Last November, people of the internet freaked out when the trailer for the new Star Wars movie came out. Voices were divided into two camps: those that were squealing like the school children they once were when they first saw the original trilogy, and the whiners. The complaints were petty: they changed the shape of the satellite dish on top of the Millennium Falcon, they made an African American stormtrooper, they turned R2-D2 into a soccer ball, they added two unnecessary blades to a lightsaber. These complaints have no bearing over the quality of the movie or the writers or the story, they’re only minor squabbles about things that were different. Complaints over changes to the mythos of a fictional universe that is 38 years old.
Now try to change religious traditions that are centuries old.
I discovered a print version of Relevant Magazine in early 2007 when they featured Ben Folds on the cover – something that no other Christian magazine would have done. Inside the pages, I found sharp writing that danced between entertaining and edifying. I signed up for their newsletters and now I primarily read the digital version of their publication. In the years since, I’ve found new music through them – great bands that I would have never heard of through any other method. I’ve read countless articles and interviews; most of the time, that reading has proven to be thought provoking and left an impact. I’ve developed a respect for their willingness to speak with people and highlight subjects that would normally be considered taboo by the mainstream church.
Rarely do I ever come across articles from them where I disagree. Even rarer are those that I wholly reject. And never ones that completely rub me the wrong way. Until now.
They published a piece called “4 Ways the Modern Church Looks Nothing Like the Early Church.” It’s not the first time that they have editorialized on the failures on the modern church. Most of the time, their criticisms are well placed. This however, disgusted me.
First, it’s written like the clickbait of Huffington Post or Buzzfeed. Some throwaway listicle. Before even reading it, I was appalled with that title.*
Of course the modern church is different from the first century church. Just like the modern church is different from the one that I grew up in during the 80s and 90s. Just like the modern church is different from the church of the 70s when my dad was studying to become a pastor. Even those churches from my youth are different from the churches that existed before them.
The churches of the Holy Roman Empire were different from the first churches scattered across Palestine and the Asia Minor 2000 years ago. The first protestant churches to spring up after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg were different than anything that preceded them – in fact, the Catholic church was changed by Luther’s defiance. The church of the reformation period was different than the church of the dark ages. The churches planted in the new world by pilgrims and other settlers were different than the churches in their European homelands. The missions built to convert the American Native Tribes were different than the churches back in the Eastern states. And the churches of the Civil Rights movement were different than those of the Industrial Revolution.
One thing remains the same, connecting every church body from the second chapter of Acts until today: change – everything changes.
Well, that and Jesus.
Because, the Christian church has always been about Jesus. Sometimes, we get it wrong. Sometimes, we’ve distorted His words and His message to suit our own biases. Yet underneath our selfishness and our ambitions, beyond our failures and brokenness, the church was founded upon this person who called us to love God with every fiber of our being, every synapse of our thinking, and the deepest recesses of our souls. This thing called Christianity was designed to honor a man who commanded us to love others – even our enemies in the same way that we love ourselves. Churches, from the earliest incarnations meeting in secret to today’s mega churches preaching to millions every week, all share a belief in this savior who taught how the last would be first and that to give was to receive.
Such bizarre principles. Revolutionary ideas. And for thousands of years we’ve been trying to figure out how to live by those teachings.
Is it fair to criticize the modern church? Of course it is. There are many things that we are doing wrong. I have even written about them many times before now. But to say we’re failing because we’re not doing things the same way that things were handled by the early church is misguided. It’s woefully wrong.
Because the Christian religion isn’t about the early churches, it’s about Jesus Christ. If we insist on emulating the churches of the first century, it is making them far more important than they should ever be. It is taking the focus off of God’s one and only Son. Placing such significance on any object or group of people is really just another form of idolatry.
Our faith is not about a building. Nor is it about a group of people or an organization that once existed. It is about one person. Jesus. The unchanging God come to earth as a man. Him and Him alone.
There is another thing that has changed since those first century churches: culture. Anyone with even the most trivial knowledge of world history could write a rebuttal to the Relevant article. Title it: “4 Ways the Modern Era Looks Nothing Like the First Century CE.”
Times change. People change. Cultures change. Technologies change. Everything changes except God. The biggest issue that the modern church faces is the same it faced when I was growing up. It is the same issue that churches faced when my parents were kids. It’s the same issue that faced the Catholic Church when Luther composed his Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum. It is as simple as it is relentless.
How do we worship an unchanging God in an ever changing world? How do we communicate His truths when the world of politics are constantly in turmoil and the sciences are rapidly advancing?
We try. I guarantee we’re not getting it right. We’re making mistakes. But we’re also a population of humans trying to interpret and understand the divine. As long as there are people involved, the church will never be perfect.
But there is something else I know. The early church was also composed of people. Wonderfully imperfect people like you and me. They didn’t get it right either. They made mistakes. They had problems too. How do we know they had issues? Because the apostle Paul had to write them letters to convince them of their errors. Because John addressed them while exiled on Patmos, sending them his Revelations as a warning to change their ways.
If the early churches were perfect, most of the New Testament would have never been written. The early missionary journeys documented in the Book of Acts would have been nothing more than a victory lap. Paul’s Epistles would have been filed with congratulatory awards instead of instruction and admonitions.
Does this Relevant contributor honestly believe that the modern church would be better off if we modeled ourselves after the early church that was just as messed up as we are today?
Change is difficult. It is uncomfortable. There will always be a percentage of the population that just wants to go back to the way things were. Nerds will always argue about which Star Wars movie is the best, and Christians will argue about … well … anything.
Change is also inevitable. The church needs to endure some revisions, but let’s not go backwards. Especially if what existed back then wasn’t any better than what we have now.
*I also have other objections to the content of the article. Alas, this post is long enough as it is.