How We Mistake the Kingdom of Church for the Kingdom of God

January 14, 2015

Many people would claim that America is a “Christian” nation…

The most post-Christian place in America...

The most post-Christian place in America…

Or at least, it was a Christian nation.

My news feed is kind of a continual flux when it comes to just how Christian our culture is today. If I want, I can find no shortage of doom and gloom, prophets and pundits who are always showing just how bad things are for Christianity in America. On the other side of things, there are a few lone voices who speak up every now and then to say, “Wait! It’s not as bad as it seems.”

This week, I saw another survey from the Barna Group which shows just how “post-Christian” American cities are. My hometown, Kansas City, comes in at number 38, with a total post-Christian population at 33%. Albany, NY is the most post-Christian city, along with most of the Northeast, while Knoxville, TN ranks near the bottom (or top, depending on how you look at it.)

I tend to take these surveys with a grain of salt, but something particularly struck me this time about how we typically measure “Christian-ness.” I started reading their various “metrics” (a term that sounds more at home in a tax accountant’s office) that were used to calculate our cities’ rankings, when something occurred to me.

I don’t know if we have a problem of lack of faith in our culture. But we certainly have a problem when it comes to how we measure faith.

What Is the Measure of Your Faith?

How do we measure a person’s faith? That can be a steep task, not to mention measuring a city’s faith.

Barna listed fifteen metrics used to calculate how Christian or not-so-Christian we all are. About two-thirds dealt with orthodox theology and personal practices (like Bible reading and making a commitment to Jesus.)

But a full third of the questions were as follows:

Have not donated money to a church in the last year.

                Have not attended a church in the last year.

                Have not volunteered at a church in the last year.

                Have not attended Sunday School in the last year.

                Have not participated in religious small group in the last year.

“Hmmm…” I thought. That’s interesting that a full third of how we measure our faith has to do with our faithfulness to a particular church. Am I the only one who sees anything funny about that?

Look, I am still a fully committed Christian, and though I am taking a sabbatical from church while my son is an infant, I plan to join a new church in the next year. But surveys like this are illustrative of how churches trick us into confusing God’s kingdom with the church’s kingdom. There are churches everywhere that would have us believe that their agenda, their kingdom, their priorities are synonymous with God’s kingdom, agenda and priorities, and often that is just not the case.

How Post-Christian Are You?

I don’t blame Barna for trying to come up with tangible measures for people’s faith. But look again at how Barna measures a full third of what makes us “Christian.”

Christians, we are being measured by our loyalty to what is often a human organization with a spiritual veneer on it. Not just by Barna, but by churches everywhere. It is the simplest way an intangible thing like being “born again” can be measured: butts in the seats.

We are being measured by our attendance records, because church programs that do not meet “critical mass” are considered “failures.”

We are being measured by how much time we take away from our families in order to promote the agendas of our churches.

We are being measured by how much money we contribute to building church parking lots.

I just wonder if any of this is a true or accurate measure of any of our faith. Maybe you haven’t contributed money to your church because the sound system is good enough, and you’d rather sponsor a child in Africa. Maybe you have not gone to small group or Sunday school because you are at home reading Bible stories with your kids. Maybe you haven’t volunteered to do some menial task that your church shoehorns you into, because you’d rather volunteer someplace that actually appreciates your talents and creativity.

In fact, I wonder how much post-Christian attitude is a rebellion from this exact kind of dehumanizing, hierarchy-promoting number crunching. Maybe people are being tired of being a number on a church’s bank account.

You Will Know Them By Their Church Attendance

On the one hand, I do think that Christian faith is best experienced in community. And there is no doubt that America’s faith is deteriorating.

But measuring our deteriorating faithfulness to Jesus by our deteriorating faithfulness to churches is just not fair.

Why don’t we measure Christians the way Jesus told us to? Why are we not measuring cities by their peacefulness, patience, kindness or gentleness?

Because the fruits of the spirit aren’t measurable metrics?

Why aren’t we measuring Christian faith by the amount we give to all charity, rather than just churches?

Because that’s not a convenient metric?

If the true metrics of a Christian are not really measurable, then this survey proves only one thing: that Christians (however many there are) are not being tricked in such large numbers as they used to be. Churches may be trying to make us confuse their kingdom with God’s kingdom. But we aren’t buying it anymore. It may work with the “seeker” crowd, but not for us “lifers.” We will not have our stewardship measured by your accountant. We will not have our faithfulness measured by your attendance records.

What do you think? Are there accurate ways to measure “faith” in America, or do those measurements only show our faithfulness to church.

2 responses to How We Mistake the Kingdom of Church for the Kingdom of God

  1. Thought provoking piece, Matt. Thanks.

    On the one hand, I agree with you – that the metrics they use aren’t the best for measuring faith. We often put far too much stock in outward signs of piety.

    But then, how does one measure fruits of the spirit, as you point out? I don’t think it’s possible. And measuring giving to all charity would be as misleading as measuring giving to church (if not more so) – many, many non-Christians give to charities, even Christian ones, so the numbers would skew the other direction. It’s relatively safe to assume that those who give to Christian churches are, by and large, Christians.

    I think, too, that including those things in Barna’s survey is reasonable – somebody had to agree with nine of the statements in the list to be considered “post-Christian” – something many committed Christians are unlikely to do, even if they don’t attend church. They included options like “do not participate in a house church” or “have not attended a religious small group” in their list, which, arguably, could catch many non-church attending groups. A religious small group doesn’t necessarily need to be connected to a church – it could be pretty broadly interpreted – and most Christians would agree that fellowship with other Christians is pretty important.

    So, I guess while I agree with your underlying premise, I don’t see a problem with how Barna conducted their research.

    Thanks for the discussion!
    Jenn recently posted..Worth the Risk

  2. Cities and nations are not Christian. Christians are those individuals who know that their relationship with Christ is on a solid footing. There may well be fewer or more of them in one place as compared to another, but measuring that is not our task. Making converts to Christ is our task. There is only One who judges, only One who separates the “sheep” from the “goats.”
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