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Why the Church Fails...

Why The Church Fails...

By Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
August 2, 2017

Recently I was looking for a bit of inspiration, so, using differing search engines, I entered the phrase, "Why the Church Fails". I was fascinated by the results. The topics that arose were consistently along the lines of the following:

Why the Church Fails Us...

Why the Church Fails Me...

Why the Church Fails Businessmen...

Why the Church Fails the Divorced...

Why the Church Fails Singles...

Why the Church Fails Married Couples...

Why the Church Fails the Gay Community...

On and on the entries followed one after the other. There was, however, a common thread. When the different authors wrote about how the Church has failed... it was generally about how it had failed "me", or my tribe, or my profession, or my state in life. At the root of it was the perception that the Church had failed me personally (or professionally) in one way or another.

In the ecclesiastical cafeteria that characterizes American Christianity, the failure of which they, and we, speak is not usually considered the fault of the universal Church (or, indeed the Church militant and triumphant of which Christ is the head), but more often the perceived failure of this church or that church with which we have become acquainted. Somehow, the local church that we bumped into failed to meet our needs and so we move down the road to another - another with its own unique set of problems and issues which we will soon discover and, very likely, pronounce as having failed in satisfying our particular needs or desires before moving on yet again. On occasion, the accusation of failure will move beyond the local church to a denomination, association or even those who hold a particular theological view, such as evangelicals or the Reformed or those with a high view of sacraments.

Something about the tendency to treat the Church as "other", i.e. outside of ourselves, troubles me. It troubles me because, in a profound theological sense, we are the Church. Our Lord said that when two or three are gathered in his name, he is in the midst of that group. We are individually and corporately the Church. The house churches of which we read in Paul's letters were often exactly that - a married couple who opened their home to other believers and thereby constituted an ecclesia - a church. Yet, despite this theological reality, we still identify the concept of "church" with a building, or a pastor, or a particular group, or a denomination; and in that identification of something or someone outside of ourselves being "the church", we are quick to indicate how they, or it, has failed us.

Now, life experience should make all of us aware that by and large individuals will fail us at some point in time. The otherwise admirable husband may forget the date of the wedding anniversary. The devoted wife may make an ill-timed remark. These things just happen. Institutions will also fail us a some point or another. Asking the highly rated educational institution to send transcripts for the third time comes to mind. And yes, even those leaders of movements whom we otherwise admire may say or do something that causes us pain and makes us feel that they have failed us.

Yet, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "the fault dear friends, is not in the Church, but in ourselves".

We have been all too willing to be spectators in terms of the Church and all too often our criticism and speculation on "why the Church fails us" is made anonymously from the balcony, or worse yet, from the outside. You see, from a distance it is easy and safe to pontificate. Moreover, this "spectator" syndrome flies in the face of the concept of the priesthood of all believers (in the Reformation/Protestant world) or of the people of God (in the Roman Catholic/Orthodox world). Both appellations - "priesthood of all believers" and "people of God" - are not only conferred privileges, but bear with them responsibilities. To put it bluntly, for much too long a time we have looked to others to create, sustain and lead what we call "Church" while many of us throw in our comments and criticisms from the peanut gallery.

In practical terms, living out our own lives as a vital and contributing member of the Church can mean many things, especially on a local level. If you are in an unhealthy church situation which, for whatever reason, consigns you to being a mere spectator with no hope of real involvement, leave and find a place where you can exercise your God given gifts. If you are in a church situation in which there are issues that concern you, take it upon yourself to address those issues. Speak to the pastor or priest, not in anger but in love, and share your concerns. If the issue is that the church is unfriendly, go out of your way each week to welcome at least one newcomer, or better yet, invite someone. If there is a lack of meaningful Christian Education, offer to teach an adult class or at the very least organize a discussion group around various topics of interest. If there is not a married couples group, or a singles group... start one. So much can be done, and needs to be done, and it is not enough to wait for someone else to step up to the task.

When we move beyond the local expression of the Church, matters are admittedly more difficult. For instance, I doubt that any of us here will have a chance to sit down and talk to Joel Osteen, or Franklin Graham, or Jerry Falwell, Jr., about their approaches to theology or ministry. We can, however, at the very least, in our interactions with others simply say, "They do not speak for me or the vast majority of Christians". Yet, many believe that they speak on the behalf of most believers owing to their media outreach and influence. Let us be clear, however, in identifying these so-called spokesmen as aberrations. In terms of the early Church of the first four centuries, Osteen would be considered as a Gnostic, Graham as a court bishop similar to Eusebius of Nicomedia, and the gun-toting Falwell as near to a politicized moral apostate. Moreover, when we consider the average salary of a clergy person in the US in 2017 to be about $46,000 a year (half below that amount and another half above it), the annual incomes of Osteen (no salary, but a net worth of over $40 million) Graham ($880,000 per year ) and Falwell ($803,000 per year) are simply obscene, placing them well outside the bounds of historic Christian leadership and norms of compensation. Moreover, these are merely three among dozens, if not hundreds, that could be named.

Their surest exposure, however, will come not from words on a page or a screen, but when we begin to hold up the mirror of authentic church life and historic theology. Yet even here, that mirror needs to reflect our own authentic experience of Church and our personal commitment and involvement. Then, perhaps, we can move beyond the haggard and specious argument of, "Well, they may be theologically off-base, but look at all the good they are doing and all the people attending their church/school/rallies." Success is not the measure of Truth, and it is long past time that we continue to regard it as such.

Now, whenever I write about ecclesiology and the issues we are facing, someone will always respond with the reference that Christ said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, as though that settles the issue, no matter what we do or what we leave undone. As usual, however, the citation is usually taken out of context. For, immediately after Christ made this promise, he continued addressing Peter and the disciples, saying, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." You see, the promise is connected with the tools Christ gives us to truly be his Church... not as observers or mere critics, but as participants. It is time for more than posts on threads or critical comments on "why the Church fails us", it is time for us to actually be the Church.

Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD is author of The Early Episcopal Career of Athanasius of Alexandria (Notre Dame, 1991), Prayers of the Martyrs (Zondervan, 1991) and is a member of The Project

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