The Church’s Sickness Unto Death

Our missional activism threatens to kill us. It doesn’t have to.

In my last few essays (here, here, and here) I’ve been arguing that American Christianity, and evangelical Christianity particularly, thinks about the church in mostly instrumental ways. The church’s core identity is summed up in what it’s called to do, in most cases, one form of mission activity or another. Without denying the urgency to love our neighbors, I’ve been saying that our horizontal concerns for the neighbor have all but eclipsed our passion for God. It’s like we have an advanced case of Alzheimer’s: We don’t know who we are or what we’re supposed to be about, but we feel driven to get up and walk wherever our legs will take us.

I’ve tried to show from Scripture that the church is first and foremost—and at its essence and for eternity—about the vertical, brothers and sisters embedded deeply in Christ, glorifying God and enjoying him forever. This is not just what we do but who we are.

All this to me is not a theological construct, a creative way to think about the relationship of the church to the world. Based on my experience as a pastor and member of the mainline, and my three decades as a journalist embedded in American evangelicalism, I think this view of the church is crucial for the very health and survival of American Christianity. This is what I will argue in this essay.

From Excitement to Despair

Here is what I’ve seen happen time and again when the church is conceived primarily as being missional, existing for the sake of the world:

First, it energizes many Christians—let’s acknowledge that. This was one motive of Rauchenbusch as he articulated the social gospel—he wanted to church to get out of the pews and into the …

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