Christianity, as we have always known it, is in trouble. I’m not just referring to declining church attendance and survey numbers that suggest fewer and fewer people are interested. Although the spiritual need within humans remains strong, people are looking somewhere besides Christianity to fulfill that need.
We need to examine why Christianity has failed to be the spiritual answer people need. We will discover the problem goes back a long way and, like a ship traveling on the wrong coordinates, is far from the intended target. What happened? How did following a Savior turn into a liturgy?
The Christian faith as we know it has three flaws that prevent it from being the answer to our spiritual needs. Each of them is something those of us raised in the faith find comfortable and tend to fight attempts to suggest they are a problem.
Transactional rather than transformational
Most of us live in a transactional world. It is what we have known all our lives and where we are most comfortable. You might even say the world depends on us being transactional. Perhaps a fundamental way to comprehend this notion is to look to economics. Economic systems are built on transactions. If you give me that, I will give you this. How else would we ever be able to purchase anything?
Occasionally, we allow bartering to be a part of the transaction, especially when it comes to larger transactions. For example, we barter over the price of a car or a house, but we seldom bargain with the checkout clerk at Walmart. Also, transactions constantly fluctuate. What you paid for a gallon of gas today will probably be less than you will pay tomorrow. Even though the transactions change, economic systems depend on transactions — this for that, tit for tat.
“Economic transaction systems have proved effective. However, it’s not quite as helpful when we live other aspects of life based on transactions.”
Economic transaction systems have proved effective. However, it’s not quite as helpful when we live other aspects of life based on transactions. It doesn’t work well for relationships. When a friendship is transactional, it will fail when one of the friends doesn’t fulfill their part or changes the terms. You probably have friends who like you as long as you behave a certain way or hold to certain beliefs. If or when you change, the friend disappears.
Parents often establish transactional relationships with children. When they are young, it might be as simple as cleaning your room, and I’ll give you an allowance, or I’ll give you a trip to Six Flags for a good report card. The transactions can continue as the children get older. A teenager hears that if they are out past curfew, they will be grounded. These transactions can even be carried into adulthood. Do you know people who cater to their parents because they don’t want to make them mad and suffer the consequences? That’s a transactional relationship.
We have learned how to make transactional living work. It’s especially popular among the rich and powerful. Those who have the most are in a position to make the best deals. The poor and minorities don’t fare as well in the system because they have less to offer, and much of what they do have is essential for survival.
“Most people operate within a religious system that is transactional.”
Most people operate within a religious system that is transactional, and that has not worked out well.
Here’s how it works. We must do certain things or behave a certain way for God to be pleased with us. If we misbehave (sin), God is angry and will punish us. This is the basic religious position for many Christians. We sin, God is angry, and we will be punished. Simple transaction.
However, in this scenario, God makes a better offer. Since we sinned, God must punish us, but God still loves us. Rather than sending us to hell, God sent Jesus to take our punishment, and if we believe in him (whatever that means), we will not be punished. As far as deals go, this is better than any Black Friday special. Salvation and eternal life are available; all it costs is a quick prayer.
This makes Jesus’ cross nothing more than a transaction between God and sinful humans.
The idea of transactional religion has been further developed for those who want more than escape from hell. If you want to enjoy a relationship with God, make a few more transactions.
Avoiding sin is a big help. You will truly enjoy God if you spend time in prayer and Bible study frequently, every day if possible. Obviously, church attendance and involvement are a big help. That is transactional religion at its finest. It’s also Christianity at its finest.
The Christian life has become a series of transactions between God and us. If we do our part, God will provide blessings.
“When Jesus died, God was not making a sale.”
Rather than understanding the cross of Jesus as a cosmic transaction, we need to realize its purpose was transformational. When Jesus died, God was not making a sale — I’ll forgive you if you have faith. Jesus was transforming us.
It was a transformation of our understanding of God, who does not need to punish people because they sinned. God wanted us to receive love and forgiveness despite our sin, so God did the most obvious thing imaginable — sent his Son to tell us he loved us. The purpose of the cross was to transform us.
The cross also transformed our religion. The altar of sacrifice was eliminated since no sacrifice was necessary. By the way, even in the Baptist church, we designated the front of the sanctuary as the altar. No altar is necessary since no sacrifice was necessary. Our religion does not need an altar. Neither does it need rules and regulations. Religious rules are designed to keep us in line. We are taught that if we keep the rules, God will be pleased with us, and we will grow spiritually. That also includes religious practices — church attendance, prayer, Bible study.
“Once we understand God’s love, we will desire to please God.”
Once we understand God’s love, we will desire to please God. We don’t need to be browbeaten or horse-whipped by rules. Humans tend to love those who love them. Knowing God’s great love for us will transform us.
Jesus does not offer a bargain transaction; he offers transformation.
Binary rather than single
I’m aware that some of you will go apoplectic, assuming I’m going to dive into human sexuality. Relax. I’m not using the term “binary” to say it’s wrong to believe there are only males and females, two sexes. By binary, I refer to looking at everything as having only two options — right or wrong. It means living in a black-or-white world.
The Christian faith has become a series of dos and don’ts, rights and wrongs. If you do this, it’s good; if you do that, it’s bad. Those of us who grew up in the church frequently heard the rules. In my Baptist tradition, we learned Christians don’t drink, smoke, gamble or engage in premarital sex. In contrast, we were taught to keep our eyes and thoughts pure, avoid the wrong people, and, by all means, practice the rituals of the faith (Bible study, prayer, church attendance).
This same approach carries over as we get older. We learn to apply the same judgments to people and their activities. Having an abortion is bad, regardless of the reason, and the ones who do are evil, bad people. We’re not allowed to consider it might be a woman at the end of her rope with no one to help or even to listen to her story to see if there were extenuating circumstances. Wrong is wrong.
“Life is much simpler when you live in a black-and-white world.”
Life is much simpler when you live in a black-and-white world. Decisions are easier because we don’t have to think about what is right or wrong. That’s why binary living is so popular. When there is a lot of gray, life can be messy.
However, Jesus was not a binary person. He seldom told people they were right or wrong, pointing instead to the different shades of gray in life. For example, the Samaritan woman at the well with the many husbands. Jesus did not condemn her for having several husbands or even living with a man who was not her husband. He simply spoke to her about her current situation. It did not matter if she was right or wrong. What mattered was her present state of affairs.
Too often, we are concerned about what a person is doing right or wrong, not about the person. Our religion has become little more than a system of rules and regulations. We proclaim that God accepts everybody, but then we expect them to change and live according to a set of rules. By the way, the rules are very clear because they are spelled out in the Bible. This allows us to easily label people or groups as good or bad depending on which rules they keep.
The fascination with wrong or right brings us to a third problem with Christianity.
Focus on doing rather than being
Since the crux of the faith is on keeping rules and performing specific behaviors, we have focused our attention on doing rather than being. People are evaluated on what they do and not who they are. That’s how the Christian faith has changed from following a Savior to following a liturgy. I use the term “liturgy” to describe the way people worship and serve God.
We strive to do “Christian things.” That’s why the question “What would Jesus do?” became so popular. Once we determine what Jesus would do, we know what we should do. In those areas where we have no record of Jesus doing anything, we make up stuff based on what he did in similar situations.
For example, let’s return to a favorite whipping horse: abortion. What would Jesus do about abortion? We don’t know since he said nothing specific. We know he loved children and emphasized their importance, even suggesting that, in some way, we need to be like children. Consequently, we can’t imagine Jesus advocating killing a child, even under extreme circumstances. Therefore, the “Christian thing” to do is oppose all abortions.
The problem is that we become so preoccupied with doing that we lose sight of who Jesus was. Can you see Jesus protesting in front of an abortion clinic, shouting insults at pregnant women, telling a young woman with no family or support that she must spend the next nine months carrying a new child and then 18 years of providing for that child?
“The question is not what would Jesus do, but what would Jesus be.”
The question is not what Jesus would do but what Jesus would be. We know the answer to that question because we saw who he was when encountering people who were hurting and in trouble. It didn’t matter if the problem was spiritual or physical; Jesus was there with and for the person suffering.
To the adulterous woman suffering accusations and shame, Jesus was a rescuer. To the short tax collector in a tree suffering rejection, Jesus was a guest in his house. To two women mourning the loss of their beloved brother, Jesus was a life-giver. To an angry crowd hurling insults toward his cross, Jesus was a forgive.
It’s time to put down your “abortion is murder” placard and put loving arms around that teenager who will be thrown out of the house by her parents when they discover she is pregnant. It’s time to stop posting hateful memes on Facebook about LGBTQ folk and take your gay co-worker to Chick-fil-A to lunch (get it?). It’s time to stop striving to keep all the rules and be the one thing Jesus did best — love others.
These three features have become so prominent among Christians that I’m not overly confident we can ever find the heart of the faith once again.
I know I’m not there, but I’m trying. One of my favorite Bible verses is from 2 Corinthians 12:9 — “And (the Lord) has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Perhaps the key to recovering the true faith is to stop striving and let Jesus be in us. When we are weak, then we are strong.
Author: Terry Austin says from his first day of life, he was taught to love the church. He has lived out that passion in various ways as a pastor, church consultant, author, and critic. He is currently a full-time writer and book publisher and is actively engaged with house churches. Contact him here.