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An Unbelieving Church

October 30th, 2020 | 8 min read

By Sahr Mbriwa

Author and psychiatrist, Curt Thompson, once remarked “we become what we pay attention to.” Reformulated as a question, it becomes arguably the guiding question we need today, namely who are you becoming? In a time of political crisis and social unrest, this question is just as fitting for communities to ponder as it is for individuals, especially for our churches in the United States.

For the Christian, the telos is union with Christ. On the one hand, God the Father has already paved and secured the way for the Christian, by the Holy Spirit, this union with Christ, e.g. Eph.2:1-10. However, the Christian is also called to intentionally live out of that union which in practice translates into ‘love God, love neighbor’ and ‘love God, love enemy.’ This means that when we are not paying attention to Christ – not in a manner that dichotomizes the sacred and secular but subjects every area of life under His lordship – we risk becoming, and uniting ourselves to, something altogether different from Him.

As has been said time and again, Covid-19, while globally disruptive, did not create the conflicts we currently have, but exposed and exacerbated issues that were already there. Related, this year has also challenged many to come to a more definitive stance, or at least think more critically, on what they believe and value, in terms of significance, identity, and purpose.

One sobering apocalypse – that is a reality once hidden now unveiled – and which can serve as a microcosm of a larger ecclesial problem in the American Church is the poverty of community. In an age of socio-political tribalism and cancel culture, the epidemic of loneliness and lack of community in America has become more pronounced. See for example: “COVID-19 Is Making America’s Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse” and “Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness in the U.S.

It is important to note that when one speaks of community, it is not usually in an operational sense in which the life we might share in proximity to another is fundamentally about transactions and maintenance of the status quo. Rather, community in an ontological sense, in which the emphasis is on being present and sharing the ups and downs of life with others, which is more difficult to quantify and practice. Some of the mainstream words and expressions you might commonly hear today that echo this longing for community include: “crucial conversations,” “empathy,” “vulnerability,” “transparency,” “connection,” and “human flourishing.”

Generally speaking, we all long to be part of communities that are in actuality mythical and unrealistic. For no version of a community can be experienced without wounding and being wounded by members of that community. Risks, scars, and loss are inevitable. Perhaps that is a key reason we often share little of ourselves with others, even among family members and close friends.

Yet, in theory, local churches are called and equipped, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to envision and embody, albeit imperfectly, the types of communities desperately needed. That is, communities of Christians and church cultures becoming like Christ – wounded healers, persons of peace, repairers of broken systems, pursuers of mercy and justice, messengers of the mystery and majesty of God, and carriers of hope.

This vision of community, is in large part, what it means for the body of believers to be “church.” It is a community that can seemingly model and mobilize people to share life together in ways more compelling and courageous than what one might find in other settings. Why, then, are self-identified Christians increasingly disaffiliating from, or dismissing altogether, the local church and looking for community and connection elsewhere? Why is there growing chatter these days on the possibility of at least 20-30% of church goers not returning to church once Covid subsides?

To be fair, these questions do not have a one-size-fits-all answer. Context matters and varies from church to church. Further, nowhere in scripture does it say that the church and its message will be attractive to everyone. In fact, you will find more evidence in scripture for the opposite. That is, the people of God will tend to be part of the margins rather than the majority. Often, it is on account of being countercultural in their orthodoxy (worshipping the triune God of scripture) and in their orthopraxy (on the side of the ‘least of these,’ e.g. orphans, widows, foreigners).

Yet, the contemporary problem in most local churches is not that they are atypical. Instead, they are often indistinguishable in relation to the mission and mindset of other businesses and organizations, and subsequently found wanting. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find local churches that have adopted the same antagonistic rhetoric and rubric as the culture. See, for example, insights from David Fitch’s The Church of Us vs. Them.

Several decades ago, Lesslie Newbigin offered an observation that is particularly relevant to contemporary discussions on the landscape of Western Christianity:

I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible for the gospel to be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross? I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the Gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.

In other words, the gospel has power to cultivate and shape tangible expressions of life-giving communities, filled with diverse people and vocations, that can address (not necessarily eradicate here-and-now) the issues of our times, including loneliness. But this requires Christians who believe and live out the implications of the gospel.

According to Newbigin, the concern is not with the power of the gospel, but a lack of Christians and congregations who know this Christ of the gospel. The central problem, then, for local churches regarding their ability to significantly impact their congregants and communities, to live as citizens of the kingdom of God, might be unbelief in the person and power of Christ.

It could very well be that many of the problems in our churches have less to do with Sunday morning gatherings and gospel expositions, and more to do with not believing that a man who claimed to be God and hung on a cross on our behalf, could lead and love us well in this moment and in the days to come. This is not a call for less gospel proclamation, but for Christians and churches to discern and discuss (perhaps confess and repent) in what ways they are becoming more like Christ, and conversely in what ways they are becoming unlike Christ.

Indeed, the process of becoming like Christ is a marathon not a sprint, hard not easy, filled with trial and error not perfect. But it is the promise and work of the Holy Spirit to direct the attention and affections of the believer to Christ, and to give grace to remain in Christ. John 14-17 offers a constructive commentary on this matter as Jesus comforts and prays for his disciples. In John 15:5-8, Jesus states:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

As we move closer towards the last days of this year, numerous predictions abound of what lies ahead. However, this need not move us to fear and unbelief but to set our minds on Christ. And as we each sort through volumes of data and strategies to help us navigate through these strange times of confusion and unknowns, consider these two questions: who are you becoming and who is your church becoming?

May this prayer from “The Valley of Vision” spur you on to rest and persevere in faith, hope, and love, in Christ.

Thou [Lord Jesus] hast loved me everlastingly, unchangeably, may I love thee as I am loved; Thou hast given thyself for me, may I give myself to thee; Thou hast died for me, may I live to thee, in every moment of my time, in every movement of my mind, in every pulse of my heart. May I never dally with the world and its allurements, but walk by thy side, listen to thy voice, be clothed with thy graces, and adorned with thy righteousness.

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Arthur Bennett, ed. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. East Peoria: Versa Press Inc., 1975 (18).

Cigna. “2020 Loneliness in the U.S..”

David Fitch. The Church of Us vs. Them: Freedom from a Faith That Feeds on Making Enemies. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Lesslie Newbigin. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. London: SPCK, 1989 (227).

Time. “COVID-19 Is Making America’s Loneliness Epidemic Even Worse.” May 8, 2020.