I love the church. I have little patience with those who are anti-"organized religion," or even more, who claim to be Christians but choose to have nothing to do with a local congregation. They are disobedient children at best, spiritual whores at worst.
The church - the organized manifestation of the people of God - has problems. It is by no means perfect. But the same can be said about every alternative. It's universally true simply because the presence of people means the presence of problems. And this principle is further compounded because these particular people - the people of God - have an active enemy committed to their destruction.
Nevertheless, it is certain from scripture that God has chosen the church as the primary agent through which to bring the message of reconciliation to the world (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). On cannot read the Bible or history and honestly conclude otherwise.
Every church wants to be a success, to do well. That's just the way people are. For a church, a central indicator of success is in obeying the instruction of Jesus that we make disciples wherever we go. Make disciples. That's not the same as verbally "accepting Christ." Nor is it persuading someone to attend services, getting them "churched." Perhaps the clearest instruction given to his followers by the post-resurrection Jesus is that, as they go through life, they are commanded to make committed followers of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20). So are we. Therein is success for a church.
Considering who Jesus was talking to, he could not have had in mind what passes for discipleship in much of the American evangelical church, typified by lifestyles no different from the world, virtually no biblical knowledge, and a hodge-podge of convenience-store theology that has little to do with the traditional understanding of orthodox Christianity.
This is true of too many churches: They are irrelevant to the communities around them, regardless of the size of the church, and the "changed lives" they know are nothing like those found in scripture and the early church. They are powerless, because they have forgotten - or never known - the Good News.
This is a tragic situation that grieves the heart of God, and should not be. But it will not change as long as the church pays lip service to discipleship.
But, someone might be saying, what about worship? Isn't that a priority? Or evangelism? Or works of social service? Aren't these things important as well?
Yes, they are. These activities should be a part of every healthy church. But these and other aspects of the life of the church must come out of a growing understanding of what following Jesus is about. It's not possible to worship "in spirit and in truth" if we are living a lukewarm faith or even a life of flat-out disobedience. And without discipleship, we don't grow in maturity, and often have little to say to the world: We're just like the world around us.
And we certainly should be meeting social needs. But without discipleship, we become just another social service agency. The church is called to much more than that.
All these things - worship, evangelism, service to others - are the product of discipleship, and cannot stand without it. But how?
History is a great teacher. Paul wrote that the things written in the Old Testament are for our benefit, that we might read them and learn (I Corinthians 10:6).
The history of human society shows a consistent pattern of a downward moral and ethical path. Left to our own devices, we don't get better with time, we get worse. Much worse.
The history of God's people - both before and after Jesus - is not as consistently downward as the world at large. Our pattern is more of a wave: repeated falling away followed by an awakening and turning anew to our God, and then another falling away. Often, the overall trend is downward. We need not look far to see places that were once major centers of Christianity, where now there remain only traces and empty churches. Europe is a good example.
Americans are not exempt from this pattern. In fact, one might reasonably argue that the church in America is on the down side of the wave. And I will also argue that the health of the church will be a major factor in determining the health of the nation.
What can be done to reverse this appalling trend?
The first historical lesson that comes to mind is from the dedication of Solomon's temple, recorded in II Chronicles 7. God speaks to Solomon about the problems of hard times. He said: "If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land" (7:13-14 NASB).
So step one is for God's people to humble themselves, pray, seek the face of God, and turn from our complacent ways. As we do that, God is faithful to hear, to forgive and to heal both us and our land.
But how can this happen? Leadership. It begins with leaders, men and women who are charged to be faithful to God's word, teaching and preaching prophetically, calling the church to repentance. They need to present the gospel in its fullness. And they need to be on their knees, confessing their own sins and unfaithfulness, and praying for an awakening both in themselves and their people.
When the people repent and pray, God hears. But nothing will happen if the leaders are not first disciples, committed followers of Jesus.
If that's true - no disciples - then the leaders of the church come into the same condemnation as the leaders of ancient Israel: spiritual whores leading people into yet greater unfaithfulness and immorality.
This ought not to be. It's imperative that the church make as its highest priority the great and difficult work of making fully committed followers of Jesus. Nothing is more important.