Can't Get There From Here

Michael Metzger

Every church seeks to be like the original in Acts 2. Most American churches, however, can’t get there from here.

The early church was communal, experiencing sign and wonders, often in bodily manifestations such as healings and resurrections. As a result, everyone felt a sense of awe. They shared common meals as well as the Eucharist. These “foretastes” of the wedding banquet in eternity gave believers perspective. They gladly relinquished all their earthly goods, selling everything they had and sharing with anyone in need.

These stories of bodily manifestations continue as the church spread east (China), south (Africa), and north (Europe). They taper off with the rise of Islam (600) and its enslavement of Christianity (800-1100). They return with Islam’s decline, and are especially pronounced between 1200 and 1500 in western Europe, particularly with women.

There are hundreds of stories from the high Middle Ages of women experiencing miracles of bodily transformation. They include single women’s breasts becoming engorged with milk to feed starving babies, stigmata, and inedia (living without eating). These incidences are far too numerous to dismiss outright. But then they largely disappear in western Europe. What happened?

It started in the 700s with Islamic scholars discovering the lost works of Greek philosophers. Western Europe at that time had hardly heard of Aristotle. After the fall of Constantinople (1453), Greek scholars fled to western Europe, bringing with them manuscripts of classical works in the original Greek, including Aristotelian rationalism.

Aristotelian rationalism regards reason as the chief source of knowledge. At first this looked like a godsend. Reacting against centuries of bloody religious warfare, rationalism seemed to offer a renaissance—rebirth—of what it meant to learn and be human. Science—Latin for knowledge—was no longer was based on faith in God but reason.

From this came the Enlightenment. The brain became the focus rather than the body. The scientific and mechanical replaced the sensory and mystical in pursuit of unambiguous certainty. Enlightenment thinkers said we ought to be autonomous (“law unto ourselves”), in control, and thinking for ourselves, starting from the ground up. Respect facts but apply healthy doses of skepticism to the claims of authorities.

The European Reformers saw the Enlightenment as a godsend. Reacting against the corrupted practices of the Roman church, the Reformers did away with ritual, mysticism, and metaphor in favor of preaching the word in pursuit of unambiguous certainty. But bodily manifestations declined. So did awe. What once was a soul-shaking encounter with God became in western Europe a relatively benign cerebral tightly-scripted service.

Jacques Rousseau in the 1760s and ‘70s claimed that an autonomous “enlightened” world would be filled with profoundly alienated and unhappy people. Autonomy is about control—I “figure out” what to do with my life, my body, my possessions. Rousseau saw that if every individual has the final say, genuine community is beyond our grasp.

So is the original church in Acts 2. We can’t get there from here, for the churches of America are offshoots of western Europe. They’re a loose collection of autonomous individuals futilely attempting to remain in “control” of their lives. There are no bodily manifestations of the miraculous (they continue to this day in southern hemisphere churches, however). There is no sense of awe. Believers don’t sell all their possessions. They give on average only three percent of income. Can’t get there from here.

Tony Judt, a British historian who specialized in European history, believed most of what history “has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive…”[1] What I’ve written makes many of my church friends uncomfortable. Philip Jenkins, professor of church history, is even more discomforting. “Christians of European descent should learn that they are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been.” To become like the church in Acts 2, western churches will have to join two-thirds of the worldwide church (mostly southern hemisphere) that’s largely untouched by the Enlightenment. We can get there from there.


[1] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 830.


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  1. Two of the most inspiring women (in my opinion) who experienced bodily manifestation are Blessed St. Ann Emmerich and Marie Julie Jahenny. Both carried the Stigmata, but Marie Julie of Breton’s only sustenance for several years was the Holy Eucharist (this is documented in medical journals of the time). She is the Catholic mystic most renowned for her visions of the three-days-of-darkness, but she also had a vision of the future in which she saw all believers in Christ in a state of great turmoil, confusion, and division.
    I remember sitting with a church plant committee years ago and hearing, “we’ve got to get back to the Book of Acts,” over and over again. Things always get a little sticky when you arrive at St. Paul’s encouragement to “stand firm and hold to the traditions we taught you.” If your church history is 500 years old or less, what does this really look like? If your tradition is rooted in the idea of Sola Scriptura, you are even more limited when considering the time that the Book of Acts was written in correlation with the Nicean Council and Canon Law. I find it interesting to observe the modern western church’s approach to formation. I can go to just about any website and find some variation of the same, rather ambiguous mission statement, each one more opposed to tradition and religion than the next. Google search Church 3.0. They are a great example of this.

  2. Great Article Mike!

    I’m reminded of my own conviction while listening to my friends father-in-law. He spent (and continues to spend) his life as a missionary deep in the jungle far removed from modern society. The stories he tells involve witch doctors, spells, spiritual warfare, miracles so on and so forth. I remember listening in disbelief because it didn’t sound “real.” That’s when conviction set in because I realized how deeply I’m indoctrinated in western culture. The point isn’t whether his stories are true, but the limited/flawed nature of my thinking.

    I’m ashamed to admit that I catch myself as a victim of modern day western ideology. It’s all I ever knew as a child. Thankfully I’ve been challenged to pay attention to the “red flags” that arise when such thinking creeps to the forefront. Stepping into the realm of an “Acts 2” church is the epitome of counter culture.

  3. Mike,

    Great thoughts, thank you. How then do you propose we arrive there, if not from here? Would love to hear your thoughts.


  4. Joey:

    I propose that churches bring in the “outside view” (c.f., Daniel Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”)–an individual who sees what insiders (i.e., your leadership team) cannot. This individual will uncover the Enlightenment practices that non-consciously shape your church, as well as most Western churches.

  5. Thank you for this tiny mustard seed of thought, dropped into the vacuous space of our searching for a future.

  6. Some of us see Illuminism as the opposite of what it pretends to be. John Locke desires to put an end to the constant Christian discussions on doctrine by reducing Religion to a lesser role. In his view society should concentrate on building a just and perfect social order. That is a beginning of the inversion of history. The Christian universe begins with a Golden Age (Paradise) then the Fall, Redemption, and the arrival of a new and permanent Golden Age with Christ Second Coming. Illuminism eliminates the original Golden Age and moves the origins to the primordial swamp, the cave, etc. from where man climbs by its own efforts to a future Golden Age. Opposite to the Christian “Body of Christ” the Church, this new concept proposes to build the future from the collective effort. The result of that are all the collectivist ideas that shoot from the French Revolution onward to the Cultural Marxism of today. I do believe that the ideas of Illuminism contaminated the Church by “deconstructing” its authority. Islam seems to be God’s punishment, like C.S. Lewis’ concept of “pain as the megaphone that God uses to rouse a dead world”. The Orthodox gone their own way in 1054 were the first to taste that pain (Islam) and now this European Union conceived without Christ or rather rejecting Christ. “I am the vine and you are the branches …” and “Without me you can’t accomplish nothing” should be the two arguments to bring us together now but we have wandered too far. The accomplishment of Christian Unity will be the work of Christ when He is manifested again to the entire world. There will be no room for competing theologies then when the force of His Presence unites us. “What were you arguing about on the road?” (Mark 9:33-37) The “road” is history, and the question is directed to us.

  7. Interesting thoughts , Carl, that illuminate the ‘road’ signs of relationship with the Trinity and Old and New Testaments. Gethsemene and Emma us prompting the deficits to face with grace and mercy.

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