Jesus and the Church: What's gone wrong?

The Jesus Life: The Church Life is Not the Jesus LifeA response to the Newsweek Article/Cover StoryBy Stephen W. Smith April 3, 2012  The church is in crisis but being a follower of Jesus is not.  This week’s cover story in Newsweek correctly documents our dilemma. Let me explain.You might find it interesting to note that Jesus spoke the word “church” only two times in his entire life that we have documented. While Jesus came to offer us the way to follow God and the way to experience life as he envisioned it, what’s true is this: we’ve lost our way that leads to life and the church has actually helped us lose our way rather than follow Jesus.Let me explain.  While the Bible is seen and held to be authoritative and expresses God’s ways for us, the church has been the guardian of these ways and for many of us, seems to have hijacked the words of Jesus and held them hostage unless we get involved, get committed and follow the church more than we follow Jesus.I once heard a preacher say while pointing to the floor of his multi-million dollar sanctuary, “This is what matters. This church and this building.”  It’s not surprising that his tenure did not last and that his church split several times. We have to have a greater reason to live, to be and to act than the church and the property that the church owns. Perhaps it owns far, far too much stuff. The stuff can get in the way of the message and perhaps this is what has happened. We’re tripping over the stuff the plethora of doctrinal statements, creeds and strategies for church growth and have lost our reason to exist at all.While Paul, Peter and John, the authors of much of the New Testament, described what Jesus meant by his words and ways, we know that the people who followed Jesus got involved in power struggles, debates and arguing that even began the night Jesus was arrested, tried and hours before his death. John describes the vivid scene on the last night Jesus was alive. He gathered his followers for an intimate dinner and what resulted was a sad power struggle with arguments over who would be the greatest—and Jesus overhead the whole sad plight. While the Bible is true, people are somewhat less than trust worthy. That is why it’s important to trust the Bible but to hold people at arms length sometimes.As in insider—one who has spent the majority of my life inside the church—and not outside the church, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s people who have screwed up the intent of Jesus—not Jesus himself.  Like the very disciples who argued the night Jesus was arrested about power and controls issues, we have not really changed all that much in 2000 years in the church business.  Jesus had another idea and we have twisted his intent and desires to meet our own need for power, authority and the need to be needed. If we want the life that Jesus promised, we will need to follow the ways that he lived. You can’t have one without the other.  But you can have church and you can have church without the Jesus ways. This may just be where we are today: church without the Founder’s values and insights is like the United States without the Constitution.Jesus spoke more about the church of two or three than he did about the institution. He spoke more of following him that leading the throngs; than he did of organization, strategy and hierarchy.   We’ve gotten a lot wrong in the thousands of years that Jesus offered us his message. We’ve tried to understand and implement Jesus’ intent, yet when the facts are in and you look at the statistics about the church, it’s in jeopardy.The way of Jesus is not the way of the church. It can be but when church promotes itself more than Jesus; when we speak more of the church than we do Jesus and we are per-occupied with denominations, splits and doctrine more than the words of Jesus, we only give witness to ourselves that we have lost the way—the way that leads both to Jesus and to life itself.Having pastored churches in North America and Europe for more than 25 years, what is clear to me is this: We cannot have the life of Jesus—the life he promised and described without following the ways of Jesus. When a church helps you on the way, then it’s good, right and blessed. When, however a church hinders someone from following God; when the church becomes the place where the wounded are shot rather than healed; when the sins of our fathers continue on to this generation and beyond and there is little to no transformation, then we have to ask ourselves the really important question: Why didn’t Jesus speak more about the church than he did? Have we missed something?  These are good questions that need to be addressed.In working with church leaders all over the world, one of the reasons that has become obvious to me that the church is in trouble is because the leaders of the church are in trouble. Leading busy, over-committed and running on empty lives, how can a leader find the way back to Jesus again?  Surely the answer lies in more than going to more meetings and attending more functions.The answer is by returning to the very way and ways that Jesus lived his life. We cannot have the Jesus life without the following the ways of Jesus. We’ve replaced these ways with doctrinal debates, power struggles and activities—something Jesus himself disdained evidently because of his sharp words to the religious leaders of his own day—the Pharisees and other religious folks.It’s not about being religious or playing the games of religion. It’s about following the way and ways of Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus is in—now more than ever before because so many are finding the life he promised by following his ways.  The church will need to also become a follower—to discover again what Jesus actually meant.While I can not go as far as Thomas Jefferson did in cutting out words of the Bible he did not agree with, I could buy myself a “red-letter edition” of the Bible and focus on what Jesus actually said and did—thus finding the way—the way that will lead to life!____________________________________________________________________________________________Stephen W. Smith has written a new and exciting book, The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Re-Discover Authentic Christianity published by David C Cook. Released April 1, 2012.  Smith’s views here are drawn from his most recent book in reaction to Andrew Sullivan’s cover story in Newsweek Magazine (April 2, 2012).