Pastor Ryan Donoho, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Lafayette, recently published this thoughtful Lenten reflection in his parish’s March newsletter.
Special thanks to Pastor Ryan Donoho for this timely reflection.
Are you more American or Christian? What is your primary allegiance? The church is a community of people who live under the reign of God in the kingdom of God. Although we might be natively born in the United States of America (USA), if we are followers of Jesus Christ our primary citizenship is in the kingdom of God. And, although natural citizens of the USA, we are called to live as foreigners and strangers even in our homeland. Each church is to be a little pocket of the kingdom living amongst the world.
1 Peter 1:17-23 (NIV translation)
Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
The values and culture of Lafayette, Indiana, USA are not always in line with the values and culture of the kingdom of God. And, at those points where they differ, the Church is called to live by the values of the kingdom of God. Every church starts with the culture that they know and live in (we can do no other), and then discerns how they need to be transformed into the likeness of Christ and the values of the kingdom. Churches should not be stagnant, but always transforming and always changing to more closely align with the will of God. Each church is a work in progress, doing their best to embody the kingdom of God.
The church is called to be conformed to God and live differently from the ways of the world, and not the other way around. Yet, it is compelling to try and make the church more American to more easily attract Americans to join the church. To be able to effectively communicate the message of Jesus to a culture, like the American culture, there needs to be some familiarity with that culture. Christians need to be able to speak the language of the average person in the society around them. However, the purpose of this is to help call them into something different, a different way of living in the kingdom of God under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The church and its gatherings should remain distinctly Christian.
There is a difference between living as strangers in the world because we live with an outdated version of American culture, and living as strangers in the world because we live as citizens of the kingdom of God. Things like the style of music (is it 19th century American or 21st century American?) and the technology used (is it 1980s technology or 2015 technology?) are not really the bigger issues. Those are not the types of things that make us uniquely Christian.
The types of things that make us uniquely Christian are values like loving God, caring for those who are marginalized and forgotten by society, living simply and generously, loving our enemies, and looking to the interests of others above ourselves. These things should instruct how we gather and live together as the church in the world.
However, it has become commonplace for churches to take up the practices of consumerism and follow American business models that at their core have values that are not in line with the kingdom of God. Consumerism is largely based upon selfishness and many American business models are based upon growing in size and profits in competition with other similar service providers. These are not the goals of the kingdom.
Even if the heart of the church’s desire to use consumerism and American business models is to bring more people into the kingdom and spread the message of Jesus, the medium and strategies used to communicate are a big part of the message themselves. The way the message is communicated also communicates. If we preach a message of loving, giving, and considering others above oneself, but present it in a medium that encourages selfish consumerism; then we are defeating ourselves and the message we preach.
It is tempting to reach for the consumeristic model of church, because it “works.” It draws a crowd. It can help pay the bills, and make us feel like we are being a successful church. It is also natural and comfortable for us as Americans. Yet, by what standard do we measure success? Is it success according to the values of our American society, or success according to the values of the kingdom of God?
You may be wondering, “what does a consumeristic model of church look like?” It is when a church tries to attract religious consumers to attend their church and consume their religious goods and services without calling them to the deep commitment of submitting themselves to God and one another as they live out the values of the kingdom of God in a community together. It is when a church does some form of market research (formally or informally) to determine what consumers of religious experiences are interested in, and then shapes their gathering around those marketable experiences; instead of first considering the values of the kingdom and shaping their gathering around those values. It is when a church tries to draw a big crowd to an attractive worship experience with a self-help message, but makes no intentional efforts at moving the people from the crowd into a smaller communal group where discipleship, mutual submission, mentoring, and practices of the faith take place. It is when a church tries to draw a big crowd but does little to try and care for the “least of these” within their church or out in the world.
Choosing to form a church around the values of the kingdom of God instead of forming it around the values of our American culture will likely result in a smaller church. Can American Christians be ok with that, or does our American concept of success by size and numbers push us towards forming our churches around American values to draw a crowd? And, what will we do with our buildings?
As American culture and Christianity continue to diverge from one another, the question for American Christians increasingly becomes, “will they choose to become more American or more Christian?” In some ways the divergence is helpful, because it can awaken American Christians to the reality that American values and Christian values are not one in the same thing. They never have been, but it is becoming increasingly obvious.
So, what type of church will we be?
Grace and Peace,