The American Church: Tempted in the Wilderness

December 17, 2015

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Matthew 4:1

The church in America is in the wilderness. That’s not such a bad place to be. It’s a difficult place, often a painful place, but it’s a place God often leads his people when He has some difficult lessons to teach them or preparations to be made. And the American church certainly has some difficult lessons to learn. Moses learned in the wilderness, as did Elijah. The people of Israel learned in the wilderness. And Jesus went there as well, where he experienced some critical “perspective builders” in the form of temptations. The American church, while in the wilderness, is experiencing temptations as well. If there were ever a story written about it, the way Jesus’ story in the wilderness has been written, the enemy’s temptations of the church might go something like this…

temptationsI. The devil said to them, “If you are the Church of God, tell these people to become members.” As bread represents a basic necessity for our body, believers (i.e., members) represent a basic necessity for the Church. There is not a church leader anywhere who, when describing the church he/she serves, is not tempted to describe it at some level in terms of number of members. It is one way we measure our effectiveness in mission. Every evangelistic outreach is measured this way. And since we all want to be seen as “successful”, the temptation here is to move as many bodies as possible from the “prospect” category to the “member” category as quickly as possible. The temptation is to use emotional pleas, scare tactics, or other forms of manipulation toward an all-important “decision”. And what the church is left with, especially over the long term, is a membership filled with non-committed non-believers. At that point, none of the promises God gives us about His church are any good anymore. This temptation of getting people to check the correct box on our little in-take cards in order to build numbers is definitely one to resist.

II. The devil led them up to a high place and showed them in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to them, “I will give you all their authority and splendor…” Gaining political power seems to have become an obsession of the American church over the last few decades…even more so in light of recent culturally significant events. The problem with this is that, though Jesus had plenty to say about how we should live our lives individually (and how the church should live) he had nothing at all to say about the “Christianization” of government. Even in the face of an oppressive Roman empire, with plenty of opportunity to organize His church against it, Jesus did no such thing. Don’t hear me wrong…I believe strongly that each of us as Christians should take seriously our civic responsibilities. But I also believe the organized church should resist the temptation to build political power in order to create a more comfortable place for Christians to live and to work and to go to school. Comfort, after all, is not what followers of Christ signed on for. Just think what might be accomplished if we took all of the energy and resources we spend on political gain and cultural comfort and devoted it to missions and ministry.

III. The devil led them to a dangerous place of broken relationships and had them stand on the highest point of the slippery slope of conflict. “If you are the Church of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.” Relationships are messy business…and hard work. Some of them take extra work (you might call them “high maintenance” relationships). What we would like to do, I’m afraid, is just focus on the mission and leave the health of the relationships up to God to salvage, if He will. The temptation is to devote only a limited amount of time to relationships, so that we can focus our energies on more important things, like evangelism and worship. Then, when conflict comes, we wonder why our relationships are so very broken. We cry out to God then, saying “save us…bring us unity!” But God has already done His part…He gave us the Spirit. We have forsaken our part in preserving unity in the first place. A church who doesn’t want to “waste time” on relationships has little hope to move through conflict successfully. Resist the temptation to let relationships do whatever they want. Pay attention to them and learn to do them well. Do not put God to the test in this.

If the Church can resist these (and other) temptations and can keep its focus on Christ, it can come out of this wilderness experience all the better for having gone through it. And as with Jesus, maybe the devil will leave us until a more opportune time…

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