I've often heard it said, and I agree, that to understand something it's vitally important to understand its origins. Why does this thing exist?
Proverbs 22:28 says, "Don’t stealthily move back the boundary lines staked out long ago by your ancestors." (While this verse is in the context of stealing by moving a neighbors property line, I think there's a valuable lesson we can learn). Before you disrupt something someone else has established, make sure you understand WHY it was established in the first place.
There are two pieces of any organized group of people:
WHO we are. (Our mandate and purpose for unity)
HOW we express who we are. (What we do to accomplish our purpose)
When the purpose of something is altered, when WHO is infected, it's only a matter of time before the WHAT becomes confusing or outright counter-productive.
Jesus hasn't sent a new assignment over the last few centuries. It's in our veering away from our center that we have often become unhealthy and in some cases, irrelevant. We have allowed men to alter things that should have been sacred and as a result we have compromised the purity of our expression and the central theme of our faith.
I've rarely met anyone with a Jesus problem, but I've met a whole lot of people with "church" problems (many of them valid, unfortunately). David Kinnaman writes in his book "You Lost Me":
Young adults describe their faith journeys in startlingly similar language. Most of their stories include significant disengagement from church- and sometimes from Christianity all together... They point the finger, fairly or not, at the establishment: you lost me."
Of course it's healthy and expected that any organized group of people would change and morph over generations in some ways, but only in an effort to express it's purpose more effectively. If change takes place for any other reason the purpose becomes compromised.
Many Christians are unaware of just how radical the differences are between the early church and western modern day Christianity.
The early church lived in a constant state of what we would now call "revival", except it was just normal life. From the day of Pentecost until Constantine the church absolutely THRIVED. Historian Philip Schaff writes "It may be fairly asserted, that about the end of the third century the name of Christ was known, revered and persecuted in every province and every city of the empire, and in all probability... numbered 10 millions of souls.".... within 70 years. This is without any force, coercion or violence. None.
So what happened?
When Christianity was legalized and mandated by Constantine in the third century the church underwent an overhaul by Rome. In this process everything was changed to mimic the Imperial Religion of the Roman Emperor. Our Jewish roots were cut off for political reasons, as Rome thought the jews were uncivilized. All of the sudden Jesus was white and Christianity was European. Now the church was led by Gentiles without the heritage and understanding of the thousands of years of culture and framework that laid the foundation of understanding about Christian life and Jesus as Messiah. Individual devotion and community became irrelevant as gatherings became a spectator event hosted in a large facility with no involvement from the people. Purity was lost as Christianity was now a cultural mandate. The church suddenly overflowed with people who didn't actually understand Christianity or believe in Jesus; bringing their pagan practices along with them. Immediately following this Roman reformation the church lost nearly any resemblance to what it had once been. What followed was the worst era in human history: The Dark Ages. All of the sudden the church was resorting to things like military force and control to achieve converts. The church became a lifeless political power with European Jesus as it's mascot.
The distinctives of the early church must be recovered today:
- The return to discipleship; following Christ in community.
- The commitment to personal holiness.
- The commitment to personally studying and understanding the Bible.
- Devotion to the presence of God.
- Obedience to "go and tell", all believers carrying the message of the Kingdom wherever they are with signs following them.
- The rejection of pagan-originated practices and culture from the life of the church.
We can argue about a lot of things, but even the most avid intellectual won't argue with historical fact: The first 300 years of Christianity worked. Since the thirteenth century we see that God has been restoring lost elements of our faith and practice and I think in our generation we have an opportunity to grab on to ALL that was lost.
I hope it's understood when I say our end goal is not only revival. God's manifest presence wants to dwell, not visit. The goal is for revival to usher in REFORMATION. Our Goal is recovery of our original purpose and DNA as Christ followers. The miracles and signs and wonders are meant to be common, not sporadic. Wherever the truth of the gospel is being proclaimed the Bible promises that signs will follow.
The church isn't bad. The people running churches aren't bad. Most of the time, myself included, we've just left things the way they are because when you're in the middle of something it's hard to except external criticism.... the old- if it's not broken why fix it, right? Well alarms are going off everywhere, it's been broken for a while and we need to listen. The good news is, we can fix it. We have the tools and we have the Holy Spirit... but will we have the bravery? It takes serious grit to change things, even unhealthy things. For some reason human nature has a tendency to resist change because of fear.
I think as Christians we need to ask ourselves what we fear more: reformation of our priorities and practices OR a generation being lost to complacency and disconnection.
We have to change. It's time to become who we actually are.