In my last two posts, I have written, first, about the powerless church, a church that is increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly secularized America. Then, I wrote of the first step in renewing the church, bringing it to life, the first step in becoming a credible factor in society: reclaiming the gospel.
But there's another question - a big one - as yet unanswered: How does all this happen? How does the church reclaim the gospel - the whole, biblical, life-transforming gospel? And how does the church go from being "just words" to living out life-transforming power? How do we move from being an irrelevant subculture of more-or-less nice people to a community of radically committed followers and representatives of Jesus?
I think there are two major factors: our concept of God, and leadership.
Let's first things first. The most important factor in shaping our lives is our concept of God.
No matter whether we worship God or even accept that he exists, our concept of God is a huge influence in our life. If we see him as a loving father who welcomes us into his presence, we will respond one way. If we see him as a vindictive, judgmental terrorizing tyrant, we will act another way. If we see him as intimately interested and involved in our lives it's one thing, and if we see him as distant, uncaring and aloof - or even non-existent - it's something entirely different. One thing is certain: We all respond in one way or another.
So here's the rub: The only reliable source of information about God, the place where we get the raw material to build our concept, is the Bible. But most of us don't read it; we don't consider that it says anything pertinent to our lives. Just another boring book written by people long dead. And because of that, we live with a concept of God that is at best warped and distorted, and at worst destructive. We are guaranteed not to know God as he is. And this is important because in life we do not respond to reality, but to our perception, regardless of its relation to reality. Therefore, it's imperative that we have the most accurate perception possible.
Then there is the second matter: leadership. There is a seldom violated principle that every group reflects its leadership. If a church has poor leadership, that church will do a poor job of being a church. People have a poor concept of God because they are in churches that do a poor job of teaching what the Bible reveals about God. Poor leadership.
So what does the typical church leader believe and do? In too many cases, he or she does not believe the Bible is supreme and the absolutely reliable source of information for our lives, individually and together.
I had a friend some years ago, a pastor of 10-15 years' experience. He told me, with some surprise, that some repeat visitors to his congregation had told him how much they enjoyed his teaching. "It's so refreshing to hear someone teach from the Bible," they said. He leaned toward me, a perplexed look on his face, and said, "What do they think I would teach from, if not the Bible?"
Sadly, I had to tell my friend that he was naïve. He needed to get out and visit other churches and meet other pastors. He would find that those who teach faithfully from the biblical text are the minority.
This is a major factor in powerless, spiritually empty churches. Secular churches.
Here's what's happening: A great many leaders - and therefore a great many Christians - are simply, as the song says, "doin' what comes naturally." We profess to believe the Bible, and some teach and preach from the Bible, but even then our commitment to the text is highly selective. We believe what's safe, not what's written. Anything that looks a little risky, we "explain" as not saying what it seems to.
I remember a well-known Christian author speaking to the faculty of a Christian university. He focused on biblical Christianity and biblically empowered, transformational teaching. He emphasized that Christianity is a supernatural faith or it is nothing. There is nothing "natural" about it. And, he said, "If your life and your teaching consists in just doing what comes naturally, you are not living a biblically based life."
When do we get tired of doing what comes naturally, and insist on seeing the power of God through the Holy Spirit in our midst? When do leaders stop relying on their "leadership talents" - for which there is often scant evidence - and cry out to God for a move of his Spirit among the people?
A recent article said the church spends over $340,000 for every new baptism. That leaves me breathless. It's difficult to know what to say about such a number. But I am reminded of a pastor friend years ago who said, "Peter preached one sermon and had 3,000 conversions. We preach 3,000 sermons and are pleased if we have one conversion." It was sad but true then, and it's equally sad, and perhaps more true today.
The difference is not in theological education, or ordination systems, or doctrinal statements, or any of the other factors we consider necessary to church leadership today. The difference is in the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter was not doing what comes naturally.
Paul wrote that the kingdom of God is not in mere words, but in power. The kingdom of God is in power that transforms lives: It heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the lame to walk, and sets the captives free. The kingdom of God is in the power of the Holy Spirit working through his followers, making Jesus alive and real to the world today.
Anything less is just words. And just words is not leadership. "Just words" lead to secular churches.