In order to lead any organization one must clearly, accurately, and firmly perceive two realities. The first is what the organization exists to accomplish. The second is how well the organization is fulfilling this purpose. Where either (or worse, both) of these ceases to provide guidance and influence, the organization will inevitably become directionless, purposeless, and irrelevant.
This axiom is no less true for the church and those called to lead it.1 When the church—regardless of whether this refers to an entire denomination or specific congregation—loses sight of its purpose it will inevitably become aimless, distracted, and inconsequential. And where its leaders fail to accurately and honestly assess or, worse, deny its true condition, this drift toward irrelevancy will only hasten. The health and vitality of the church then is dependent upon its faithfulness to the purpose for which it was birthed and its courageous rejection of anything that might distract or turn it from seeing this fulfilled. It is vital2 then that those in leadership understand God’s intention and purpose for the church and have the ability to assess its true faithfulness in fulfilling this mandate.
I found it intriguing then—and as a Presbyterian, providential!—that while writing this article Barna Research Group released The State of the Church in 2016.3 Brilliant I thought! What could be more useful to this current labor than statistical insights on the state of American Christianity? What could be more helpful to this cause than an accurate assessment of the church in our day?
Barna’s report provides many reasons for viewing the scene positively: currently 75 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian. America remains the “most religious” country in the industrial world, as concretely measured by prayer, church attendance, Bible reading, and giving. While the numbers are, in many ways, problematic, there is no doubt (statistically) that there are more churched Americans than unchurched and that our culture, as a whole, continues to drink deep from the Christian well.
How interesting then—and not a little mystifying—to juxtapose this effervescent assessment with those from a book lying open beside my computer: “This is the real story of religion in America. For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.”4
Clearly this is a more Stygian assessment.5 Such vastly different perspectives compel us to ask, “Which of these is true? Which is more accurate?” But it takes little reflection to see that each provides factual descriptions of American Christianity. America has a deep Christian lineage that continues to influence and shape its character and culture in spite of seismic changes to the contrary. And, at the same time it must be acknowledged that statistics, while presenting various facts, tell little of the larger story. That 75 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian does necessarily mean that 75 percent of Americans understand what it actually means to be Christian.6 Indeed, Barna’s own research affirms this: a majority of these believe, in sharp contrast to the Bible’s teaching, that they have no responsibility or mandate to share their faith with others. Of this 75 percent of Americans less than half actually attend church and even fewer read the Bible. And it gets even more troubling: according to Barna’s research 55 percent of these selfidentified Christians believe one attains heaven through good works. And this perspective, regardless of all selfaffirmations and claims, is nothing less than heretical. It is not a viable, alternative interpretation of vague and difficult verses but the twisting of the clear and repeated message of Scripture. As such, it is anti-Christian, a false teaching that, where allowed to exist and fill the church, would transform the Gospel of grace into another message focused upon human merit, ability, and achievement.7
Of course such an assessment is unsettling and problematic. In a culture that values self-discovery, personal expression, and undifferentiated tolerance above all others this is a terrible thing to say. The very term heresy (and its antonym, orthodoxy) is seen by our indulgent culture as boorish and outworn. Our culture balks at pronouncing anything or anyone wrong. This means the church that adheres to biblical and historic faith will inevitably find itself in conflict with the perspectives and values of the surrounding culture. And it means that the church, in hope of avoiding or mitigating such conflict, exists under relentless pressure from without and temptation from within to accept and integrate these perspectives into its life and message. The more unsure the church becomes of its own theology and ethic and the more it yearns for the respect and amity of the surrounding culture, the more likely it is to enfold the culture’s values and ethic into its life and message, sanctifying them as part of the gospel. Both Barna and Douthat provide evidence that this is exactly what has been occurring in American Christianity for decades.
Arguably, there has never been a time in church history when these forces and temptations have been absent. Indeed, the history of the church is in many ways a story of its never-ending struggle to be in the world and speak to the world without becoming transformed by the world. The labor of maintaining the eternal truth of the gospel while translating and incarnating it in different cultures and times is profoundly challenging. The values and perspectives of the culture relentlessly work to forge the church’s message into something more palatable to its cultured despisers. At times the church resists this pressure holding fast to its doctrine and ethic. At other times the church capitulates, dropping elements of faith and life viewed by the culture as antiquated, restrictive, or onerous in order to present itself more positively to the culture. Ironically, when the church becomes confused about its own message and abandons essential elements of faith and life to make itself palatable to the culture it loses the only unique word it has to give and actually moves into ever deeper disdain and irrelevancy.
It is incontrovertible to say the western church is deeply confused about its own faith and life, its doctrine and its ethic. This fact is evidenced again and again, from the pages of Barna’s report to the pages of countless newspapers, internet screens, and denominational statistics. It is evidenced in declining numbers, scandals of sex and money, and cataclysmic discord. When measured against the repeated and clear teaching of Scripture, when held before the historic standards of the church across the breadth of its existence, we are forced to acknowledge that there has never been a time in American history when people had a fuzzier understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and live as his disciple. Never in American history has the church been more uncertain of its purpose and mission or more flawed in the assessments of its vitality or what is needed to restore it.
The western—North American/European—church is facing a crisis of knowledge. Quite simply, it has been so overwhelmed by decades of struggles, controversies, failures, and decline that these have come to give primary shape to its life and message. And it has been overrun by contrary ideas that challenge, corrupt, and confuse its created purpose and mission. What it means to follow Jesus is today proclaimed in terms that are not only latitudinous but antithetically diverse and mutually contradictory. The result is not so much that people believe less as they believe what they wish. The godly life has come to be viewed as a spiritual buffet from which each person may pick and chose only those elements believed to be personally true, tasteful, essential, and useful. And of these, the last receives greatest interest. For we as a culture are extremely skeptical of truth claims, profoundly reluctant to name essentials, and profoundly convinced that all that really matters is the practical and pragmatic. It is inevitable the larger culture will esteem and pursue such a course. But when the leaders of the church also take this course the church becomes increasingly directionless, divided, and nugatory.8
Exacerbating this damage is the fact that we have lost the theological skills needed to discern these realities or accurately assess the health and faithfulness of the church. Too little is known of God’s will and purpose for the church, too little of his saving work that brought the church into existence and thus too little of what it was created to do and be. In the absence of such knowledge substitutes are allowed to rise—pragmatic programming, therapeutic spirituality, and indiscriminate inclusivity— all in the naïve and ultimately idolatrous belief that new methods or fresh messages will restore to the church a vibrancy known in other times and seasons. While all such approaches and methods bear a certain spiritual and ethical appearance they will always prove to be impuissant and vacuous and thus incapable of bringing the renewal of faith by which alone the church lives and thrives.
The problem, more than any other, is a lack of theological understanding. And it is not surprising. For many, theology is a less than positive concept, being perceived as esoteric and irrelevant to the real needs and life of the church. The work of theologians is popularly characterized as time wasted on such abstruse speculations as determining how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.9 Theology is viewed, at best, as providing little that is essential or relevant for the Christian life. At worst it is seen as divisive, frivolous, and distracting. Thus many believers today doubt theology is either necessary or helpful. Why, they wonder, do we need all this complex analysis and speculation? Why the big words, the interest in arcane concepts, and the continual looking backward instead of forward? Should not the faith be kept simple, vibrant, and relevant?
The answer to at least the last question is obvious: Yes! The faith should indeed be kept clear, living, and transformative. But one must ask, how is this excellent goal to be achieved? What must the church and its leaders know, practice, and proclaim to keep the faith relevant to people who come each week in hope of hearing something that would improve their lives? What have we to say and what must we say to bring God’s transforming power into their lives? How do we teach to ensure our message conveys the vibrancy of life and hope characterized in the life and teaching of Jesus? And how do we keep the gospel simple, understandable, articulable without diluting it into meaningless platitudes fit only for trifling memes and cheesy inspirational posters?
The first step in accomplishing this is to ensure that churches—and thus first, their leaders—have a genuine understanding of the Gospel. The vibrancy and health of the church is entirely dependent upon how well it adheres to, lives out, and proclaims the Gospel message it has been given. The church and its leaders must understand how and why it exists, what it was made to do and proclaim. And it must be able to courageously evaluate its own faithfulness in upholding and living these standards as well as apply the proper correctives when they have been missed. The only other alternative is to dissolve, tepidly and blandly, into the cultural stew. If the church is to be faithful and relevant it must again become biblically literate and theologically adept.
For this to be done right we must properly understand the place and practice of theology. Clearly, the focus of our faith is always on the dynamic and living relationship with the Triune God through Jesus. We were created— and then recreated through Jesus’ saving work—for intimacy with God. Theology, as a science, must not, and indeed, cannot replace this. The essence and center of the Christian faith is a relationship not an axiom, a divine person not a philosophical paradigm. The purpose of theology then is not to quench this living relationship with complex principles but to describe it, accurately and fully. Theology, at its heart, is the reverent, loving, grateful description of God’s nature and work, expressed only to make the relational center increasingly vibrant and meaningful.
This essential work has two interrelated perspectives, two intertwined responsibilities. The first is descriptive: theology exists to proclaim, interpret, and apply what God has given of himself in his self-revelation. The second aspect is protective. Here theology endeavors to correct errors in understanding and application to protect the unique divine-human relationship from destructive understandings and practices. Both aspects are vital to the health and life of the church and thus its relevance and mission. For without theology’s explanatory witness and protective guidance the faith will only burst into endless speculations, subjective opinions, and arbitrary values, all tragically lacking any legitimate reality or authority.
Theology is rightly described as “a complex science that keeps the Gospel from becoming complex.”10 Complex, not because the gospel is complex, but because the world it enters and addresses is complex. Complex, not because its message is complicated but because the questions raised before it and the criticisms raised against it can be. And it is complex because, as the science of God, the object of its study is indescribably vast, mysterious, and veiled.11 Describing the wonders of the Triune God, the far-reaching power of his saving work, and the vast implications of his lordship and reign over all creation often requires complex expressions, intricate descriptions, and intimate detail. But these are not voiced to confuse the message or render the faith’s relational center opaque. Theology rises to describe, interpret, and protect the good news of God’s saving, merciful work accomplished for us in Christ Jesus, ever striving to deepen our relationship with God by expanding our understanding of his nature and work thus increasing our sense of wonder, hope, joy, and awe.
It is the responsibility of the church to remain faithful to the truth revealed to us. Its leaders must never allow preconceived notions and theories or cultural expectations and values to cut away at the truth given us. The truths given in God’s saving act and its accompanying revelation must not be dismissed or diluted because they are perceived as untenable or unpalatable. It is the purpose and responsibility of all who believe to make known what it has been given.
Knowing God and Making Him Known
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, the gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:9–14
This passage radiantly describes the revelatory center of the Bible. With many other verses it describes God’s dual act of reconciliation and revelation, of making us right while making himself known. And all this occurs in a decidedly remarkable way. Not waiting for us to discover him (an impossible endeavor12) or even seek him (an unlikely endeavor13) God enters our world in the person of the Son simultaneously setting us right and making himself known. He comes to us, a people that should have known him and might have known him had we not chosen instead to reject and shun him. But in his reckless grace he pursued us. With brash mercy he wooed us. And with a relentless love he won us! In Jesus God has not only reconciled us to himself (his saving act) he has also, in this and through this, unveiled his will and the intentions of his saving work (his revealing act). And in our experience of Jesus we have both genuine knowledge of God and a genuine experience of God. The reality of this encounter creates faith and reciprocal love by which we are reborn as children of God. In this new relationship with our eternal Father both his saving work and revealing continue to unfold giving ever greater insights into his nature and work and the implications these have for our lives.
The good news of the gospel is not only that we can know God, it is also how we know him. To recognize that in the objective reality of Jesus Christ God has given himself to be known and revealed that he desires to be known. He has loved us, concretely and powerfully, creating in us a new life and between us a new relationship. The knowledge of God, unveiled by God through gracious, relational encounter, opens an entirely different vista and provides an entirely different reality. The church exists to know and reflect this reality, to shine its light and wonders into this dark world. The church exists to know God and make him known. It has no other purpose. Every constituent detail of its life and work is right only insofar as it participates in this and expands it.
It is the life of the church to live this reality and through its living witness and testimony, make this reality known to the world. It is for this and this alone that we exist. And our health and faithfulness is measured only by how well this is done. Thus the primary work of church leadership is to grow ever deeper in our understanding of all that God has given and revealed and ever more skilled at sharing, declaring, and living these realities. And it must relentlessly, courageously, and skillfully assess how well this is being done and what needs to change to ensure it does.
Christian theology exists to help the church in this work. The work and purpose of the church’s theology is to study, interpret, and protect all it has been given in Christ Jesus. Theology is the scientific study and description of God’s work of reconciliation and revelation. It is the task of theology to take up Scripture’s authoritative witness faithfully interpreting and explaining it that the full obedience of mind and life might be submitted to God and conformed to the relationship and revelation we have been given. Where theology fulfills this purpose it will prove to be vitally relevant and helpful in advancing the church’s mission.
In my church we are blessed with leaders who see theology as doxology, who see descriptions of God’s nature and work as grounds for praise, adoration, and hope, who see theological discourse as a means to correct error and provide insights for the godly life. We are blessed with a businessman who in his free time reads N. T. Wright’s brilliant descriptions of New Testament theology, who calls me to discuss Barth’s commentary on Romans, and has read Calvin’s Institutes cover to cover. We have a man who spent his career as a police detective and who spends his free time reading through the whole of Barth’s Dogmatics and every theological work he can get his hands on. We have a young mom—a seminary grad hoping one day to be ordained but now raising two pre-school children— in love with Hebrew cosmology and the Old Testament Scriptures. We have a retired parole officer who has spent his entire adult life striving to better understand the Bible and all it describes. And each of these individuals regularly stand before the people of our church family to provide them with ever deeper insight into the infinite wonders of God’s nature and work. And in so doing, they build the church by deepening the people’s knowledge of God and his work. They strengthen the church by addressing with insight and wisdom the deep problems, questions, and needs of our fallen race. They inspire the church by describing, in ever greater and varied detail the wonders of God’s goodness, mercy, and love.
In my church we are blessed with leaders who strive to shape our lives and work around the person of Jesus and the salvation he has accomplished. They courageously and creatively strive to shape the mission, ministry, and worship of our church, not around the ephemeral expectations of pop culture but the eternal realities of what God has given us in Jesus. Their work as leaders is to help the church be a community of growing disciples who are growing disciples. In doing this they equip the saints for ministry, build up the body of Christ, deepen the unity of the Spirit, and grow ever towards full maturity of faith in the image of Jesus.
We live in an age obsessed with telling our own stories, celebrating our diverse perspectives, and treating all insights as equally valid. But the church does not exist for the telling of our story but the telling of God’s story. It exists to display to the world and proclaim to the world the wonders of another world and reality. And it strives (or should strive!) to be ever more faithful, ever more skilled, ever more efficient in this wondrous task. And it strives to be ever more courageous in assessing its faithfulness in achieving this. Through all the centuries of its existence, theology has proven again and again to be a vital and most relevant help in fulfilling this holy call. _________________________________
The Reverend Mark Patterson, Ph.D., is the Lead/Teaching Pastor of Community Presbyterian Church, Ventura, California.
1 In our Presbyterian tradition I am thinking primarily (but not exclusively) of the session and its constituent pastors and elders. But it must not be lost that this axiom and expectation extends to all who lead others within the body of Christ.
2 From the Latin vītālis (a life), derivative of vīvere meaning to live. The Oxford English Dictionary defines vital as “something indispensable to the continuance of life.” It can also mean “full of energy; lively.” Firmly grasping and passionately guarding the church’s divine reason to exist is indispensible for its life and required if its life is to be vibrant and full of energy.
3 Barna Report, The State of the Church in 2016, Research Releases in Faith and Christianity, September 15, 2016. https://www.barna.com/research/state-church-2016/#.VBdszuXviY.
4 Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 6. In my opinion, this book is must reading for every pastor and elder. Douthat raises essential issues, which, if true, will profoundly shape the future life and mission of the church.
5 Wordsworth may best combine into a single voice the glow of Barna with the murk of Douthat: “upon whose roseate lips a Stygian hue.” Certainly Wordsworth describes the sanguine pronouncements from those church leaders who declare each new deviance from Scripture and tradition to be a work of the Spirit.
6 Or, if we are completely honest, we must wonder how many of these even are Christian in any biblical or historical sense. In the end we must acknowledge that self-identification provides more perceived “self” than accurate “identification.”
7 Gal. 1:6ff, 3:1–5; Eph. 2:8–9; Rom. 3:20–26, 11:6; Jn. 1:12–13.
8 A delightfully useful word, from Latin words nugatorius “worthless, trifling, futile;” nugator “jester, trifler, braggart;” and nugatus, “to trifle, jest, play the fool.”
9 This well-known phrase has been used for centuries as an example of frivolous theological speculation. While medieval theologians did raise esoteric questions in effort to merge theological and philosophical perspectives there is no evidence that they ever endeavored to answer this question. Rather it was posited specifically as criticism of theological deliberations that were perceived largely irrelevant and unhelpful to the life of the church. On a humorous note, the Christian satirical webpage The Babylon Bee recently reported: “Majority Of Nation’s Christians Believe ‘Theology’ Deadly Disease, Study Finds.” http://babylonbee.com/news/majority-nationschristians-believe-theology-deadly-disease-study-finds/
10 The oft repeated words of my first theology teacher and mentor, Prof. F. Dale Bruner of Whitworth University.
11 “Your knowledge is beyond my comprehension; it is so far beyond me, I am unable to fathom it” (Ps. 139:6). See also: Ps. 145:3; 147:5; Isa. 45:15; Rom. 11:33.
12 Jer. 13:23; 5:3; 17:9.
13 “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one’” (Rom. 3:10–12). Cf. Ps. 14:1–3 and 53:1–3; Ps. 36:1–4; Rom. 1:21ff.