The Church’s Downward Trajectory Explained

Down to Joppa. Down to the bottom of a ship. Down to the bottom of the sea. Down to depths of a whale’s belly. Down, down, down, down!

Fleeing the presence of the Lord and the command of the Lord is self-destructive. It causes one to go down. Flight from the presence of God and the will of God has a downward trajectory.

Why do it? Why did Jonah do it? Why do I?

Because, human that I am, I’m rocked by anything that challenges my place at the center of the universe. How many times in my forty-eight years have I been frustrated (albeit quietly for the most part in accordance with the norms of southern politeness or general political correctness) by the waiter who shows an inordinate amount of time and attention to another customer to the neglect of me and my party?

Why, God, would you spend time and energy seeking repentance (note repentance is required of both Nineveh and Jonah – might this express an inherent equality of Ninevites and Israelites?) from a bunch of derelicts and reprobates like the Ninevites? “It displeased Jonah exceedingly.” Surely your time could be filled tending to me and my people, the Israelites!

Them? Really? What about Us? What about Me? O how short the walk to a quiet and veiled bigotry!

This challenges the individual believer, anyone donning the name Christian. Where won’t I go even at the Lord’s command? Five Points? Loveman Village? Rwanda? An Auburn game?

More subtly, how have I so ordered my life around the” American Dream” that asking God where I might go for His purpose is inconceivable? Too often it is not a matter of hearing and rebelling. It is ordering my life in such a way that I cannot hear. It is ordering my life in such a way that I cannot listen. It is hard to hear the Lord’s desire for me to plant a church in Bolivia when I am certain He intends for me to live in the Virgin Islands. He does, doesn’t He? In the slip next to Buffet, right?

This challenges the church. Most churches do not decide, consciously at least, to ignore God, to care little for those beyond us He ALSO seeks to redeem. No, we rightly justify the wrong bunker mentality with scripture and reasonable interpretation. Discipleship is exalted over evangelism. Among the depraved, whether Ninevites or Israelites, the logical conclusion is maintenance over mission. Ever downward, “customer” satisfaction becomes the norm, fat sheep the evidence of a successful ministry. My oh my, the capacity of attention to the starving to displease the fat and happy!

I wish I was creating a straw man in order to write the reflection. I am not. There has not been a time in which the age old tension so aptly described in the life of Jonah has not been present in the church. I wish I could say it has never lived within me. And tragically, at times, it wins the day.

And downward we go! The Church shrinks, not engaging a Gaga enthralled generation and the Bieber enthralled one right behind it. After all who wants to hang out with the Gaga and Bieber enthralled? I mean do they have any appreciation for my caramel macchiato? Churches shrink for the same reason. Or alternately, when members inclined to maintenance are challenged to life beyond themselves . . . fill in the blank of what happens next. We limp onward toward the precipice of spiraling downward.

In response God suggests a modicum of perspective. You care about plants you didn’t sow or nourish? How then could I not care for those I’ve created in my own image? Won’t you care with me Jonah?

Won’t you get outside of yourselves you so called disciples of Jesus and care with me?

Quit consuming. Start slimming, Feed my other sheep.

Rise instead!

10 Responses to “The Church’s Downward Trajectory Explained”

  • Richard Says:

    I agree completely. We must grow “Down” so to speak, but only so that we can then grow “up and out”

    “Nobody told me there’d be days like these!”

  • Brittany O. Says:

    Well said. I believe what you say that people do not consciously ignore God. It can be so easy to do the “right” thing especially when everyone is patting you on the back along the way. Perhaps there was a missed opportunity? Thankfully every day is a new beginning.

  • John Richardson Says:

    Amen Brittany on the grace that comes with each new day. Who among us doesn’t need it?

    That said, Anient Future Christians must be a little suspect of accolades and look intentionally for those ways in which we orchestrate listening/hearing out of our lives. We must ask ourselve again and again, “Is the (American) dream to which I aspire at all inspired by my walk in the footstpes of Jesus?”

  • Joel B Says:

    John, this is excellent. How do we break the downward spiral? And to what end? It seems right that the Church must first reaffirm its primary mission – to Glorify God (“What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. . . “). The Church cannot be about ministering to felt needs or about helping us achieve the American Dream. In addition to reaffirming its primary mission, the Church must preach the Gospel. And by Gospel, I mean the Gospel as discovered/rediscovered by the Reformers. A Gospel which is soundly biblically based and in which God’s sovereignty is embraced. A gospel in which no work of man is meritorious, but in which God receives all the glory. And a Gospel which affirms that God’s grace is greater than all our sin. Finally, the church must teach again that the Cross of Christ is not merely mercy – it is God’s righteous judgment crashing into mercy. Why has the church in America ceased teaching about the righteous wrath of God? How can I know God’s grace and mercy if I do not know what I have been saved from. Jonathan Edwards knew full well why his people needed to hear Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. His people had to have a baseline from which to understand the glory of God’s salvation. They had to understand that Jesus, in dying on the Cross, paid the price of facing God’s righteous and wrathful judgment. If we do not understand the price of Calvary and the death from which we have been saved, how then can we rightly rejoice in God’s gracious intervention in our lives?

    Give me a church which teaches the Gospel in its fulness, unapologetically. Give me a church that boldly restates, “there is no area of our lives about which Jesus does not claim, ‘Mine!’.” Give me a church that teaches my children (as I teach them in the home) that their chief end is to Glorify God and that all “success” must be measured in eternal and not temporal measure. Give me a church which relates, to be sure, but a church which preaches the Gospel — the very Gospel for which so many have given their lives in times ancient, modern, and I predict future.

    Thank you for your courageous stance – the church is truly blessed to have you.

  • Mary Elizabeth Says:

    I love the concept of “feed my OTHER sheep”. We are so quick to feed each other’s souls, it seems so much easier to love each other as Christ calls us to do when we are within our comfortable communities and the backyards of friends. But how do we reach the world from those cozy backyards? We don’t. God doesn’t call us to “feed the sheep that have been put in the pen with you” but to go out into the world! A particular worship song has been playing in my car lately…and reminds me of this post referring to the American dream. “I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold, I’d rather have Jesus than riches untold, I’d rather have Jesus than worldwide fame, I’d rather be true to His holy name…I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords to me” is a clip from it…but would we really? How often do we settle for what the world has for us than for what Jesus and His grace offer to us? I know I am the first in line of guilty parties for this! Prayerfully, I want to begin to feed sheep outside of my own pen more and more, and to turn to Jesus’s holy name as opposed to the offerings of this world. <

  • John Richardson Says:

    Joel, Thanks for dropping by the Ancient Future Church. Please come again so iron may sharpen more iron to the Glory of God.

    “How do we break the downward spiral?” You suggest quite a good place to start. Certainly we could stand to re-establish among us “the chief end of man.” But I wonder if, even among believers, we do not first need to bind up the strong man, in this case us. Copernicus did us a favor speaking scientifically but what is the logical conclusion of his discovery that not everything revolves around earth. Was it to decide everything revolves around us? Don’t we live in a world where the individual is at the center of the individual’s universe? “To each his own.” How many times can we say it without it taking root? “I did it my way.” How many times can we sing it without it shaping us?

    It has been a part of the church from the earliest days. The Apostle Paul encountered Corinthians who thought themselves so much better than other Corinthians that they wrecked others’ church experience. They ate and imbibed before everyone else arrived. They consumed all leaving others unfed. “One remains hungry, another gets drunk.” They did it their way to the pain, suffering and alienation of all the rest. Their narcissistic use of freedom drew much ire and a strong warning. Ignoring the Body (the whole, the assembly) Paul says is to heap judgment upon one’s self. A bit earlier in the First Letter to the Corinthians he addressed the same misuse of freedom in a more genteel way saying “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” Neither the world nor the Kingdom revolves around the individual. Neither revolves around me.

    My point is that if we have not from the beginning regarded the whole as more important than any part or even the sum of the parts, how we will soon place God in the right chair. We must be dethroned if we are to place Him upon it. We cannot Glorify God until we admit that we are naturally more inclined to satisfy self. We cannot preach the absence of merit in man when we truly believe there is merit at least within self. We cannot promote wrath for man generally if we find ourselves undeserving of it. We once sought to be on God’s team. Today we are his rival and we mean to win.

    We are not bound by a defective theology. We are bound first by a defective anthropology. I’ve met the strong man and his name is John.

  • Patty Says:

    Some churches are growing these days by feeding folks a smorgasbord of desserts – no substance. Others shrink alarmingly as you have said because God would not possibly speak to the needs of today in any understandable or appealing language. He could not possibly love us enough to reach down and love us right where we live in this 21st century. All told, we are in a mess and still we insist on having it “my way”! And, oh by the way, God better bless me or else! All things I am experiencing these days tell me to get busy seeking God first and His will, because anything else will never help this sinner. And I keep remembering that in the good times I feel like I am in control, and in the tough times of doubt and fear, that is when God better gets my attention and my obedience. It is not easy to ask for the tough times, but I must be willing to walk the path God chooses, because I do know that He loves me and He knows a whole lot better than I do what is best for me – and for us all. That means I think, we should stay where the tension is tight enough. Even when we feel like it is free fall from 10,000 feet! Even when we must go meet and mingle with the “Ninevites”!

  • joel b Says:

    John, as long as the forum will have me…. Glad to participate, particularly because you are so important to the body of Christ.

    I think you and I are looking at the same problem, but from a different view. But I continue to believe the starrting point is good theology (and I know you have good theology), not a focus on our own sinfulness (which is real and which is very ugly). Let me explain my argument further:

    I believe that theology, as with philosophy, has consequences. What we believe shapes what we become. So our thinking, including our thinking about God, changes us, either for better or worse. I think there is at least some scriptural support for my thesis (“be ye tranformed by the renewing of your mind…”). In practical terms for this discussion, if I do not think highly enough about God (He is Sovereign, He is perfectly holy, etc), then my flesh will fill the void by exalting itself to an unbiblical conclusion. So what I need is not more self abasement done in a vacuum. Instead, what I need to do is stare into the eyes of a holy God and reflect on His glory. As I do that, I am rightly placed in relation to Him, and I see myself as a miserable sinner who desparately needs God’s grace. And I long to be tranformed for His glory.

    If you will allow me a bit of an existential argument in support of my thesis, I have learned that the periods in my life when sin’s grip on me is lessened are the periods when I quit trying to “stop sinning” and when I instead focus my attention on God’s holiness and his glory.

    I think the theological piece is critical to our churches. I am sorely disappointec that most of the churches I have attended have had almost no emphasis on theological training. For example, I can hardly remember a sermon on the Glory of God, although I have heard scores along the lines, “10 steps to being a better you” or “how to stop sinning.”

    In sum, we agree (theologically speaking) that all of creation is here by God’s grace, and for the purpose of Glorifying God. If our churches are not preaching and teaching thag, they are merely self help groups or country clubs. Lord, have mercy. Our churches are trying to “build a better you,” when they should and could be proclaiming the glory of God as He has revealed himself in scripture.

  • John Richardson Says:

    Amen Joel! And again I say Amen!

    You called me out a bit there. Admittedly, it was with tongue in cheek that I exalted anthropology over theology. Of course any sound understanding of man emerges from a sound understanding of God. With hyperbole I wanted to point out a real problem, that Enlightened modern man struggles to yield to a God who has revealed Himself in ages past. We live with an arrogance – newer is better. Therefore we are better and our understanding of God better. It has been said God created us in His image and we have ever since been recreating Him in ours. Modern man has done that in spades.

    Agreed on thinking (read reflecting on scripture) that leads to transformation (a renewed mind). The Bible holds the image into which we are being transformed. But even reflection apart from the refining fire of the Holy Spirit yields at best a more educated man. After Romans 12:1-2 my mind runs 2 Corinthians 3. We so often want to dwell and at times toy in secondary works of the Holy Spirit when in the New Covenant His primary work in the believer (convicting and professing in the unbeliever) is transforming the believer into the likeness of the Son. Without transformation the church is too often rent asunder by those who have not the character or heart necessary to exercise the gifts they perceive themselves to possess. Writ large, the absence of such Spirit led transformation, produces in your words a self help group or country club. We beseech you Lord. Have mercy.

    Agreed also on not striving (I’ll stop sinning). If only my striving and personal discipline could achieve my salvation and sanctification! And that takes us full circle. Believing such reflects a confidence in mortal and depraved man rather than a humility before an immortal and holy God. This is a plague upon us and here hyperbole can have no restraint. Little sanctification occurs outside such humility and none, absolutely none, is achieved in or out of our own strength.

    Lord, deliver me from becoming a better me. Let me not forget that apart from your grace and mercy, there was nothing at the outset upon which to improve.

  • John Richardson Says:

    Mary Elizabeth, Below is part of a note Lindsey Qualls wrote recently in response to this article and the Ancient Future Church blog. It is published with her blessing. She is clearly not satified with what the world has to offer.

    “In eight weeks I terminated my lease on my beautiful one bedroom apartment. I sold a lot of my stuff. I quit my job that I had been at for a little more than 7 years. I’m still currently in the process of selling my car. I will have no or very little savings by the time I am done at the end of the summer next year and I think I am the happiest I have ever been.

    I’m giving a year- the first of hopefully the rest of my life- to God completely. I don’t want the American dream. I don’t want loads of money or earthly possessions. I just want to follow God and share that with the lost. So right now I’m in Oxford learning at St Aldate’s church and helping out with the ACT! ministry. The program ends at the end of July, but I don’t currently feel called to go home so I am already praying about what God has in store for me next.”

    Go Linz!

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