This week, I’ve been studying for an upcoming sermon series on the Kingdom of God. It has been a fruitful time of study and discipleship that I hope will be as fruitful for my congregations.
As I’ve studied, one aspect of the kingdom that is often discussed is how, as followers of Jesus, we are called to participate in his suffering. There are many ways this can be expressed, but it can easily be defined as taking on the difficult and denying our most basic wants and desires.
In other words, the Christian life is a difficult call for those who seek to follow Christ.
When was the last time you heard suffering as Christ suffered preached in your congregations? For that matter, when was the last time I invited my congregations into a deep time of following Christ’s footsteps by taking on his sufferings? Being like Christ by giving of our time and money … we’ll preach that. Being like Christ by being most hospitable and loving is also at the top of our “most preached” list. We’ll even preach that Jesus will make us prosper, even if we are opposed to the “prosperity” gospel.
We seldom preach our mutual participation in Christ’s suffering. Why is that? It’s a core principle that Jesus taught (Matthew 16:24), but it is ignored. Again, why? Are we saying that Jesus is only to be followed when it is comfortable for us?
That is exactly what we are saying. The American church has made following Jesus to be an easy endeavor. Our proclamations of Jesus are void of challenges to our basic ideas and calls to repentance and deep discipleship. All you have to do is believe and you are going to “heaven.” We’ve been so committed to numerical growth and “heaven attendance” growth that we have removed anything that might be challenging from our preaching and have preached a simplicity gospel in its place. Just believe in Jesus and all will be OK.
Indeed, it is too easy to be a Christian in America.
The heart and truth of Christianity is challenging and hard. It is not the easy gospel so many want to hear and equally want to proclaim. Jesus’ teachings of self-sacrifice, self-denial and servanthood goes against our core identity as humans. Jesus does not call us to the easy, but to the difficult. To preach an easy gospel is to really go against the grain of the entire Christian canon and message.
Perhaps the reason we do not preach our participation in Jesus’ suffering in the American church is because we have no idea what it means to suffer. Unlike our brothers and sisters in Africa and Asia, which, by the way, are regions where the church is growing, we do not have to fight for our right to worship Christ or to be known as Christians. It’s not the American way to suffer for anything. Culture has taught us that suffering is bad, yet Paul embraced his suffering for Christ as an act of discipleship. Even more, consumerism calls us to have all of our wants and needs met, which makes our god money and possessions instead of the Triune God.
We’ve lost our way in America and it is because we have lost what it means to suffer for Christ. The American church will continue to see declines in worship attendance and growth unless we remember our call to participate in Jesus’ suffering and self-denial.
It’s too easy to be a Christian in American, but it shouldn’t be and my prayer is that one day it will not be.