Winnipeg, Canada. We’d just stepped off the plane, collected our baggage and loaded up in the two Chevy Astro vans Johnnie and Alex drove over from Camp Of The Woods, a ministry FCC supports near Dinorwick, Ontario, Canada, and settled in for the five hour trip back to camp. As our van pulled away from the curb I heard (we all heard) a horrible metal to metal scraping sound. SKRRRRRR!
“Oh yeah, that’s just the brakes eh?” said our driver Alex “Finny the fish whisperer” Finlayson. “It quiets down once we get going a bit, eh.”
From that point on, all the way back across the prairie and into the wilderness, every time Alex would touch the brakes … SKRRRRRRRR!
Having grown up with a mechanic father and worked as one for five years it was like hearing fingernails grate across a chalk board.
The problem was: the brakes were Canadianized. The Canadian environment is extremely harsh on cars. Salt corrosion on Canadian roads destroys metal. The brake rotors disintegrate. The pads get stuck in the slides. Calipers get sticky and won’t release. It’s possible to fix before it gets so bad. But Johnnie didn’t have the time to pay attention to it before he drove to Winnipeg.
I knew what the brakes were supposed to look like, sound like, and behave like. But the damage was so severe that they had to be dismantled, worked on and reassembled three times before they would work properly.
Something similar happens to churches. They become Americanized. We know from the Bible what church is supposed to look like, sound like and behave like. But there are corrosive factors at work inside and outside, just part of the environment that eat away at the parts and cause them to jam and scrape.
The founders of the church I lead recognized this long ago and wrote a “fix,” really a kind of preventive maintenance system, into its bylaws to protect it from Americanization. It’s called Membership Renewal and it forces us to do an annual inspection on ourselves to see if we are operating according to the Maker’s specifications. There are three reasons for that.
The Americanized Church is About the Individual
Americans are the most individualistic people on earth and we bring that set of values with us into church life. The feelings, rights and preferences of the individual supersede every other value. Forget sound doctrine. Forget obedience. Our personal pleasure and peace is the scale upon which every spiritual value is weighed. If it adds to my sense of self and wellbeing I embrace it. If it challenges my comfort zone or — God forbid — calls me to change my thinking and behavior then I reject it.
But church “doesn’t work,” there’s a scraping sound, when it’s focused on the individual.
In his book, Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson said: “Love cannot exist in isolation: away from others, love bloats into pride. Grace cannot be received privately: cut off from others, it is perverted into greed. Hope cannot develop in solitude: separated from the community, it goes to seed in the form of fantasies. No gift, no virtue can develop and remain healthy apart from the community of faith. “Outside the church there is no salvation” is not ecclesiastical arrogance but spiritual common sense, confirmed in everyday experience.”
The real church is not about the individual. It’s about Jesus Christ working himself out in the life of his body, changing the individuals. See Colossians 1:8.
The Americanized Church is Optional
Americanized church life is optional. We show up when we feel like it. We participate when it’s convenient. We give out of our surplus. We serve until it no longer feels good. It’s optional.
Christ’s church is not optional. His church is his body, his ongoing physical presence on planet earth. (See Eph. 1:22-23).
Sometimes people will say to me, “I can’t feel God in my life.” And I say, “What am I, chopped liver?” You and I are part of Christ’s “fullness that fills everything in every way.”
Jesus works through us, his body, to meet each others needs. He nurtures us, cares for us, gifts us, cleanses us and matures us for his own purposes. He takes care of us the same way we take care of our physical bodies. He has appointed us to do good works planned before the church began (Eph. 2:10). But it doesn’t work that way if we treat it as optional.
The Americanized Church is Cliquish
It has in groups and out groups, super-spiritual groups and not so spiritual groups. It tends to break down into socioeconomic layers.
Cliques have the right to decide who is in and who is out, who gets included and who gets excluded. SKRRRRR! But there are ways to fix that part of the Americanized church.
First is a commitment to the growth of others as much as to our own growth (See Ro. 15:1-2). This is contrary to much of evangelical culture. We ask, “What’s it doing for me? If it isn’t meeting my need, I’m not going to go.” Rather — with balance — we should evaluate: will my presence be an encouragement to a weaker brother or sister? Will my service edify someone other than me?
Second is a commitment to personal examination and submission to scripture (See 2 Tim. 3:16-17). The scriptures challenge and correct my thinking. I can’t be cliquish when they’re doing that. They equip me for good works. Without that — when my mind is not “washed with the water of the word” — I’m “equipped for bad works.”
Being part of a church is a commitment to doing all of these things in a community of others who are also doing them. It’s building friendships that are more than skin deep.
In his book, The Me I Want to Be, Pastor and author John Ortberg writes of the power of that kind of vulnerability.
“One of the most important moments of my spiritual life was when I sat down with a longtime friend and said, “I don’t want to have any secrets anymore.”
I told him everything I was most ashamed of. I told him about my jealousies, my cowardice, how I hurt my wife with my anger. I told him about my history with money and my history with sex. I told him about deceit and regrets that keep me up at night. I felt vulnerable because I was afraid that I was going to lose connection with him. Much to my surprise, he did not even look away.
I will never forget his next words.
“John,” he said. “I have never loved you more than I love you right now.” The very truth about me that I thought would drive him away became a bond that drew us closer together. He then went on to speak with me about secrets he had been carrying.
If I keep part of my life secret from you, you may tell me you love me. But inside I think that you would not love me if you knew the whole truth about me. I can only receive love from you to the extent that I am known by you.”
So how well is your church working? Are you hearing a loud grating noise coming from the sanctuary? Or is it humming down the road in good order, ready for the next task the Lord assigns it? Whatever the case, it’s never a bad idea to take it in for an annual inspection.