One Speech and One Sermon, two different perspectives on the Church in America, One from the President of the United States, One from the President of a prominent Evangelical Seminary, who is correct?
I just spent the last half-hour listening to the president’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Like many, I am tired of the insults and put downs that have become common place within these speeches and so I would not normally have watched it, but since the President tends to talk up his accomplishments and since he was before one of his primary bases, Evangelical Christians, it seemed logical to expect to see much of the same in this speech. Guess what? I was not disappointed. Listening to the speech made it sound like Christianity was alive and well and he even used the word “Thriving” to describe what was happening. A similar word was used by Pew and Lifeway when they did their research on the ever-marginalized Churches in New England, Churches that are no longer sitting at the forefront of social influence and power and are increasingly further from those centers. The President also made mention of how he has done more for Christians than any other political leader in the nation’s history and one could infer “Since Constantine.” Still, between the self-endorsement and the attacks on political enemies one saw what the second speech reiterated over and over again.
The Second speech, which was actually a sermon on Psalm 85 by the new president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Dr. Scott Sunquist from GCTS Spring Convocation which served as my wife and I’s spiritual nourishment and preaching as we sat at home Sunday Morning waiting out the snow storm that canceled our own service. The sermon opened with one poignant and heart-wrenching line: “The Church in the United States of America is sick, Evangelicalism is sick, brothers and sisters, we are sick.” He then went on to paint the grim picture, combining for us all the statistics on church-decline all the reasons the people in our pews are so anxious, but at the end of that he gave us hope, he showed us the way back to health, his solution? Reach out to God and ask Him for restoration. I know this is likely the first time some of you have heard of this sermon so please go and take a listen before you continue reading.
I said above that the presidents remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast proved, in many ways what Dr. Sunquist said in his sermon, I will get back to that in a second. First, I want to ask the question that I asked in the tagline on this post because these are two very different views of the state of the Church in the United States of America. There is no compatibility here, either the Church is doing amazing and things are great, or we are sick and in need of a biblical restoration. The question we have to ask here is “What is the truth?” Is one of these men passing around false information meant to make himself look better in the eyes of a constituency? Or are they both way off base and the truth is somewhere in the middle? Many of us would like to believe the president, as a Pastor that would take a load off my mind. I would like to say that Christianity is thriving here in the United States of America. I would love to be able to stand before my congregation and say that all their fears are for not, we are in great shape.
However, I cannot ignore what I see with my eyes and hear with my ears. I cannot ignore what the cultural exegetes tell me, those people whose job it is to know exactly what the state of the church in America is like. I cannot help but think about Peter Bienart’s article in the Atlantic in 2017 that talked about “America’s Empty Church Problem” or the pianist at my church who lamented about a town where all the churches are either museums or condo’s or homes now (that was a town in Wisconsin no less). I think of what Barna Group calls: “the rise of the none’s” and what David Kinnamen calls: “the dropout problem” where young Christians who leave the church are not coming back and many are abandoning their faith altogether and the heartbreaking reasons why this is so. I think of the increasingly close entanglement between cultural evangelicalism and Political Power and the promise that all these things I mentioned above are no longer true, even though they are. I think of Dr. Peter Kuzmic who told the church we attended in Hamilton in 2019 that the president of the United States was: “Absolutely hindering missions work all over the world because of Evangelicals association with him in American Politics.” I see and read all of this, I hear the way people in my town talk about the people on the other side of the isle, people who are otherwise perfectly kind men and women who treat bitterly their political rivals. I cannot help but think that Dr. Sunquist is right, that we are in need of restoration. We have violated what Philip Schaff defined as the definition of Religious Freedom in the United States: “It is a Free Church in a Free State, or a self-supporting and self-governing Christianity independent but in friendly relation to the Civil Government.” That the very people who once wrote into their founding confessional documents like the Saybrook Confession that Christian Magistrates could not “proselytize” are now looking to the government to do just that.
Yes, Dr. Sunquist is correct, we are sick, and the president is incorrect, we are not barreling towards a brighter day, we are headed for our own destruction. Yet, I would be a fool to not look at the positive things that are happening in Christianity. The article by Peter Beinart I mentioned above does point out that one affect of our current situation in American Religion is that cultural Christianity is declining and biblical Christianity, which at the time was apolitical, is on the rise. According to a 2018 article in the Washington Post: “Conservative churches” which would better be defined as “Bible Believing” are growing while Liberal churches are dying on the vine. It is also true that 4 Million people between the age of 20-35 classify as what Barna calls “Resilient Disciples” that churches in the places where they are not longer the dominate power structure and where Power Religion is mocked and the church marginalized are laying down their denominational hard lines and embracing a biblical definition and the biblical example of the Church. In short, the Church is reforming, and though this time around there is not a one pivotal figure who has walked up and nailed 95 thesis on the Cathedral doors, there are many spirit led men and women who have found a more ancient voice, the voice of the Holy Scriptures. This new Reformation is taking place around our dinner tables and our fellowship times, at Theology on Tap and in Post-Sermon Q&A sessions. It is active and extremely organic, at times to a fault. Jesus is once again eating with the sinners and the tax collectors and the religious pharisees are once again condemning Him. It is true in Church History and it will prove true again, anytime the church aligns itself with the halls of power it never ends well for the church. Further, anytime we lose our power and influence it forces us back to a time when we had to live out what we believe rather than speak from a place of assumed authority. As Schaff predicted in The Principle of Protestantism, the cultural sects are dying off or reforming and rejoining the main body. Sectarianism has proven untenable.
Now, back to a point I made earlier, I said that the President’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast points to the truth of what Dr. Sunquist said about our sickness. If you listen to the president’s speech, he does exactly what James 3:9-12 tells us not to: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olive, or a grapevine bear fig? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” In almost the same breath the president of the United States both cursed and attacked his enemies, those who he saw as working against him, and then praised God and even, at points, touted his own accomplishments as being from God. It may also surprise you to find that the general way of speaking, by the president, or tweeting, by the president, tends towards cursing man more so than it does to praising God. This is a sign of how sick we have become; we have propped up and praised a man who is in direct violation of the commands and text of scripture, and not only James 3:9-11. We have embraced a man who regularly participates in “course joking” who has openly admitted to sexual immorality a man who, at the National Prayer Breakfast, openly and brazenly admitted to hating someone who is very possibly his sister in Christ and accusing that sister of making false claims about her own religious practice. His harboring of anger and hatred puts him direct violation of Jesus own commands in Matthew 5:27. If this is not proof of illness, I am not sure what is. We claim the bible is authoritative, we claim that scripture is the means by which we are to live through the Holy Spirit, but then we do not live it out in our own lives and ignore it when it is convenient or expedient.
We are quickly coming to a point of no return, will we pray the prayer of Dr. Sunquist, “Restore us oh God.” Or will we continue to whore after the god of political power and influence? Will we continue to ignore scripture in favor of our preferences and our safety? Or will we repent and remember that it was not Christians in power that brought the Roman Empire to its knees, but a Church under persecution? IF we continue this line of pursuit, we put ourselves in danger of increasing persecution (some places this has already begun). Or we can return to the intention in Schaff’s definition above, two separate and free entities with only a friendly relation unless that government is openly apposed to Christianity. We may not be able, at this point, to back to what Schaff described as: “The relationship of church and state in the United States secures full liberty of religious thought, speech and action within the limits of the public peace and order. It makes persecution impossible. Religion and liberty are inseparable. Religion is voluntary and cannot, and aught not, be enforced.” I fear we are passed the point of a return to this vision and continued attempts to use the government to proselytize we will only face increased persecution.
This is why the president was wrong and Scott Sunquist right, all that is happening that is good in the church right now is actually in spite of what the president is doing or not doing for the church. His own speech and actions, violation of the biblical text which we claim is sacred, and so on and so forth are proofs to Dr. Sunquist point. Further, As David French pointed out our propensity to make excuses for him and to justify his behavior is even more damning and destructive. As we have seen countless times, in the attack on Russell Moore, in attacks on Mark Galli and in too many other cases to admit, we have violated Biblical teaching and done damage to our Gospel witness in a world that already wanted nothing to do with God. We are certain not in the favor of all the people (Acts 2:42-47). Just the opposite, we have taken the offensiveness of the Gospel (you cannot save yourself) and added our own offensiveness to it by not turning to God, but to man, to save us. We should be quick to repent before it leads to our destruction.
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Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.