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The Underchurching of America

Lore has it that in 64 AD, Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Then, needing a scapegoat, he blamed the Christians. In our day and time, Church leaders fiddle while the body goes down in flames…all the while pointing the blame at secular influences. In 2000 years we have adapted Nero’s ways, fiddling away while burning down the church and blaming Nero for the results as we do it.

In an age that calls for increasing power to stand, the American church has done the one thing worse than acknowledging it’s own apostasy…and that is to continue to deny it. This has resulted in millions of people, while perhaps technically believers, who find themselves in church bodies that are doing nothing to prepare them for real life.

Nearly two decades ago, Saturday Night Live would feature a weekly skit about about a cat, entitled “Toonces, The Cat That Could Drive a Car…But Not Very Well.” Each week, Toonces would find his way behind the wheel – often with his owner’s encouragement – only to drive the car off a bridge, down an embankment, into an oncoming train, etc. The humor was in the absurdity of a cat driving a car and his loony owners who continually encouraged him to try. Every week, failure seemed inevitable…yet they were loathe to admit it. In each episode they’d stand, smiling and waving, as they sent Toonces (and his frequent passengers) off to his doom.

The present day American church shares more in common with Toonces than we care to admit. Weekly, she stumbles off to do what she is in no way prepared to do, taking a great many lives with her in the process. Leaders stand in the driveway, waving, all along praying that this would be the week that the church would meet up with all the promises they’ve made. In most cases, she crashes miserably…none of which discourages the leaders from giving it the exact same old college try again the next week.

Statistically speaking, church as we do it is not working well. That’s not to say there are no life-giving churches…but it’s accurate to say that there are far too few. For every church that is leading people into a life of health, wholeness and victory over sin, there are dozens who are keeping people in a spiritual holding pattern. People find themselves a year, two years, a decade older but not much wiser and even less victorious. It makes one wonder where we can find this power to save that we read about. This is not the church Jesus had in mind… ”Toonces, the church that could save a soul, but not very well.”

While it may feel otherwise at times, writing this piece of work comes out of a love for the church and a believe in the validity of organized religion. I am not a self styled religionist who wishes for Christianity to be a menu of experiences to be picked through like a late morning breakfast buffet. I believe in the local church and the power of the cross. I believe in Jesus’ glorious plan for His bride and that He will accomplish it through her, even in her brokenness.

Around the world, in what would appear to be the most difficult places, the church flourishes. In the former Soviet block, government camp grounds are being used as revival centers. China’s believers are evangelizing and teaching new believers to live out their faith in persecution while American believers attend services that are patterned after their favorite tv shows because nothing else can hold their attention for an hour.

Why the drastic difference? Are the souls of China more resilient than American souls? Does God’s plan allow for the success of those with the difficult portion while those who are given much find very little required of them? Or are we being lulled to sleep by our own freedoms and successes? Surely we are made of the same stuff as believers worldwide – at least at the core. So how do we explain for our apparent ineptitude? I believe the answer lies in the idea of being underchurched.

When I say ‘underchurched’, I do not mean the unsaved or the unchurched believer. Those are two legitimate categories about whom many books have been written. The underchurched are a third group – one arguably in a more tenacious position than the other two if only for it’s seductive nature.

The underchurched are generally bona fide believers who find themselves in a position in which they will never fully mature because they are not receiving the sort of spiritual nutrients that enable normal growth. It is not that they are not receiving anything – they’re being kept alive, but barely, on a Sunday morning saline solution that leaves them thirstier than when they came. Despite weekly attendance in a community of faith, they are struggling with the same attitudes, difficulties and sins that they were struggling with when they first believed. They are not lacking in belief, they are lacking in leadership. They are not unbelieving, they are the underchurched.

The times call for the reversal of the underchurching of America.


steve said...

What do you propose church leaders do? I agree witht he problem, but what is the solution?

Randy Bohlender said...

Excellent and obvious question, Steve. I haven't got the problem well defined yet. I'm still working on that. Honestly, when I say 'underchurched', I don't think most people are tracking with me yet. (My fault - I still need to better clarify it).

I have an inkling about the answer, but I don't think a lot of us are going to like it.

steve said...

I'm presently reading "Searching for God Knows What" by Donald Miller. I think he's on to something when he states that many people know the four points of the Gospel, but they don't really know Jesus. Until I know Him so well that He is rubbing off on me, I'll continue to judge people because of their job, education, associations, etc...We as leaders aren't leading people to the place where their attitudes and actions are radically changed because so many of us, me included, don't have that type of relationship with Christ yet. I can give you the apologetic arguments why Jesus is God, the Savior of the World, but do I personally know Him well enough that His love has rubbed off on me? This probably makes no sense, but it's where I'm at.
Thanks for the thought provoking thoughts.