Jesus-less Christianity

Martin Thielen

June 1, 2020

Like many clergypersons, I’m concerned about the future of the church. I’m not referring to the rapid decline of American Christianity, although that’s certainly disconcerting. Instead, I’m troubled that large numbers of Christians and churches are becoming less and less tethered to the life, teachings, example, and spirit of Jesus. It sometimes feels like today’s church is becoming a “Jesus-less” Christianity.

No segment of the church is innocent in this troubling trend. Consider the Roman Catholic pedophile priest scandal, coverup, and continued lack of accountability. Where did Jesus go?

Or consider the relentless and cruel attacks on the gay community by evangelicals. Just recently an evangelical pastor claimed that presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was “deserving of death” for being gay. Where did Jesus go?

Or consider the mainline church, including my own United Methodist denomination. We’re about to split over human sexuality, completely disobeying the command of Jesus to be people of unity. Where did Jesus go?

Or look at the Orthodox Church. In many places they are a pawn of the government. For example, in Russia, Orthodox priests actually bless weapons of war, including nuclear weapons. Where did Jesus go?

Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. Throughout Christian history the church has often jettisoned Jesus. Examples include religious wars, the inquisition, and the crusades. The same dynamic can be found in American church history, including Christian support for the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the Jim Crow South, and resistance to the civil rights movement.

And today, large numbers of Christians vigorously support and defend the most anti-Jesus president in American history. As one evangelical pastor recently said, paraphrasing the words of Jesus, “What good is it if we gain the whole Supreme Court but lose our souls?”

Jesus extolled grace, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, service, justice, and inclusion rather than exclusion. But, for much of Christian history, that Jesus has been lost in the shuffle of institutional religion. It’s no wonder that people in America, especially young people, are leaving the institutional, often Jesus-less church, in droves.

I don’t pretend to have easy answers for this crisis. But Bob Dylan is right, “You gotta serve somebody.” At some point believers must answer the question, Whom do we truly serve? American idols like partisan ideology, money, success, status, and power? Or do we serve Jesus? And what about our church? Does it truly serve Jesus? If not, we need to leave it and connect with a congregation that does. If we can find one.

It’s time for the American church to decide who is Lord. Institutional survival? Partisan politics? Shallow church growth strategies? Rigid doctrines? Buildings? Our own members?

Or is Jesus our Lord? If so, it’s time for Christians—all of us—to start acting like it. That begins by rejecting a Jesus-less faith and replacing it with a Jesus-centered one. May that be true in my life—in your life—and in the life of our churches. Amen.