Sadly, the institutional church can still function as a repository of darkness
This letter is for Joe Manafo, a friend of mine who pastors in Saskatchewan. If there are kindred spirits, then Joe belongs to us.
At first I thought I might comment on your charm or your sense of humor, your ingenuity or your chutzpah. We’ve had some good laughs, and I keep thinking we have many more coming, but it’s actually our shared pain I’d like to reference for a moment.
We both love the church, and we are both afraid of what the church might become.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m confident we’re more hopeful than afraid, but we’re both realistic enough to know that not every congregation (and certainly not every denomination) is going to last. Mission drift is a critical concern in Western Christianity. More and more, our peers are turning away from Christ and toward any number of distracting topics—politics, justice, innovation, technology, charity, education. Obviously these are important issues, but—and here’s where we feel nervous—many of our friends have fallen out of love with Jesus because of how much they’ve fallen in love with something Jesus provides.
We’re losing the giver for the gift. We have become consumed with getting whatever we think Jesus ought to supply. But, as Stephen King says in his magnum opus, The Dark Tower, “Greed in a good cause is still greed.”
The best “city pastor” in the Western world today is Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. In many ways, he’s the grandfather of applied city theology and the godfather of every urban mega-church in the top left-hand corner of the world. There are better theologians, and better practitioners, but it’s tough to beat Keller among theologian-practitioners.
One of my favorite Keller quotes involves his indictment of organizations. He says, “organizations and institutions can be guilty of evil in a higher degree than any one individual within it…[this means] that not only individuals must be changed, but legal, social, and political systems must be changed as well.” I like this quote so much because of Keller’s insistence that the church be considered among those institutions than get bent and go wrong.
There are times when the church tries to do God’s things without God. It seems foolish, and it is, but we both know this is a common problem. When this happens—when the people of God decide they would rather be just The People—we begin to function like the cities of Cain, and destruction inevitably ensues.
How ridiculous, how grotesque is the bravado of naked little man…Man shouts, ‘I will stop the whole mess, I will put it in order…Poor little man. You failed to notice that you are not dealing with flesh and blood, but with Thrones, and Powers, and Dominations which are attacking you, grinding you under, dominating you from every side, and that the Devil’s last trick is to make you think that you can put order back into this chaos, that you are going to get spiritually big enough to control the world! To be sure, the Devil will offer you this spiritual growth. He offered the very same thing, with the same goal in mind, to Jesus Christ. But with him the offer failed.
I’m writing to encourage you to keep your focus on Jesus Christ and to remind you you’re not alone in doing so. You live in the company of priests and kings. We’re faithful witnesses to the God of the living, who calls things that are not as though they are, and who makes all things new.
Justice will come, but Jesus will bring it. Peace will reign, but it emanates from his sacred heart. The poor will be made rich and the lame will leap for joy, but their transformation won’t happen just because we start thinking it should. There’s only one Lord, one God, one faith, and one baptism.
And apart from him, we can do nothing.
 Timothy Keller, Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 1997), 176.
Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 166..
 Revelation 5.10.
 Romans 4.17.
 Revelation 21.5.
 Revelation 6.2.
 Colossians 3.15.
 Matthew 11.5.
 Ephesians 4.5.
 John 15.5.