What is the current state of the institutional church?
There are, unfortunately, trends that cause us to ponder deeply. Many churches that have attempted some kind of social relevance have changed the historic gospel along the way. Churches that have retained the gospel have somehow lost the ability to provide real help to those in need.
There are exceptions to those statements. But there are too many churches that fit these descriptions and we cannot ignore them just because some churches have managed to avoid the mistakes.
What’s the Problem?
It is not too difficult to find out what is happening in general culture. Turn on the TV, read a newspaper, listen to the people, or watch their spending habits. Research is another way of getting a bird’s eye view of how people are thinking and what they are planning.
The big question is this: how will the church respond? What do the future trends for society mean for the Christian community as a whole, and the institutional Christian church in particular?
It is obvious that the religious trends being observed are the result of a society that has lost its direction. It is evident from the work of many researchers that people are looking for answers. Now, we must admit that in this search for answers they will not turn to the God who created them — unless they are regenerated by the Spirit of God.
The church can use these attitudes in the community to reach out and touch the lives of those who are seeking for answers.
What is the great complaint about the church? It’s irrelevant! Yet researchers have provided us with information that could be used by any church to portray itself as relevant. And it can do this without compromising its faith, its ethics, or its theological creed.
The Search for Values
People are searching for values. How could a church respond to this need? Perhaps by advertising itself as a church that holds to values that are true and right. Perhaps by establishing a Christian school that will put God’s values into the educational curriculum. Perhaps by offering physical help to the poor and needy, the unemployed, the divorced, drug abusers, etc. By attending to people’s needs the church might find an open door into people’s lives, to reach them with the real message of hope: the Good News of Jesus’ life and His death on the cross — for sinners, in their place.
The great Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer had some telling words to say on this score:
People are looking at us to see, when we say have truth, whether it is possible for this truth not only to take men’s souls to heaven, but to give meaning to all of life in the present time, moment by moment. They are looking to us to produce something that will bring the world to a standstill — human beings treating human beings like human beings. The church should be able to do this, because we know who we are and we know who they are…man made in the image of God….
There is no use saying you have community or love for each other if it does not get down into the tough stuff of life. It must, or else we are producing ugliness in the name of truth. I am convinced that, in the twentieth century, people all over the world will simply not listen if, though we have the right doctrine and the right polity, we are failing to exhibit community.1
While Schaeffer has primarily in mind the ability of the church to show true community amongst itself, he also means that churches must be relevant to their communities, to gain credibility in the eyes of the unbelievers.
The Church’s Power to Change the Culture
The historian W. E. H. Lecky pointed out that the Christian response to mankind’s physical needs — charity — was one of the great accomplishments of the church throughout history. Lecky wrote, “[S]urely no achievements of the Christian Church are more truly great than those which it has effected in the sphere of charity.”2
Even during the Crusades Christian charity broke down barriers and reached ordinary people with the Christian message. “No period of history exhibits a larger amount of cruelty, licentiousness, and fanaticism than the Crusades; but side by side with the military enthusiasm, and with the almost universal corruption, there expanded a vast movement of charity, which covered Christendom with hospitals for the relief of leprosy, and which grappled nobly, though ineffectually, with the many forms of suffering that were generated.”3
Finally, Lecky concluded, “[T]he high conception that has been formed of the sanctity of human life, the protection of infancy, the elevation and final emancipation of the slave classes, the suppression of barbarous games, the creation of a vast and multifarious organization of charity, and the education of the imagination by the Christian type, constitute together a movement of philanthropy which has never been paralleled or approached in the Pagan world.”4
That’s some achievement, especially when there are those who are keen to deny that any good came out of the medieval church. To be sure, the church had many faults. But little is gained by denying the good things that the church achieved in the midst of its questionable practices.
The Great Disconnect
The Christian influence was not confined to charity. Political and legal systems were greatly influenced by Christian ethical standards.5 But as anyone can see today, this influence had declined. Why?
Over the centuries, theology became separated first from morals, then from politics. This is why we see voters telling pollsters they don’t care what a leader does in his personal life, “as long as he does a good job in office.” It’s why some politicians can get away with saying they’re pro-life, personally, but they vote pro-abortion because they “have to represent everybody.”
The first place for evangelization is within the church itself. It has to be.
The task of the Christian church is to restore the connection between theology, ethics, and politics. Without it, civilization will continue to founder.
Many Christians don’t recognize or appreciate the importance of this “disconnect.” But unless the church can rediscover the Faith that was able to transform cultures out of barbarism, it won’t have much of an impact on modern barbarians.
Making the Church Relevant
The future church needs to first of all make itself relevant. If people are seeking values, who is to provide them? One thing is sure: some human agency will provide those values if the church does not. Here’s a significant opportunity for the church.
If there is a real breakdown in community which people recognize, and they are seeking genuine answers to this problem, then the Christian church can show true community and make these people welcome. Not just welcome in a particular denomination or church group, but welcome into the Faith. This is far broader than any denomination, but does not exclude denominations.
Not only can the church present itself in terms as an upholder of the Faith, but it can offer itself in terms that people will understand in the present generation. A church that upholds “traditional family values” is more likely to get a hearing than one that upholds “Biblical values” — even though those “traditional family values” will equate with the church that offers “Biblical values.” I am not saying that the church needs to change its message, but to get a hearing, it may need to approach people at the level at which they are prepared to listen.
A similar situation exists for Christian schools. Those that offer “value based” education will probably have wider appeal than those that offer “Christian values,” even though they are offering exactly the same product. The Christian school does not need to water down its content, but if “values based education” is less offensive to people than “Christian based education,” the Christian school can have a wider appeal that will eventually permit it to educate more and more children.
In Biblical and theological terms, the future of the church is guaranteed. But in practical terms the church’s place in history depends on the faithfulness of its adherents. When Christians are faithful to the Word of God, the church flourishes. In an age like ours, where the connection between Christian theology and the rest of life is little understood or appreciated, the church cannot be expected to evangelize the lost unless it offers a comprehensive gospel to challenge the comprehensive humanism which opposes it. This is the task — and the challenge — before us.
1. Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church At the End of the Twentieth Century (London:
Hodder & Stoughton, 1970), 89, 90.
2. W. E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals (New York: George Braziller,  1955), Vol. II, 85.
3. Ibid., 95.
4. Ibid., 100.
5. See Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).