.”The elephant in the room” of the modern evangelical church is this: in spite of sincere efforts to convert the culture to our side, we’ve managed to alienate most of it, including a sizable number of our children, friends, and neighbors. At the moment the culture seems to be doing a far better job of converting us. It does not take a prophet to foretell the future of Christian churches if these trends continue. Millennials are the least religious generation in American history, and the ones coming after them will likely be even less interested.
The elephant in the room is this: the modern church is still about five miles wide and about a five inches deep. Most people in church leadership acknowledge this, whatever their denominational background. Even so, there is much debate over what to do about it.
Having started with one elephant cliché, let me introduce another. Have you heard the old story about the four blind men who stumble across an elephant on the road? Each one reaches out and touches a different part of the beast. One touches the ear and thinks it is a banana leaf, so he concludes that he has come across a banana tree. Another touches the elephant’s leg and thinks it is a palm tree. The third touches the tail and thinks it is a rope. The fourth touches the side and thinks it is a house. Each blind man who confronts one part of the beast comes to a logical conclusion about its overall nature based on his personal experience.
When it comes to the “elephant” that confronts the modern church, those of us who recognize it’s presence behave like the blind men on the road. Each of us has our own preconceptions and perceptual biases that keep us from seeing the whole picture.
One group of Christians come across the shallowness of the church; touching the head, they conclude that there isn’t much there. The problem they see is that Christianity has abandoned the life of the mind. “The problem with the evangelical mind,” Mark Noll writes “is that there isn’t much of an evangelical mind.” The theological underpinnings of the modern church are woefully inadequate. In appealing to the broadest possible common denominator of people, we have dumbed down Christianity to the point where it seems woefully simplistic to those who think above a junior high school level.
They are right, but it is not the whole story.
Another group of Christians touch the heart of the elephant and finds it barely beating. The pietists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, and mystics do not see a real passion for God in the church. In their view, the modern church seems concerned more with doctrinal conversion than heart conversion. Holy Spirit listening has been replaced by business-school planning. The church talks endlessly about developing leaders but hardly at all about following the lead of the Spirit. The modern evangelical church talks much about the presence of God but goes along with practical deism that says God gave us His Word, then left us without assistance to stumble forward blindly and alone. In practice, they ignore the real, living presence of Christ who leads us day by day by the power of the Spirit.
And they are right too, but it isn’t the whole story, either.
The third group of Christians stumble upon the trunk, the practical, lifting part, and realize it is weak. They see too much talk and not enough action. The church has generally concentrated more on speech and has neglected the needs of the poor and oppressed. We have reduced Christianity to empty words, and not just in the way we treat others. We have failed to recognize that the shallowness of our lifestyles, with our emphasis on consumerism and consumption rather than simplicity and sacrifice. If we aren’t willing to live as Jesus did, how can we ever hope to make a difference in the world, as Jesus did?
They are also right, but it still isn’t the whole story.
The fourth group of Christians stumble on the elephant and grab its feet, which move when touched. There’s no permanence here. In our desire to be contemporary and run with the times, we have lost sight of the importance of history and tradition.
A valid criticism of modern megachurches is that megachurches seldom last for longer than a single generation. They are notoriously prone to come apart when the initial leaders are gone. The modern megachurch is usually based on flashy worship programs and prominent personalities rather than on the vision of the founders. Once the church leadership passes, there is nothing to sustain it.
Traditional churches are often guilty of worshiping the past. But at least they are rooted and grounded in history, which frees them from the tyranny of the present. They are like oak trees, not flowers. Flowers are pretty and fast-growing, but they don’t usually last for more than a season. Oak trees continue for a long, long time.
These people are right too, but again, it’s not the whole story.
It is not my intention to criticize any of these viewpoints, nor do I intend to say that such critiques are always right. There may be others who see the problem of shallowness in other ways. But the elephant in the room remains. The shallowness of the modern church affects the head, heart, actions, and traditions.
Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of evangelicalism as a culture in itself, and see it rather as a piece of a larger mosaic, called the Body of Christ, including many perspectives and approaches. It is not one branch of the church that is threatened by the growing tide of secularism, but all of it. Catholics, mainline Protestants, Charismatics, Orthodox, and evangelicals alike are feeling the same pressure. It’s time to stop thinking about our piece of the church and consider the church as a whole. The truth is that we need what the whole church knows, not just what the part we associate with knows. When a nation is attacked from the outside, the nation must unite to fight the foe. When the church as a whole is rocked by a society hostile to God, we need the wisdom and knowledge of all the parts to stay afloat.
The real cause of the “elephant in the room” is this: that the church has forsaken the imitation of Christ, and made Christ into an imitation of ourselves.
Sanctification is the process of becoming like Christ in every way: head, heart, hands, and habits. We will never be perfect, nor should we expect perfection, but that doesn’t mean we should not seek to become more like Him.
This is the point I am making with the Faith Matrix, to seek a balanced approach to the Christian life. We don’t need to grow Christlike in just one area, we need to grow in all areas. We need to study, pray, celebrate, and work like Him. Instead of emphasizing our uniqueness, let’s learn from each other the whole of what it means to follow Christ.