Sunday, November 19, 2006

Romanticizing the Early Church in Today's American Twilight

Bruce Gerencser at The Hungarian Luddite has posted this on what he thinks of today's church. In it he comments on comparisons between today's church and the church of the book of Acts. Since I've been doing some thinking lately on this comparison and have wanted to post on it, I'll let his post be my spark.

In my circles, there have been many who have complained about how little the American church, American evangelism and American Christians resemble what is read in the book of Acts or the NT epistles. But I've noticed that the most outspoken critics have been those "hyper-spiritual" types who shun not just materialism, but the material as well. They read in Acts how the gospel spread like wildfire, miracles were witnessed, mass conversions occurred, and yes, persecution seemed to be part of daily life for believers. But they have a certain romanticism for the early church times - as if what is recorded in Acts is the only thing there is in life. Because today's circumstances don't match their romantic fantasies, they want out. Some want to travel to third world countries where the gospel hasn't been preached to live out their romances. Don't misunderstand me here, they romanticize not so much about the tactics used by the early church, but romanticize about the outcome. For many of these people, I hope they do get to leave. Life would be better for all of us.

But there are some major, profound reasons why we don't see the early church experience today in America. I wish this were discussed to a much greater extent. Today's America and the early church's Roman Empire are quite different contexts for gospel living. We have completely opposite starting points and are moving in opposite directions. The Roman Empire was in complete gospel darkness. Christ was completely unknown and news to most everybody who heard the good news. Christianity was completely non-existent. Pagan idolatry was life. To the contrary, America had a major Christian foundation based to a great extent on biblical principles and God's law. This from people who came from Europe which already had over a thousand years of Christianity to learn from. Great Christian institutions were part of life, from hospitals to education to civil freedom to the upholding of property rights, etc.

The Roman Empire was a great darkness. Christian ideas were new. America started as a great light. Christian ideas are still so part of life that we take them for granted. In fact, they are so part of our culture that unbelievers don't even recognize most of them as Christian. So when Christians today in America do Christian things, those things are much less recognized as Christian than they would have been in the early church.

Here's an analogy. The early Christians were the stadium lights in a baseball night game played in the darkness of the Roman Empire. The lights were bright enough to allow a game to be played much like during a day game. Today's Christians are the stadium lights turned on for a night game just prior to the setting of the sun. The sun is the Christian foundation of America. It is waning and setting. This twilight situation makes it the most difficult time of the day to see the ball. The stadium lights are fully on and just as bright as they are when it's dark, but haven't taken effect yet because the little sunlight left is still so bright as to nullify the lights.

The romanticists are generally minimalists and fundamentalists who haven't yet figured out how to address our culture and have given up on the task. So they retreat into trying to re-create what they love about the past instead of trying to address the world they live in. Additionally, Americans have heard the gospel mixed with every conceivable perversion, coming from antinomians, legalists, swindlers, idolators, liars and egomaniacs. It has been wrapped in the cheesiest of plaid leisure suit wearing used car salesmen tactics. When Americans hear the gospel, they yawn. The gospel and Christian love are just as simple today as they were in the book of Acts, it's just that the result is more sophisticated because of what kind of culture has been built for us. Bruce is right to feel ill at the institutionalized church. Institutions and bureaucracies are incapable of love; they are soulless abstractions that do fair amounts of damage. Our culture, as a result, doesn't see the love it needs to see in order to believe the true gospel when it hears it.

1 comment:

  1. Steve,

    Great comments. Thoughtful.

    I think you are correct on the difference between the Roman Empire of the first century and the American Empire :) of the 17th century. But, I would add this caveat.........though a mature religion was brought to America, it was a religion that was corrupt and encumbered in some areas. I am a strong believer of separation of Church and State and the "early" Church in America was way too cozy with government. Thus,the Roger Williams, the Baptist experiment. So, I think some the institutional and hierarchal problems Church face today came over on the boat 400 years ago.

    I would make a distinction between two groups of minimalists (reductionists) One group seeks to withdraw from culture; this is often driven by a pretribulational eschatology. They are also infected with greek dualism.(thus their hatred of the material) Many in the house Church movement fit this mold. The other group, which I am a part of, seeks to engage the culture in a meaningful way. I have come to realize we can not do Church like we have always done it and expect to make a cultural impact. Many people see this.........and they change a few things, window dressing mostly, and yet keep the same structure. It doesn't work. Yes, these Churches SEEM to be growing but a careful analysis of the numbers shows most of the growth is transfer growth....moving from one Church to another. Instead of window dressing the Church needs a complete, ground up make over. The first book that needs to be consulted is the book of Acts (along with the gospels.)

    What was the original purpose and intent of the Church? That is THE question.

    A final thought. Could we as a nation be losing our light (that Christian heritage) and culturally be sliding towards becoming just like Rome? It is now common to run into people who have no idea what Christianity is all about. We have raised a couple of generations now that have been raised outside the Church. They don't know the lingo. It is all foreign to them. I have hopes that the emerging Church may make a difference........but I am discouraged at times because it seems the emerging Church (many anyway) still like those "old" Church perks.

    All will agree, Church in America is rapidly changing.

    Thanks, Steve for the interaction.