By Rev. Jacob Kanake, Ph.D. — One of my goals today is to give a little education on American and church history. My brief studies show Americans have gone away from their roots. I pray all American churches can speak more on this subject and apply it to our lives today.
The word “church” can mean an assembly or a sacred building. The church/assembly lives in the secular world, but it should avoid being trapped by secularism and being molded by it. The church is not like a chameleon to take likeness from its surroundings. The Church of Christ is metamorphosed on the inside and transformed. You and I are all aware the church is in turmoil, but you and I can sense the new movement of the Holy Spirit among us.
The English word “church” is derived from Greek word kyriakon—ekklesia or ecclesia in Latin—which means an assembly “belonging to the Lord.” “Ecclesia” is a community or group of people called out of their homes, businesses or their daily chores to gather or to congregate to pray, listen to a sermon, break the bread and pledge to live as an assembly of Christ. In the New Testament, the word church is mentioned 114 times, and out of these Apostle Paul mentions church 62 times in the context of a community, not a building. The Church is a body of Christ, assembly or community of believers in Christ. In Romans, Chapter 12, the Apostle Paul describes how a community of faith/church should function.
The church that was born on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) spread quickly (Acts 8:4; 11:19-21) and its growth threatened the Roman Empire. Roman leaders persecuted Christians for over 200 years, mostly trying to force them to worship Roman gods—idols. In 313 CE Emperor Constantine offered the church freedom of worship. The church came out of hiding and worshipped freely. Nevertheless, this edict opened an avenue for church and politics to enter into courtship together and made an awful marriage that continues to affect the church today.
The church leadership and organizational structure changed from being a simple congregation to being a complicated authoritative structure. The church structures were organized to match that of the state or kingdom. Church leaders were elected into political offices and Emperor Constantine called upon them to reconcile warring tribes with the state. Constantine often used church leaders to help maintain peace in his kingdom.
The word church today may refer to the local congregation, group of congregations, a denomination or a building. During the period of persecution, Christians assembled in houses, not in public buildings as we do today.
Most church buildings began to appear around 400 CE, along with detailed church organizational structures and doctrines. The congregations began to raise the front of the church into a three-stair platform and later the baptism font and the Lord’s Table were included.
Baptismal font: Early baptisms took place in fonts or water basins on the seaside or in the river. Tertullian mentions that St. Peter was baptizing at the river Tiber. At a baptismal font we receive the mark of identification, the sign of the cross with plenty or a drop of water representing cleansing. We become a new creation, children of God born of water and spirit in the Trinity. During baptism the Holy Spirit enters and indwells in the life of a believer. Every time a baptism is performed it reminds us that the Holy Spirit is in us, enabling us to do ministry.
Pulpit: The first use of the pulpit is mentioned in a letter of Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage. The content of the letter refers to a raised platform where priests ordained by the laity sat. By the third century the platform (ambo, or little table) was slightly raised at the center of the church. The present pulpit was developed in the 9th century and moved to the corner to elevate scripture, not the preacher. Holy Communion was celebrated at the center and the spoken word and the priest tended to lose their centrality. The 15th century Reformation (1517) revived the authority of the scriptures and moved the pulpit to the center of the platform and discouraged the authority of the pastor. The preachers standing at the pulpit should teach us to love God and others and gently plead with those outside the fold to join in. A Christian cannot spiritually survive without the word preached either at the pulpit or elsewhere. In some old conservative denominations, preaching was/is done only in the church building. Though pulpit tradition was inherited long ago, it can change. Today pastors are not restricted to the pulpit; most join the congregation as Jesus did, and there is nothing wrong with that. We should now be prepared to enter a new sphere of Christian life that does not look like what we know or imagined.
Holy Communion table: The table remains at the center of worship in most Christian traditions. However, the method of serving and receiving the Holy Communion remains most divisive in church history. Nevertheless, the sacrament reminds us of the death and resurrection of Christ; it strengthens our relationships and reminds us of Christ’s return. Today this ritual appears to have lost its meaning, and has ceased to be practiced in some churches. The new faith community may have to respect the serving method and its theology in place or it may revise it.
The cross: The cross reminds us of Jesus’ suffering, death and return to life. The significance of the cross is best discerned through repentance.
My grandmother told me a story of the monkeys. The monkeys were uncomfortable hearing the lion was the king of the jungle; they decided to crown their own king. They found a dead lion and cut its mane and put it on the neck of their king. The mane’s skin was wet and as it dried, it began to suffocate the monkey-king. The king began to cough and other monkeys-subjects also coughed in response to their king. On the third day the monkey-king fell dead. Other monkeys thought the king was asleep and was asking everyone to sleep. They slept for two days. On the third day the monkey sleeping next to the king detected a bad smell and on investigation, she realized the king was dead. She summoned the courage to announce the death of the king.
The church-laity ordained their priests and offered them powers that now suffocate the church; can someone announce the church is in the intensive care unit? Can it be revived?
The American church is in decline.
This week we are celebrating 240 years of independence and freedom of worship. I asked some Americans this week why the Pilgrims came to America in the 1600s; only a handful mentioned that the main reason was to have freedom of worship. Perhaps this is why only 20 percent of us read the Bible and 29 percent of Americans are godless. And maybe the cause of the noises we hear about removing the word “God” in our currency and our constitution, which according to researchers is made up 94 percent of phrases from the Bible. Some preachers believe the following causes contribute to the American church decline:
1. Some writers suggest that the American church decline started in 1962 when a Supreme Court decision stopped prayers and Bible readings in public schools.
2. Most sermons are intellectually crafted and often dry; they offer little of Christ’s Good News of love and repentance. These sermons are mechanical; they are not spiritually vital.
3. Some denominations are opposed to scientific discoveries such as birth control methods.
4. Some denominations continue with endless debates on sexuality and being judgmental on who is in and who is out.
5. Some congregations feel like a social club than a faith community; it’s self-serving and the church is in leadership crisis.
These causes continue to hinder the flow of free evangelism and gaining of new members. A Christian life should have a sense of unconditional surrender, unconditional love and sustained devotion.
Is there a revival?
Although the American church is in decline, it can revive. In 1730 only 10 percent of Americans attended church. In 1734 God raised preachers including John Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, among others. These preachers preached in fields, on streets and in churches. Church attendance rose from 10 percent to 50 percent during the “Great Awakening” of the 18th century. The American founding fathers, including George Washington, and the American constitution are products of that period.
When the American church was facing decline again in the 20th century due to an emphasis on modernity and science, God raised the Holiness, Pentecostal and fundamentalist movements in the 1900s to revive the church.
And since the 1990s we have been experiencing a new resurgence of non-doctrinal preachers, biblical interpreters and theologians that has encouraged planting of the missional churches.
In the 21st century there is another resurgence of a non-Christian-allied movement called spirituality; those who belong to this movement call God a “Higher Power,” energy, or “the force” that is felt through non-biblical means such as nature, people, and or non-living things. It is certain that the human church model may experience decline and die, but while Christ’s church can be malnourished, it never dies.
There is evidence of a revival:
1. Eighty-five percent of the Millennials (ages 18-29) say they can share the gospel with nonbelievers, and 69 percent of them feel comfortable sharing their faith. But only 25 percent of them look for ways to share the gospel and only 27 percent of them intentionally build friendships with nonbelievers.” I hear and read online spiritual sermons that inform listeners of the consequences of bad choices. These sermons encourage listeners who make bad choices to take full responsibility and reform.
2. Today theology and science are in a better relationship, and some schools have dual degree programs. The social sciences in schools are revered, and young people are expressing themselves through music, poetry, art, drama/theater and Christian narratives. I sense the Holy Spirit is encouraging members to participate in church events rather than waiting to be told what to do.
3. I read of spiritual deeds online such as the GoFundMe website where the Spirit is prompting God’s people to support each other. A 16-year-old boy from Memphis, Tennessee, who went to a Kroger supermarket to beg for food received over $270,000 from 11,000 donors.
Pastor Anne recently posed a question: “What do you see in your mind’s eye? What is the truth about the church that the Spirit can teach us in this time? What will help us bear the bad news about the end of church as we have known it, and welcome the good news of what’s to come?”
The signs of revival ought to encourage congregations to self-examine, to meditate, and to pray along with their pastors. There is need for the church boards and other church leaders to begin crafting a new language of faith that welcomes the new community. The old spiritual language is perceived as being judgmental, promoting inequality and self-serving. I do not know about you, but I feel the Holy Spirit is actively reshaping the future of the church. Might we ask the church leaders to begin in earnest to formulate agendas, theological statements and correct interpretations for the new faith community?
The Apostle Paul pleads with modern Christians to live a sacrificial life that is acceptable to God. Paul also asks Christians to be courageous and facilitate the church’s transition into a new life. When the human mind is facing the unknown, it is not rational; it is fearful, anxious and often generates negative emotions. That is why Paul advises Christians to approach this situation with sober minds and thinking. When tough decisions have to be made, the church should be careful not to confine itself to the enticements of the secular world, but remain humble and love everyone, respecting their gifts and abilities.
In the Gospel of John, Chapter 15, Jesus defines his identity, ministry and Christian responsibility using an image of a tree. This speech may have taken place after the last supper or at the garden of Gethsemane moments before his capture by his enemies. Jesus said, “I am the true Vine”, the true Church, and God is the master and followers are the branches. Only Jesus can best care for the church, through the power of God. Christians are implored to “Abide in me and me in you,” like the Vine and its branches. The branches get sap and water from the Vine, so the branches cannot survive without the Vine. And the Vine also gets oxygen from the branches’ leaves; both branch and Vine are interdependent. Christians without Christ cannot bear fruit; they run dry and are pruned and cast away. At this season of the American presidential election, Christians ought to bear fruit, confess Christ boldly and live our calling boldly and insist that our faith cannot be exchanged with anything else.
We have to be bold for several reasons. One is to fulfill the Christ’s mandate, “Live truly in me and me in you;” the second is to “bear fruit,” that is, to do mission work inside and outside of ourselves; and finally to avoid judgment, because “a branch that does not bear fruit will be cast away.” Christ’s judgment sounds right because the Vine provides for the branch and the branch’s work is to bear fruit to bring forth new Vines. If a branch does not bear fruit in our farms, we cut them off or plant a new plant.
We ought to be relevant in our calling in order to revive the church and eventually revive society. Remaining in God’s love and keeping God’s commandments makes God happy and in turn God blesses us. Being relevant means knowing our Christian identity and why we are here as a congregation; how we move along with the community in our neighborhood.
The previous church revivals show that secular society responds to church revivals. For example, the Great Awakening revived the cultural, political and economic dynamics of England. And in America it transformed society, leading to an improved economy, higher learning, structured government, and the end of slavery. If the church fails to revive, a society can rebel like the French revolution in 1789 and political parties can decline. In Christ, we can be relevant and boldly transition the church and society into a new life.