This post is an adapted excerpt from Without Flesh: Why the Church Is Dying Even Though Jesus Is Still Alive by Jonathan Fisk.
The Ancient Church saw martyrdom as an honor. Today, we cower in corners, bickering over the color of the carpet. The Ancient Church conquered the world by dying at its hands. Today, we are crushed in an overwhelming retreat of trying to fit in.
The Ancient Church did not have better marketing. They did not have better tactics. They did not have better funding. They simply believed that they were on a ship that could not sink. They carried a message that could not be silenced. They were the Body of a Christ who could not die.
Christianity, they believed, was unable to pass away, even though heaven and earth themselves passed away. Even while to the whole world it appeared that they were sinking, even if before the world they were publicly being murdered, the words of Jesus were ultimate bulwarks to them. He spoke unassailable truth.
Failing to improve
Today, our knees quake at the first thought of a dip in our numbers. We chase efficiency as if it were a god. We pander after technology as if it were a spiritual gift. We whimper and cajole about passion, wondering why no one wants to listen to us. Every year the Body is weaker. Every year, individual Christians are more timid. Every year, our hope is more atrophied. We ignore these failed results of all our changes and throw on still more spit and polish, more elbow grease, and more sacramentally entrepreneurial enthusiasm for modern measures.
It has been well over a century now that salesmen hawking “change” for the churches have barked their now-tired pitches. The same song and dance repeated ad nauseam has not slowed us from buying what they’re selling. But the tragic diagnosis is that all our decades upon decades of changing like gangbusters has done nothing to stop the soul from being sucked right out of visible Western Christianity. In fact, far from improving our situation, changing even the outer forms of Christianity has had the opposite effect.
Calls for change
That today we are still hearing calls for “change” shouted with such passion ought to boggle our minds. How many times does a village return to a poisoned well before they decide to stop drinking? How many times may a snake oil salesman visit the same town before the people finally remember his face and decide to run him off?
“Change” has been enacted for generations now, constantly boasting of the promise to make things better for the churches. But the results have been catastrophic. Today’s renewed promises that we can halt our cultural slide into chaos by yet again reinventing a Christianity more relevant to the culture are the brandishing of a wild-eyed unawareness for just how desperately our many previous attempts have failed.
No one out there is listening to us anymore. We’re talking in an echo chamber. Which is getting smaller. And smaller.
Why people are not listening
I believe that the reason people are not listening is because the pursuit of relevance is the admission of irrelevance. A religion that hungers for change only proves that it has already changed too much to survive. The belief that you need a better style with which to sell your substance is a confession that you have no substance at all.
People are not listening to us because we have nothing to actually say. All that we market and all that we strategize and all that we mimic amounts to gibberish babbled on the wind.
Good old-fashioned pragmatism ought to give us pause in any case. Once a world religion has spent a century and billions of dollars doing anything, only to simultaneously embark on the most precipitous decline in its two thousand-year history, it’s probably time to stop tinkering with the formula and take another look at the original recipe.
It is precisely the words of Jesus that are the thing that ancient Christianity fearlessly sought to convert unbelievers into. Even should the earth have opened up and swallowed them into the sea, they would have merely continued to repeat the everlasting things of God with their mouths. They died willingly, merrily even, because they were convicted that such everlasting things made them into everlasting people. The last thing they would have ever conceived of doing would have been changing in order to convince more people to join them. Such a tactic would have been the very defeat of its own purpose.
Jesus, in His words, gives a specific plan for the Church.