Churchianity vs Christianity, Part 2

Churchianity vs Christianity,

Part 2

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Matthew 23:13

Last week I drew a distinction between Churchianity, which focuses on the church, and Christianity, which focuses on making disciples or followers of Christ. One challenge for churches today is that in order to coordinate the worship, work, and other activities of a large group of people, some sort of organizational or institutional structure is required. Among the foundational questions I will raise in this series of reflections are these: What is the end goal of our religious structures? What should be the purpose of a church? How effectively or efficiently do any of our churches accomplish their purposes? Finances aside, which I will consider in a future reflection, are our religious structures focused on making followers of Christ or are they focused on perpetuating their own existence? Of course, there are probably few, if any, churches that fall completely on either side of that question. I think the relevant question for our purposes here is this: Where is my church on the continuum between self-perpetuation and full-on discipleship to the least and lost? To what extent do the administrative functions of our churches support attracting new members into the church and lead their members toward discipleship?

If the sole purpose of the church is to make “little Christs,” as C.S. Lewis wrote (quoted last week), then the central question has to do with how much of the church’s structure, resources, and energy is dedicated to developing followers of Jesus and how much is dedicated to maintaining the organization. I am not trying to imply that structure and administrative systems are unimportant. Rather, I am raising questions about end results. A crude analogy is that being a member of a church does not make one a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes one a car. Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, apparently read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) regularly and is attributed with saying, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”[1]

If outsiders, like Gandhi, who appreciate the teachings of Jesus observe such a wide gulf between the teachings and what manifests among its professed followers, is that a failure of the church or a failure of its members?

Author and theologian Dallas Willard writes, “For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship.”[2] And that is the challenge of the modern church. How do we obey the great commission of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and still accommodate a membership that is neck-deep in 21st Century life? Willard continues, “So far as the visible Christian institutions are concerned, discipleship clearly is optional.”[3] Should faithful discipleship be optional for those calling themselves Christians? I think it depends on how we define the terms faithful, disciple, and Christian. It also depends on the purpose of the church.

Most churches today face steep declines in membership and active involvement. The average age of members is rising and the seats vacated by dying members are not being back-filled. Among the common criticisms of the church are that it is increasingly irrelevant, out of touch, overly judgmental, and hypocritical. I propose that people today are not interested in supporting Churchianity. They are not willing to carve time out of their otherwise full lives in order to participate in an institution they perceive to be only a façade for what wearing the title of Christian is supposed to mean.

On the other hand, if a church were to require its members to commit to active discipleship –feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, reaching out to and including the marginalized, working for social justice, ministering to the isolated and lonely – would that church attract and retain more than a handful of members? Would such a church be able to fund an administrative structure sufficient to support and coordinate the work of its members? Sadly, such a church would almost certainly struggle to survive. And yet, that may be exactly what our churches are called to carry out, at least if one believes the words of Jesus as recorded in the Bible.

This is the 2nd in a series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.


[1] https://www.bing.com/search?q=i+like+your+christ+gandhi+quote&form=PRUSEN&mkt=en-us&httpsmsn=1&msnews=1&rec_search=1&refig=bd13a79fdba84ff39f53773375bf465c&sp=1&pq=i+like+your+christ&sc=5-18&qs=AS&sk=PRES1&cvid=bd13a79fdba84ff39f53773375bf465c, accessed January 19, 2021.

[2] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Harper-Collins, 1988.

[3] Ibid.

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