There can be no doubt that Jesus was at the center of the early Christian movement. Nothing else could generated the fiery zeal, compassion, love, and martyrdom of the first followers of Jesus. Nothing else could have caused a movement to begin with. Passion for "doctrine," worship issues, leadership structure--these would not have caused anyone to even get out of bed.
The time from Constantine through the Reformation was not merely a long time of apostasy, as I was sometimes taught. Many great things happened during this time. Christ became known around the world. Hospitals were started because Christians wanted to care for the sick and wounded. Governments, under the influence of or led by Christians, began to provide for the poor. The Bible was translated into the native language of many peoples, with missionaries sometimes spending decades learning a language and loving a people so that they might write the Bible into their own words.
But somewhere along the way, Christ was at times lost as the focus of the faith. When the cross was put on the shields of Constantine's troops, Christianity became intermingled with politics, force, and power--hardly Jesus' approach to the world. The Medieval world so much focused on the church and its representatives that Christ was surely secondary to the machinations of power. The Reformation and Renassiance focused upon the individual and the glorification of humanity and the arts and sciences. Many great discoveries were made, paintings painted, and sculptures sculpted in the name of Jesus. But it is easy to imagine that these devotions merely drew upon the cultural material that was available in that day. The colonization in the 17th-20th centuries was as much about spreading Western way of life as it was about sharing Christ.
When the European soldiers of WW I saw the bloody mess where Christian nations all came together to kill one another, most did not ever return to their faith. Surely this was not what Jesus was all about. This, coupled with medieval history, is why to this day, institutional Christianity is absolutely dead in Europe.
WW II, Vietnam, Watergate, televangelists, AIDS, poor media coverage, the moral majority, and a million other things, all happening on Christianity's watch, have led to a general distrust of Christians and Christianity.
9/11, just remembered yesterday, also did something. While for a brief amount of time it caused some people to remember God and affirm that there is good and evil in the world (President Bush called those who attacked the US "evildoers," invoking biblical language), it's more lasting impact was to create the New Atheism. This new, resurgent atheism points to 9/11 as evidence that all religion is inherently violent, oppressive, and a threat to humanity.
Our young people are growing up now in this new postmodern world. A world that has shed many of the sins of modernism--pride, arrogance, racism, secularism--that now faces the challenges of skepticism, relevatism, and distrust towards virtually all organizations--especially, perhaps, religious organziations.
If we want to reach people today, Christ must be at the center of who we are. Our young people know if we are passionate about Jesus and his way of life--helping the poor, loving the broken, depending upon the father--or if we just give Jesus lip service. They know if we are really more interested in politics, money, or lesser doctrinal issues that are constantly fought over.
Jesus ought to be at the center of our faith. This has always been the case! Today, however, we have no choice if we want to retain our children in the faith or reach those on the outside.
Do you think Christ is at the center of most churches that you have been a part of and most Christians that you know? What is the evidence for or against this?