The Detroit Lions last championship year was 1957. It was so long ago, they didn’t call it the Super Bowl back them. The Lions, actually, were the “Team of the 50’s” having also won championships in 1952 and 1953. Since those glory years, the going has been rough. And by “rough,” I mean absolutely horrible. They have won exactly one playoff game since 1957. One. They’ve had great players (See Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson). They’ve had accomplished coaches. Well, accomplished before they arrived in Detroit (See Bobby Ross and Steve Mariucci). For a lifelong Lions’ fan, it’s been a sad mix of “maybe next year” and a resignation that like seeing the Lions in the Super Bowl is like seeing a unicorn. It will never happen.
Sadly, the church in America hasn’t fared much better than the Detroit Lions. One could make the case that the church’s glory years were the 50s too. Churches were being built. Communities were glad to have them. There was honor for the clergy and the ministry of the church, even from non-church goers. The church was welcomed. Respected. People believed the Bible was true. Politicians wouldn’t dream of saying otherwise. Prayer was encouraged in schools (not just uttered before unstudied tests by procrastinating students). Church life and our culture were intertwined.
Then the culture changed (read: some changes needed to be made. This article is not glorifying the racism, sexism and the other societal ills that were alive and well in the 50s). Viet Nam happened. So did Watergate; the Iran Hostage Crisis; TV Evangelist scandals; 9/11; Gulf War I and II; the Internet; the Wall Street Crash; a twenty year war in Afghanistan; social media; continuous sex scandals inside the church; Obama; Trump and the great division of the American populace. (There are plenty of other happenings that played a role in getting here, but you get the idea: there’s been a lot of water under the cultural bridge since the 1950s). People no longer view the church with the same optimism. They no longer look at the Bible as authoritative. People think little of the eternity, instead live for the moment. No longer informed by a Truth greater than themselves, one’s personal opinion and self-first perspective is the ultimate value.
The church has changed too. There is much more to occupy believers time. In the 50s, life revolved around church. Sunday morning. Sunday night. Wednesday Night. Sports took a back seat to church. So did most all other activities. If you even had a TV, there were only three channels. They played in black and white. It wasn’t great, static-y. Life was slower. Simpler. Moreover, today’s believers were not immune to the cultural changes. People don’t live in a bubble. They are aware of clergy abuses and the sins of the church. Some are victims. They utilize social media. They have more information. The promise of power, money and fame have become a driving factor in setting priorities and agendas inside the church, just as it outside the church. The Bride of Christ’s gown is a tattered and people see it.
The result is evident: like the Detroit Lions, the church has been on a downward slide for decades and the numbers reveal it. Every American denomination is in decline. No church is immune. Liberal churches, imitating culture with their promises of tolerance and inclusion are losing members. Conservative churches, with their condemnation and shaking fists at society, are likewise losing members in record level. Churches who have tried to ignore culture and put their collective heads in the sand are losing members too. The dam is broke. All churches are hemorrhaging people. Like the Lions, down through the years, there are a few stars in the church world having a few good years. But it doesn’t change the fact that the Church (like the Lions) are losing. Big time.
The latest rebuilding coach of the Lions, Dan Campbell, at a recent press conference used terms how he would be “changing the culture.” The Lions were going to “do things differently.” They were going to “bite off knee caps” if necessary. I don’t think opposing players need to worry about body parts, he was sending a message to his team: “It’s not the same old Lions.” Time will tell if this latest re-build is more of the same or if things will be different from the last 64 years. As a Lions fan and a prisoner of hope, I want Coach Campbell to be the answer (but I haven’t started a saving for a Super Bowl ticket just yet).
The church needs to be about re-creating culture too. Both inside her walls and outside. Changing culture is hard (see the last 64 years of Lions’ ineptitude). It takes time. It can only happen as the Church gets back to the ways of Jesus. Like Jesus with the woman at the well, we need to meet people where they are. Like Jesus’ interaction with prostitutes and tax collectors, we need to be welcoming. Like Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery, we need to speak with truth and grace. Like Jesus, it might start with a small, imperfect group (see the fraidy-cat disciples). In other words, the change that the church and world needs won’t be dependent upon the perfection of its adherents but the power of the Spirit at work in them.
The Lions may never win a Super Bowl (it pains me to write that), but Jesus does win. He will be making all things new. He is the Victor. He will have the final word. The prayer Jesus taught us still applies: May God’s kingdom come and His will done on earth (In America) as it is in heaven. I’m a prisoner of hope in regard to the church too! I believe Jesus wants to answer that prayer!
May it be so (and Go Lions!).