Updated: May 11, 2020
The global pandemic sweeping across the world has taught us an immense lesson: Death has no favorites. People of all colors, religions, and social statuses tremble as death roams through. The world shakes as no one is immune or excluded from being a target of Covid-19. Scientists and world leaders grip with anxiety as they cant provide answers to the world's greatest question, "When will this be over?".
For the first time in history, every church across the world has their doors closed. Every single building, from the smallest sanctuary to the biggest mega church arena is empty.
These desperate times have reminded us that there's one simple truth that has lost its essence as motives and cultures change: The church was never about the building.
In a world where we measure success by the number of chairs our buildings have, the size of our stages and LED walls, or by the amount of views our livestream gets, I believe its time re shift the focus on what truly matters and to rediscover what church is, or yet WHO the church is. The best way to do this, is to take a look at where we came from:
The Early Church.
Let's take a quick history lesson. From the departure of Jesus Until the Edict of Milan in 313, Christianity was a radical, anti imperial, and revolutionary alternate way of life. To be a follower of Christ was to make a bold statement that Jesus was Lord and not Caesar, which automatically meant you were choosing death as an outlaw and rebel of the empire. Despite the tyrannical attempts to dissolve Christianity through martyrdom and persecution, Martyrs became the fuel that caused christianity to expand like a wildfire throughout the world as they welcomed death with joy and glory. The church was inclusive, It offered hope to anyone regardless of status. Followers of Jesus were united by a common spirit to love Jesus and care for their neighbor rather than by an identical list of creeds. They met in houses and caves and worshiped Jesus while selflessly caring for each other. The church was forward thinking and lived In eager expectation of the promises of Jesus to be fulfilled. They weren't so busy trying to get to heaven, but rather making heaven a dwelling place here on earth (Thy kingdom come). This is even revealed through the study of Christian art history, where depictions of Jesus on a cross didn't exist until about 500-1000 years after his death. Art was rather about Jesus establishing his rule and reign on earth through his church and His coming glory.
It was not until the great emperor Constantine came into the picture that the Church was forever changed from an unstoppable fearless force and into a controlled monopolized state infused church. We've all heard the saying "If you can't beat them, join them", which that is exactly what happened during this time. Christianity could not be controlled by the Roman Empire despite their grand efforts to destroy it, which quickly turned Christianity into the greatest threat of the Era. Constantine then changed his allegiance away from the pagan sun god (Sol Invictus) and legalized Christianity as the religion of the empire. The authenticity of his conversion is highly debated to this day, and we are in no position to make that call. Regardless of the truth behind his motives, the effects of his decisions drastically changed our course of history even to this day. Perhaps the greatest political stunt in history has been the adoption and even weaponization of the gospel for the gain of the empire. Constantine then decided to create and control one single infallible doctrine and interpretation of the gospel. And thus the Nicene Creed was birthed.
At the First council of Nicea in 325 AD, the world's Christian leaders and bishops were called to Constantine's Estate to secure his political and religious agenda. Constantine promised royal financial backing and protection from the Roman empire and to begin Christian architecture, building beautiful cathedrals across the world. This Is where church transitioned from homes and into the building. This was all packaged as a great gift, after all, this sounds way better than being thrown at the lions for entertainment. The problem with this was the bishops and church leaders were blinded by these promises while Constantine, a man who was not baptized into the faith until he was lying on his deathbed in 337AD and had no background or interest in theology, declared himself the ruler of the entire Church.
This is where church leadership turmoil began, as those bishops who opposed the marriage of church and state disagreed with some of the faith creeds declared by Constantine were exiled or executed at this same meeting. Even the famous Christian theologian Arius was exiled and had all his teachings burned because they had different views on the Holy Spirit and Jesus (See the Arian Controversy). Everyone in the room, had now sold their soul to the empire, And the cross once used to torture Jesus, now decorated their fashion. Church transitioned from being an anchor of hope and into a sword of fear. The truth was now institutionalized and favorably militarized. For centuries to follow, the gospel was used as a ravaging sword by emperors like Theodosius to convert people into Christianity using fear and suppression. Unfortunately this legacy of coercion is still mingled in many churches today. Church stopped abiding by the higher laws of the Kingdom of God and began to dwell under the human formula and constitution of their now earthly kingdom. Faith stopped being a force that caused permanent change and became a noun in the form of a controlled belief system. A movement once known for their non violent compassion and love for people now had anything but that. Was this the triumph for the church, or the death of the church?
Why Is this relevant? Because in order to understand where we are now we must understand how we got here. 500 years ago the bold Martin Luther stood fearless against the entire corrupt church empire and gave us back the ability to read the Bible as he was the first one to translate the Bible to German from the original Greek and Hebrew, then paving the way for common language translations during the convenient time of the invention of the printing press. People were finally awaken to a revelation of Grace through Faith Alone (Sola Fide) in Jesus rather than forced faith in creeds and works (Luther, 95 Thesis). However, even though new protestant movements rose now separated from the Catholic Church, paving the way for the Pentecostal and other radical movements, we still kept a lot of our old traditions and baggage without even knowing it, causing massive impact in church today.
There are some non negotiable characteristics that the early church and believers were famous for. To be a disciple of Jesus was to be persecuted for your fearless faith and countercultural lifestyle. Our fundamental personalities were radical generosity, unwavering hospitality, revolutionary faith, and ecstatic joy. To be a Christian "an anointed one" meant that you had a death certificate ready to be signed as you were a moving target for martyrdom. Christianity was a threat to the Roman Empire as they chose to obey God's law above Caesar's law, regardless of the price while greatly insulting the Roman emperors who believed they were divine and above the gods by submitting to a "higher authority" than theirs. Fast forward 2,000 years later and the qualities we are famous for now are quite different than they were at the beginning. We are now popularely viewed as irrelevant, judgmental, and naive exclusive people. Because gone is the dangerous church as a threat to the status quo and the empires, also gone are those qualities that shaped us and henceforth were traded for comfort and safety.
We forget that the early church was a threat.
The Church today has lost its danger to the status quo and has become dull in an epic hunt to fill their pews by watering down the gospel. In an attempt to cover the issue, we have become busy hiring the right band, redecorating the stage, changing older ministers and hiring hipster ones, and planning entertaining events to shift our focus away from the problem that no one wants to talk about: The church has lost its essence. This is why most churches today are everything but unstoppable. We've become great at producing programs to fill our churches and build our earthly kingdoms. However, what real change have we caused in our communities? What have we done about mental health and homelessness in our communities? Has divorce rate or racial prepotence gone down in your church's neighborhood? Of course, there are some exceptions and some great pastors I personally know that are doing amazing things. But overall, in the global scheme, our focus has been on raising sheep that give money and warm up chairs and not radical disciples who change the world.
Since the Great Depression and the Great Recession, finances have become very tight for most church goers. This has resulted in pastors making low quality sermons out of fear of offending the giver. Just like the bishops didn't stand up against Constantine out of fear of offending the man paying the bills. The church hierarchy has insured its assets by preaching a calm and utopian message of "Just be a good Christian and wait for the rapture" while avoiding the very topics that people desperately need to hear. How can we grow when our leaders are more concerned with popular perception instead of being unpopular for their radical leadership?
I keep asking myself, "Why Is no one talking about this"? There is a massive elephant in the sanctuary and no one is pointing it out. Maybe we've adopted a philosophy of "out of mind out of sight", that way we continue our lives in denial while ignoring the horrific state of our reality.
The greatest decline of the church in our generation is our obsession with arguing over our precious interpretation of our sound doctrines. It's been the unending conversation since the council of Nicea. We're famously known for what we stand against and not what we stand for. Everyone is convinced they have got it right. Churches have been divided and split over silly arguments on things like appropriate styles of music, women in leadership, or even how to do communion. I can imagine satan laughs as we divide ourselves through our petty disagreements instead of being united through our glorious agreement: Above all, Love Jesus and Love People. We have made the great mistake of exchanging faith for infallible creeds and beliefs, to the point of idolatry. After all, anyone can believe and memorize a creed without it actually making any change in their life. We separate ourselves from other believers that have different views or opinions as we claim to have the most pure version of sound doctrine. How can we be so certain about the interpretation of ancient texts that were written in different languages, addressed to specific people, and in very different political and historical contexts? Truth is at most, we are basically eavesdropping on a conversation in a language we barely speak.
This is exactly why we need faith. Certainty is the exact opposite of faith. If we are absolutely certain of something, we require absolutely no faith whatsoever. We follow faith as a noun and not as a verb. We've interpreted faith as a belief system that can be measured, as if it were some sort of substance. Faith is actually the ultimate form of embodied trust, the hope for the things unseen. We should definitely study and be knowledgable about what we stand for and believe, but never lose our sense of wonder or be blinded by the reality that we don't know everything. We are called to be people who trust and build each other up instead of being people obsessed with winning arguments and discrediting others for their views. This doesnt mean we are supposed to be ignorant or blind followers, it actually means we should immerse ourselves in knowledge and God's word as much as possible. The point to not allow all the knowledge and understanding we have of Faith be above our ultimate call to love people. Christianity was not birthed as a new religion but as a mob of hearts on fire. The early christians were not known as great debaters or fighters, but as people with firm belief in radical and limitless access to God through Jesus, and worshiped Jesus and loved others like it was their last day, which on most cases, the prior was true.
One stunning truth is now revealed: We can survive as a church movement with diversity in opinion and styles but never with a deficit of love and trust.
Romans 14 paints a beautiful picture of unity through dispute. It talks about how even in the early church there were many different theological and doctrinal arguments, and Paul wanted to remind Christians that we should focus on our main agreement (Love Jesus, Love People) and to not fuss or cause conflict regarding silly doctrinal arguments that were usually based on biased personal interpretation. We tend to think the early church was completely in unison from the start and then somehow got corrupted as heretics poisoned our holy beliefs.
"16 For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
18 If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too.
19 So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up. "
Romans 14:16-18 NLT
I believe God's message to the church today is still the same. It's time for the church to start being the church. To harmonize in unity and to offer what it did in the beginning: Not conformity in the assurance of an escape from earthly troubles in the form of a secured ticket to heaven, but to give humanity a confidence that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are truly made new and can cause an impact in our world.
We must cease our obsession with being right and become obsessed with being loving. (R. Meyers in "The underground Church")
The Barna Group made a study that says 64% of Christians today believe evangelism is optional. The reason for this issue can be understood when we examine how the previous generation encouraged people to convert. From personal experience, growing up in a Christian home I heard so many preachers say "Repent or burn in Hell", "Accept Jesus or stay behind in the great tribulation". Although those statements aren't doctrinally wrong, the approach is. Even popular Christian media and culture used such fear tactics like in the famously successful yet highly fictional series "Left Behind". This was a message of forced faith through fear and manipulation. The result of this was many people believing and saying the sinners prayer out of a fear of burning in hell instead of a personal encounter with Jesus rooted in Love, mirroring how the great emperors after Constantine used swords to push their religious agenda. If only we would preach God's Love without compromising the very dangers of unbelief without using fear tactics, we would be converting people into radical loving disciples not just mere believers waiting securely at home to be taken away in a cloud.
Unity is not Uniformity. Unity is working with people you trust regardless of differences. We must set aside our obsession with being right and having "the only true theology" and become obsessed with loving people and leading them to Jesus.
We've all heard the verse "Jesus stands at the door and knocks, waiting to come in" as a means to evangelize non believers in the context of a Jesus who's sitting down waiting for your attention. The stunning truth is that this verse in Revelation chapter 3 which we so often quote extremely out of context to evangelize, is actually a letter written to the church. Jesus is painting the picture of himself expelled outside the church, waiting to be welcomed back in "If we hear his voice". Could it be that by obsessing with our opinions and dogmas we've expelled not just those with different views but we've also shut the door on Jesus's face and have become so loud declaring our creeds that we've silenced His voice?
It's time to quiet our minds and be still and let the Holy Spirit speak again, and maybe to admit what Jaques Ellul once said regarding faith, "The only thing I know is that I don't know anything". If we begin to treat faith not as a set of creeds but as the true meaning of the word- trust in the uncertain, as a verb and not a noun, we will begin to be agents of change and true models of what love and trust looks like. We are called to influence the world and to bring people into an alternate way of life where miracles and unconditional love are a normal occurrence. Childlike faith is where we rediscover the awe and wonder of trusting in God and being okay with not having all the answers. We must return to be the fearless and dangerous church we once were, regardless of the consequences ahead. Let's be bold like Martin Luther, who called out what needed to be said regardless of becoming excommunicated and sentenced to death for his revelation. This pandemic is an opportunity to go back to the basics, before we lost our first love and replaced it with creeds and mission statements. The simplicity of the Gospel is at our hands.
Let's be the church that isn't.
Nicene Creed: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed
Council Of Nicea: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea
Robyn Meyer's "The Underground Church": https://www.amazon.com/Underground-Church-Reclaiming-Subversive-Jesus/dp/1118061594
Edict of Milan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edict_of_Milan
Constantine the Great and Christianity: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great_and_Christianity
Martin Luther: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther