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Why Is Christianity Losing in America?

June 3, 2013
S. Michael Craven
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This is the question with which all serious Christians must wrestle. To think that Christianity is thriving in America simply ignores the obvious and overwhelming facts of our times. Much like the century preceding the Protestant Reformation and subsequently the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the church was in a dark and desperate period. In its general understanding and representation, Christianity had drifted from its mission and biblical foundations—and the results were devastating.

Similarly, the church in America today has also drifted from its biblical mission and the result has been a church largely divorced from its kingdom purposes and therefore increasingly irrelevant to people living in the real world. At the heart of our present dilemma is our diminished understanding of the gospel, namely the gospel of the kingdom. In reforming the church, the Reformers taught that Jesus—being the Son of God—was born, crucified, and rose again, and because of these facts, your sins can be forgiven. This was and no doubt remains “good news.” However, this summation could be drawn from Paul’s letters without ever reading the four books commonly known as the Gospels.

The Pauline epistles, particularly Romans and Galatians, consist of precise statements of what Jesus achieved in his saving death and how that achievement could be appropriated by the individual. We often refer to this as the “plan of salvation” and it is, of course, true and essential to Christian understanding. Unfortunately, if this is all we believe, we only have part of the gospel leaving us with very little in terms of truly knowing Jesus’s mission and, subsequently, that of his church. This reductionist understanding was never the intent of those working to reform the church, but the Reformation would set the stage for the bifurcation of the gospel. Eventually we came to think of personal salvation as the “good news” apart from its crucial modifying phrase: “of the kingdom,” leaving us with a nebulous religious term (i.e., the kingdom) that fewer and fewer Christians would even understand.    

However, when we marry the teachings of Paul with the story told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we clearly see a broader description of the gospel. The synoptic gospels describe and give meaning to the teaching and activities of Jesus in between his birth and crucifixion. This is where we encounter the gospel or good news of the kingdom—the fulfillment of the messianic promises given to Israel, which the gospel writers clearly sought to establish. To Israel, the gospel writers announce boldly, “The time is fulfilled, Israel’s king has come!” Coupled with the fulfillment of Abrahamic covenant, this announcement is extended to the whole world, including both Jew and gentile. God has become king of the world and he, through Christ’s death and the establishment of his kingdom, is gathering a people for himself through whom he is bringing redemption to every aspect and corner of his creation. Jesus invites us to repent (be born again) and enter the kingdom so we may join him in setting life and the world right!

It is in Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom—the in-breaking reign of God—that the mission of Christ gains its full meaning. The crucifixion achieved victory over sin and death, making Jesus King; the resurrection is the result of his victory and the first fruit of the age to come, and the ascension declares, “He reigns!”

Jesus’s life and teachings confirm the real and active presence of his kingdom rule and the way in which we who have been given new life are to live and bear witness to this new reality. Simply put, the character and call of God’s kingdom does not fit comfortably alongside the kingdoms of this world but instead offers a radical challenge to our lives and everything about this world. One may wish it were so, but we do not “accept Christ” and easily join with his kingdom purposes. Jesus says, “the kingdom is within your grasp” (Luke 17:21), meaning we are confronted with a decision, a decision to believe, trust, and follow Jesus in his work and purpose. There is no easy belief as some would prefer—saving faith compels us to act, and the direction in which we are to act is clarified in Jesus’s command to “seek first the kingdom”(Matt. 6:33 ESV).

In my next commentary, we will examine the upside-down nature of these demands and some practical examples of how we seek first the kingdom.

© 2013 by S. Michael Craven

For further reading:

Heaven on Earth: Experiencing the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now by R. Alan Streett

The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight

How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels by N. T. Wright

The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God by George Eldon Ladd

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Responses
Response from : KJQ  

June 3, 2013 11:05 AM
 

I believe a big part of the problem with the church today is that the majority of professing Christians are premillenialists (not always consciously). This leads to de facto withdrawing from the political sphere rather than pursuing the expansion of the gospel (Christs Kingdom) beyond "personal evangelism". If you believe that no matter what the church does everything will get worse and worse until "the rapture", it inevitably leads to withdrawing from the political/public sphere and "hunkering down". This view appears to the western Christian to be coming true because they see God's chastening hand upon the west (for having turned their back to God) and extrapolate that to a worldwide decline in the church, which is not in fact the case. There are thousands coming to faith daily in the world, and the visible church has more members alive today than have ever lived. I'm not sure how we solve this because it's just one of many contributing factors to church decline in the west (others include widespread Arminianism, believe in evolution etc.).


 
Response from : John H. Armstrong  

June 3, 2013 11:19 AM
 

This is clear, compelling and so very helpful I just reposted it on my Facebook wall and urge readers to sign up for your commentaries my friend. Keep it up. We need your voice in this conversation!

http://www.act3network.com

 
Response from : Johnny  

June 3, 2013 12:36 PM
 

The body of Christ in America is disobedient:
1. As a whole,We do not live godly lives.
2. We are ashamed of the gospel.
3. We do not obey the great commission.
4. 2 Chronicles 7:14


 
Response from : Celie Dean  

June 3, 2013 9:07 PM
 

This was such a good commentary. But I am all the more eager to read the next one, because as a long time believer and follower of Jesus, I am most of the time disheartened over the current condition of the western Church. Your first responder says that thousands are coming to Christ daily. Your next responder says we need to hear this (I agree). And the last responder says we're disobedient as the Church (which I'm inclined to agree with), but the Church includes me, so..I'm praying to know how to 'seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness', and to understand how that's supposed to make my life look and how I'm to live it out.
Thank you for challenging us.


 
Response from : Rob VH  

June 4, 2013 4:58 PM
 

This is a very Catholic commentary. I mean that as a compliment.


 
Response from : Sarah Mathews  

June 6, 2013 5:48 PM
 

I agree with Johnny about his comments regarding the church. Many people get turned off when Christians are very worldly. However, I had a big problem with your article - even though I was interested in reading about the Gospels vs. the Pauline Epistles, you don't seem to be addressing the topic of the title, which is "Why is Christianity Losing in America?"

http://www.higherselfesteem.com

 
Response from : Kenneth Tremble  

June 6, 2013 10:40 PM
 

In Syria under Assad Christians were not persecuted and killed. But the rebels who have risen up against Assad are killing Christians. By supporting the Rebels the Western Nations are showing they are becoming increasingly anti Christian. This is the future.


 
Response from : Ken  

June 10, 2013 7:22 AM
 

good article. like the demark between the gospels and teaching of Paul. If only Israel had know they could have had the Kingdom 2000 years ago.


 
Response from : Al Cole  

June 25, 2013 11:57 AM
 

The irony is that "a church largely divorced from its kingdom purposes and therefore increasingly irrelevant" is often trying hard to be "relevant" by distancing itself from the hard truths of the Gospel that convict us of sin. A second irony is that in moving away from the Gospel, we abandon not only the promise of forgiveness but of new life, out of which our gratitude for the grace we have been extended may flow to others.

http://www.theshadowchristian.com

 

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