The Downgrade Church: A Cry for the Real Kingdom

11 08 2011

“Markets Plunge as Jitters Grow: Downgrade triggers a 635 point drop in DOW,” is the headline of USA Today for August 9, 2011.  The article continues, “U.S. stocks sank in waves of stomach-churning panic selling Monday, following market meltdowns in Asia and Europe, as last week’s downgrade of the USA’s credit rating reverberated around the world.”  The headlines of the Washington Post on the same day:  “S&P downgrades U.S. credit rating for the first Time.”  The credit rating company said “political brinkmanship” in the debate over the debt had made the U.S. government’s ability to manage its finances “less stable, less effective and less predictable.”

With a week in which the war in Afghanistan saw the killing of 22 elite Navy Seals, and London burning after four consecutive nights of riots and looting, could the news get grimmer?  Evidently, yes.  On Wednesday, August 10, the Dow fell over 500 points, the 9th worst drop in history.  With the plunge of the Dow, “Confidence has already been falling,” said MF Global chief economist Jim O’Sullivan. “The (downgrade) further undermines confidence on Main Street as well as Wall Street.”  And it could get worse. George Feiger, CEO of money manager Contango Capital Advisors, thinks the prospects for double digit recession have intensified. With a loss of 2% in Dow Jones last week, and an almost 10% loss over the year, every major newspaper is carrying the headlines.  Economists are deeply concerned; investors are downright fearful.

The church is experiencing its own downgrade.  The last forty years have seen the church in the West losing evangelistic, theological and, most importantly, authoritative ground, at an unprecedented rate.  The church in America has lost over 10% of her members in the past 10 years (Pew Report).  Almost 90% of all churches in the U.S. are plateaued or losing members (Pew Report and Barna).  Europe has been in an evangelistic and theological downgrade since World War II.  When you travel through England, as Liz and I did last year, the great cathedrals of Christendom are empty, many of them rebuilt into coffee shops, restaurants and museums.  The UK actually has more tourists visiting cathedrals than actual church attendees in the entire country!  Could this be prophetic of the U.S. church over the next decade?  Maybe.

The church has been downgraded in its spiritual credit rating.  The evangelical church in general, and the pastorate in particular, have been thrown to the media dogs of suspicion, controversy and irrelevance.  And rightly so.  Giving the press gossip fodder that rivals even Hollywood—from sex scandals, money laundering, drug use and wikkileak level bedside reading, the leadership of the church has lost much of its credibility to speak from.  As goes the pulpit, so goes the pew.  And the pew is going the way of the pulpit.  Barna has reported that divorce, immorality, and sexual habits are of little or no difference within the church as outside.  This is alarming stuff!

But is it alarming enough to grab the headlines of our hearts?  Even here in Colorado Springs, a city known as the “Mecca of evangelicalism,” over 78% of its people never consider the church a weekend option.  They would rather go rafting on the streams of the Rockies than drink from the living streams of the Spirit.  Something’s been lost.  I hear much of the debate these days centering on tangential topics like: new church growth methods, multisite opportunities and internet streaming. Though I believe all of these discussions are important, in my core I know they are not central to the issue at hand.

I would propose that we’ve lost the central message of Jesus.  I would submit that the magnus opus of Jesus is missing in most of our evangelical churches.  The core of Jesus’ message was not how to grow the church, or what missiological method works best in a changing culture—though as a missiologist, I do believe these are important though not central questions.

People flocked to listen to Jesus.  They came and gave their lives to something bigger, something of a metaprophetic nature.  They packed the hillsides because He spoke “not as the Pharisees.”  Jesus had a teaching that transcended economics, politics and the Jewish law.

Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God.  He made it His central message wherever He spoke.  His very first and very last sermons were centered on the kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17; Acts 1:3) He spoke over one hundred times of the kingdom; He said that He healed the sick and delivered the demonized because the kingdom of God had come.  Arguably the greatest sermon ever given, acknowledged even by secular historians, was a treatise on kingdom living (Matthew 5-7).  The most revered prayer of all time, which Jesus told His disciples to pray, is a cry for the kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:8-13).  In speaking exclusively about treasures and idols on earth, Jesus taught His followers to “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:19-33).  When Jesus taught His disciples to preach, He told them to speak out, “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Luke 10:9).  Even while Jesus hung on a cross, He was accused of being a king (Luke 23:1-3, 38). Indeed, Jesus was about preaching the kingdom and demonstrating the kingdom in every move he made. He modeled a life in harmony with the kingdom of God.

And it is that kingdom that church leadership seems to have lost. The downgrade of the kingdom, however, hasn’t been lost on the people of God. They are tired of the emphasis on everything but the kingdom of God. From denominational squabbles over worship styles to how to make our churches more acceptable to the culture, the saints can smell out the confusion.  From cheap grace messages placing the emphasis on the American dream, political stands, and the newest cultural icons streaming down from Hollywood and CNN, we’ve offered everything but the kingdom of God.

We (and I include myself) have offered conflicts instead of communion; an American kingdom instead of the Jesus kingdom.   We have offered up battles over fundamentalist vs. charismatic, reformed vs. Arminian, individual salvation vs. discipleship, and the church building orgy, coupled with the social gospel vs. evangelical gospel.  We have fought battles on every front, many of them good causes.  But the causes have largely not been centered in the message of Jesus—the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is always relevant.  For the church to be relevant, we must rediscover and surrender to the kingdom of God.  We hold the keys of the kingdom—Jesus gave us the keys that will unlock any cultural, political, social, individual door.  If we can recalibrate our lives around kingdom living, we will be a people who once again “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  The book of Acts begins and ends with the preaching of the kingdom (Acts 1:3; 28:31).  We are the 21st century disciples of that same unshakable (Hebrew 12:28) and unchanging kingdom.  This is our time; this is our charge.  Let’s get back to the greatest Man who ever lived and rediscover the greatest message He ever preached, “Behold, the kingdom of God has come!”