Christianity in Crisis

Someone I respect asked me on Twitter to comment on Andrew Sullivan’s recent article entitled, “Christianity in Crisis.” Sullivan’s article recently made the cover of Newsweek.

The cover title reads, “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus.”

Christianity in Crisis by Andrew Sullivan

Since I want to keep this blog post relatively short, I am limiting my commentary to four points.

1. The cover title represents the unparalleled confusion that the word “church” engenders. The title reads, “Forget the Church.” But what “church” are we talking about?

Is Sullivan saying . . .

Forget the Roman Catholic Church?

Forget the Anglican Church?

Forget the Church of Latter Day Saints?

Forget assembling with other Christians in any way, shape, or form?

Forget all other Christians in the world? 

Forget the Evangelicals, their movement, and the churches that contain them?

Forget attending two hours on Sunday morning (in other words, forget attending “church” services)?

Forget that building with a steeple on it that many fondly call “church.”

Forget the body of Christ?

So the title breeds massive confusion, first rattle out of the box. In our day “church” has become a clay word, molded and shaped to mean drastically different things. Sullivan isn’t alone in using “church” in this nebulous way.

I’ve seen several blog posts titled, “Why I Left the Church.” Upon reading each post, the various authors were using the word “church” to mean different things.

One author was talking about the fundamentalist denominations of which he was a part. So he was really saying, “Why I Left the Fundamentalist Denominations” (or words to that effect).

Another author was speaking about the institutional church as we know it, regardless of the denomination or denominational non-denomination (yes, you read that right).

In the article at hand, Sullivan appears to be speaking chiefly about the Roman Catholic Church. I’ll explain more about that shortly.

Point: If you ever write on “the church,” be sure to define what you mean first. If not, many of your readers will ascribe their own meaning to what you say.

2. In “Christianity in Crisis,” Andrew Sullivan reminds us that Christians aren’t perfect people. This is true. Every follower of Jesus, including every “leader,” makes mistakes.

Sullivan goes on to point out that some Christian leaders are so disingenuous that they emptily profess Christ and use their faith to “advance their own power” and commit unspeakable criminal acts.

Throughout the years, I’ve met many non-Christians who gave the excuse that every Christian they’ve ever met was guilty of sinning in some way. In addition, they would point to certain pastors or priests who were complicit in criminal acts. To their minds, this was enough to discredit Jesus Christ and choose to not follow Him.

The truth is that you’ll never meet a Christian who hasn’t made mistakes, messed up, done things they regret, and has flaws. That creature doesn’t exist, no matter what anyone tells you. And there will always be people who profess to love Christ, but who have despicable characters. But that doesn’t discredit Jesus Christ or His claims.

So yes, we can “forget” those who use the Savior’s name to gain power or commit crimes. Meaning, it’s illogical to point to such cases as an excuse to not surrender our own lives to this world’s true Lord—Jesus of Nazareth, who was and is without sin.

Regarding the church, however, Christians need other Christians, for Christianity is corporate by nature. The Christian life simply doesn’t work if we try to wing it by ourselves. I’ve talked a great deal about how Christ and His body are distinct but not separate and how the ekklesia is the native habitat of every believer. (I’ve made these arguments in detail in Reimagining Church and From Eternity to Here.)

So in that respect, we cannot “forget the church and follow Jesus.” Because following Jesus includes having close relationships with other believers and giving and receiving spiritual help, encouragement, and instruction from them. Not to mention (again) that Christ and His church are united, just as the head and the body, the bride and bridegroom, the building and the cornerstone, and the firstborn son and his brothers and sisters are united.

3. In “Christianity in Crisis,” Andrew Sullivan champions one side of the political spectrum against the other side. At the same time, Sullivan claims that Christianity should be apolitical most of the time.

I agree that Christianity has been over-politicized. However, when reading the article, I got the feeling that the subtext of what Sullivan was saying can be juiced down to this sentence: “Just follow Jesus in your own private life and forget about speaking prophetically into the world.”

Yet Sullivan comes back and says that the church should speak prophetically sometimes. He then gives his opinion on what specific issues the church should and shouldn’t speak about.

Sullivan is a Catholic who is also gay. Thus his complaint seems to be that the Roman Catholic Church should not take the conservative political position on sexuality, but rather, give its full attention to the liberal political position on broader social issues.

Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church (past and present) has strongly supported helping the poor and the oppressed. It has also taken an almost pacifist stance on war. It seems, then, that Sullivan believes that taking a conservative political position on human sexuality somehow drains energy from these other issues.

Time and space will not permit me to delve deeper into the Christian left vs. the Christian right debates, but I’ve written seven posts on the issue called Beyond Evangelical. Leonard Sweet and I sum up the issue in our book, Jesus Manifesto, saying,

“The body of Christ is at a crossroads right now. The two common alternatives are to move either to the left or the right. It’s our observation, however, that we are living in a unique time, when people are frozen as they look in either of those directions. When they look to the left, they decide that they cannot venture there. When they look to the right, they feel the same. Whether they realize it or not, people are looking for a fresh alternative—a third way. The crossroads today, we believe, is one of moving forward or backward. What we will present in this book, therefore, is razor-sharp, cut-glass clarity of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Alpha and the Omega. We will show that He is that third way—and the only way—that we can forge a secure path into the future. If the church does not reorient and become Christological at its core, any steps taken will be backwards” (Jesus Manifesto, Introduction).

4. Finally, Andrew Sullivan’s “Christianity in Crisis” takes a perspective that is common, but which I believe is grossly flawed. Sullivan reduces following Jesus to following His teachings rather than following, embracing, loving, and giving one’s allegiance to the Person who gave those teachings.

In this connection, one of the main points that Sweet and I make in Jesus Manifesto is that you cannot separate Jesus Christ from His teachings. And you can’t properly follow His teachings without knowing the Man who gave those teachings. More specifically,

“Jesus cannot be separated from His teachings. Aristotle said to his disciples, “Follow my teachings.” Socrates likewise said to his disciples, “Follow my teachings.” Buddha said to his disciples, “Follow my meditations.” Confucius said to his disciples, “Follow my sayings.” And Muhammad said to his disciples, “Follow my noble pillars.” But Jesus says to His disciples, “Follow Me.” In all the religions and philosophies of the world, a follower can follow the teachings of its founder without having a relationship with that founder. But not so with Jesus Christ. The teachings of Jesus cannot be separated from Jesus Himself. Christ is still alive, and He embodies His teachings. This is what separates Him from every great teacher and moral philosopher in history.” (Jesus Manifesto, Chapter 5).

I agree with Andrew Sullivan that “Christianity is in Crisis.” And I agree that the way forward is to follow Jesus.

But what “following Jesus” means precisely for our day is the thorny issue that we Christians must face squarely. To my mind, the answer to that question is found in the face of Jesus Himself, who is still alive and who seeks to unveil His mind to all who are willing to hear His voice now.

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion” (Hebrews 3:15).

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

And that voice often sounds very different from the voices that we hear all around us, be they those of the left or the right. It is also a voice that is most accurately heard in concert with other sheep.

Sullivan closes his “Christianity in Crisis” with the following words:

“I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world . . . Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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  1. Adel Gabion says

    I haven’t read all of Andrew Sullivan’s article, though I read some few excerpts. I am reading The Jesus Manifesto at the moment, honestly I am reexamining my own personal relationship and walk with God while reading this book. I have seen and that some evangelical Christians has gone too far. What have we done here? What happened to the beauty and the simplicity of the new testament church? I guess this is a wake up call for the body of Christ as a whole to re-align our hearts, thoughts and get back to our first love.

  2. Robn says

    Crisis or no crisis…the true “church” will not perish. It might be entangled but HIS sheep get pulled from the thicket every time!!! :) HE will gather His sheep, HE will protect His sheep, His sheep must know His voice and follow His voice. There may be a day in this generation where the buildings and the steeples may disappear…how then will Christians be recognized…what a thought?

  3. says

    Interesting article. I would like to share three thought I wrote in Twitter lately as reply.!/MarcActiveGrace

    #Church – not build with wood or bricks – build with living people who desire to Love God God with all passion and others as their selves.

    Jesus walked an adventure where he crossed the borders of religion of His days. Showing God’s mercifull love to people inspiring for us.

    Creator Trinity is moving forward to a movement following Him instead of following a religion, church or denomination that speaks of Him

  4. Julie says

    It is an interesting time for believers everywhere. I believe in the church. It’s the people of God meeting together to strengthen, encourage and be encouraged by worship, prayer, fellowship, teaching and then reaching out with love in caring for the world. As the church, we do need each other and its how Jesus intended us to be. He said, I will build my church!
    I find it hard when non christians ‘file’ all christians together in the same category. By this I mean, that they assume we have the same views on doctrine etc. I have just been watching a debate with George Pell (Catholic) and Richard Dawkins.
    Many non christians watching that would have lumped all Christians as having the same views as Pell (where some of his answers and comments were pathetic). It’s no wonder the world is turned off by christianity today. I believe the church needs to continue to reach out in love and build and gain the trust from the community again, which has been lost.

    • Rachel says

      Julie, the reason why the world is turned off by Christians is because of how terribly Christians treat each other. Have you ever read Frank’s post on how not to be a jerk online? I’m a part of several “Christian” facebook groups and all the people do there is go at each other and at other people who don’t even comment on the groups. It’s mostly an attackfest. You see this same thing all over on social networks and Christian forums. I’m thankful for people like Frank because they’ve modeled disagreeing with issues rather than attacking or misrepresenting people. I don’t want to call myself a Christian some days just because of how awful Christians treat each other.

  5. Israel Sanchez says

    I read the article earlier but only now found the time to sit down and reply. Busy day. I think you put it well when you said, in other words, that Andrew wants Jesus as a role model but not as Lord. And if he wrote that article from that perspective, that being not submitting to Jesus as Lord and realizing his need to confess and repent of his sin (in this case homosexuality) then the whole article is flawed. Sure, he made some good points, but the essence, the heart of it all, was distorted.

  6. Margie H says

    I’m still reading through the Newsweek article by Sullivan. I can agree there are some issues within the Catholic Church, but I’m not Catholic so I’m not going to hate on them. There are also tons of issues within American Protestantism. The protestant churches in America are split over homosexuality, sex, sexuality, and politics. Most sermons are focus on being the perfect Christian, fitting the perfect Christian mold, and having the perfect family and being blessed all the time. Many in a great deal of protestant churches wonder if they can truly trust their pastors, priests or elders and deacons.

    If there is so much controversy surrounding Christianity, why don’t the scholars, professors, and the top pastors with phds all convene together for a few months and re-examine everything. Why not?? We know more now then any generation before us about the Bible and about the ancient customs, cultures, and religion of the Bible world.

    Maybe there is some truth in Sullivan’s claim. Maybe we don’t like to hear the truth. Maybe it offends us. Maybe it hurts. Maybe it needs to hurt to get us all to see that we need to find Jesus and His teachings again…we need God the father and Christ and His teachings to find our way again. Maybe the CHURCH needs to clean house. I think this is a good time as any. Just my opinions.

  7. Nancy says

    Frank, I appreciate all these comments but it seems all our knowledge doesn’t get us very far does it! It’s got to be much simpler; I guess that’s why we settle for what seems the easiest to understand … I don’t know. We come to God in simple faith and humility to receive His grace and mercy. I wonder how much He cares whether we are left or right. Perhaps we make too much of it; just sayin’.

    Thanks for making us think but at the end of the day, we in humility, realize how much we depend on His grace. It’s encouraging to know that someday we’ll see it all clearly. Thanks again for caring so much about the body of Christ.

  8. gene smith says

    What are basilica churches and have you written any blogs/books on them? Thanks for your response on the Sullivan article. I’ll pass it on.


  9. says

    Having just celebrated the resurrection I am convinced that nothing much makes sense about Christianity without a belief in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus – which is what I believe to be Paul’s point in 1 Cor 15. Jefferson saw otherwise, and I understand why. Yet, Jefferson was looking for a philosophical Christianity. I’m looking for a moment to moment living relationship with the risen Christ through his Spirit. That being said, I really appreciated Sullivans take on all this because ultimately, after accepting the ‘fact’ of the resurrection we must align ourselves with the ‘truth’ about Jesus. His was less an ‘ethical’ life based on law, and far more a virtuous life based on a love for all mankind. In today’s terms I think Jesus, like Sullivan, would lean a bit to the ‘left’. Too much of what the public perceives as the ‘church’ leans more toward Caesar than Jesus. We truly need to reJesus the church – we need to get our ‘Head’ on straight. We’ve been ‘Headless’ far too long.

    • says

      Thx. for your thoughtful response, Bill. Indeed, the resurrection is a critical matter in all of this, isn’t it? What I find fascinating is that both the Christian left and the Christian right accuse one another of accommodating the culture and tilting more toward Caesar than Jesus. And both use various sayings of Jesus to support their causes. Not sure if you’ve read my “Beyond Evangelical” series (soon to be a book), but that’s one of the main points that’s explored in it.

  10. Nancy says

    Some time ago I made note of this quote; I think it comes from your coauthored book with George Barna, Pagan Christianity: “Christians have been their own worst enemies when it comes to showing the world what authentic, biblical Christianity looks like – and why it represents a viable alternative to materialism, existentialism, mysticism, and other doctrines of popular culture. Those who have turned to Christianity and churches seeking truth and meaning have left empty-handed, confused by the apparent inability of Christians themselves to implement the principles they profess. Churches for the most part, have failed to address the nagging anxieties and deep-seated fears of the people, focusing instead upon outdated or secondary issues and proposing tired or trite solutions.”

    Frank, I can only speak of the evangelical church because that is where my familiarity lies. I believe “church culture” is very much a reason why so many believers have left the evangelical church (building). Many feel their Christian values are being compromised by the contemporary evangelical church of today. Do you think with that being said one can commit him/her self to the higher cause of Christ outside of the building? Is this a healthy thing? What can we personally do to bridge the gap between those who feel their spiritual values are being compromised by today’s evangelical church and those who feel everything is where it should be and like things the way they are? Is it right to stay in the building with the agenda of pushing our views, mostly getting nowhere, or is it better to leave and where do we find fellowship after we leave?
    There is so much evidence to say that the acceptance and practice of secular culture in today’s church has wrought havoc on the evangelical church? Should we not take ownership of the problem without leaving the building and through persistent and focused prayer invite God to turn things around and get us on the right track? Personally, I have left the building but I’m starving for community. There seems to be no win/win in this for the average believer who can’t take it anymore.

    • says

      Nancy: I answer these questions in detail in “Reimagining Church” and “Finding Organic Church.” That said, I’m not sure that the issue is with the building. Some basilica churches are much more vibrant and God-honoring than some groups that meet in homes. The social location of a church, while something that shouldn’t be ignored, isn’t a critical player in this discussion. My opinion. I think the root goes more to the right vs. left debates and where the Person of Jesus Christ fits into it all.

  11. says

    I think they only way we’ll survive this crisis is to allow ourselves the luxury of questioning. Questioning every traditional thought in our body that was taught to us and examine it against the Bible and God’s own Holy (Sense) Spirit.

  12. Marc Goodman says

    Andrew Sullivan’s synopsis of the current state of Christianity is a lot like my liberal friends that tell me that if conservatives just jettison the issues of abortion, capitalism, gay rights and religion in general then the left would embrace their platform. So if we simply threw out the church and just embrace Jesus everyone would get along. But throwing out the church is basically throwing out the body of Christ. Where would we go then to commune with each other? How could we express our love to each other and to Jesus? It’s a pathetic attempt from someone who has little to no understanding of the true nature of Jesus’ teaching to influence Christians who have not invested themselves in who exactly is their creator.

  13. Luke Mathisen says


    One of the things I love about your ministry is the focus on Jesus. I see Sullivan’s article as a huge blessing in that respect. Any one, including sinners like the woman at the well, shouldn’t be discouraged from shouting from the roof tops “come see Jesus!”. I believe Andrew’s article and appearance on Meet the Press will encourage many to take a second look at Jesus. And what can go wrong if millions of people start looking at Jesus without the damaging religious/political baggage Christians have hung on Him?

  14. Mike says

    What a depressing thought it is to reduce Christ to just His teachings. That puts the burden of salvation back on me. That is a weight I have no desire to try and lift on my own again.

  15. Kalil says

    “Christ and His body are distinct but not separate and how the ekklesia is the native habitat of every believer”;

    “So in that respect, we cannot “forget the church and follow Jesus.” Because following Jesus includes having close relationships with other believers and giving and receiving spiritual help, encouragement, and instruction from them. Not to mention (again) that Christ and His church are united, just as the head and the body, the bride and bridegroom, the building and the cornerstone, and the firstborn son and his brothers and sisters are united”

    Thanks Frank for clarifying that. I’m starting to see and hear a trend where people are walking away from various forms of community and making the statement “It’s not about church, but following Christ”….To me that’s like removing someones fingers and saying they still have hands.

  16. MichaelLynch says

    I didn’t see the Newsweek article before your post. I just read both. I first wanted to thank you for your time spent in response, which I shared with my social network. Your fresh perspective and awareness is a blessing to our family.

    Amen Andrew as well!

  17. says

    It seems modern man and religion is searching for their own “personal” Jesus. A jesus who fits their wants and needs, more of a genie in a bottle type of savior. We have re-made Jesus into our image and expect Him to conform to our broken nature to better serve us. Only when we come to Him on His terms will we find the freedom that He offers, the Truth that He is and the Way that leads to real Life. While the title “Christianity in Crisis” is certainly accurate, the supposition contained therein misses the mark completely. Thanks for sharing your insights!

  18. says

    Their is indeed a hunger. I hope this drives people to search for the truth, and followers of Christ to open their mouths and defend the Gospel as the Truth that it is.

  19. Daniel Rothamel says

    Thanks for writing this, Frank. I appreciate your perspective and analysis of the article. I’ve discussed this article with others, believers and non-believers alike, numerous times since it came out. The discussions have been lively and enlightening, even when they were exceedingly frustrating.

    Now, I’ve got a link that to which I can point people and say, “what he said.” :-)

  20. says

    It seems that Sullivan doesn’t want to take Jesus on His terms. I completely agree when you said – “Sullivan reduces following Jesus to following His teachings rather than following, embracing, loving, and giving one’s allegiance to the Person who gave those teachings.”

    I shared some very similar thoughts on the Newsweek article.

  21. Jim Puntney says

    There is a hunger within the human soul for clarity, purpose, and community. We all resonate with these terms.

    In my life I’ve striven in vain to fill this hunger with the worlds menu, it leaves you jaded, empty, and confused. Yet today I can say there is hope, it is found not in this worlds system or in human reasoning.

    There is an answer, one that that is clear, and concise.

    I agree with Frank this voice sounds different, and it is, it comes from the Author of life.

    “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Jesus of Nazareth

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