Several years back, the New Yorker magazine included, what I considered, at riotously funny cartoon, which I had posted on my wall for years. It showed the original Marathoner, Phidippides, coming exhausted before the elders of Athens (after his 25 mile run from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce their victory) with this woebegone look on his face, and confessing: “I forgot the message!”

I frequently attend churches of all sorts, and become acquainted with them, read their literature, become friends with their participants. Institutional Christianity is a huge industry, owning billions of dollars worth of property, and employing untold numbers of church professionals. In many of those churches there is so much that is commendable, and seldom anything said or confessed with which one could take issue. It is all quite polite, religious, couched in traditional church jargon … but something is missing, something is wrong, and it takes a while to digest what that is.

What is missing is any compelling and passionate focus on the central and profound and transformational message and mission of Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection—his call to become his followers who are formed by his teachings and engaged in his mission. The overriding impression is a consumer version of religion and a focus on its institutional life, but not on a community “formed around a crucified savior.”[1] The invitation is to join the church and to get involved in all of its wonderful activities.

But such consumer oriented and institutional focused religious Christianity tends to dilute, or displace, or forget the true message of, and heartfelt passion for, Jesus Christ. And such a community has no real moral force, because it has no true foundations other than its individualistic focus, its emphasis on our happiness and fulfillment.

Like the humorous portrayal of Phidippides in the cartoon, such churches have forgotten the message as well as the mission of Jesus and his church.

And what may even more tragic is that so many wonderful people who populate such prestigious church institutions don’t even notice this drift back into something other than true Christianity. God calls his people out of the dominion of darkness and into the dominion of his dear Son. Yet when that calling becomes only a calling into a religious society, then the drift is back into the dominion of Satan, of darkness.

Which is why so much of the church in North America is itself a mission field, and realistically, is unevangelized. It has forgotten its very reason for being. “Joining the church” is not our message, nor is the institution, nor is religion. The message is Jesus—he’s what it’s all about.


[1] Cf. Stanley Haeurwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, p. 12. (University of Notre Dame, 1983)


About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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