The American Church: Tempted in the Wilderness

Tuesday Re-mix –

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Luke 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. 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…

I. 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-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 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 a favorite pastime of the American church over the last few decades. 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 in each of us as Christians taking seriously our civic responsibilities. But I 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 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). The temptation is to devote only a limited amount of time to relationships, so that you can focus your 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 we have forsaken our part in preserving unity in the first place. A church who doesn’t pay attention to 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…

© Blake Coffee
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One response to “The American Church: Tempted in the Wilderness”

  1. Blake,
    This is an awesome article and as always, God placed it in my in-box just as I needed to hear it. A woman just left my office who has been pushed out of this church because relationships have taken a back seat to “churching the unchurched.” I don’t understand how our leaders can forget sometimes that the church is ALL about relationships. Numbers are merely indicators of how good or not so good our relationships are. As I was reminded yesterday, it’s not about doing the church, it’s about being the church. We must do a better job of being this church.
    Thank you for your very wise thoughts!

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