From the very beginning of its history, the church of Jesus Christ has always been engaged in a struggle to maintain its integrity, it has been warned not to conform itself to the norms of this age but, rather, to be continually transformed by the renewing of its mind. Even so, there has always been the subtle proclivity to (as one scholar put it) displace, dilute, or forget that very raison d’etre for which it has been brought into existence.

This was brought again to my mind after I wrote, in my last Blog, about the phenomenal growth of the Christian church in China. That growth was taking place in the cultural revolution under Chairman Mao, and continues into the present regime, in both its ‘registered’ church’, and more obviously in its ‘underground’ expressions (which are illegal). That being said, it is also true that current studies show that though China is still officially an atheistic government (where all religions are discouraged), it has swung between severe oppression, and turning a blind eye to the phenomenon. These studies also indicate that even the underground church has shown tendencies to stagnate, alas!

As China has emerged more and more into a strong economy, and a more engaged world power, the followers of Jesus Christ have been engaged more inescapably in the results of China’s emergence into the global culture. The observers note several reasons for this stagnation: 1) ageing congregations, i.e., those whose faith persevered and grew under persecution are now a former generation; 2) ‘chasing mammon,’ i.e. national prosperity has not left Christians immune to wanting to acquire wealth; 3) smartphone power, i.e., Chinese Christians can now not be isolated from the other cultures of the world; 4) nationalism, a temptation to put the ‘empire’ before the community of the kingdom of God, to put Caesar before Christ; and 5) false gospels.

Sound familiar?

Such seductions have been present from the first generation of the church. Vibrant Christian communities tend to remain so for one generation, then to become institutionalized and to survive even when stagnant and comfortable in this present age. In that first generation of the church, the apostle war the church to” “be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Strangely enough, the church has been at its best when it was under persecution. When you look at those seven apostolically founded churches in chapters 2-3 of last book of the Bible: The Revelation of John, it is only the two who were undergoing severe tribulation who receive no rebuke, but are praised for their faithfulness to their calling. The rest receive modest or strong rebukes and qualified praise. One has gotten so happily satisfied with its inner communal life that they forgot Christ (left him outside the door knocking). Others were infected by alien teachings, or other compromising factors.

Later, in that same book it is written that in the teeth of persecution God’s faithful church overcame Satan “By the blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives even if it cost them their lives” (Rev. 12:11). That overcoming capacity has been reproduced many times over the centuries, but always when extenuating, or severe circumstances made it go back to is founding purpose. The stagnation observed by these scholars of the church in China translates painfully to the churches in the United States that have too often become “stagnant pools of ‘religious Christianity’.” … Ageing, mammon, smartphones, nationalism, and false gospels. And this in the emergence of the first truly post-Christian generational culture, GenZ. Alas!

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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge