The Thinning of the Church
Posted on August 24, 2019
Today’s church is increasingly thin. It has little substance. It blows about with every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). It drifts from fad to fad, from kitsch to kitsch, from celebrity to celebrity. It chases the latest cultural prostitute. It is the laughingstock of the depraved society it so slavishly imitates. The church no longer commands serious attention because it does not take itself seriously as God’s redeemed body in the world. The pastor was once looked to as the moral and intellectual leader of the community. Now he is disparaged (often accurately) as a zealous know-nothing and consummate fundraiser. The church is superficial, consumerist, self-absorbed, mercurial. Thin indeed.
What are the marks of a thin church? First, a thin church expands its programs and contracts its godliness. It is forever appointing committees and calling meetings to “strategize” about how to enlist more attendees by catering to their niche consumption addictions: MOPS, Super Singles, Celebrate Recovery. Sermons are geared to personal fulfillment (“Seven Steps to a Happier Marriage” and “Spiritual Strategies for Achieving Your Life’s Goals”). The congregation, suckled on self-help culture, develop “itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3) to be scratched by spiritual lifestyle coaches meeting a market demand. Members do not live as a covenant community, pouring their lives into one another, but are simply atomistic spiritual consumers plugged into the religious satisfaction generator known as the postmodern church.
Second, a thin church expects the “senior pastor” to be the company CEO, driving a growing organization and “plant,” preferably incremental building programs. The “executive pastor” is more executive than pastor, perhaps holding an MBA and expected to keep the member-shareholders happy with the bottom line. Feeding the flock is incidental. The thin-church shepherd’s job description is beautifying the sheepfold, motivating the other sheep-leaders to keep that flock incessantly active inside the fold, and preserving his own reputation among neighboring shepherds.
Third, a thin church molds its music around the wider cultural sensibilities. Ours is an age of radically rhythm-driven and lyrically over-simplistic performance music, and the church is no exception. “In this moment you’re right beside me/ You’re everywhere, you’re in the air that I breathe/ Every morning you keep coming/ The waves of your affection keep washing over me.” The Sunday morning laser-light concert showcases the swaying female alto and hipster guitarist, and the congregation haltingly mouths the screen lyrics never intended to be sung by anybody but the gaudy professionals. The music, like our culture, is existential, not majestic.
Fourth, a thin church is ignorant of or uninterested in the Christian worldview. The Triune God wishes to transform our lives by transforming our minds (Rom. 12:2), but the thin church is thickly invested in the anti-intellectual temper of the age, preferring emotion, passion, and intuition and bypassing the mind. The unified creation-fall-redemption paradigm of the Bible and its implications for the world are of little interest. While it may stress redemption (narrowly conceived as personal salvation), the church omits biblical creational norms that shape the cosmos. Self-absorbed emotional intensity, sprinkled with churchy Jesus-language, rules the day.
Fifth, a thin church ecclesiasticizes the Bible and the Faith. All the important things happen in the church. The thin church is incestuous. There is no appetite for the Kingdom of God, for pressing the Lordship of Christ in technology, education, the arts, politics, science, and the wider culture — outside the church. That new gaming-addiction recovery program is much, much more important. The thin church equates the church with the Kingdom. Few theological ideas are more dangerous.
Sixth, a thin church refuses to confront the surrounding culture at the very points at which that culture is assaulting God and his word. The thin church is the cowardly church. Because the Sexual Revolution is the most visible cultural depravity today, it vanquishes the thin church. Premarital sex and same-sex “attraction” must be afforded “safe spaces,” either never mentioned, or positively encouraged, for “broken” people who wish to persist in their sin. Under the guise of compassion, the thin church sells biblical truth down the river for a mess of modernist pottage.
Finally, a thin church knows nothing of ecclesial sanctification, growing in grace as a body. The leaders’ goal, rather, is to create a product/service that increases breadth, not depth. Long-time members grow uneasy that the sermons are pabulum designed for the merry-go-round of new attendees, but lack any meat to feed the souls of those wishing to move beyond spiritual adolescence (1 Cor. 3:1–2). Covenant, Kingdom, worldview, the cultural mandate, wealth, self-sacrifice, judgment, hospitality, individual and eschatological victory and other vital themes are rarely mentioned. Members trudge ahead as spiritual pygmies, as the church increases its programs and membership.
A thick church, in radical contrast, reflects a robust faith. Its
leaders are on their face before God and his Word. The Triune God, not the
apostate culture, sets the church’s agenda. They lovingly press the faithful
toward greater obedience, greater knowledge, greater faith, and greater expectation.
The music is theologically substantial and conveys truth that turns religious
backbone into iron. The thick church speaks prophetically for biblical sexual
ethics and against the Sexual Revolution. It holds antinomian and spineless
politicians accountable to God’s standards. This church might be scorned and
persecuted by pagans and secularists (and jellyfish Christians), but it is a
bright light shining on a hill in a very dark time. To return to the initial
metaphor: it is thick, weighty, substantial, a force to be taken with utmost
seriousness — including by her Lord.
 I borrowed this language from my friend and colleague Brian Mattson. He employed it at the recent inaugural Even Runner Academy to describe art as thin or thick, chiding much modern Christian art as thin. I later counseled a friend about his vexing church situation, and adapted the thinness metaphor to assist him.
 S. U. Zuidema, Communication and Confrontation (Toronto: Wedge Publishing, 1972), 36–51.
 The church must exude compassion, but it is never compassionate to excuse sin. This is a lack of compassion.