Throughout the course of the last year, as I’ve been working in ministry in a variety of settings, there has been a common theme prevalent within each of these contexts: in American Christianity, “church” has become synonymous with words like “corporation” and “organization.” But instead of manufacturing toilet paper or toothpaste, our products are decisions, discipleship programs and even the Holy Spirit. Rather than equipping the saints to do ministry, our pastors are CEOs, Chief Evangelism Officers, who manage the industry by creating consumers of Christianity.
My thoughts on this trend are not revolutionary; David Platt explains it perfectly in his recent book, Radical: “I am part of a system that has created a whole host of means and methods, plans and strategies for doing church that require little if any power from God.”
He further explains some of the elements of our churches that manifest this tragic reality: a captivating performance, an attractive facility to house the performance and then alluring programs to keep people coming back for more. While some would point a finger at the modern, more contemporary churches as indicative of this travesty, it pervades the traditional churches as well, which rely on traditionalism as the comfortable and most effective means of keeping the gears turning in the corporate Church machine. Yet even this distinction between traditional and contemporary is a symptom of the underlying disease that plagues the Church: the attempt and desire to do the work of God apart from the Spirit of God.
As I’ve observed the manufactured Church, I am confronted continually by the nagging question: How did we get this way? When I read through the early Church in the book of Acts, I am presented by a people who are desperate for the Spirit of God. When Peter spoke to the Jewish people in Solomon’s Portico, he advised them to repent so that “times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:20a). When the seven men were chosen to serve in Acts 6, they were men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). Furthermore, the very promise of Acts 1:8 is the affirmation that Jesus’ followers would have the power to proclaim His name throughout the nations when they were empowered by the Holy Spirit. Thus, it is evident that the work of God cannot be done apart from the Spirit of God. And yet, we have managed to create a church culture that seemingly successfully produces Christianity largely apart from a desperation for the Holy Spirit.
One answer I’ve posited in response to the conundrum of how we got this way is that we are still witnessing a byproduct of the marriage of church and state that occurred under Constantine in the fourth century. Although Protestant Christianity has largely escaped this union, the vestiges of the bureaucracy that pervade government remain within the functions of the Church. However, this answer is unsatisfactory, for the disease goes back further than the fourth century. In fact, Jesus responded to manufactured religion when He cleansed the temple in Matthew 21.
Thus, I conclude that our propensity for doing church without God’s provision and empowerment is a byproduct of the Fall. Just as our initial act of sin stemmed from an inclination to be like God, so now we strive to do the work of God apart from Him. Furthermore, I think we try to manufacture church in our own efforts because that is something we can understand. We are not made to understand the ways God works, so instead of trusting Him in faith to build and run His church, we construct it to look like something we can understand, measure and control.
So, I then ask myself, “What do we do?” Critique is hollow if it provides no alternative resolution. I think the prophet Joel provides a nice synopsis of what may be required: “ ‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster" (Joel 2:12-13, ESV).
Furthermore, in Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, He emphasizes the words of Isaiah that God’s house is to be a house of prayer. Instead of devising new programs and methods for doing God’s work, we need to fall on our faces in prayer, humble ourselves through fasting and beg God for a refreshing from His Spirit. God has already given us the provision of His Spirit through the atoning work of His Son on the cross. We must respond again with repentance and be transformed in our thinking about Church. I am convinced that nothing apart from desperation for the work of God through the Spirit of God in our hearts and minds will result in the building of God’s Church on His terms, and not ours. As a result, we will have the corporate Christianity we see in Acts 2—a fellowship of believers united with the all-encompassing desire of giving glory to God and making His name known.