American Christianity- The Prodigal Church

By Rev. Dr. J. Patrick Bowman

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near Jesus to listen to Him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to complain, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” And so He told them this parable, saying,
“A man had two sons. “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.’ And so he divided his wealth between them. “And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his estate in wild living. “Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began doing without. “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs. “And he longed to have his fill of the carob pods that the pigs were eating, and no one was giving him anything. “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired laborers have more than enough bread, but I am dying here from hunger! ‘I will set out and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired laborers.”’ “So he set out and came to his father. But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, slaughter it, and let’s eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you never gave me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

(Luk 15:1-3,11b-32 NASB)

We are all familiar with the parable of the prodigal son. But I would like to add a twist to the story, reassign the main characters, and bring the tale to the here and now, to the church in America in 2021.

The setting is a lesson Jesus is giving to the publicans and sinners, and the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus offers two stories before this one: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. All three have to do with the return of something valuable to its rightful place; the sheep to the shepherd, the coin to the woman, and the son to the father. Although complete in themselves, I believe Jesus used the first two parables to set up the third. Losing a sheep is believable. Misplacing a coin is common. But how the son left and was eventually reconciled to his father was neither likely nor common. As we break this story down, I’ll show you why.

Let’s begin with verses 11-13: “… “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.’ And so he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his estate in wild living.”

The first thing we notice here is the worst-case scenario that Jesus paints for His hearers. In the culture of His day, commitment to the family of origin was the glue that held society together. Joseph H. Hellerman, in his 2008 book “When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community,” says of Western culture, “We are individualists. Our personal goals and individual satisfaction take first priority when we make critical life decisions. But the peoples of the ancient world exhibit what cultural anthropologists call a collectivist view of reality. Another way of saying this is to refer to the biblical world as a strong-group society. What this means is that for people in the world of the New Testament, the welfare of the groups to which they belonged took priority over their own individual happiness and relational satisfaction.”[1]

So we see Jesus setting this story up, using a shocking scenario that would have drawn in his hearers.  The first shockwave is that a son would demand his inheritance before his father died. This would have been the same as the son saying to his father, “I wish you were dead!” The son’s behavior would most certainly have brought with it the ceremony of “cutting off,“ in which the father says, in effect, “You are dead to me.” No matter the differences between the publicans and sinners and the Pharisees and scribes, the shattering of this family relationship would have been unbelievable to both groups.

We next see where the young man took his journey; into a far country. In the Jewish mind, that would have been the land of the Gentiles. So the son not only rejected his family and his family responsibilities, he ran off to a place where people lived quite the opposite of his own. This wasn’t just a change of scenery. It was a change in lifestyle that brought the wayward son to squander his estate in wild living. He left his home with heritage and substance but soon wasted it in a place that reduced both to nothing.

In speaking of American Christianity as the prodigal church, can we see some similarities between the prodigal son and us? Can we see that the church wants all the benefits of the name without the character of the Father? The church has taken on the demanding persona of entitlement, expecting to get everything it asks for yet rejecting the heritage of those who labored before us to bring us spiritual substance. Many denominations have sailed away from the moorings of solid evangelical faith. They now find themselves floating in oceans of moral relativity and spiritual deception. The result is the depletion of rich tradition and faithful practice that has left denominations weak and wanting.

We live in an age where the church has failed to influence American culture. In contrast, American culture has made captive much of the American church. Some years ago, Daniel Boorstin, former librarian of Congress and former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, offered this assessment of contemporary culture: “When we pick up our Newspaper at breakfast, we expect-we even demand-that it bring us momentous events since the night before. We turn on the car radio as we drive to work and expect ‘news’ to have occurred since the morning newspaper went to press. Returning in the evening, we expect our house not only to shelter us, to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, but to relax us, to dignify us, to encompass us with soft music and interesting hobbies, to be a playground, a theatre, and a bar. We expect our two-week vacation to be romantic, exotic, cheap and effortless. We expect a far-away atmosphere if we go to a near-by place; and we expect everything to be relaxing, sanitary, and Americanized if we go to a far-away place. We expect new heroes every season, a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night. We expect everybody to feel free to disagree, yet we expect everybody to be loyal, not to rock the boat or take the Fifth Amendment. We expect everybody to believe deeply in his religion, yet not to think less of others for not believing. We expect our nation to be strong and great and vast and varied and prepared for every challenge; yet we expect our ‘national purpose’ to be clear and simple, something that gives direction to the lives of two hundred million people and yet can be bought in a paperback at the corner drugstore for a dollar.

“We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars that are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for ‘excellence,’ to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly, to go to the ‘church of our choice’ and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God, and to be God.

Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never have a people felt more deceived and disappointed.”

 I saw a cartoon on the internet not long ago that showed two ships docked side by side arriving in America. One flew the flag of the Puritans, evident by the dress and demeanor of the crew. The other ship’s crew was involved with drinking, partying, and other carryings-on, and flew the flag of the Impuritans. There is no question which ship many in the American church are sailing on today

In reading our parable, a question comes to my mind. Why did the prodigal decide to leave? He seemed to have everything he needed at home. Was it a matter of youthful zeal and a coming of age wanderlust? Or could it have been that he was enticed by outside influences? We can be easily led astray by the wants our sinful nature turns into needs. James warns in his epistle, “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it has run its course, brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters” (Jas 1:14-16 NASB). Jesus does not give us insight here, but we can reasonably add to His narrative. Imagine a scene wherein the ordinary course of farm life, the younger son may have been asked to go to town for supplies and made contact with merchants or tradesmen. Perhaps he heard tales of faraway lands that seemed much more exciting than life on the farm.

Again, about the prodigal church, I wonder if tales of new, exciting spiritual fare have drawn the church away from a nourishing diet of apostolic truth steeped in historic Christian faith and practice. Let’s ponder the words of the apostle in 2 Peter as we consider this possibility. “But false prophets also appeared among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their indecent behavior, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep”

(2Pe 2:1-3 NASB).

Did you catch that? The way of truth shall be maligned or spoken evil of. I know of many who try to survive on a spiritual fast-food diet of the trendiest new teaching from the trendiest new teacher, oblivious to the nutritional content of what they are eating. The continual chant of some that have gone awry is “Supersize me, Supersize me,” until their spiritual health is in real peril.  Peter says that through covetousness and false words, the false prophets will exploit and merchandise those who have followed. That means they will buy and sell them to each other, trade them back and forth until they are depleted.

Our parable continues, “Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began doing without. “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs. “And he longed to have his fill of the carob pods that the pigs were eating, and no one was giving him anything” (Luk 15:14-16).

His substance was gone, and the young man, perhaps for the first time in his life, suffered want. Want of food, want of shelter, want of friendship. Those who had used him and his money were nowhere to be found. No one was giving him anything. Want, or desire, has a way of waking us up. Jesus makes clear the mighty famine in that land made it impossible for the prodigal to alleviate his want by any means. His personal resources were gone as now were the resources of the Gentiles. It was so bad that our prodigal had made himself no more than a slave to a citizen of the heathen country he now found himself. And the task laid upon the lad would have made the Jews listening to Jesus speak shutter; he was sent into the fields to feed swine. The old saying stands true in this situation: “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” The party was over for the prodigal.

We now come to the key verses of this parable: “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired laborers have more than enough bread, but I am dying here from hunger! ‘I will set out and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired laborers” (Luk 15:17-19).

The Bible says in Romans 12:3, “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” I would like to think that in this place of want, in this place of hitting the bottom of the barrel that the young man was able to lay aside his insanity of arrogance and pride by looking deep and finding that measure of faith. As small as it may have been, even as a mustard seed, it was enough to clear his mind and set him on a new course. His selfish wants had led him on a journey away from who he really was, but his need for his father would lead him home again. He remembered the goodness he possessed under his father’s roof and that even the servants were in much better care than he now found himself. He rehearses his repentance, knowing his sin was not only against his father but against God also. His hope was in his father’s mercy, even if he was given a place that was less than he had once enjoyed. He knew he no longer deserved to be called a son.

The church in America must come to a place of want, need, and repentance. The party’s not quite over for her yet. She still has some resources of her own, but they are quickly being diminished by the wantonness of thought and action. The false prophets are still making her merchandise, trading her back and forth between the latest heresies. But the day will come when there is nothing left. Her resources will be depleted along with the Gentiles she’s been running with. In her want, they will not be found. The hand of fellowship will be removed, and the hand of persecution will come down upon her. The bondages of her own error will enslave her.

But there is hope for those who come to themselves. When her need for the Father is fully realized and she realizes her spiritual insanity, searches for and finds that measure of faith, and repents of her ways, the tides will be turned in her favor. “Those that were clean escaped from them who live in error” (2 Pet 2;18).

We next read, “So he set out and came to his father. But when he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, slaughter it, and let’s eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate” (Luk 15:20-24 NASB).

So the son returned home; dirty, tired, smelling like the swine. The father had eagerly, expectantly awaited his return. The father, although he had every right to do so, had not cut his son off.  Robes were not for servants. Rings were not for servants. Shoes were not for servants, but for sons. Even the fatted calf was made a feast for the homecoming.

The heavenly Father is eagerly, expectantly waiting for the return of the American church, the prodigal church.  As it took humility for the son to return home, it will take humility on the part of the church. Our need for the Father has to outweigh our desire to think more highly of ourselves than we should.  But remember the father had another son, and those of us who have remained faithful, at least in our own eyes, will also have to fight the desire to think more highly of ourselves than we should

 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him”(Luk 15:25-28 NASB).

The story could have certainly ended on a happy note after the return of the prodigal. But Jesus was picturing the Pharisees and scribes in speaking of the older brother and had more to say. When we hold low regard for those who went astray, were lost in the cracks, or otherwise did not live up to our expectations, we have to look at pride in our own hearts. Pride is a pitfall for all the church. 1 Corinthians 10:12 says, “Therefore let the one who thinks he stands watch out that he does not fall. ” That not only goes for individuals but for denominations and movements that have held to Biblical standards. We can too quickly take on the judgment of the other son, the older brother. We know him quite well, in fact. The older son, the responsible son, the faithful son, the son working in the field when his bother returned. After all, where else could he be? There was much to do, and he was doing it. And just as the father went out to meet the younger, he goes out again to petition the elder.

“But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you never gave me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found’”

(Luk 15:29-32 NASB).

Jesus leaves us hanging here on purpose. We are given no indication of the longevity of the younger son’s repentance or, the elder brother’s acceptance of him. To the publicans and sinners, Jesus spoke a word of hope and reconciliation. To the Pharisees and scribes Jesus spoke a word of admonition. In the parable, the father spoke with love, compassion, and understanding to both sons.

I believe our heavenly Father is speaking to all facets of the American church. To the wayward prodigal–saying, believing, and doing things outside the bounds of scriptural orthodoxy and historical apostolic tradition–He offers hope and reconciliation. To the faithful, those who have held the ground, tilled the ground, and worked the harvest, He offers an admonition against arrogance and pride. Repentance is the only way out of either condition because both conditions are sin.

My closing thoughts are from Sy Rogers (1956-2020), a once sexually confused prodigal who found a home in Father’s house and had a fruitful ministry for over 30 years:

“God is event and process-orientated. Most Christians are only event orientated. But the development of a baby is a process caused by one passionate event in the bedroom. Birth is an event, but there is a process of growth and maturity. God will not zap a person through adolescence. A 2-year-old cannot be a 12-year-old. You have to go through the process of maturity and, for us, we must spiritually mature in our walk with the Lord so that our needs are clear and Biblical. When we have a mature mindset in Christ, our wants change, and our real needs become clear in view of eternity.”[2]


[1] Hellerman, Joseph H. When the Church Was a Family Recapturing Jesus Vision for Authentic Christian Community. B & H Publishing Group, 2014.

[2] https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/75485/process-oriented-god-by-michael-mccartney

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