The Church Then (1st Century) And Now (2010)

December 29, 2010 by  
Filed under A Monday AM BLOG

This material is from Dr. Chuck Lawless’s BLOG of 12/28/2010 and is acknowledged with appreciation.

George Barna has released “megathemes” of the American religious environment as discovered through his company’s research in 2010 (http://bit.ly/eBKWvG), summarized below in bold print. Any honest church leader in America would not be surprised by Barna’s findings.

Alongside those themes, I have included some of Michael Green’s conclusions in his classic work, Evangelism in the Early Church.  A comparison of these viewpoints is enlightening.

1. The Christian church is becoming less theologically literate. Basic Christian truths are increasingly foreign, even to believers.

Green: “Primitive evangelism . . . included able intellectual argument, skillful study of the Scriptures, careful, closely reasoned teaching and patient argument.  It was no doubt because of the careful teaching instruction they were giving that the authorities were worried about this new movement: ‘You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.’”

2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented. Believers are increasingly likely to be isolated from non-believers.

Green: “The little man . . . was the primary agent in mission. . . . This must often have been not formal preaching, but the informal chattering to friends and chance acquaintances, in homes and wine shops, on walks, and around market stalls. They went everywhere gossiping the gospel.”

3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life. Present-tense survival issues are more important to Americans than spiritual issues.

Green: “Rigorous Greek thought, honest Greek seeking after truth made people impatient of the worthless deities they had traditionally worshipped. . . .  Cleansing, security, and promised immortality – this was the . . . hunger of the human heart to which the state religion had nothing to say, and which refused to be silent.”

4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating. Justice and service issues have captured the attention of young believers.

Green: “They [the early church] were concerned with labor relations, slavery, marriage and the family, the exposure of children, cruelty in the amphitheater and obscenity on the stage; increasingly they came to see that the gospel carried political implications as well.”

5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian church. Moral absolutes are no longer deemed important.

Green: “Truth was a unity, and it derived from the ultimate reality made personal in him who was the Way, Truth, and Life. It was this conviction which nerved them to proclaim the absolute in a world which was dominated by the relative in its morals, religions and concept of history.”

6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible. Culture recognizes the faults of the church, but few specific positive influences.

Green: “Nowhere else [than the church] would you find slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, engaging in table fellowship and showing a real love for one another. That love overflowed to outsiders, and in times of plague and disaster the Christians shone by means of their service to the communities in which they lived. . . . In the early days the quality of their lives was blazingly distinct.”

What do we do with this comparison?

First, the evangelical church is in trouble. Inwardly-focused and theologically-compromised congregations should not expect to make a difference in a non-Christian society.  The world of the early church was at least asking questions that only Christianity could rightly answer.  

Second, the one hope in Barna’s findings is the passion of today’s young believers for social justice. These believers genuinely trust that the gospel should change the way we live today—not just in the future.

Third, it is Barna’s summary that most gives me pause: “In a society where choice is king, there are no absolutes . . . and Christianity is no longer the automatic, default faith of young adults, new ways of relating to Americans and exposing the heart and soul of the Christian faith are required.” If we understand “new ways” to include such issues as worship styles, outreach strategies, educational approaches, and social ministries, I’m on board.  If new ways somehow ignore all old ways–not Barna’s intent, I suspect–I part ways here.

The American church does need new ways, but not at the expense of the old way that matters. The old way meant lifestyle change and willing sacrifice, as Green wrote most powerfully: “Christianity for them [the early church] was no hour’s slot on a Sunday. It affected everything they did and everyone they met. . . . You could mow these Christians down, you could throw them to the lions, but you could not make them deny their Lord.”

We need believers today who live like the early church did.  May 2011 take the American church closer to that goal.

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