Friday, June 19, 2020

Three Seasons in the Life of a Church, a Parable

First Swedish Baptist Seattle--now a parking lot.
In the early 1920's, a young Preacher moved in to town. There were already several other churches whose membership included many of the community's influential and affluent. These churches were on the decline though, because they had embraced a contemporary false gospel known as the Social Gospel, which taught that all social evils could be eradicated by pursuing progressive politics and social causes with a religious fervor--while rejecting the supernatural power of the Gospel and the authority of scripture.

This young Preacher set about starting a Bible study in his home and began inviting his neighbors to come. The people that gathered were a motley crew with innumerable problems and idiosyncrasies. A veritable island of misfit toys. Alcoholics, single mothers, rebellious youth, men and women down on their luck and low on hope--in short, just the kind of people Jesus came to save.

The priests and pastors from the more enlightened churches in town accused the Preacher of being anti-intellectual; of rejecting science and promoting ignorance. A miraculous thing began to happen though. As these people met together and opened God's Word, the Holy Spirit began to change people's hearts one by one. They began to understand their sin and their need for a Savior. One by one, they repented and were baptized.

As years went by, they moved from that living room into a rented storefront. Previously rebellious young men got jobs and started families, single mothers got (re)married to some of the men in the church, some people who had previously been addicted to drugs or alcohol, now freed from that bondage were able to pursue higher education or start their own businesses.

Families began to form, and the church began bursting at the seams with children. People began to pool their money together to buy property in their community to build a church. God's blessings had been poured out and was manifested in the construction of a beautiful new church near the center of town. As attendance in the mainline churches began to dwindle as they moved farther and farther away from Biblical Christianity, more and more people hungry for the Word of God found refuge in the new church.

That isn't to say everything was perfect. It is hard to unlearn generations of sinfulness in a single lifetime. Some of the men and women in the church still struggled with prejudices, with their sin natures. Their families were not perfect either--many who had been wonderfully saved by the power of the Gospel turned out to be imperfect parents. There was no small amount of religious hypocrisy in the church or among its members.

The church continued to grow and began numerous ministries and programs. The staff of the church grew too--the founding Pastor still preached fiery evangelistic sermons, but there grew a craving among the members for something more substantive, something more intellectual.

Upon the retirement of the Preacher in the 1950's, the church, now filled with respectable middle class people, called a Pastor from a their denomination's seminary. The man came with academic accolades and was almost universally approved of by the church members--but some still yearned for earlier times when the emphasis had been on soul winning.

The children grew up too. They were disconnected from the poverty, substance abuse and difficulties that their parent's generation had faced. When they looked around their church, they didn't see repentant sinners saved by God's grace, instead, they saw respectable people--leaders in the community, business owners, public servants, teachers.

The children of this generation grew up under good Bible teaching. Their summers were filled with camp and Vacation Bible School. The church supported soup kitchens, sent missionaries to far away lands and even started their own Bible College together with other churches from their denomination.

The Pastor's deep theological sermons drew parishioners from other churches, and the membership soon outgrew the modest church in the center of downtown. The Pastor and the church elders proposed that the church purchase property in a nearby suburb so they could build a larger facility, under the pretext that the facility would allow them to continue developing more programs and ministries.

Many of the parishioners had already moved to the suburbs, and it had become more and more difficult to accommodate the church in the city--parking was scarce and and the neighborhood in which the church resided was increasingly becoming more diverse--and in the views of some of the members, dangerous.

Aside from a few of the older members who still had memories of the diverse origins of the church few protested the sale of the downtown church building to a property developer--with the money they got from the sale they were able to build a world class facility in the nearby suburb. It didn't matter that the suburb was socioeconomically homogeneous--the deal, the potential was just too great to pass up.

By all apparent metrics, the move to the suburbs was a resounding success. Membership grew, tithing grew, programs and ministries abounded. Many of the young men and women from the church went on short-term mission trips and attended the Bible College that the church supported.

The church continued to support outreach ministries in downtown--but the membership of the church was now wholly divorced from the experiences of the the people that just one generation earlier they had stood shoulder to shoulder with. Instead they became more concerned with retirement savings, vacation cruises and their grand-children's college funds--respectable, middle class idolatry.

Something began to happen in the 1980's though--the church began to grey. According to the church growth gurus, they had done everything right--they had a beautiful facility, a gifted Pastor, great programs, but for some reason they began to lose the youth at an alarming rate.

Parents petitioned the church to appoint a Youth Pastor, and to redirect money from existing ministries into prioritizing a fun and engaging experience for their children and grandchildren. Cuts had to be made to the church budget--their street evangelism in the city had long since ceased, so they no longer saw any reason to continue supporting the soup kitchen, the homeless shelter and the after school and mentoring programs that had been at the heart of their outreach only a few decades earlier.

Instead they redirected all their resources into entertaining and coddling the children of the church members. The Youth Pastor the church hired was smooth and charismatic, he made Bible stories relevant to the lives of the young people, the music and production qualities for the youth events were top notch. These sensibilities began to find their way into the corporate worship of the church as well.

At the same time, older members of the church began engaging in the ongoing culture war around the issues of abortion and sexuality. Despite the rife hypocrisy of the lives of some of the church members, they put on respectability while gathered together on Sundays. Their children however knew the truth of their lives behind closed doors. This created cognitive dissonance in the minds and hearts of many of the church's young people.

Rather than being a counter-cultural outpost of the Kingdom of God on earth, they instead began to see their parent's church as part of a patriarchal system of oppression. They noticed the distinct lack of the poor, of diversity. The youth who had been coddled with feel good messaging in an ethnically and economically homogeneous community began to cry fowl.

With the retirement of the Pastor, the Youth Pastor took his place--replacing exegetical sermons on Justification and Grace with smooth lectures on Justice and Reconciliation. The words were imbibed with new meaning, gleaned from the latest academic literature. While some of the older church members began to likewise cry fowl, the younger parishioners ate it up--seemingly unaware of the contradictions and hypocrisy in their own lives, nor the dangers and supernatural impotency of the new ideology they had become champions of.

Though they replaced the words Bible Study with a more palatable terms like Missional Community--they often continue to be just as socioeconomically and culturally homogeneous as their parents had been. They accused other churches of being anti-intellectual, bigoted, propagators of oppression and systematic injustice, all the while harboring prejudice and a judgmental spirit in their own hearts towards those who were politically, ideologically, or economically different from themselves.

As the 19th century evangelist Sam Porter Jones is famous for saying, 'The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.'

However, no matter how hard the Youth Pastor tried, no matter how quickly he embraced the latest intellectual or ideological trends he could not keep the people from leaving and the church from declining.

Some will leave to seek more a more biblically and doctrinally faithful church, others will leave the faith all together. Soon the cost of operating the facility and paying salaries will outstrip the tithes of the dwindling number of  ideologically homogeneous members--in the end the Youth Pastor will have to preside over the funeral of the church itself.

And somewhere there is a young Preacher starting a Bible Study in his living room.


The terminology may have changed, but the church in this parable had embraced the heresy of the Social Gospel of the 1920's, under the new moniker of Social Justice--and just as the mainline denominations have seen their membership and relevance decline over the past century, while all the while clamoring to stay in sync with the spirit of the age--so will Evangelicalism so long as we do not chart a different course forward, learning from the mistakes of the past.

Otherwise the cycle will repeat itself. Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times. Good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.

Evangelicalism was the life raft from the capsizing of mainline Protestantism in the early 20th Century, as those churches embraced political and religious progressivism, socialism, and Marxism. The Gospel will remain even as churches, denominations, and movements die. Should Evangelicalism perish in our generation, a new movement will rise up to faithfully steward the Gospel to the next generation. The gates of hell will not overcome Christ's church. We have been here before, we could very well be here again. As the old adage goes, those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.


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