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Archive for Friday, October 3, 2003

Churches must regain focus

October 3, 2003

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If I were Satan (no cracks, please, from my detractors), which of the following strategies would more likely sidetrack followers of "the Enemy" (to use the term for God in C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters")?

Choice 1: Seductions to lust, greed and selfishness.

Choice 2: Appeals to battle the culture to make it reflect Christian beliefs.

I'm going with Choice 2, because it is showing itself far more effective.

USA Today reported Tuesday that standoffs between church and state are spreading across the country. Some people are upset by the court ruling barring display of the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courthouse. They are erecting, or defending existing, displays of religious documents in their communities. They will either lose their fight in court, or they will lose it in principle, because in order to maintain such displays they will be forced to surround them with "secular" documents or displays to satisfy the judges.

Sociologist Alan Wolfe has discovered the source of the contemporary church's power failure. In a book titled "The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith" (Free Press), Wolfe, a self-described nonbeliever, reaches some sobering conclusions. After traveling the country observing various denominations and religious services, Wolfe writes, "Far from living in a world elsewhere, the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else." C.S. Lewis called this "contented worldliness," which he said is the great enemy of the church.

Wolfe says that religion in the United States "has never existed in practice the way it is supposed to exist in theory" and that in the battle between faith and culture, "American culture has triumphed." It was supposed to happen the other way, but too many people got comfortable with culture because it's easier to give in to the current and be carried along than to swim upstream.

In a book that should be must-reading, especially for those who put even marginal faith in government to transform culture, Wolfe hands down a stinging indictment of contemporary Christianity: "Talk of hell, damnation and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy." We're all dysfunctional now. The New York Times carried a story last week that asserts all addictions are caused by a brain ailment, not moral lapses. Comfortable now?

Forbes magazine's Web page (www.forbes.com) carries an essay by Luisa Kroll that provides further evidence of the corruption of the contemporary church. Titled "Megachurches, Megabusinesses," it begins: "Maybe churches aren't so different from corporations." Kroll lists big churches that have recording studios, publishing houses, computer graphic design suites, satellite networks and huge TV budgets (one in Houston, she says, spends $12 million annually on air time alone). "Welcome to the megabusiness of mega-churches," writes Kroll, "where pastors often act as chief executives and use business tactics to grow their congregations."

People looking for reasons why the church has lost power and real influence need look no further than Wolfe's book and Kroll's article. If the church loses its focus, how can it expect those it has been commissioned to reach to see clearly the path that leads to God? We may put "In God We Trust" on our money, but in fact, it is in Dow we trust.

If Christians really want to see culture transformed, Wolfe's book, especially, shows they need to begin with their own transformation. Only then do they have a prayer of seeing cultural change. To expect it to happen the other way around is futile.

-- Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.

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