What does a church look like when it has no vision for its future, no idea about how to shape its present, and a loss of identity as God's people? Well you don't have to look far to find such a pitiful excuse for contemporary ecclesiological barrenness. The state of much of the Western church has plenty of examples of such a aimless meandering through the wasteland of their own demise. A demise they have chosen rather than a future which God has hoped they would embrace.
I have always found the Deuteronomic history (the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy through to the end of 2 Kings) fascinating. Not just because much of it is better than any modern soap opera, not that I'm a fan of soap operas, but because it gives us wonderful insight into what happens when God's people forget who they are and the future God expects them to pursue. In Numbers we already get a glimpse of what happens when God's people show a distinct lack of courage to follow God's promised future. Only Joshua, to be Moses replacement leader, and Caleb oppose the exaggeration of Israel's spies who convinced Israel that the land of Canaan which God had promised them was impossible to conquer. The result was a return to the wilderness until that generation died out. After 40 years Moses, who never enters the land, hands the leadership of Israel over to Joshua, who marches across the Jordan and occupies the land. "Choose who you will serve," Joshua says to Israel, "because for me and my house we will serve the Lord!" The Deuteronimic history is a tale of Israel's constant fluctuation between serving God and serving self. The Judges arise, as there was no king in Israel, to rally the tribes as they wane in faithfulness. A King is appointed, Saul, only to serve his own insecurity before David is anointed and the nation rallied. Then Solomon consolidates and builds Israel into a great nation. But the rest of the Kings, all measured against David's faithfulness, are a tale of manipulation, self grandeur, abandonment of God, and failure to remain faithful as God's people. In the end, the land they were promised is taken from them. It would take a new generation to return and try again.
One can't help but feel that much of the Western church is suffering the same malaise. It has become really good at building its organisational institutions. It has become its own unique bureaucratic structure, of which the sitcom "Yes Minister" becomes a pale lukewarm image of such ecclesiastical bureaucratic institutionalization. Somewhere in all this, it claims its a church "in mission", yet for all the institutions it has built, all the business ventures it pursues, all the money it accumulates, the actual church itself is dying around it. The Western church has become the new Titanic, as it shuffles the deckchairs, living in denial that the ship is actually already under water. Of course we have the theological wise counselors who claim the church can never die - it is, after all, the Body of Christ. Let's not confuse, however, the Body of Christ with the institutionalized bureaucratic organisation is has built around it. For all the schools it has built, its congregations continue to age and atrophy. For all its specialist departments and appropriate staffing, mission and taking the Gospel to a world spiritually starving is inhibited as the demands for funds increase among a population less capable of supply as the years race by.
What is most frustrating of all is the denial in which the church in the West lives. Those who remind the church that the heart of the church must be mission, after all that was the heart of Jesus Himself, are patronized by the bureaucratic masters of a church with no vision for its own future. It is easier to embroil itself in theological debate, or distortion notions of social justice, or succumb to strange aberrations of morality driven by a secular agenda. After all, the Gospel may be offensive. The Gospel may confront people and ask them to change. The Gospel may talk about love as it points to the sacrificial price paid for it by a crucified Lord. Then we have the strange notion that allows us to excuse mission as something that occurs only when we get "church" right. So we live with the bizarre notion, defined as utter insanity, as we continue to do the same thing somehow expecting that we will produce a different outcome.
It may seem strange that I take such a negative view of the Western church. But one can hardly do otherwise when you take a good up-close look at what she has become. And it doesn't really matter what denomination she is, whether it be Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican, Pentecostal or any other. All seem to suffer from the same malaise. Isn't it time, the church is rediscovered for what she truly is? Isn't it time we stop playing at being an organisation, and rediscover the relational heart of who she is and is meant to be? That doesn't happen at an organisational level. Bureaucratic institutions are designed to be self-preserving at all costs. They truly at Max Weber's "iron-cages"! We need a movement at the grass roots that will reclaim the relational heart of the church, and take that heart into a world that needs to know the certainty of a God who will give all for the chance to love them.