What’s Right with the Church

What’s wrong with the Church?

It seems like everywhere I go in Christianity that’s the question I hear pastors, denominational leaders, and church consultants asking.

Why won’t people do personal evangelism? Why aren’t pastors working harder to make disciples and grow their churches? Why aren’t people excited about planting new churches? Why is the Church in North America in decline by almost every measurement: membership, brand loyalty, finances, new churches planted, etc.?

The question itself exposes the answer.

When we look at people and say “what’s wrong with you?” it’s only normal for them to answer “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I guess I’ll just give up.” After decades of being told that they’re not working hard enough for Jesus, that they haven’t tried the right program – or having tried the right program they haven’t executed it correctly – after decades of being lectured to about what they need to do to follow Jesus’ example and build the Kingdom, the people of the Church are voting with their feet and their wallets. The vote says this: “You tell us we’re worthless and not doing enough and we agree. Since we’re failing anyway we’re just going to go ahead and quit.”

It’s time for the leadership of North American Christianity to believe the gospel and trust Jesus.

The fact is that, in Christ, there is nothing wrong with the Church. That’s why I’ve titled this post “What’s Right with the Church.” The blessed Trinity has swept up the whole human race into its life in Jesus Christ. We are everyone one of us the children the Father always wanted and when his Son became human like us, as the man Jesus, the Father adopted his beloved children into the life of joy he shares with Jesus and the Spirit.

Jesus has made us good. Jesus has made us loved, liked, and acceptable. Our Daddy isn’t wondering when we’re going to get busy doing his work anymore than I’m wondering when my 5 year-old is going to get busy pulling his weight around my house. Our Daddy is wondering when we older kids – pastors, ministry leaders, etc. – are going to stop beating up on our brothers and sisters and start telling them how much they are loved and accepted.

Unfortunately the vast majority of North American Christian leaders have not believed this gospel. We have believed and preached a gospel that says “you can be liked and loved, if you will get yourself saved by your belief and then work real hard for the rest of your life to do the Lord’s work.”

We’ve preached this false gospel because we’re afraid. We’re afraid to tell people “your Daddy likes you in Jesus and always will, even if you never work hard for his Kingdom.” We’re afraid that if we tell people this good news that they won’t come to church, won’t give money, and won’t do evangelism. And if that happens then the Church will decline and we’ll look like failures.

Well I’ve got news for all my fellow Church leaders:

The Church is in decline and we look like failures! We haven’t told people how they are the children their Daddy always wanted and our worst fears have come true!

So, what’s the harm in stopping our programs, stopping our grandiose planning, stopping our incessant guilt trips, and simply trusting Jesus? What if all we did – all we ever did – is keep telling people the good news of who they are in Jesus? Maybe Christ himself will inspire and lead them to do all the stuff we’ve been trying to get them to do through guilt. Trying such a radical experiment as trusting Jesus and proclaiming him alone certainly couldn’t produce any worse results than what we’ve produced by our programs and guilt trips.

The Holy Spirit is all about helping us learn to live loved in the Father’s embrace.

That’s where the fruit of evangelism, discipleship, and church planting comes from. It comes from us being baptized in the good news of how much our Daddy loves us and how much he likes us. It comes from being baptized in the truth of how – in Christ – we are right and good. Keeping in step with the Spirit means that it’s time for us to get on board with his program of baptizing people in the assurance of who they are in Christ.

~ Jonathan Stepp

11 comments so far

  1. Martin M. Davis on

    Good post Jonathan. To parallel what you are saying: I think a primary reason the Church is in decline is that we have too often preached a bad news gospel designed to coerce people into the Church in order to escape an angry deity. The real responsibility upon the Church, however, is to proclaim the Good News that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The message of the Father’s outreaching love to all humanity must be preached over and over until we begin to get it. Once we understand who we are in Christ, once we understand the Father’s unfailing love for all of us, behavior will follow. As preachers and teachers, we need to let go of control, proclaim the Good News of our reconciliation and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.

  2. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, Martin, your clarity on the gospel is a real help to me! To let go of control is the real challenge for those of us who pastor, thanks for the reminder.

  3. Joe White on

    Between the strawmen and the broadbrushes, I don’t know where to begin.

  4. Pastor Jonathan on

    Why don’t you start with just one of the strawmen you think you see?

  5. tjbrassell on

    Thank you for this fabulous post, grounded in Jesus’ relationship with His Father in the Spirit, and who humanity really is in Jesus!! That is what makes your grammar and analysis of the church so encouraging, proper and solid! It is grounded in the Truth of the Trinity and our participation in that Trinitarian life of God, solely in the GRACE of Jesus Christ!

    I can’t express enough how much I resonate with all that you have said, and my hope in the Church because of the Jesus Who will never leave or forsake her. Indeed, I believe He is determined to take her all the way to the good stuff in Himself – seeing, knowing and experiencing Jesus, and all of creation, as it really is in Himself! Fantastic! The Gospel of Jesus Christ! Keep proclaiming it!

  6. Ted Johnston on

    Hi Jonathan,

    I hear you calling for the church to ground its “being” fully in the truth that is Jesus, namely the inclusion of all humanity in the life of the Son of God through the incarnation.

    This is “hugely” important, for to do so frees the church from all misconceptions about who we are and what we are called to do.

    It might be helpful to speak of our *inclusion* as inviting and enabling our *participation* in the ongoing “doing” of the Son. Indeed, Jesus’ “being” and his “doing” are inseparable (he is what he does, and he does what he is) – and Jesus includes us in both.

    Jesus’ doing, through the Spirit, within our world, is his ongoing mission (ministry), and the church is formed, called and gifted by the Spirit for active participation. Thus it’s not “our ministry” but his.

    Our participation in Jesus’ ongoing ministry, necessarily, has programmatic expression. So on the one hand, programs of the church may be nothing more than “doing church,” or, on the other hand, may be meaningful “scaffolds” (using Torrance’s analogy) by which we meaningfully participate in what Jesus is actually doing.

  7. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, Ted, I appreciate your comments.

    I am, indeed, calling for the church to ground its being fully in who Jesus is – and I agree with you that Jesus’ being and doing cannot be separated.

    Here is the fundamental question I am asking: if I see the church not doing what Jesus does then what is the problem?

    The problem must be that the church is not grounded in Jesus’ being because Jesus’ being and doing are not separable. If I don’t see the church doing what Jesus is doing it has to be because their sense of being is not actually rooted in who he is. That has to be the problem because Jesus’ being and doing cannot be separated.

    This fundamental question leads to my second question: if the church is not doing because it is not rooted in Jesus’ being then what is the solution?

    The solution put forward in a lot of Christianity right now is “tell everyone what they need to do.” But such an answer is the very separation of being and doing that we are trying to avoid! In other words, the issue of Jesus “being” must be addressed first because it is foundational and comes before we attempt to address how we participate in his “doing”. In fact, I believe that just addressing Jesus’ being – and our identity in him – will, in and of itself, go a long ways towards addressing the “doing” question. Addressing this “being” issue is not something that can be done in a cursory way, one time, and then skipped over to move on to the more exciting “doing”.

    I agree that our participation must, necessarily, be programmatic. Even “simple” things like baptism and communion are programs.

    What I disagree with is an approach that says “you are not doing, so let me help you create a program to do.” I think we should instead be saying “you are not doing, so let me baptize you in the assurance of your being in Jesus’ being (no matter how long that process takes) and when I’ve done that then we’ll see what kind of doing expresses itself through various programs in your life.”

  8. Ted Johnston on

    Jonathan I agree with your principal thesis. I would only add that different personality types access (understand/experience) the unified being-doing of Jesus in different ways. Some access it first cognitively; others first experientially.

    But whether through thinking (cognition) or doing (experiential participation), our challenge as leaders is to help followers of Jesus embrace (with their hearts), understand (with their minds) and experience (with their hands) Jesus for all he truly is for us and with us in both his being and his doing.

    Perhaps a word of caution is in order, namely that we take care not to inadvertently create a *dualism* that begins to separate Jesus’ being and doing by emphasizing his being above his doing or his doing above his being.

    I hope this makes sense. I think we’re saying essentially the same thing.

  9. John Geerlings on

    Hi Jonathan
    Thanks for the discussion. I know that Jesus is one in His being and doing. When I was engrossed in legalism I was in His being and He was doing in me, otherwise I would not have come to any enlightenment at all. Now it is true that in brokenness I became more open, however my conclusion is not to judge the church or for that matter any other person in any capacity at all, but just rest in where I find myself in my own progressive freedom. Yes, it may mean a somewhat lonelier existence in thinking, however I do have a deep sense of assurance that I cannot explain. Like I read in another blog, today I would rather be in the deep water swimming with Jesus, than sit in on the legalistic steps,(pew), where the Spirit is prompting me to go for a swim. He is in both places, yet I have a greater freedom in the first. So I pass the bacon and get on with life! jg

  10. John Geerlings on

    Hi Jonathan
    Just want to qualify my previous comment. I do believe in the body of Jesus Christ, its communion and fellowship, however when I am told that I cannot speak to others within a church environment about Christ as life for all humanity because it may cause confusion, then I leave the steps (pew) and swim in deeper water. I would love to participate in a fellowship where the pastor is not paranoid about what is said but just allows the Spirit to minister. jg

  11. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, John, for sharing your thoughts and your struggles with us!

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