There is an undercurrent of religious discontent in my generation that is no longer an undercurrent. It is now, and has been for some time, a flood. People are disillusioned with Christianity, hyper-aware of the slighest whiffs of hypocrisy and externalism, clamoring for (a hundred different definitions of) authenticity, and generally frustrated with the church, organized religion, and lopsided traditional values.
I, in large measure, am one of them.
We are not who we ought to be — not even close — and we are coming around to that shattering reality. Or at least having to deal with those who are, and especially those who are no longer willing to be quiet and tame about it. These are uneasy and unsettling times.
Yet in this atmosphere, so many are dreaming of a better day and a better way. So many have ambitions — to go abroad, to take a risk, to preach the Word, to love the unloved, to stand for holiness, to strengthen the arm of justice, to reform a subculture, to revive the values of Jesus. This flood, with all its careening and devastating power, is flowing out to the distant, barren fields where life is waiting to spring up. As dangerous and destructive as it may be, sometimes it takes a flood to reach these parts.
These are perilous and exciting times. A lot of good is being done, and a lot more can be done. But in this vein, I have one plea:
Do it as the church.
One of the most subtle and fleshly things about religious ambition in the midst of religious collapse is that the ambition is rarely envisioned corporately. The individual reigns. We look around us and see things falling apart and decide that we no longer want to be part of the mess. So we step outside of it and we go it alone (from our perspective). We set out on a journey to right all wrongs, to expose all hypocrites, to prove once and for all that the ways of Jesus are alive and well, at least in one solitary life — our own. We become the righteous, indignant prophet — except that we’re actually blazing our own trail and speaking our own words of condemnation instead of functioning as a humble mouthpiece of God.
This is only heightened by our already-individualistic society. The success stories paraded in front of us tell us that it’s all about the efforts and ingenuity of the individual. Like the backward advertisement of a few years ago, we convince ourselves that we’re an “Army of One.”
Sometimes we join together with like-minded individualists, and become a group of malcontents. We gather with our like-minded friends, brashly engage in all those grey-area activities that were unaccepted in our previous subcultures, rehearse our common hurts and revile others’ hypocrisies, condemn all the traditionalists, and verbally tear down the establishment (usually without erecting anything in its place). We reflect on our new priorities as so many imitations of Jesus the revolutionary, and we glory in our holy rebellions.
But this is not the answer. We don’t need just another individualistic maverick. We don’t need more Christians failing the church because the church has failed (and see the irony?). We don’t need more reverse hypocrites hypocritically condemning the original hypocrites. We need to bail water, lighten the ship, patch the sails, check the compass, strengthen the sailors, and take courage — not jump overboard.
Yes, we need men and women who will stand in the gap, and this will sometimes take unusual faith and unconventional wisdom. We need modern-day prophets to proclaim the sharp words that the Lord would have us hear. We need to re-examine the grey areas, deconstruct some traditions, pursue fresh obediences, and call each other to an increased faith, hope, love, and mission. But not out of self-seeking ambition and self-righteous reactionism.
The real solutions aren’t really all that spectacular. Mostly we need clear-eyed faith and biblical wisdom and Christ-like love, working together in community. This is why we need men and women full of wisdom and of the Spirit, not spiritual boys and girls with a hero complex. We need one Messiah working from heaven through His many-membered church, not a thousand messiahs creating kingdoms on earth.
This is not an argument against ambition. It’s not even an argument against tainted ambition, because all of our ambitions are tainted. It’s an argument against selfish ambition, especially the kind of selfish ambition that masquerades as the holy maverick and the lonely reformer. And specifically, it’s an argument against churchless ambition.
There may be a unique non-profit organization that most loudly echoes your gifts and desires, or a pointed educational institution that you are proud of (or frustrated at), or an expression of love and ministry that you think the church is most lacking. You may want to represent these organizations, to brand yourself with these institutions, or to identify yourself with a fresh initiative. This desire could be a wonderful work of the Spirit in your life. Or it could be a fleshly, churchless ambition, a desire to be different for different’s sake.
Here’s a good watershed question: When people see the grace of God evident in your life, when they see the love of Jesus clearly expressed in your actions, when they hear truthful, helpful words coming from your mouth, do you want them to say, “You know, I really appreciate you; you’re really different than the other Christians I’ve met.” Or do you want them to say, “Jesus’ followers are truly different, and I’d like to know more about Him.”
Why does it feel flattering when people say, “You’re different than most Christians I’ve met”? How could that be a good thing to hear? That’s only encouraging if you want to be different than most Christians they’ve met. It’s only flattering if you’re more interested in your own individual impact and your own personal testimony than the testimony of Jesus through His followers.
So live, love, sacrifice, fight, defend, preach, serve, and write — but do it as the church. Live like Jesus as the church, not mainly as part of an unofficial underground movement aiming to right all wrongs. Speak the words of God as a member of His people, not out of your own individualized identity as a prophetic blogger. Expose hypocrisy and empty externalism as a broken-hearted member of the redeemed community, not as the one throwing stones through the stain glass windows and leaving your brothers and sisters to clean up the mess inside.
We who have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ are the church, His bride. We have been called out, together, from the world and its values and its ways. This is who we are, and we cannot be other. To seek to be any other is to deny the one who bought us.
Yes, wrestle through the issues. Ask the hard questions. Engage the culture, seek reformation, and act on the holiest of your ambitions. But when you do all of these things, do it as the church.
Evangelize as the church, not as the self-representing cool missional guy that’s trying to distance himself from the gathered people of God. Show mercy as a member of the body, not as a young woman trying to prove a point. Protest a political agenda because it stands against the values of the kingdom of God and the gospel of Christ, not mainly because you want to go against the politicized grain of evangelicalism. And be sincere and authentic because you are the purified bride of Jesus Christ, not because you hope to lay the charge of hypocrisy at someone else’s feet. We — we — are the community of faith, those who have been baptized together into the corporate life and power of the Holy Spirit.
Our goal is not to set ourselves apart from the church or to demonstrate that we’re Christians who actually “get it.” Our goal is to reconcile people to God through Jesus Christ and to bring them into the lighthouse fellowship of His people for the glory of God and the good of the world. We are a collective bride, working together to show off the attractiveness of the one who has loved us and bought us, not a bridegroom seeking attention for ourselves.
The church is deeply fragmented, and the fragmentation is only increasing. There are times to separate, yes, but there are also times to stand together, even when some to your left are a bit grimy, and some to your right have overdone the make-up.
You are not alone, your group of like-minded friends is not alone, your institution is not alone, and your local church is not alone. For every one of us who despairs with Elijah, “I, even I only, am left” (1 Kings 19:10, 14), the Lord has seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Find them, and do not be ashamed to stand with them. Do wonderful Christian things — and do it as the church.