Many years ago, when I lived in Dallas, a rapidly growing church in North Dallas was profiled in the religion section of the local newspaper. The paper concluded that while the church was "undeniably North Dallas," it was still "recognizably Christian." The phrase "North Dallas" was meant to convey a life-style and ethos associated with that area of the metroplex that was far too often characterized both by shameless materialism and overt pretentiousness. Virtually every American metropolis has at least one such enclave in its midst.
Sadly, the church's pastor, later morally disgraced, took the newspaper's description as a compliment, as in "see, they still recognize we're really Christian." The paper's assessment of this church (which under a subsequent pastor rapidly moved in a much more consciously and distinctively Christian direction) was an indictment, not a compliment.
At the very least, this church and every other American church should strive to be the opposite – "undeniably Christian," while still perhaps "recognizably American."
As an Evangelical Christian, I believe American Evangelicals have to confess that too often in the past half-century we have been more like that North Dallas church than we should have been.
This does not mean that American Christians should not be patriotic. We should love our country and be grateful that in God's providence we have been blessed to be born in this God-blessed land. After all, blessings by definition are unmerited and underserved-that's why they are "blessings."
However, too often we have been too closely identified with a rampant materialism and have confused rapid growth in numbers with spiritual success. Too often Christians have been seduced by the pursuit of even greater material success or the blandishments of a "prosperity gospel."
Jesus commanded His followers to be in the world, but not of the world. Christians are called to witness to the world that true happiness, peace, meaning, and fulfillment are not to be found in the things of this world.
Many are familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous description in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail of the early church as thermostats that controlled the moral temperature of their culture vs. the modern church's being thermometers merely recording the moral temperature of the prevailing culture. Sadly, too often modern Evangelical churches haven't even been thermometers, recording the actual temperature, but just mirrors reflecting a carefully constructed image that camouflages the darker spiritual reality behind the mask in the mirror.
Jesus commands Christians to be salt and light, acting as a moral preservative (salt) and a beacon of illumination and hope (light) in a dark and decaying world. However, when we look at the sexual and marital lifestyles of American Evangelicals, which merely mirror the general American population, not measurably more "Christian," one is forced to conclude that for the past half-century Evangelicals have been salted and lit by society, rather than being the salt and light Jesus commanded His followers to be. Society has impacted us more than we have impacted it.
In addition, Evangelical churches have not been the prophetic witness on racial reconciliation that Jesus would have us to be. Far too often, Evangelical congregations have been more, rather than less, racially and ethnically segregated and socially stratified than the society around them, contrary to the biblical proclamation that in Christ there is neither "Jew nor Greek, slave or free."
Evangelicals should declare a national day of humiliation or confession where Evangelical Christians confess to God and apologize to the country for not being more authentically Christian, culminating with a heart-felt individual and corporate resolve to do better in the future.
When the late Vince Lombardi became the head coach of the then mediocre NFL doormat Green Bay Packers, he electrified the players with his first speech:
Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it. . . . But we are going to relentlessly chase it because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.
As Christians, we should relentlessly chase moral perfection, "knowing full well" we will never achieve it in this life. In the process, however, we will catch ever more spiritual "excellence."
In doing so, we will become an ever clearer picture of that "colony" of heaven that the Apostle Paul declares us to be. Then our spiritual witness, backed up by corresponding behavior, will have the ring of the spiritual authenticity that compels the culture's attention.
An old African proverb says, "Tell me and I will listen; show me and I will believe." It is "show me" time for America's Evangelical Christians.