By now, every Christian in America has read David Platt’s book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream—an honest call for believers to re-examine themselves and their church’s practices. We have taken stock of the fact that many large churches in this country have simply wandered off the missional path and allowed themselves to become too inwardly focused.
However, every Christian is still afflicted with a sin nature, therefore every church will be filled with sinful people who sometimes make bad decisions and act out of their sinful passions. It’s inevitable. The Church, while redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, still struggles with the lingering effects of sin because of the Fall. What is needed is for Christians to take deliberate and decisive action, rejecting sin and walking in holiness. We simply cannot afford to take our foot off the pedal when it comes to battling our flesh.
But there have been some who have taken this “radical” call a bit too far. Many have gotten to the point where they are belittling, slandering, and shaming the American church. While some mask the language in humble-sounding statements, it is still injurious nonetheless.
The general sentiments fall along the lines of: “The American Church is dead compared to the churches overseas” or “Our wealth has made us fat and lazy, but impoverished churches have a better sense of what ‘true church’ is” or “The American Church has got it all wrong because they spend too much on nice buildings and not enough on missions.” Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum.
While there may be truth in some of the characterizations of American churches, the overall tendency to slander and shame American Christians is nothing less than itself shameful. In response to this, let me offer up a few observations:
The New Testament does not favor or slander any one local church based on geography or circumstance.
Throughout the book of Acts and the epistles, dozens of churches are mentioned, but not once are they slandered or pitted against one another. Nor are they chopped up and divided. In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, the apostle Paul notes quarrels going on between groups of believers and is quick to squash all attempts to divide up the church or create factions. We see no evidence of God favoring one local body over another based on their demographic.
Further, he tells the Ephesian church that “There is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:4-6) Even today, the same gospel that saved Chinese Christians is the same gospel that saved American Christians, and the same Spirit who indwells the persecuted Arabic believers is the same Spirit who indwells prosperous Swiss believers. Christ has not been divided. We simply do not have the right to chop up the body of Christ based on geographic or situational distinctions.
Paul never shames a church for their wealth, only for their sin.
Arguably the most affluent church in the New Testament is the Corinthian church. In Paul’s first letter to the church, he unloads both barrels on them, calling them out for every rank sin possible. But nowhere does he attack them because they are wealthy.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul exhorts them to give to the need in Jerusalem, and cites the poorer churches of Macedonia as an example of generosity. If we examine his tactic, we note that Paul doesn’t shame them by saying, “You wealthy pigs need to stop blowing all your cash on yourselves and give like the Macedonians; they’re the REAL church!” Rather, he spurs them on in love and good deeds. He uses the opportunity to teach them about faithfulness in giving (8:1-9:15). From what we can tell, the strategy worked (see Rom. 15:25-27a)! But we must see that even a wealthy, sin-embattled church is still the church nonetheless.
The church must be taught to be fruitful.
Much of the criticism suffered by churches in America is based on the assertion that American Christians are lazy, immature, sinful, greedy, and selfish. Some of that may be true, but what is to be the solution? See, many “radical” American Christians have used this argument as an excuse to unplug from the local fellowship, disengaging from other seemingly less-devoted believers. They “do church” at home. But nothing in Scripture warrants such extremism.
The young pastor Titus had his hands full in Crete. But over and over, the apostle Paul exhorted him to teach the churches to engage in good deeds (Titus 2:7, 14, 3:8, 14). Believers don’t just drift into godliness; they must be taught. More mature believers have a mandate to disciple younger believers in the faith (Titus 2:2-10).
Learning to Love the American Church
Some of the criticism of the American Church is certainly warranted, as we see megachurch complexes going up like mini-malls, and worship services done up with effects that could rival most theatrical rock concerts. With a number of pastors living celebrity lifestyles, and their ministries run like Fortune 500 companies, it would seem that the American Church is drunk with power, fat on wealth, and spiritually lazy.
But this is not the norm everywhere. Of the tens of thousands of pastors in the United States, very few are living in the lap of luxury. Many are overworked, underpaid, and desperate for encouragement. Most congregations consist of less than 100 members, and many of those churches are operating on shoestring budgets.
Further, when we begin to examine the Scriptures and see just how much our Lord Jesus loves His bride (e.g. Eph. 5:25-32), we ought to stand in amazement! We know for sure that there will be tares in our wheatfields; there are goats grazing with the sheep. But knowing this should not make us desire to love others any less (John 13:34-35).
So, before you indulge in the temptation to sling dirt at the American Church, exercise caution. We should not be so eager to slander the Bride for whom Christ died.