I’ve spent the last week crafting and redrafting a piece about the Christian church’s egregious error of not teaching theology and how that lack of teaching has created a church that is pathologically ignorant of its own dogma which, in turn, is causing it to fall like a house of cards in the United States. It’s been a frustrating piece because, as that last sentence demonstrates, I’ve got a lot of thoughts running through my head where this issue is concerned. Then comes the PEW study that showed Christianity declining in America and everyone’s Sunday best is now in a collective wad.
The plethora of articles about the declining numbers in the Christian church irritate for a couple reasons. One is it’s just straight pride (and a bit of whining): I’ve been working on this piece and grappling with this issue for some time now, then – Bam!- PEW publishes a study and 80% of the blogosphere decides to write about it (rather quickly, I might add). So I’ll be rolling into the conversation late.
The second reason for my irritation is that the story of Christianity’s numbers declining shouldn’t be news to anyone who has been paying attention. It’s like treating Obama’s love of Islam as breaking news. It’s not news. The church politic has been wringing it’s hands over this for years. It’s how Barna has been making their money over the last two decades.
Back to the the reason I was having such a hard time writing my piece. I was getting so inspired by Dorothy Sayers’ book she wrote in the 40’s, Letters to a Diminished Church that I wanted to write about it, but I was having a hard time articulating what she had already written. I didn’t want to write a piece that was 75% quotes and 25% me agreeing and rewording what she wrote. That’s called bad writing. But as you will see, I’m going to risk some bad writing.
Matt Walsh, in response to the PEW study, spoke of the church being boring. Not the old-school, mind-numbing boring that first comes to mind, but, if I understand Walsh correctly, the hipster, yuppie, coffee-drinking, loud worship music, vapid, shallow sermon kind of boring. I won’t mention any names, but you know who they (you) are.
Walsh feels that, in spite of the pyrotechnics the church still manages to make boring what should be exciting. He says the church isn’t captivating people. I agree. And I, with the help of Dorothy Sayers, would like to expand on that point. I think the church is boring because the church has all but walked away from its dogma–it’s theology. And dwindling numbers affect more than our coffers, they are adversely affecting the fabric of society.
” The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.”
Before we go any further, by dogma, I mean the theology of the church–what the church believes about God, Jesus, man, and the problem of sin. The church has fleshed out these believes in various creeds such as The Apostle’s Creed, The Nicene Creed, and The Athanasian Creed.
About the Creeds, Sayers explains:
“Most of them were hammered out under pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy. [Think: “Jesus is my Homeboy. That kind of stuff.] And heresy is, as I have tried to show, largely the expression of opinion of the untutored average man, trying to grapple with the problems of the universe at the point where they begin to interfere with daily life and thought.”
And because of the reluctance of many churches to teach dogma, other than an emotional high when the worship band plays a rousing set of hand-raising Jesus Culture songs (um, which I really like), God’s house is dull, meatless, and, well, emptying out.
Here is another quote from Sayers:
“Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine-dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man–and the dogma is the drama.
The drama is summarized quite clearly in the creeds of the Church and if we think it dull it is because we either have never really read those amazing documents or have recited them so often and so mechanically as to have lost all sense of their meaning. The plot pivots upon a single character, and the whole action is the answer to a single central problem: What think ye of Christ?”
Church is boring and the pews are wanting because What the Church thinks of Christ is starting to look a bit too much like what the world thinks of Him. He’s a homeboy. He’s tolerant of gay marriage, abortion, and shacking up before saying “I do”. Basically, for anyone sick of the world’s relativism and looking for something absolute on which to grasp, America’s modern church will disappoint.
But the dogma…those creeds. What do they say about Christ?
“…Jesus Bar-Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth, was in fact and in truth, and in the most exact and literal sense of the words, the God “by whom all things were made.” His body and brain were those of a common man; his personality was the personality of God, so far as that personality could be expressed in human terms. He was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely so good as to be “like God–He was (is) God.”
And Sayers shatters the myth of a dull Christ:
” …the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull–this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.
If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore–on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. If has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very effectively pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”
When pastors and the laity bemoan our dwindling numbers, the one comment that makes me nearly lose my religion is, “We need to make what we teach about Jesus relevant”. No sh…disagreement here. But that comment is really code for trying to justify the coffee bar’s new espresso machine. It’s just another segue into making the message and the vibe of the church accommodate unbelievers and the atmosphere of the culture because the church has been successfully bullied out of, or, in too many cases, simply acquiesced from teaching the dynamic truth of Christ.
But here’s something most people don’t get, or don’t want to get–the church is for believers, not unbelievers. If we want to affect change, if we want to entice people to follow Christ then the church better start doing its job and that job is edifying and equipping believers. And that equipping involves heavy doses of the Creeds which have heavy doses of who Christ is and what Christ has done. Most card-carrying church members, because their theology is woefully lacking, would be hard-pressed to articulate what they believe and why.
Of course Sayers commented on this particular problem as well:
“If Christian ministers really believe it is only an intellectual game for theologians and has no bearing upon human life, it is no wonder that their congregations are ignorant, bored, and bewildered.”
And I would add, “ineffective”.
If unbelievers walk in to a church that confesses the creeds and teaches the riveting, unbending, dramatic, politically-incorrect truth about Christ, and if they decide they aren’t interested, then they are rejecting the truth, and that’s on them.
But if they walk into a church that offers them a culturally relativistic message with a
concert worship service that was as loud as the band at the club the night before and they reject it believing they are rejecting Christianity, well, then that’s on us.
The church has taken theology out of the bulletin and replaced it with some “nice” religion with bullet points instead. The problem is, religion without theology has no meaning. And the world, when it stumbles into our pews, is leaving sicker than when they came in because they now have a distorted view of Christ when what they needed was the Truth. And that’s really on us. Big time.
“If we really want a Christian society, we must teach Christianity, and it is absolutely impossible to teach Christianity without teaching Christian dogma.”
We Christians can wring our hands all we want about our dwindling numbers, but until we teach the truth about Christ and His authority, I say we better get used to it.
And we need to teach our dogma in such a way that people understand it. That doesn’t mean we water it down. It means we teach it with hearts that want to glorify Christ.
“If the average man is going to be interested in Christ at all, it is the dogma that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine cases out of ten, he has never been offered the dogma. What he has been offered is a set of technical theological terms that nobody has taken the trouble to translate into language relevant to ordinary life.”
The answer to our declining numbers is not a better coffee bar, flashier music, or more messages that make benign the dynamic truth of Christ. The answer is teaching the dogma of the church to the church in such a way that we believers can apply it to our everyday, ordinary, confusing, busted-up lives. Only then will we be equipped to translate our theology to the world outside the church in a way that is applicable to their everyday, ordinary, confusing, busted-up lives.