The main problem with the contemporary church is not that some are saying God is dead, nor that the redemptive thrust of the Gospel has been dulled by the over-emphasis on social action, nor even that theologians, ministers, and ecumenical organizers are hanging crepe. The problem is that the man in the pew has lost interest in doing anything about the main challenges confronting the Church today.

And if the man in the pew is uninterested, the parish church will die, if it has not already done so. If the man in the pew does not exercise his individual Christian responsibility toward others who are not Christians, if he does not give tangible meaning to his asserted belief that he should love his brother as himself, then God will, for all modern intents and purposes have been killed by the very ones who call themselves his children.

Here is the Church’s weakest link: those who confess Christ and then do nothing for him. If the clergy share the guilt, it is because they have made it easy for church members to shirk their Christian responsibility. Many have, intentionally or not, promulgated the immoral theory that church members can give their way into heaven without ever moving from the pew; that they can feed Christ’s sheep with dollars and cents alone; that they can love their neighbors by putting crisp, green bills in clean, white envelopes, without troubling themselves over the continuing problems. Christians share their money fairly readily. But the most important thing they have to share, belief in a redeeming Lord, is hidden away somewhere, to be uncovered only when piety demands it.

Today the Church is at a tragic impasse. It has more buildings, more money, more members than ever; but it is less involved than ever, less concerned that individual reach individual. It is less an example of the redemptive work of Christ.

A major concern of Martin Luther’s Reformation was to recapture the spirit and form of the New Testament Church. There was the immediate vitality of the Holy

Spirit in action—redeeming men, caring for their physical needs, helping them to become full men. Although Luther did not get back to the form of the primitive Church, he managed to recapture enough of its spirit to revitalize Christianity in an age of material corruption.

The corruption today is even more gross and material. The Church, in a collective and an individual sense, must reach back beyond the Reformation to the excitement and enthusiasm of Paul and the apostles if it is once again to generate the electric energy needed to illuminate the world for Christ.

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This kind of reformation cannot take place until the man in the pew discovers that renewal depends upon individual reaction, commitment, and action, and not upon some collective effort staffed by a few who maneuver blocs of people around on charts and predict that enough money spent in a certain area will bring about the desired transformation of buildings and men.

The hunger of minority groups is a spiritual hunger expressed in a material way—the most meaningful articulation possible in a society that has erected its standards upon the shifting foundations of materialism. It is a hunger for the spiritual concepts of dignity and full human recognition. Dignity is articulated by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit and is claimed by men who believe. Full human recognition stems from a religious belief that men are worthwhile beings who ought to be loved.

Dignity and recognition, however, cannot be expressed by some great, intangible force known as society. They are conferred upon individuals by individuals. They come when people love their neighbors as they love themselves, when they help their neighbors as they would help themselves.

It is among individuals that the possibilities of social action, as a means to increase the pace and quality of individual Christian participation in the work of the Gospel, become exciting. Social action is really the Christian outworking of Christ’s commission. One of the apostles’ first concerns in the early Church was to administer the desire to meet social needs already evident as an obligatory function of the Christian in society. The Gospel takes on deeper meaning when it is seen as the sole motivating force behind Christian social action, something missionaries have seen for years. When a Christian loves because his commitment to Christ demands it and because through Christ he loses prejudice, he reaches the heart and begins to clear the passage through which the Holy Spirit must move to reach the core of a man and transform him.

When a man becomes a Christian, he accepts a gift he cannot buy. Being a Christian, he gives that gift away time and time again as part of the redemptive effort Christ demands of the Church. But too many church members think giving that gift away means worrying about the mortgage on the sanctuary, replacing hymn-books, reorganizing circles, planning all-church picnics, and going to choir rehearsal.

If its administration deters the Church from fulfilling its role in the parish, the community, the state, the nation, and the world, then it would do better to dismantle its institutional fixtures and return to the tents and mud houses of New Testament days. Then it was passionate and alive. Filled with the holy fire of God, it turned over an empire and rejuvenated nations because individuals, caught up in the excitement of a faith filled with Christ, told others and demonstrated the transformation they had experienced.

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The usual approach to missions, evangelism, and other areas of spiritual concern has reinforced among church members the feeling that personal involvement is not necessary. In the national climate of a government moving toward socialism, the Church too seems to be moving away from individual action. The tendency is reinforced by newspaper editorials, television documentaries, and social-science classes. It is also reinforced by literate social critics who say, “Society is the cause of all our ills.” “Society must find the answers.” “Society must produce the ways and means to help man lift himself up by his bootstraps.”

But social vices will never be corrected by mass social attack. Individuals must focus on specific problems and reach other individuals. Prejudice will vanish, not when more jobs are created for people stigmatized by race, but when individuals learn that Christ meant what he said about loving our neighbors as ourselves, and that if we do not love our neighbors we do not really love God.

The question is, then, how to wake up the man in the pew, charge his interest with direct current, open his eyes, make him get up and start walking toward responsibility. One way is for the Church itself to stop walking away from its social obligation. Once the Church was the axis on which all charitable activities turned. The sick, the destitute, the poor in spirit and in pocket, the ravaged of mind and body, could find spiritual solace and physical relief flowing from the Church. The help was as sweet as fresh spring water. It had no restrictions, no political motivations. The Church could again be this new Samaritan, binding up old, festering wounds. Too often, however, it appears to be getting out of the business of helping people while at the same time it preaches involvement in racial and economic problems. Some denominations are saying that their institutions for care of the aged, the orphaned, and the physically and mentally downtrodden should be self-sustaining, should not come to the Church for support but should look to the government. Meanwhile laymen nap in their pews and dream about burning the mortgage.

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Every single challenge the Church faces today is a challenge it has faced before. If the intensity has increased, it is only because the Church has backed away from today’s spiritual and material realities and hidden itself in the paperwork of ecumenism and in dreams of ponderous theologies. In direct proportion to the Church’s withdrawal from the exciting reality of its redemptive mission in the world, the man in the pew has sunk more deeply into spiritual lethargy. That lethargy will continue to deepen unless the energy of the Gospel is transfused with a force of action able to shake men out of their sleep and into a redemptive confrontation with other men. As Christ used parables, so the Church must offer its message in appropriate language for those who carry it to a society ingrown with materialism. As Christ concerned himself with every interest of the human mind and every condition of the human soul, so the Church today must become immersed in the total needs and aspirations of people in all their diversity. With this must be coupled the transferral, by church members, of secular interests and abilities into spiritual areas of concern and action.

Unless church members begin to act like Christians and respond individually to individuals, the atrophy will continue. And if this happens, it seems certain that the parish church will die, and that God will be hidden in the vestments of a collective giant weighted down by the staggering problems of administrating a church for people who attend by rote and who have forgotten that at the bottom of the sanctuary, held down by mass inertia, there is a Christ who would make men whole and transform a world into his image.

There are countless possibilities for confrontation. There are countless channels through which God’s people can take God’s Word to others and at the same time help solve the crying social needs of this and every age. But God’s people must take the initiative to do it.

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, defended himself before the Sanhedrin by indicting Israel. He said:

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How stubborn you are! How heathen your hearts, how deaf you are to God’s message! You are just like your ancestors: you, too, have always resisted the Holy Spirit! Was there a single prophet that your ancestors did not persecute? They killed God’s messengers, who long ago announced the coming of his righteous Servant. And now you have betrayed and murdered him. You are the ones who received God’s law, that was handed down by angels—yet you have not obeyed it! [Acts 7:51–53, Good News for Modern Man, The American Bible Society].

The indictment of Stephen rests as heavily on the heads of Christians now as it did upon the heads of the Sanhedrin then.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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