Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The American Church's Task

I believe the election of November, 2012 to be evidence of a deep cultural shift.  It has been happening in different ways for a long time, and many people have written, remarked, and even warned about it.  And while some may reasonably call the election itself a cultural shift for us, it is most certainly evidence of the shifts that have been taking place for a while now.

Demographers, sociologists, Christian philosophers, and many theologians have remarked on how radically different the church’s culture has become, and how the connections between an orthodox church culture and the non-church culture have either disappeared or changed in fundamental ways.  To take one well-known example, the work of Christian Smith and the National Study of Youth and Religion uncovered a remarkable shift among American and evangelical teens in which they no longer believed a version of their parent’s Christian faith. Their spiritual beliefs were different enough to be classified by the research team as a different religion altogether.  His now famous “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is the title he and his researchers gave to this new form of religious belief.

I bring this up here to highlight the simple fact that these are teens who have grown up in evangelical churches to evangelical parents and who no longer hold to the orthodox Christian faith.  What they (and so many others) believe in has been shaped more by the prevailing winds in education and culture around them than by the historic Christian faith.

This should be the kind of finding that rattles churches a bit, and add to it the numerous studies about the cultural and generational shifts taking place in younger generations, and we are lead to a conclusion.

The Church can no longer rest on its laurels.  We can no longer depend on cultural structures or commonly held morality to support an orthodox Christian view of the world.  We cannot assume that people in churches understand the core of their doctrine or the practical outworking of their faith.  We cannot hope that public structures (formal and informal) lend even tacit support to the place of church and the Christian faith in the public square.  Those structures may still exist in some places among some people, but the Church in America will make a serious error in simply assuming they are there as they always have been.

What we need to do as a result is twofold: relearn how to present the Christian faith to our culture and live as people genuinely transformed by Christ.  As Christians in time past have put it – we need to out-think and out-live the world for Christ.

To that end I want to propose a few places where the church (not just the Christian academy) needs to step up and do some serious work.

By this I don’t mean the generic sense of all Christians being followers of Jesus Christ.  That is obviously true, but as evidenced by study after study and anecdote after anecdote this affirmation alone is not doing the trick.  The church needs to regain a sense of the priority of discipleship, the absolute lordship of Christ, and a hatred for the idolatries of this world.  Christians need to be told by Christ how to be Christians, not sitcoms, newscasts, pundits, or political parties.

The church has expected (maybe with good reason) that the culture would value industriousness, thus supporting the Christian doctrine of work, but that is simply no longer true.  We need to make a stronger and wiser case for a theology of work that emphasizes God’s design for flourishing human beings who work with the gifts God has given them to enrich their culture, work for His Kingdom, support their family, loved ones, and those around them in need.

Compassion/Social Justice
Welfare is not compassion.  Food stamps are not compassion.  The Nanny State is rightly called this because it creates a surrogate for both parenting and labor.  Traveling down a road of more and more entitlements that last longer and longer and which cover more and more people militates against the good of the human soul and family and a Christian simply cannot support such a system and at the same time hope for the best in families and individuals.

Marriage and Family
The belief that marriage is the life-long union between a man and a woman is one of the areas where recently we see the most cultural change.  It has been the case that the church could rely on public opinion to protect that definition, but that is eroding quickly.  Thus the church needs to relearn why it believes these things and why God’s design for families is good for husbands, wives, kids, and culture. And then we need to be bold and winsome enough to argue it.

How many in the church (how many leaders in the church) can articulate a theology of education?  Do we understand the warp and woof of Wisdom Literature and its emphases on maturation and the value of knowledge?  Do we have a good grasp on a child as a whole human being and as someone who needs guidance and formation in a myriad of ways?  At the very least, Christian families should be given a chance to understand education through the lens of Scripture instead of being given a couple of pre-packaged secular options.

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