Monday, March 23, 2009

American Christianity

There are all kinds of Christians in America. All with different experiences of God, Christian community and belief systems. I’ve been a member of a charismatic speak-in-tongues kind of church, a Baptist church, a Methodist church and presently I’m serving at a non-denominational church. And yet, with all that church experience, when I visited an Episcopalian church with a college friend, I felt as much a heathen as any visiting atheist might have. The different opportunities to experience God and community vary in this country as much as the cultures and ethnicities it contains.

Jim and Casper Go to Church
is a book entirely dedicated to the criticism of modern American Christianity. In the book, a Christian and an agnostic travel around the country to prominent protestant churches, sit in the back rows with their laptops, and critique. TD Jakes, Rick Warren, Marc Driscoll—they all receive their share of sarcastic analysis. A few churches received a satisfactory review. These had the common denominator of being socially-aware and driven by service to the poor and marginalized. The worst reviews were reserved for the churches with wealthy congregations. So, without confessing it, Jim and Casper’s plumb line for American Christianity was each church’s measure of service to the poor.

For some readers, their book might inspire them to obey Jesus’ commands to serve the poor more literally. And I applaud that reaction. But, for most, I would wager, the reaction would be more like what I experienced.


There is a fine balance between criticizing the local church and distancing oneself from her. Many popular “post-modern” authors try to walk that line, and many don’t. Many well-intentioned writers and speakers sense in their spirits something awry with American Christianity. Instead of wrestling to get to a place where the truth of what’s wrong can coexist with love for the wrong-doers, they create a world-view of “us-versus-them.” The problem is that we, as Christians, belong to each other. The Us and the Them share the same body of Christ.

So, American Christians, let’s get candid about our gripes but bold enough to persevere to a place of love.

I’ll go first and make my confession: I have within me greater empathy for the physically needy than for the spiritually needy. My major was international affairs. My heart beats for Latin America. I feel at home in a Mayan hut in the Yucatan jungle. I fantasize about living in Africa with two outfits to my name. I taught in the inner city to appease my conscious. And I fiercely wrestled with God when he called my husband and I to serve the local church in middle-class white suburbia.

I do believe the American church as a whole is missing out on God’s truth and God’s commission to serve the poor. In the back of my mind and in the back of my soul, I have an abiding fear that we will reach heaven and become utterly undone with grief over the missed opportunities to minister to Jesus through the poor. I cannot shake this nor do I wish to. I hope this fear will continue to motivate me and my family to give financially to make the physical difference that’s desperately needed.

At one time, this “sensitivity” to one aspect missing in American Christianity prevented me from loving the church. Instead of wrestling with this knowledge of truth, I let it sit and fester. Spiritual pride, judgment, bitterness and cold-heartedness all grew from this seed of what was once just a piece of discernment.

I’ve seen this happen to others, too. A few friends of mine in college discerned the pervasive health-and-wealth malarkey being preached in some large churches. Instead of using that awareness to help avoid perpetuating that kind of doctrine, they avoided Christian community overall. They had a preacher that they tracked with via podcasts. One whose sermon’s really convicted you. Made you feel all wretched-sinner-saved-by-grace-ish. And then they had a few select Christian friends. Hopped around different churches and campus ministries, too enlightened to really settle in and expend their energies.

They had discerned something amiss with American Christianity. Something-off base and truly wrong. But their mistake, as was mine, was to let that discernment distance them from their brothers and sisters. Without service, without investing their lives into a local church, they involuntarily joined the ranks of the Pharisees. Persons of knowledge and discernment, but without love and self-sacrifice. Paul said it best, confessing that knowledge, discernment, spiritual gifts, service to the poor and martyrdom without love all mean absolutely nothing.

It takes nothing to be a prophet. To read scripture, to look around and then to call out the wrongs of the church. It takes the love of Christ, deeply abiding and transforming, to have that same discernment and then to humble oneself through service.

So, I ask you, Jim (he was the Christian in the book)—are you serving the local church? Have you used your insights into American Christianity’s muddled practices to bring you to your knees in intercession? Are you vested in a local community, laboring for God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven? If not, then I humbly plead with you to stop writing and speaking and leading others. The place you are bringing them to is not solution-oriented. It is doubtful, disillusioned, and isolated.

You see, there are some beautiful Christians I know. They are rich and they are poor. They are educated and they are illiterate. They’re serving in the inner city, and they’re serving the city’s wealthiest. And the one thing they have in common is that they’re in the trenches. They’re building relationships with non-believers and they’re meeting to worship and learn together. They’ve settled somewhere, in a city in America, and they’re making it their life’s calling to see God establish his kingdom in that place.

You should meet these people sometime. But you won’t do it from the back pew with a laptop. You won’t get there by writing off “large churches.” You won’t do it by judging a church’s spirituality on her ministry to the physically poor.

You’ll meet these beautiful American Christians when you pause from the prophecies and you start serving.

My Bible says that God will make his church spotless and pure. And, as long as we’re living here, that church includes America’s Christians.

May Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

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