In an online forum I occasionally haunt, I saw someone post a topic on the following question:
What is the greatest problem that western Christianity faces?
I watched the replies go by for a little bit, and saw a lot of the same, tired answers you might expect if you’ve hung out in certain circles. And it’s not that none of them were legitimate problems–it’s that I find it hard to justify making them the number one problem that the western church faces.
Answers like Biblical illiteracy, the phenomenon called the “rise of the nones” (where youths are leaving the churches in droves), and lack of empathy for the poor are all valid issues. And then I’d see other answers that I am inclined to argue are not issues at all: answers like “belief in evolution”, “allowing sin” (whatever that means – doesn’t everyone sin?), or “allowing heretics in the church” (wouldn’t that be the best place for them? And who gets to decide who the heretics are? The Biblically illiterate?)–these are all answers that I’d say are indicative of the very problem that I think is the number one problem in the church.
I think the number one problem that western Christianity faces is a lack of humility.
Oh sure, I thought of a number of other possible answers to that problem. I thought of how there is a tendency for churches in the West to have an “us vs. them” mentality–pointing fingers at invisible assailants that are supposedly persecuting them by not allowing them to force public prayer in schools as the Pharisees would do (Matthew 6:5-6). I thought of how there is a lack of empathy for the poor, even to the point of scapegoating the poor as the cause of our economic woes because of their supposed laziness. I thought of how churches can sometimes be supportive of abusive behavior, and at the same time can be far too quick to cast people out of their communities.
I thought of how churches can sometimes put far too much emphasis on “right belief” and not enough on “right conduct” or “right character”. I thought of how churches can be so busy about the task of pulling specks from eyes without attending to logs within their own, or being the first to cast a stone. I thought of how churches go about the business of making themselves richer and building enormous monuments in self-promotion, while ignoring the suffering world around. I thought of how churches spread shame and fear in Jesus’ name – both things I believe he would’ve opposed.
But I think all of those things are all part of the same root issue: a lack of humility.
The western church is set in a particular culture – a culture that prizes capitalism. Within capitalism, everything is reduced to a product and spoken of in terms of worth. And it’s so easy, within this culture, to become enslaved to the view that everything revolves around me and my satisfaction.
We choose churches and even friends from within this paradigm: If someone is not enhancing my life in the way I’d like, I don’t need ‘em, and if a church doesn’t have music that makes me feel happy and sermons that I find interesting, I don’t need to be there. And then, within these churches, the primary goal often seems to be promoting that church. Tithes go towards building projects, or to advertising to bring more people into the church so it can grow bigger and bigger, or maybe to “preaching the gospel” (meaning: going out and presenting doctrinal ideas to “unbelievers” rather than showing unconditional love).
But this doesn’t look much like Jesus, if we’re honest. This doesn’t look much like the guy who went around serving people–feeding them, healing them, and inviting them into his friendship circle even when society considered them to be undesirables.
The western church is far too concerned with teaching doctrine, and not concerned enough with teaching love. Paul said in I Cor. 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” All this emphasis on having proper knowledge is puffing up our churches – filling them with pride. And this pride stands in the way of loving those who need it most. And the question I think we need to ask ourselves is: does God really care that much if you know the right things?
In his novel “And God Said, ‘Billy!’“, Frank Schaeffer writes:
The less you worry about God the better. If there is a Creator – and that is an open question to anyone but an ideologue – do you think He, She or It cares about your “correct” beliefs any more than you care about Rebecca’s beliefs about you as the condition for loving her? Think about Rebecca. When you get home someday soon now and see her will you only love her if she remembers the correct date of your birthday and your dietary likes and dislikes and your rules, the correct name to call you and what fruit to eat from what tree in which garden and, when she grows up, when to have sex and with whom?
In many religions, there is a concept of the annihilation of self. Jesus put it this way:
“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.”
What this means is that we must put to death the desires that cause barriers to go up between ourselves and our brothers and sisters. Whatever causes division must go – whether it be physical possessions, or political identities, or even religious beliefs. Because Jesus didn’t say that the mark of a Christian is what they wear, or the lingo they use, or how they vote, or even the doctrine they claim – he said that the world would know if we’re his disciples by our love (John 13:35).
And you can’t love people if you hold something that’s causing division dearer than the beloved – so you must “take up your cross”, and put these divisive desires to death in order to take down the barriers between yourself and those around you. Humility is the first step towards love.
Geoff is a Pub Theologian and a geeky/nerdy programmer with three super cute kids and an awesome wife who puts up with his quirks. He is also a Progressive Metalhead, which means he listens to loud music that’s also snobbish. Geoff reads way too many books – especially the ones he’s told not to read.