Filthy Church

The American church is dying. The signs are everywhere: rampant hedonism, materialism, infidelity, superficiality, mediocrity, cowardice, compromise...the list goes on and on, but the one charge we must not level at the church is the one which seems most common.

Hypocrisy is the favorite explanation given by people who claim to follow Jesus and yet will not go to church. But it misses the whole point.

This lovely photo is what I used to think of church. A place. A thing. Now when I think "church" I think people. Not “people” in a general sense, but specific people. Names. Faces. People I belong to. I am theirs and they are mine. My place in the cosmos--my designed purpose--is to serve them, which is to say to do love to them or be love for them in a sacrificial way. My purpose and place does not change if they are prideful, hurtful, or hypocritical. As Jesus said, they are my family. Most families have their dysfunctional side. Even so, most families are deeply committed to each other. Most of us have at least one family member who drives us crazy sometimes, yet we would die for them. In exactly the same way, my role is to love the church--these particular people--just as they are, just as Jesus does.

Church is just that simple, just that wonderful, just that hard. Love in spite of everything. When it comes to ideas about organized religion, all else is a human construct and a lie.

Because “church” means people, it is possible to maintain a humble and hopeful spirit while obeying the command which is “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” And make no mistake; it is a command. Yet some who claim to follow Jesus treat it as a suggestion. Jesus said, "If you love me you will obey what I command." Could He be more clear? We follow Jesus by obeying his commands. And what is his greatest command? To love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. So who are the hypocrites? People at least trying to live together in relationship even with their flaws, or those who claim to follow Jesus Christ but will not even try?

I wrote my most recent novel, Lost Mission, out of a sense of revelation, an understanding I have gained. It expresses an old hope I had, a desire to find a church (a place, a thing) where I could experience God without distractions. It explores the depth of meaning in the fact that those distractions end up being the very places where the Lord awaits me. Human frailty is the stuff of God on earth. Whose image are we made in anyway, if not the image of a man upon a cross? God does His best work through the feebleness of human hands, the superficiality of our prayers, and the inadequacy of our offerings. When I am weak, then I am strong. The Lord creates His church whenever and wherever flawed believers come together intentionally to praise and worship Him. God doesn’t need perfection. He doesn’t expect it. He knows us better than that, yet He stoops down to us anyway. Should we not do the same to each other?

It is not good for man to be alone. We were created to worship God in community. It is part of why God came to earth in a manger, why He endured temptation, why Jesus partied with us and grieved with us and fought with us and chose the gruesome mess that was the cross. He showed us that the Way is pure and holy, but it is not clean and easy. We can praise the Lord in solitary moments, but anyone who prefers the false perfection of solitude to the mess (and filth, sometimes) of church deludes himself. God will not be worshipped in that way, because it is not possible to love the Lord with all my heart unless I love my hedonistic, materialistic, cheating, superficial, mediocre, cowardly and compromising neighbor, who is so often a reflection of the me myself whom I so love to love.

So yes, the signs are truly everywhere: the American church is dying, and to save it we must join it. There is no other way.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:34 AM  


Anonymous said... March 1, 2010 at 2:54 PM  

It's very hard for me to hear that calling myself an "unchurched" Christian is basically an oxymoron at best and flat-out disobedience at worst. I do take this post to heart, though, Athol. Thank you.

Athol Dickson said... March 1, 2010 at 3:54 PM  

Dear Anon,
To thank someone for an admonishment...what a great example of humility your comment is! Surely there are Christians in a church somewhere near you who desperately need to learn from your example. I pray the Lord will lead you to them.
God bless you.

Glynn said... March 1, 2010 at 5:29 PM  

My wife and I are aging boomers, and to see what's happened to the church brings us close to despair. We left one church after 15 years when prayer became passe, Bible teaching disappeared and all anyone wanted to preach or teach about was The Prayer of Jabez. And the signs are starting at our current church. We've come to the same conclusion - the church is dying. This time, though, we think we'll stay, because it's where we need to be.

patti lacy said... March 3, 2010 at 6:48 AM  

Our church is not dead. In fact, we're pulsating with life. Women's Bible studies have blossomed to the point of bursting.

Our church, Grace Church in Normal, Illinois, has grabbed hold of issues like feeding the poor, adopting orphans.

The central Illinois area abounds with Fuel and FCA and Young Life, who are singing praises, sharing testimonies and meals, in settings as varied as standard church buildings to old theaters, school auditoriums, coffee houses, and homes.

E-mails, phone calls, and Facebook messages from friends around the world attest to booming interest in our Lord's sacrifice. China is exploding with gospel excitement. So do parts of Africa.

Thanks to Christ's vow to protect His bride, the church will not die.

From the lens I'm looking through, Christ's bride is flourishing. Perhaps not the picture of health, suffering ailments, certainly, but alive. And kicking.

There's a seat in a Grace pew reserved just for you.


Mark Young said... March 3, 2010 at 7:03 AM  

Thanks for focusing on what a church really is,Athol. Not a structure, but a body of believers clinging together with all their human frailties.

I think evangelist Billy Sunday tried to get this point across when he said, "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile."

Great post.

Athol said... March 3, 2010 at 2:46 PM  

Patti, I'm delighted to hear your church has such a solid focus on doing love. And you're absolutely right to point to China and parts of Africa for signs of a vibrant, healthy church. Latin America also enjoys a huge upsurge in genuine Christian faith. A wave of passionate, sacrificial love of God and neighbor is washing over what we used to call the “third world,” and it ought to shame American Christians, because unfortunately here it seems we’re fast approaching a tipping point--if we haven't already passed it--which will take us to the same ice cold condition found in most of Europe, where churches like yours the extremely rare exception to the rule.

It is a long established fact that material generosity among American Christians has been slipping for over a generation. We give less and less each year, although we remain one of the richest nations on the planet. Biblical commands concerning marriage and sex, repentance and forgiveness, social justice, materialism and unity within the Body are seen as mere suggestions. Gauged in terms of adultery and divorce, divisiveness and the pursuit of possessions, there is essentially no difference between the people of the American church and those outside it. The senior pastor model turns many of our churches into cults of personality, with one person in the lead of entire congregations as if Christ requires assistance in his role of mediator between us and God.

In the world of Christian publishing, and especially among Evangelicals, bestselling books are very commonly penned by unknown ghostwriters with credit claimed by famous preachers who had little or nothing to do with producing them. And a large percentage of these high profile liars are multi-millionaires. Where did they get their money? From tithes, of course; sacred gifts which should have gone to God but are spent instead on mansions in multiple locations, and Bentleys, and two thousand dollar suits. Yet we keep giving to them, not out of the goodness of our hearts, but because they promise we’ll be rich one day ourselves, because of a false “name it and claim it” prosperity gospel, or because they guarantee we will be healed if only we have faith enough (as if God heals on demand).

Meanwhile, mainstream Protestants in America now openly support abortion rights and same sex marriage. They ordain practicing lesbians and homosexuals as so-called “pastors,” “priests” and “bishops,” and with no faithful authority to turn to in America, Bible believing Episcopalians had to place their parishes under the spiritual leadership of bishops from Latin America and Africa. Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans have all fallen like dominos.

I am blessed to be part of a church like yours, so yes, I know there are some who still love Christ, but my, how hard one has to look to find such bodies of believers. Even when you find a body of believers who do not practice all the sins I’ve listed here, they are very often consumed with legalism and judgmentalism, obeying out of shame or as a way of exercising personal power, rather than as a humble sacrifice to a God they truly love.

Still, the answer isn’t to drop out. That is never Christ’s answer to sin. His answer is the opposite: to press in, to engage, to walk among the lost and broken doing love, love, love, “so that they may see your acts of righteousness, and praise your Father in heaven.” We must do love right where we are, in the midst of churches like the people I’ve described. If we aren’t Jesus to them, who will be? And being Jesus is the only way to win them back.

Kay Day said... March 4, 2010 at 11:09 AM  

My heart has been broken for Christ's bride for some time now.
The things you mentioned--the sin, the wolves in sheep's clothing that dominate the media, the apathy, loss of focus. All of these things.
But in the minority I see a growth toward genuine love. Living, sacrificial love. I see people turning from legalism to grace. From works to faith.

We go to a great church, but it's not the church for us. We've been three years looking for where God wants us to be. It's painful. I feel the void deeply. I need to be a part of it. We're still praying, still looking.

Dianne said... March 4, 2010 at 11:18 PM  

Filthy indeed,it is exactly as you say Athol. I am certain, and this is just more confirmation, that there has been a huge misunderstanding, birthed from bad preaching full of ulterior seeker-friendly motives about the fuller meaning of the word "grace".

The Church is filthy because she hasn't been taught that grace is a two sided coin; it is both the free gift of salvation (justification), which simply gets us into the Christian Club, so to speak, but it also empowers the Christian to live a holy and pure life that is pleasing to God. Consequently many confuse justification with sanctification, which is where the "working out" part is supposed to start, which absolutely requires our active participation.Otherwise why would Paul write in Corinthians 7:1 and many other places like it,

"Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God"?
(Paul is very clearly talking to believers AFTER they have been saved)

And just like going to the gym with my free membership that I got for Christmas, AFTER New Years Day, too many people fizzle out and stop working out because it starts getting too hard. But what good would it do me to have a personal trainer lift my weights for me? It wouldn't change me at all. No, I have to stop contaminating my body and start doing my part, or I will stay fat, sick and weak. What a rotten poster child for my Club too!

I too am very blessed to be firmly planted in a vibrant Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church whose leaders really do endeavor to seek the Truth and to SPEAK the truth firmly but in love, with gentleness and respect. I am in leadership there as well and am exhorted to do the same. Sometimes people don't come back. But sometimes, people like Athol and I, when we walk into a church like ours, breathe a sigh of sweet relief, saying, "Thank you Father for bringing me home!". Then we roll up our sleeves and jump in to serve.
Keep praying, Kay, and we will too, that you find a church like ours. But if you don't, maybe you are supposed to stay right where you are and roll up your sleeves. I think the point is Jesus is coming back for His spotless bride. Because right now she's far from spotless.

Athol Dickson said... March 5, 2010 at 7:56 AM  

Dianne, your comment really got me thinking. In fact, as I started to respond to you here I had so much to say it became a complete post. I'll put it up in a few minutes. We've identified the problem. Now I want to write about the solution.

Thank you for the inspiration!

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