The Irrelevant Church

John 15:18-19
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. [19] If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

I’d never thought about this before, but shouldn’t we interpret the “world” here as even those in the church who have not left the world behind and still live by its values? After all, Jesus wasn’t talking about the world as a place, but as a mindset. I think we can expect an especially high level of hatred from people like that. It’s interesting that both non-believers and Pharisees had an interest in seeing Christ be crucified, but the Pharisees actually had more to lose if he remained alive. Out of all people, they pursued him with the most ferocity, and didn’t stop until he was dead.

In light of this recognition, what does boldness look like? Some have considered me a bold person for things I have said in the pulpit. Yet in my own heart, I have always been holding back, not really telling the full truth, lest people respond in anger. To some degree, I want to take things slowly to give people a chance to digest things piece by piece. Yet I must consider the urgency of the time in which we live, the almost complete irrelevance of the church in American culture, and the fact that thousands of churches every year are closing their doors.

Some who hate the church would applaud this trend, seeing it ultimately as a healthy thing for the planet. A man I was corresponding with very recently wrote that he believes religion is archaic and wishes it would just go away like old geographic distinctions or old medical opinions. That, of course, is wishful thinking, as old geographic lines merely marked out where we live, and old medical opinions determined ways in which we might keep living, but religious ideas determine HOW we live. And I would submit that there is no such thing as an absence of religion, much like energy can change forms but never disappear. Religion is the set of underlying values that determine what we will and will not consider to be fundamental to life. For some, tolerance is a religion, for it is the expression of their most deeply held value — the most foundational thing in the world. For others, self is a religion. For others it is power. If every person starts with a few beliefs and then asks the question, “On what are those beliefs based?”, then answers that question, then keeps asking and answering it until there is only one thing left, that is religion for that person. As best as I can ascertain it, my religion begins with the assertion, “God is.” Everything else is based on, and built upon, that essential belief. So the best the man I spoke of can hope for is that all the religions he doesn’t like go away.

This is why the church’s irrelevance is an outrage. These ideas that religion is outdated and irrelevant themselves come from ignorance about what religion is and does. To those who argue that religion has led to tyrrany, I simply say, “Stalin.” There are infinite examples of atrocities that have been committed by those who laid no claim to a religious world view. Besides, religion is as religion does. I don’t care what label a person gives himself; if he commits acts that clearly contradict the teaching of his religion, I am happy to write him off as an inauthenic representative of that religion. It is a leap in reason to write off a religion because it has poor adherents.

Thus the church is doing a lousy job not only in evangelizing, but in helping America understand the point of religious belief in the first place. The fact that the church is considered irrelevant is the strongest indicator of its irrelevance. It’s not just that people consider the teachings of the church irrelevant, they consider the institution irrelevant. If it were just the teachings that were considered irrelevant, we could conclude that we have done a poor job of communicating our beliefs. But it is the institution itself that is considered irrelevant, and that says to me that we have done a poor job of existing in American culture.

How much gentleness is forgivable? There is room for infinite gentleness for those outside the church. What about those inside who are preventing it from making an impact on our society? I am losing my patience with them. God help me if that is wrong. I see Jesus having astounding patience with pagans and secular scoffers, but showing much less tolerance to the religious people who of all people should have known better. Things are no different today. I’m the farthest thing from Jesus, and I can’t pretend that my anger is always righteous indignation, for our own schedules and agendas often bite us in the butts. But where is the outrage among church people at what a lame institution the church has become?