I think I need to make a serious proposal for the reformation of American Christianity. It will be harder for me to get people to respond to the call than it was for Martin Luther. When he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, there was already widespread discontent with the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. My problem is that the people in American Christianity are, for the most part, happy with their situation, and those who are not happy pay a very small price when they abandon formal Christianity. The easy part for me is that I do not have to risk my life and my livelihood as Luther did.
The religious situation in present-day America is obviously not as it was in the German-language part of Europe in the sixteenth century. It is also not like the situation in second-century Asia Minor when John addressed the situations in seven churches when he wrote the book of Revelation. I think now that I can identify more than seven contemporary churches that are in need of reformation. These are not defined by denomination, institution, closeness to tradition or history but by their attitude concerning Christianity. They are not separate physical churches as one or more of these churches may be gathered at the same worship service. The accommodation of a variety of beliefs is a characteristic of present-day Christianity so individuals in the same congregation can be far apart in their thinking yet safe from any serious challenge to the quality of their faith.
You may be wondering what these several churches are that I would have you consider.
The first and perhaps the largest conceptual church is the Cultural Church. It comes in several very different expressions. Its characteristic is that its members poll on social issues almost exactly the same as the general population. This means that its attitudes and behaviors are indistinguishable from society in general.
The Cultural Church, by some sort of paradox, tends towards attendance in traditional (mainstream and Roman Catholic) churches and in mega-churches. It exists in traditional churches because they are part of the culture. The mega-churches tend to fit the culture because their purpose is to attract as many people as possible, so they avoid, as much as they can, anything like an emphasis on doctrine that might offend anybody or cause controversy.
The Pseudo-Christian Church is an expression of ideological liberalism. Like secular liberals it assumes it is the reality and other expressions of Christianity are deviants that can be labeled evangelical or fundamentalist or some such. The Pseudo-Christian Church is where religion becomes an expression of rationalism. Everything in traditional Christian belief that requires the supernatural is removed as a reality but is given a spiritual significance. For example, the bodily resurrection of Jesus did not actually occur but it signifies something we can have good feelings about.
The Pseudo-Christian Church closely follows the secular spirit. Thus its big concern now is homosexual rights, before this it was sexual liberation, feminism, environmentalism, world peace, and other liberal causes. It accepts the theory of evolution and whatever else falls into the realm of the popular. You might ask why the Pseudo-Christian Church continues to affiliate itself with Christianity. The answer is simple, Christianity provides them with tenured professorships, social respect, sources of funding, and keeps them able to think they are something they are not.
The Hyper-Christian Church ignores the warning C.S. Lewis gave us in The Screwtape Letters about adding things to Christianity. The Pseudo-Christian Church believes too little, the Hyper-Christian Church believes too much. It adds worship of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and miracles as essential elements of the Christian life. It can be given some applause for bringing some fire and spirit, through the charismatic movement, to parts of the Cultural Church. However, in “amping up” Christianity it raises expectations higher than can be maintained thus causing disillusionment in some of its adherents.
The Social-Activist Church should have longevity as there is a never-ending list of things needing to be done to make people’s lives better. One problem with this church is that it became a social-critique church and many of its members went from seeking to relieve poverty to criticizing the acquisition of wealth. A more serious problem from a spiritual standpoint is a conceit: If we were in charge of the world we could set everything right. The pride revealed in this mode of thinking shows up particularly in the peace and justice part of this church. The foundation of Christianity, for Christ and all believers, is humbleness before the purposes of God the Father.
The Self-Centered Church comes directly from our self-centered society. The core of the Self-Centered Church is an inward-looking view of what Christianity is meant to be. In this church what matters is that God thinks of them highly and lovingly. Their songs contain a lot of I, me, and my instead of second and third person pronouns such as you, he, and his. Their self-centeredness can go as far as to think that God’s happiness depends on their performance as a Christian. They think a lot about their time, their possessions, their safety and their personal peace. Obviously this church does not think much of others except in what way helping them might increase their own self-esteem.
The Self-Made Church has two denominations. One branch believes that we can make Christianity be what we want it to be. Thomas Jefferson, who edited the New Testament to make it say what he wanted to believe, was not the founder of this first denomination but he is a good example of its members. The members of the this branch of the Self-Made Church “cut out” the parts of Christianity that do not suit them or are not in accordance with their lifestyle or social beliefs.
The second denomination of the Self-Made Church seems, at first, to be very unlike the first. Its members generally take the Scriptures very seriously and do their best to follow them. Where they are like the others is that they believe their Christian life and practice have to come from their own efforts. They have to make a choice, sometimes in conjunction with the saying of a prayer, to become a Christian. They are told in this part of their church there are many things they must do as a Christian in their own efforts. These directions, such as reading the Bible, praying, and doing good works, may seem good. However, this do-it-yourself sanctity can prove exceedingly difficult, often leading to the rejection of their Christianity. Or if they are successful in following the directions they are given for leading a Christian life, they can be led into self-righteousness. You can see that participation in either denomination of the Self-Made Church is hazardous for people hoping to find completion in Christ.
There are two other churches that relate to modern philosophy. There is the Rationalist Church that believes that reason can create a form of Christianity compatible with modern philosophy. The Literalist Church began as a defense against modern philosophy by trying to make its interpretation of the Bible “scientific.” There will undoubtedly come into being, if one does not already exist, a Post-Modern Church.
There is, as there has been since the first century, a Heretical Church. The length of time this church has been in existence makes it hard for it to create new heresies but its members keep trying. There is the new Deist Church that seeks to allow the compatibility of Christianity and both Judaism and Islam by removing faith in the deity of Jesus Christ and eliminating the Holy Spirit. There is the New Age Church that melds Christianity with both new and old forms of spirituality.
I will end my rather long list of churches with the Miscellaneous Church. This is the place of worship for people who withdraw from society or other Christians, people whose beliefs are so far from normal Christianity that they are a church unto themselves, and other Christians who are so few as to be invisible. Their problem is that, and the members of the other churches share in it, they violate the unity of the one church of which all Christians are meant to be members.
At this point you may be wondering why I left the “Good” Church—the one like your local congregation—off my list. It is a principle of Christian sanctity if we think we are good enough, we are not. If you think your particular body of believers does not need reformation, it most likely does.
What all the churches on my list have in common is they have, in one way or another, turned Christianity upside down. They have made Christianity about people—church leaders, poor people, oppressed people, us, and so forth—rather than about Jesus Christ. We have come to think that it is God’s job to supply the seed, fertilizer and water so we can cultivate our own gardens. We find this much more to our liking than the idea we should be servants in the Lord’s garden.
The second problem with these churches is that those who still believe in the kingdom of God in some way misunderstand its meaning. They are much like the religious rulers Jesus spoke to. They want, and expect, a political kingdom. Someone said something like “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and what we got was churches.” And we do have a multitude of churches. What we do not have is an understanding of the proper role of these churches The function of churches is to serve the body of Christ by evangelism, exhortation, comfort and many other things not to be the be-all and end-all of Christianity. They were intended to be way stations, outposts, hospices and so forth for Christians so they could be fully equipped to live in the kingdom of God.
I do not think there can be a reformation of American society unless there is a reformation of American Christianity and that will not occur until many, many members of most of the churches are turned right-side-up. That is, they become focused on Jesus and his kingdom as the object of their faith, love and learning rather than anything else.
If the reformation of a generous part of American Christianity occurs, it will be the work of the Holy Spirit. What we who see the need for reformation can do is allow Christ and the Holy Spirit to work in us so we know quite certainly that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. As that happens, we will be freed of our illusions, delusions and ignorance so we can see what is upside-down in American Christianity and rightly work and pray for its reformation. Thus, if the Holy Spirit choses to honor our efforts, and if Christ’s purposes include a reformation at this time, we will be participants in, and celebrants of, a great revival of Christian belief, and possibly rejoice in being part of righting what has gone wrong.