In my last post, I pointed out that the Church in its present state hosts many false idols of Jesus that need to be called out and smashed. In so doing, my intentions are not to bad-mouth the Church, but rather to help the Church reform and recover a more authentic, effective, and sincere discipleship under Jesus Christ. By naming and smashing these false Jesus idols, we can move closer to the real Jesus and to the abundant, eternal life he calls us to share in community with him and with each other. Some of these idols are glaringly obvious. Some are far more elusive. But all are equally damning if we worship them.
So in this post, I’d like to call out and smash one of the more elusive, difficult-to-understand false idols of Jesus. It’s the Jesus idol of “churchianity.” This idol has been created and paraded around to bless and propagate the traditional, institutional church structure in which most all mainline denominations and churches fit. This idol props up and spiritualizes the goals, agenda, and values of the institutional church.
Admittedly this is smart ploy! I mean, if the institutional church can claim that it’s only doing what Jesus commanded them to do and carry it out in his name, then who can argue with that? But this tactic is what makes this false idol of Jesus so crafty; the institutional church puts the most sacred words and commands of Jesus into this idol’s mouth and drags it out into the open when they need its justification.
But to properly describe this churchianity Jesus idol, we need to better understand the condition of the institutional church which created it.
The institutional Western Church as we know it today has enjoyed a long history of power and prestige from the time of Roman emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD until nearly 50 years ago. The Church thrived in a state of Christendom in which Christianity of some form was the official religion of every Western nation. The Church stood at the center of such a society and by virtue of having its doors open and services conducted, it maintained Christianity as the civil religion of the land. Church and State became virtually synonymous, and the Jesus of this Church stood as the patron of their union.
The last century saw seismic shifts in society and culture which drastically affected the Western institutional church. The rise of democracy in the 18th and 19th Centuries gradually eroded away Christendom. But in the last century, with the influx of post-modernism’s deep skepticism towards all things central and institutional, the last vestiges of Christendom crumbled away completely, leaving behind a crippled institutional church. From the early 1960’s until now, the church has continued in a state of denial, believing that its ornate buildings, traditions, grand worship services, and programs would continue to attract and keep its adherents. But instead, most mainline institutional churches have suffered an accelerated decline in membership and worship service attendance.
So what do once-powerful, threatened institutions do? They throw themselves into survival mode. They ramp up their efforts to become productive again. They uplift institutional identity and fidelity as a chief value for all its members. And, in the case of the institutional church, they dig into the wellspring of biblical and theological treasures they’ve inherited to find ideas, slogans, and self-serving principles they hope will make them vibrant again. This sludge is what I call churchianity.
- increasing worship attendance and professions of faith, i.e. boost our flagging institutional membership statistics
- increase stewardship and giving for the spreading of the gospel, i.e. bringing in money to keep our programs going, staff paid, and buildings operational
- do more evangelism and faith sharing, i.e. attracting people back into our church institutions so that we can convince them to become members of it
- making disciples of Jesus Christ, i.e. recruiting good, giving, serving church members who will uphold the church institution
Are you seeing a trend here? Every one of these goals has been couched in theological and missional language in order to keep the church institution afloat. Numbers of people and amounts of money are tantamount to this institution’s self-credibility and existence.
Then comes the Jesus idol of churchianity. Forged by the institutional church, its purpose is very simple: to speak and act in a vain effort to salvage what’s left. Now here’s the dangerously elusive aspect of this false Jesus. It very clearly speaks the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, so convincingly, in fact, that its utterances could easily be mistaken for those of the real Jesus… except for one small but fatal difference. It pronounces the Great Commission and Great Commandment with the singular intent of numerically adding to the rebuilding of the institution who created it.
When the real Jesus commanded his disciples to go into the world to baptize and form new disciples (the Great Commission) and to love God and love others (the Great Commandment), he was not at all interested in creating and fostering an institution. Jesus’ prime and only motivation was relational and connective. In other words, Jesus sought to reconnect people back to God the Father in a community of disciples of his who would then build the kingdom of God’s shalom and righteousness in this world. There’s not a breath of institutionalism or self-preservation in any of this!
Jesus intended his Church, his living and holy Body, to be the catalyst and example for this kind of holy connectedness and transformation. But the Church was never intended to be the ends or even the focus of Jesus’ mission in the world. Jesus’ focus is the world he died to save with the purpose of raising all of creation to life in the wings of his resurrection. So whether or not the Western institutional church as we know it survives is of no ultimate consequence. What God has accomplished and will accomplish in Jesus Christ will always stand. His Church, in whatever form it takes, will stand with him.
So, in the name of Jesus, we smash the false Jesus idol of churchianity and we strive to dissemble the last remnants of churchianity.
In their place, we worship the Jesus who reconnects people back to God through his work on the cross. We worship the Jesus who connects these same people to him and to others to form a vital community of fellow disciples called the Church who, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, enliven the world around them for eternity, inviting and teaching new disciples of Jesus, never for their own sakes, but for the sake of all others.