The Greatest Problem Western Christianity Faces

gglenister —  November 9, 2013 — 10 Comments

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.

"C'mon, Timmy. That church had more issues than all your mother's sisters combined." flickr: joguldi

“C’mon, Timmy. That church had more issues than all your mother’s sisters combined.” flickr: joguldi

 

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.

greed protest

flickr: Sam Wolff. cc by-sa 2.0

 

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.

flickr: Chris Yarzab

flickr: Chris Yarzab

 

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:

Matthew 16:24b
“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.

——–
Oh yeah, I'm a rockstar!
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.

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gglenister

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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 - and is proud to have been called a "dangerous hairy tick".

10 responses to The Greatest Problem Western Christianity Faces

  1. 

    fabulous distillation. ive long taught my own children there is really only one sin: pride. all others are specific instances. pride is the stoke’s theorem of all bad behavior if you really drill down to the teachings of jesus and budda and lao tse et al. but… there is a deadly trap of pride in humility also. so be careful. keep the narrow path of exact humility not a characiture or pretense of it.

  2. 

    Boy howdy–have you ever hit the nail on the head! However, if I may, I would like to take the liberty of slightly refining your very wise observations.

    It seems to me that not all of Western Christianity is mired in the sin of pride; I believe that that distinction most truly belongs to the Roman Catholic Church and to the fundamentalist/evangelical brands of Christianity–both of which envision a theocracy, governed by each belief system’s individual worldview, as the ideal form of human existence. Those of us who belong to those boring old, politically insignificant mainstream Protestant
    denominations go about our business of celebrating our faith and ministering to our communities without much fuss or fanfare. Nor do we hold the spectre of eternal damnation over the heads of those who choose not to believe exactly as we do. We Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, et.al., attempt to imitate Jesus’ welcoming inclusivity. For the most part we do not reject those of whom we may disapprove, telling them to come back to see us when they’ve decided to view the world through our eyes. I could go on and on, but you get my point. Just because the RCC and the fundamentalists/evangelicals grab the most headlines, doesn’t mean that they are emblematic of all of Christianity.

    In addition, I could really go off on the connection between some forms of Christianity and laissez-faire capitalism. But I’ll spare everyone and jump off my soapbox–now!

    • 

      Thank you for reading, and for your thoughtful comment! Yes, you are right – not all of Christianity is the same, and I did not intend to say this. And, because I live in the “Bible Belt”, I may see things a little differently than someone who lives in another area of the country.

      But, YES! I’d love to explore some more of the connections between certain forms of Christianity and laissez-faire capitalism! I’ve written a little bit on the subject of how Jesus challenged empire, and touched a little bit on how I think this would be challenging to the American Capitalistic views, but so much could be written on this!

      Geoff

      • 

        I can tell you this–we Grace Church Episcopalians in Manchester, NH must be really lousy capitalists. We’ve been patching up our 40-year-old boiler for the last 15 years because just haven’t been able to afford a new one. Since our beautiful church is 150+ years old, it can be more than a wee bit drafty on a midwinter’s Sunday morning! Every time we get a little bit extra in our budget, it usually goes to one of our community outreach projects and we just keep on trusting that the Lord will keep the boiler running.

  3. 

    Excellent! Amazing post, thank you for putting into words what I find so difficult to express. That I want to love going to church, but it seems no matter where I go, I to some extent end up having to reteach my children that hating, finger pointing, judgement and derision are NOT supposed to be part of worshiping God or following Christ.

    • 

      I hope you find a good church home, Jennifer. Keep seeking – it will be worth it. And don’t forget that the way you model Jesus to your children is far more important to them than the way they see people in church acting.

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