Aunt Mary changed my worldview. No, she wasn’t very articulate, eloquent, or educated. She didn’t know much about theology and was oblivious to cultural trends and evangelistic models. But she really loved Jesus. The problem was — at least for me — my Aunt Mary was a Catholic.
That was back in 1980 and, as a young, overly-zealous Christian, I had come to see the Catholic Church as the Evil Empire (thanks Jack Chick!). The Pope is the anti-christ, I proclaimed. Catholics will go to hell unless they repent! And I told Aunt Mary so. But she would just hug me. “Oh Mickey,” she’d chuckle. “God luv ya.”
Needless to say, Aunt Mary’s simple, unwavering faith, eventually got to me. No, I didn’t become a Catholic. But I began to realize that people’s salvation had little to do with their religious affiliations. Broad-brushing groups and denominations ignored the diversity, the individuality, that is so inherent to the Body of Christ. How could I condemn the entire Catholic Church when other Aunt Mary’s were possibly out there?
Yet today’s “bash the church” movement is rooted in similar generalizations and stereotypes. Fred Phelps calls himself a Christian, but that doesn’t mean all Christians are Fred Phelpses. Pat Robertson, Ted Haggard, and James Dobson may, to many, represent the public face of the Religious Right. But they don’t necessarily represent me. To condemn all evangelicals because some are hypocrites, extremists, or closet perverts, is to do a gross disservice to the many others who are faithfully, lovingly, following Jesus.
Nevertheless, in order to validate their defection, postmoderns must establish an apologetic against organized Christianity. But in order do this, the proponents of said apologetic must engage in generalizations and ignore evidences — however small — of “health” within Christian denominations and local churches.
Once again, let me clarify — I believe that American Christianity has problems. I am not here defending our pathetic Christian pop culture, political zealotry, gay bashing, social indifference, or holier-than-thou smugness. What I’m saying is that something as big as the Body of Christ can’t be pigeon-holed.
Even Jesus addressed His Body at a “local” level. In the Book of the Revelations, Christ spoke a distinct message to the seven churches of Asia minor (Rev. 1-3). Each of those messages were different. One church was “loveless” (2:1-7), another was “persecuted” (2:8-11), another was “dead” (3:1-6), and one was “faithful” (3:7-11). None of those seven churches was in the exact same place.
Religion in America is constantly changing. However, statisticians tell us that there is roughly “335,000 religious congregations in the United States. Of those, about 300,000 are Protestant and other Christian churches, and 22,000 are Catholic and Orthodox churches.” If Jesus had a different assessment of each of the seven churches of Asia minor, what would He say to the 300,000 churches of the USA? Either way, He probably wouldn’t say the same thing.
So when we say that the American Church is institutionalized, irrelevant, or obsolete, exactly what part of the American Church are we talking about? Mainline Protestants? Catholics? Charismatics? Anglicans and Episcopalians? Pentecostals? Quakers? Baptists? Eastern Orthodox? Or are we talking about the small congregation around the corner that barely brings in enough money to pay rent and keep their soup kitchen open?
Before you condemn the entire American Church, you need to meet my pastor, Jim Mann, who will be going to Africa at the end of this month to talk to pastors about reconciliation. And you need to hang out with my friend (and in-law) Don Fredricks who is right now in Pakistan with a missions group. Or how about my friends Mark and Sandy Schneider who adopted two orphans from Haiti. Or how about my friend Pastor Bill Henderson who has faithfully served the poor and outcast for almost two decades. None of these people are perfect, but they are parts of the American Church.
Sure, in some ways we Christians deserve bashing. But as long as there’s Jim Mann’s and Don Frederick’s and Sandy Schneider’s out there — as long as there’s Aunt Mary’s out there — we should think twice before throwing the first punch.