Temptations of the Church in the Wilderness

 The American church is in the throes of a wilderness experience. For Jesus, it was 40 days and 40 nights. For us, it is going on 30 years.

Authors Jim Davis, Michael Graham, and Ryan Burge describe what this wilderness experience amounts to in their 2023 book The Great Dechurching. They write:

The U.S. is currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country, as tens of millions of formerly regular Christian worshipers nationwide have decided they no longer desire to attend church at all. These are what we now call the dechurched. About 40 million adults in America today used to go to church but no longer do, which accounts for around 16 percent of our adult population. For the first time in the eight decades that Gallup has tracked American religious membership, more adults in the United States do not attend church than attend church.

More people have left the church in the last twenty-five years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and Billy Graham crusades combined. Adding to the alarm is the fact that this phenomenon has rapidly increased since the mid-1990s.

Jesus while in the wilderness experienced temptations. The church in its own wilderness experience faces temptations too. Lying behind these temptations is our desire as the church to be relevant again, to grow again, to bring back some kind of former glory.

When it feels like one’s community is dying, it is understandable a sense of desperation sets in. And when one is desperate, the temptation to act out of character becomes great.

Jesus fought that temptation. We must fight it too.

But what are the temptations for the church amid its wilderness experience?

Let me give you and go through what I see as three temptations of the church amid this era of the Great Dechurching.

1.)                Spiritual Shallowness

In the story of Jesus’ temptation, the figure of Satan urges Jesus to throw himself down the side of a mountain so God through his angels can come and rescue Jesus and bring him out of the wilderness. Jesus sees this as testing God and resists.

But more than a test, testing God is sort of a silly, shallow thing to do.

For the church, to make things convenient and attractive for would-be members, we might be tempted to dumb down the faith, to remove any demands, to not ask for some buy-in. We might be tempted to stick to simple platitudes and motivational speeches and avoid discussing theology and scripture and the requirement to do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility.

But we must resist this temptation.

There’s real work involved when it comes to this community called the church. There are obligations involved in becoming part of Christ’s church. There are expectations involved in building the beloved community.

Part of the temptation of spiritual shallowness is the tendency to focus simply on numerical growth. Get more visitors, more members, more volunteers, more funds in the door, and count it all. But these quantifiable things are secondary when it comes to the community of Christ.  Spiritual growth, spiritual depth, spiritual practice -- these are the goals.

Spiritual and theological shallowness can’t be an option. In fact, it isn’t what most people want. Research shows this again and again.

People want a spiritual life that goes deep, a theology that is weighty, and spiritual practices of justice, compassion, and humility that require putting in the work. People want a faith that encompasses their whole lives, that is grounded in eternal truths, that has a long lineage of spiritual ancestors that have walked the same path now being tread. And people want a community that helps them along this path.

 2.)                Cultural Capitulation 

The most straightforward of Jesus’ temptations is when Satan plainly states, just fall down and worship me and the world is yours. Jesus says only God is to be worshiped.

Many things seek our devotion and worship. Popular culture, for example. Pop culture often seems like it is trying to convince us that pop culture is essential, so essential that it becomes our focus. In many ways, we are a celebrity-worshipping culture.

Church is by nature a counter-cultural venture. Jesus resisted the prevailing cultural forces surrounding him, forces that served as distractions to the greater cause of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. We, the church, are called to do the same, to resist cultural forces that ignore the real work of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.

Now, let me say, I love popular music, movies, TV. Pop culture is of great interest to me. I do feel sometimes it is helpful to use pop culture to point to eternal truths. There’s nothing wrong with using pop culture as a tool to foster a greater good.

Sometimes, the focus is right and it works. Sometimes, things become out of balance and the results are iffy. We must be mindful of finding the right balance.

The general lesson for me is we must resist the temptation of wanting to become the cool church. That is what I mean when by capitulating to culture.

Our relevance is not based on how cool we are, or how we incorporate elements of cool culture. Our relevance is based on the timeless good news of God’s self-emptying love for us that meets us where we are and lifts us higher. Nothing can be more relevant or needed than that. The good news' relevance comes from its necessity in the human heart. Stay focused on that, and, to quote Kendrick Lamar, "we gon’ be alright."

3.)                Political Partisanship 

Satan tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread to relieve his hunger. Jesus famously quips, "We cannot live on bread alone."

As we enter a presidential election year, you’re going to hear a lot of talk from politicians about how they’re going to in no uncertain terms turn stones of hardship into the bread of success. That’s fine. That’s what politicians do.

What is the church to do, though? What does it have to say in the face of all this talk?

The temptation for the church is to delve into the sordid game of political partisanship, making it plain that we as a church favor one group of so-called bread-makers of success over the other. That is a temptation we must resist.

At the same time, we must be clear that apathy, the art of ignoring it all, is also a political side. We must resist the temptation to take that side. We must resist embracing the politics of apathy, too.

What do we do then?

Take the side of love. Side with love

We follow the one who perfectly and completely sided with love and who was in fact love incarnate. We follow Jesus.

And Jesus is clear that there are non-negotiables when it comes to human society.

A large section of Matthew 25 points to these non-negotiables. Instead of listing Jesus’ non-negotiables, I summarize them with the overarching command from Jesus – take care of the most vulnerable in society. They, the most vulnerable, they are where we are to start.

We will differ and bicker over how to best care for the most vulnerable. That is a given, and why political parties are a given. But, we are obligated to take care of the most vulnerable. That is the non-negotiable Jesus gives us. Remember, whatever we do unto the most vulnerable, we do unto Christ.

Okay, so I need to end this meditation quickly. I’m now at 1,200 words, which is my cutoff goal.

Resisting these temptations comes down to this. Get to know God and God's way of love deeply, resisting spiritual shallowness; worship God alone and do so regularly, resisting cultural capitulation; and remember God who is love and who loves all and includes all, resisting political partisanship – these three spiritual practices are kryptonite for the temptation I described this morning.

The takeaway – practice them!  


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