Before I talk more about what separates denominations, I'd like to start with a story from one of our vacations and apply that story to Christianity as a whole. This essay doesn't speak to any one denomination. If some parts of it resonate with you, I hope you will join me in praying from time to time for our country and its churches. It would be a rare moment for none of them to need prayer at any particular time.
My family and I went on a vacation several years ago in Southeastern Idaho. One item that was mentioned in the Rand McNally Atlas we were using was the Shoshone Falls on the Snake River. It spoke of the "Niagara of the West" where roaring whitewater drops 212 feet, bathing the area in a rainbow mist. Since the falls were only a couple of hours away, we decided to drive up to Twin Falls to view them.
As we drove West along the Snake River and over bridges spanning it, it grew and grew, and we were filled with anticipation about how beautiful the falls were going to be for the kids to see. As we drove over the bridge into town and then went to view the falls, we were struck by how little water there was. They ended up being a great disappointment when we actually got to see them. Such promise, and such a fizzle of an ending.
You see, upstream from Twin Falls, the water of the Snake River is diverted into canals for agriculture. When the irrigation season is in full swing, the mighty Snake River that takes many bridge lengths to cross on the interstate further East is reduced to a small flow coming into town. Much of that then goes to the Idaho Power station at the Falls, so there isn't much left running free over the falls.
We walked down to a boat launching ramp on the banks of the Snake River in the canyon above the falls and looked around. There were warning signs expressing the danger of launching boats or swimming when the river is high. There were buoys across the river nearer the top of the falls telling people to not go any further because that was a dangerous area. The same was true about the rocks around the falls area. Don't climb on the West side of the path - you might eventually reach a drop off point and kill yourself. All true statements.
Dams are used in other places downstream for flood control, limiting the natural life of the river. The salmon must try to use fish ladders to swim back upstream to reproduce. Fewer survive the trip each year. We've tamed the river, but the cost to its natural beauties hasn't been zero.
Its Application to Christianity
As I thought about the Shoshone Falls later, I was struck by the parallels to Christianity today. Way up in the mountains, far away from civilization, the winter snow caps melt and begin to form the river. It is wild and free, but still small. As more creeks join it in the mountains, and as rain water fills it, it grows strong. I know that the small stream allusion of pure water doesn't completely hold, but when compared to the muddy wide expanses where big rivers empty into the ocean, it still seems really clean and pure.
Then it reaches populated areas. We start diverting it for our own purposes. They aren't bad purposes. But they are ordered by man. As man uses more and more of the river's resources for irrigation, water, sewage, and industrial uses, the water becomes filled with other less pleasant things. The water is still there - it stays H2O after all - but it might be less fit for drinking depending on how man, animals, insects, fish and birds have treated it since it started its journey. It moves slower, with less energy, and starts to fill with plant life - kind of like a swamp.
We grow children like crops in the Sunday School fields of the various denominations. Perish the thought that any crossbreeding between fields should occur. Can't have that! Who knows what sort of a plant that might produce! Just as the farmers cut the crops, bale them, and stack them under shelters for protection, we raise the kids, train them up, and move them out into the pews
- hoping there will be enough people attending church from the next generation to meet the church's needs...
- hoping that they will be of good enough quality to provide seed for the next crop...
- hoping that nothing comes along and destroys them...
- hoping for a bit of additional growth if God does the work...
- always looking for better machines... service formats and styles... that don't make us too uncomfortable, but that give us a more secure and larger crop.
Some of the water coming down from above is channeled into getting the facilities of the church put together. Some goes into filling board slots, committees, and other forms of bureaucracy, depending on the denomination. Many churches aren't happy with small facilities. Multiple services are inconvenient. They want big impressive facilities that can handle everyone at once. They want to be sure that they are the biggest, coolest looking church in town. Well, that siphons more water down the drain that could go toward spreading the word or helping the poor and needy. Big facilities are nice and handy for many unique situations, but they take a lot of people's energy to build, pay for, and keep up. Bureaucracy is the same way. A little bit goes a long way. Frequently it takes more energy and more of the pastor's time to keep all the bureaucracy running smoothly than if the pastor just did the jobs himself.
So what's left over of the wild river? Maybe a little stream going over the falls. Oh, a revival, missionary, special speaker, or singing group comes along - like the spring snow melt, and it is impressive for a while. Easter and Christmas help out a bit as well. We get fired up for the important holidays. Then the water level drops and it is back to a small amount of water spilling freely. Don't go near where God is doing the work at the falls itself - that is just too scary. Better back off and stay away from those Holy Roller Pentecostal free thinking independent churches. God might actually talk to you and we can't have that you know.
Where is Christianity failing?
This isn't meant to stir up trouble. This essay is only meant to stir up some thought. I've always been pro Sunday School for all ages, have taught at various times, and still substitute teach if needed.
Large facilities do have a place, but all too often small churches take on big debts before they are really big enough to justify them in a "build it and they will come" spirit, and then are strapped for cash for years or have to take bankruptcy when the bigger numbers don't materialize. Remember that if you are just drawing people to your bigger, nicer facility from other churches, and aren't reaching the people who still need to receive Christ as their Savior, then your increased numbers don't count for much of anything in God's eyes. Likewise, if the new Christians aren't staying, then you are failing to disciple, and you don't get many points for that either.
With the scandals of the church leaders in recent history, some bureaucracy is needed as long as it doesn't become the prime focus of the church. But still, it is good to think about the falls...
The Christian church has survived from Christ's time till now largely because of the ordered "wildness" of God's work in Jesus and the apostles lives. Jesus' death on the cross completed the initial development phase of the Church. The early Christians weren't the status quo.They were a peculiar people. After that, the Holy Spirit's work set Christians of the Early Church apart from the other religions of the time - Judaism and all of the idol and false god based religions. There was power to witness and to demonstrate that Christ had risen just as He said. They did the same and greater things than He had done while walking the Earth!
But religion became sanitized. There was a long period when there was little or no "freedom" and "wildness". That is still true in some denominations. I'm not advocating anarchy. I have always maintained that everyone should have a Christian church where they can be comfortable worshiping. But sometimes we comfortably worship ourselves to spiritual death. Paul taught that the Holy Spirit's workings through people in services should be ordered (1 Corinthians 14:40) and not filled with discord, and that it should only form a part of the service. But it still does need to be there.
The church has also hurt itself in the name of inclusiveness. In some places gay leaders are accepted. Homosexuality is no longer seen as sin. God really didn't mean what He said in the Old Testament that it was an abomination suitable for death, did He? (Leviticus 20:13) He's mellowed, hasn't He? (Hebrews 13:8) Surely the New Testament doesn't mean everything it says either, does it? (Matthew 5:27-41) That is just one obvious example of how the church has gone to pot without enough of God flowing over the falls. There are many others. Don't get me wrong. God does love all sinners, just like the saints. But He still is in the punishing sin business (Revelation 21:6-8).
Where do we go from here?
Everyone needs to work harder to get to where God wants them to be. You will get there faster in the falls where God's free will is working than far out in the sanitized fields of man.
Is your denomination losing numbers? Are your kids going elsewhere? Pray about what the Holy Spirit wants to do in your church today. And then let Him do it. Be a part of it. Find the unity in each church body that was in the upper room in Acts 2:1. Find the unity in all of the Christian churches in your town. Band together. Don't work apart. Put away sin and draw near to God. God won't let you down.
The brochure that we got from the Parks and Recreation Department of Twin Falls at the Shoshone Falls states:
As you drive the winding road into the Snake River Canyon northeast of Twin Falls, try to imagine the forces that could have created this geological spectacle. Shoshone Falls and the fantastically eroded basalt cliffs surrounding it are relics of the Bonneville Flood, a catastrophic torrent that ripped through the canyon about 15,000 years ago.
Attracted by the roar, mid-19th century pioneers on the Oregon Trail would sometimes hike several miles out of their way to see the falls, which were named after Indians who lived in the region...
We only have the geologic record and Snake River canyon to interpret what happened in the Bonneville flood. We have only the briefest record of the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:2-4. The early explorers were enticed to visit the falls by the roar they heard.
There are people looking for God today. They are seeking churches where He may be found. We need to get the roar back in all the Christian churches. I'm not talking about loud music from modern instruments or unrestrained wildness. Just some natural God based roar!