in. We also do it so we can be careful not to let toxic pieces of the culture we are seeking to redeem insinuate themselves into our worldview. That’s why we are told “be in the world, but not of it.” Being observers and exegeters of culture teach us how to “be not of it.”

Let me offer an example that, perhaps, will stir the pot.

If you read The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille (and if you’re serious about reaching the American culture, you need to read it), he talks about the culture of the United States. He says many things, but one thing he mentions is that part of the “code” of America is the culture of abundance. We don’t just buy what we need, we buy far above and beyond that. In fact, if you get down into the history of this country, you see that this is actually woven into the fabric of America since its’ inception. It’s absolutely fascinating.

So in this culture we find ourselves in, abundance is good.

But it goes further than that. We ascribe certain qualities and virtues to abundance — “success” or “value” or “meaning.” In American culture, a simple formula is this: The more money/stuff/friends/houses you have = the more successful/valuable/meaningful you are. It’s a simple formula and we probably see it all around us. People base their personal identity and value on the degree of abundance they are living into. We know this is destructive. All we have to do is look at our current financial system and see how unstable this is. Yet it’s all around us.

What’s interesting is how it is playing out in more subtle ways, insinuating itself into much of the world Christians inhabit. The sad reality is that churches/pastors live by the same simple formula: The more you have = the more successful/valuable/meaningful you are. In other words, the more people go to your church, the better you are as a pastor. The more people that show up on a Sunday morning, the more successful you are. We’ll even reward you with special perks to affirm you are special: The conference circuit. If your church gets big enough, we’ll stick you on a stage with the spotlight on you in front of thousands and thousands of your peers, who lean forward with baited breath, waiting to hear what you have to say.

The more people in your church = the more successful and influential you are. Or more simply, “Big = right.”

Here’s my question: Who says so?

Who in the world says that formula is right? Where in scripture can I find it written that people with the biggest churches are the most successful in the eyes of Jesus and his Kingdom? Now I’m not saying that big churches can’t be successful in the eyes of the Kingdom, I’m simply saying it’s not a given. I’m saying that just because you have a lot of people coming to your church doesn’t mean you’re actually preaching and living out the Gospel of Jesus. This formula we’ve accepted in our church culture is an adoption of the wider culture, not the culture of real Kingdom life. It has insinuated itself into our thinking and we must see how toxic it is. In fact, you would have a hard time convincing me that our enemy’s strategy isn’t to let a certain % of churches grow to reinforce this toxic and warped way of thinking. It pushes us away from true Kingdom success, so it’s not really a loss for him, is it?

Really hear what I’m saying. We should want our churches to grow and see more and more people come to faith and be discipled. But it’s not about size. I pastored one of the largest churches in Europe. But I didn’t evaluate the success of our church on the size or % growth of our church attendance.

It’s about quality, not quantity. If I had to pick between a church of 50 people who were all disciples and Kingdom citizens or 5,000 people who went to my thing on Sunday but few were actual disciples…I’d take the smaller group every time. EVERY TIME. Because that is what Jesus valued most, it’s what I value most.

How many churches at the end of the year ask themselves, “Did we grow this year?” and use the answer to this question as a barometer of success or failure? Yes, of course we want our churches to grow and see more people come to faith. But that is in the Lord’s hands, not our own. Life in the Kingdom of God says that success is faithfulness. Period. Success is obedience. Success is doing what God has asked you to do and being faithful to him, letting him control outcomes. Daniel in the Old Testament refused to eat the food of the culture for fear of being contaminated. My friends, our churches and our minds are contaminated. The “world” has crept in and warped the way we see things.

The value of your ministry is not evaluated on how big it is and how fast it is growing, as if we were stockholders evaluating the growth of the shares we hold. Your ministry is successful if, and only if, you and your community are obedient to what God has asked you to do. Ask yourself this question: Are we being faithful?

There were times in Jesus’ ministry when he had more than 20,000 people coming to hear him speak, hanging on every syllable, wondering what he’d say or do next. This same man lost next to everyone, with even his closest friends leaving him. We see the same kind of journey for the Apostle Paul. Yet in the eyes of the Kingdom, both are “successful” because they were obedient.

Perhaps there is no better way to close this post than with the covenantal prayer that John Wesley would use and has become a guiding prayer in my own personal journey. May it comfort and disturb you:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

Amen.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy permalink
    August 18, 2011 3:38 pm

    I like your post. This is a common problem in the American Church. All you have to do is look at other cultures to know that the emphasis we place on bigger and better has to be a wrong understanding of the kingdom. God loves and guides the church worldwide – what is sucessful for a church in Africa? There has to be a corelation…we are all the same church.

    This also applies to the American Church in the area of democracy. American churches tend to put Democracy and the American Government up on a pedastal and treat them as Godly. I tend to think of it more of a case of God using our society for His purposes. Similar to what He did through the Roman government. A democracy is not Godly in and of itself. All governments can take actions that are right and wrong. Yes, it is more pleasant to live here than many places…but does that make us more Godly. I don’t think so.

    I like how you bring it back around to obedience. Am I doing what God asked me to do?

  2. August 18, 2011 4:48 pm

    Hi Mike –
    Love the post. Spot on and really helpful to me. My caveat I’d love to hear more about, there is a place for faithfulness resulting in fruitfulness, correct? i.e, Jesus does indeed want and expect the fruit of actual disciples. I’ve heard the “I only have to be faithful” meme often lead to justified disciple-making fruitlessness, no?
    grace+peace

    • August 18, 2011 5:26 pm

      Scott, great question. I would say that part of faithfulness and asking ourselves, “Does my competency match the competency of Jesus or his disciples?” In other words, if I’m trying to make disciples, am I doing it well? If I’m trying to do mission, am I doing it well? If disciple means “learner” in greek, it’s understanding that we are LEARNING to have both the character and competency of Jesus. Much of what I’m speaking to in this post is about the character of Jesus: Being faithful. However, the competency of Jesus is important as well (though we should note that you can’t have the competency of Jesus apart from his character, they are linked). I think it’s about being brutally honest with ourselves:

      1) What has God called this community to? (it should always put discipleship at the center. If it doesn’t, your interpretation of God’s vision is off)
      2) Are we being faithful to that calling?
      3) In what ways are we being faithful, but have room to grow in Kingdom competency?

      Faithfulness isn’t an excuse for being bad at something. It’s actually a deeper call to intentionally get better. I think this is where we return to Colossians and look for the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts. Be honest about the vision, about what God is asking and about how good we are in doing Kingdom things. Then ask God to direct us.

  3. August 18, 2011 5:12 pm

    Both challenging & affirming word!

  4. August 18, 2011 9:43 pm

    Great post Mike – very thoughtful, considered and most of all… relevant. One comment on your style… you say a lot what you’re not saying. Problem – the human brain can’t process negation. Meaning that if you say what you’re not saying, people hear that you’re saying it!! Example, if I tell you NOT to think about blue elephants, you have to think about blue elephants to Not think about blue elephants! Or in the corporate context when you’re communicating a change and your employees hear “This is NOT about redundancies” and “Im not saying that people’s jobs are in danger here”…. you get my drift. Maybe bear this in mind when seeking to land a point, and weight your style to ensure the balance is towards what you do want to say. Blessings, Sean

  5. August 18, 2011 10:15 pm

    It seems every time a Denomination or Church begins conversation around the decline in numbers and need for faithful, fruitful, and effective ministries, they go back to measuring whether we are faithful, fruitful, and effective by our # in worship, # of professions of faith, # of baptisms, etc. There needs to be another measure of our fruit!

  6. August 19, 2011 2:17 am

    Yes!! Yes!! Yes!! Great reminder Mike!! Blessings–

  7. August 19, 2011 12:44 pm

    When a culture is raised on coveting, it results in hoarding. The fact that we, American Christians, can point to a few Bible texts as heavenly legal sanction and to all the ‘good works’ we have done in the world, may soothe our corporate conscience, yet we make a mockery of the gospel. Lk 12:16-21

  8. August 19, 2011 1:55 pm

    Mike…you are right on about the problem with an abundance mentality. But you are completely off the mark when you use that example of a cultural phenomenon to declare the “world” a fundamentally corrupting influence. God is on the loose in the world around us, at work in many and various ways, including through “culture.” As a matter of fact, throughout history it is often easier to see God at work in the “world” than it is in the institutional church. The “world” gave women the right to vote long before the church did. The “world” led the way on civil rights and gay rights. I could go on. Only the privileged class could argue that the church – which has so often been on the front lines defending the status quo – must be protected from the “world” – a terrible place that must be “observed” and critiqued by the church for it’s own good. I know this is a common view. It’s wrong. And, although Jesus did give fair warning not to fall into the world headlong, he did in fact become one with it and with us. God created, loves, and continues to be at work within it. Which explains, of course, the good and holy things that happen in the “world” every single day. I don’t want to take away from the true and helpful things you’ve said here, but for the sake of the “world” that God so loves (and the church that serves in the midst of it) I hope you’ll consider taking another look at this. Thanks.

    • August 19, 2011 4:06 pm

      Kelly, LOTS of good points here. A couple of things that might clarify what I’m trying to get at:
      1) I’m not pre-supposing that the Kingdom is the same thing as the Church. I’m suggesting our allegiance is to the Kingdom of Jesus and often that mechanism for advancement is the Church (though as you rightly pointed out in a few cases, isn’t always). I would say that God is on the loose around us through the spread of his Kingdom on earth. The church isn’t to observe and critique for its’ own good, as if to co-opt some sort of coercive power. It’s always about the Kingdom of God, first and foremost.
      2) I’m not suggesting an “us vs. them” mentality where I say “the world is bad, we are good.” I’m saying that everything is being corrupted from the inside out APART FROM the redemptive pull and transforming power of the Kingdom of God. So yes, there are certainly parts of the world that are good…but it’s where the reign of Jesus as King is more fully realized (again, I’m not pre-supposing this means the church has power, God doesn’t need the church to realize his purposes, though he would certainly prefer to).
      3) My biggest push back would be for us to understand that in every culture their are coercive influences that insinuate themselves into our minds as “OK” when, in fact, they will warp every redemptive thing that God is doing. In the United States, it’s the culture of consumerism and abundance. And rather than “seeking the transformation of the mind,” as Paul would say, we’ve simply assumed that it’s OK. My post was attempting to illustrate, in one facet, how this plays out in the church.
      4) Often I speak in polarities to provoke responses…it’s a prophetic impulse. Much of what I did in this post was to provoke that kind of response. It helps people clarify what they truly think/believe.

  9. August 19, 2011 4:29 pm

    ahhhhh. fresh air. thank you.

  10. August 19, 2011 5:47 pm

    A wonderful post… as well as Kelly’s response…. walking the line is never easy.

  11. August 19, 2011 6:43 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you

  12. August 20, 2011 3:15 pm

    This article is so on target!!

  13. August 20, 2011 4:13 pm

    Great post! I agree with your choice about 50 disciples. The 20,000 did not change the world, but instead the 11 that Jesus poured directly into did. No one would pick those odds, but Jesus knew what he was doing

    • August 20, 2011 7:56 pm

      Love that phrasing, Evan. “No one would pick those odds but Jesus knew what he was doing.”

  14. August 20, 2011 10:36 pm

    Thanks Mike. And I’m thinking that the cultural abundance is actually a fleeting abundance. I’m thinking of Michel Chossudovsky’s work “The Globalization of Poverty.” The global economy has us in a rapid concentration of wealth and power. Our government functions more like an oligarchy. The appeal of “more” is like Egypt’s appeal to the Israelites. It seemed like a good deal at first, but in reality it ended up as enslavement.

  15. August 27, 2011 2:31 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more. It isn’t an easy message to get across as so many in the church have become blind to what has been happening. Keep up the good work.

  16. October 17, 2011 1:12 pm

    Good word. Bucks, bricks and broads have been tempting the American church for some time though. Brian

  17. January 4, 2012 4:09 am

    We have a hedonistic society and this is a very common sin in prosperous countries, like the US,… and Sodom and Gomorrah. I just read a piece that had statistics showing that 80% of christian singles are giving in and having sex. Now this cannot be because they gave in before they were saved, so certainly the percentage of kids raised in our youth groups who are going for it is very high.

    Unless we get to a message that goes directly at the sins of our culture with the message of repent and believe, and we do this while purifying the house of God one brick at a time the game is over. Do we want Christ or Satan. Its time for America to decide. The watchmen on the walls of been crying out for some time now, and the Nation and the church refuse to listen.

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