Monday, February 4, 2008
Recently, mega-church pastor and Purpose-Drive Life author Rick Warren (of Saddleback Church) met with the dean of the Washington National Cathedral to discuss the plight of so-called mainline Protestant denominations–Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.–that have been hemorrhaging members and influence for 45 years. Click here to read The Christian Post’s story.
Surprisingly, Warren offered a conciliatory note to all the liberal church leaders who are scratching their heads while watching their former members head on over to Saddleback. He said, “The reconciliation is that in a pluralistic world…we (Christians) need to be on the same team because we share the same Savior.”
Warren, in his typical simple-yet-insightful way, offered a map of what happened–why evangelical churches have generally done well and why liberal churches are dying. One hundred years ago “the phrase ‘social gospel’ first came out,” Warren responded. “Some people took that to mean only if we reform the social government and society and not personal faith in Christ Jesus–that is, if we make the world a better place–we don’t need personal redemption.”
After the Social Gospel was born in 1908 (Click here to read about the 100th anniversary of the Social Creed and the new creed, glowingly commended by the Presbyterian Church [USA]), evangelical churches headed in one direction, and liberal churches headed in another. Mainline churches chose to focus on social morality–economic justice, racial reconciliation, and poverty reduction–while evangelical churches chose to focus on personal morality–personal salvation, holiness, and sexual purity. (On a related note, our General Assembly’s Stated Clerk loves to summarize the essentials of Christianity using Micah 6:8–“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” No, I’m totally serious…no joking.)
When Warren was given the chance to lambaste the mainline churches for their saccharin gospel, he instead held out an olive branch–or, perhaps more precisely, a rescue flotation device.
“Who’s right?” he asked. “The fact is both are right…Somehow we got divided like Jesus didn’t care about society or members of society didn’t need Jesus. I think we need both.”
Warren called for “reconciliation” between mainline and evangelical churches and reminded the audience that Jesus taught his followers to love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, and soul, as well as to love their neighbors as themselves.
“You can’t just love your neighbor; you got to love God,” Warren said. “And you can’t just love God; you have to love your neighbors. And mainline protestant and evangelical–we need both wings.”
I have to say that, although I often disagree with him, Rick Warren has hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head. In order to soar, the church must fly with both of its wings–loving God (which Jesus mentioned as being the most important commandment) and loving neighbors. Churches will simply flop on the ground if they neglect one dimension or the other. Christianity is never merely vertical (concentrated completely on one’s relationship with God) nor merely horizontal (concentrated completely on people’s relationship with each other). Mainline churches have committed (and continue to commit) ecclesiastical suicide by trying to do church without ever talking about Jesus–except when he conveniently endorses their one-dimensional social and economic policies.
I also believe that those of us who find ourselves in mainline Protestant churches need to sit up, allow the tingle of fear to travel up our spines, and take a good, long, sober look at what we’re doing. We should be very afraid for our future, because the non-denominational churches are collectively figuring out what we haven’t been able to find with both hands and a map for 100 years: holistic Christianity–balanced, two-winged faith that soars.
That’s right, not only are evangelicals sharing the gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ more effectively than we are, but now they are also working on the great social issues of our day (look at Saddleback Church’s global AIDS initiative!)–all, I might add, within a biblical framework. Which means that the mainline church has little left to offer…unless people are looking for a political action committee with liturgy.
Thankfully, there are many congregations out there–Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and others–that are breathing with both lungs, who strive to love God and their neighbors, and who are bringing renewal to a musty wing of the church.
Even though sometimes he’s off the mark, on this point Rick Warren has hit a bulls-eye. And we would be wise to listen to him, embrace holistic Christianity, and learn to fly with both wings extended.