The Church and Culture in the 21st Century

In our last issue of Just Thinking, I gave an overview of some major issues and concerns that have been central to western culture since its early beginnings, and which continue to affect both church and society to this day. I’d like to continue looking at church and culture issues, with the particular challenge faced when one of two things happens. First, when the church and individual Christians become so enamored with the spirit and rationale of the age that we or they eagerly conform to it and its standards; or second, when we are so repulsed by the standards and issues of the age that we seek to totally disengage and live as far removed from cultural issues or influences as is practically possible.

The first approach leads to issues of adaptation and compromise; the second to isolation and irrelevance. We have seen and continue to see both at work in our day. I was conversing with one of my colleagues here at RZIM, when I commented that the most common issue I have come across personally, and which we are asked to comment on as a team in our seminars, is the irrelevance of much that passes as “church” to the felt needs or life issues of many who faithfully attend. Now I do not seek to attack the church or stand outside throwing stones, but rather as a serious believer and in empathy with these many others who are serious and committed, I seek to explore what is missing, some possible reasons why, and to ask, What is to be done?

I am reminded of how the philosopher Immanuel Kant was jolted into action by reading the critical works of the Scottish skeptic David Hume. Kant said he “was awakened from his dogmatic slumbers.” In the highly popular movie, The Matrix, the character Neo (Keanu Reeves) goes through an awakening and discovers that life as he knows it is an illusion, a massive deception foisted on him. I cannot help but wonder if we urgently need a fresh “awakening” to first of all see how things really are, and then, to reach out to God afresh for renewed passion, vision, and alternatives as we face the whitewater pressure of an ever changing culture.

So what is missing? I guess if I could pin it down, I would describe it as the suffocation or domestication of transcendence. The faith has been rationalized, explained, explored, and defined to such a degree that it appears as if “intellectual apprehension” is all that is required of true believers. Values such as accuracy, detail, and correct beliefs have taken center stage. And yet, the lack of embodied practice or faithful expression is surely evidence that our beliefs are at best incomplete. The believer has then been mobilized, analyzed, categorized and socialized into conformity to a variety of standards or systems defined within diverse denominational structures and orientations. The church is then organized, institutionalized and immunized so that she can stand as a light to the world, but well shielded from pollution or compromise from the surrounding culture.

In contrast, in the Incarnation “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). God does not see our lives and cultures as something to be abhorred and avoided, but to be entered, challenged, and transformed. The error of some sects (such as the Pharisees and Essenes in biblical times) was a form of isolation and distance based in concepts of uniqueness, particularity, and holiness, but which were in fact distortions, and not a faithful expression of God’s clear intent. For some unexplained reason, a movement that begins with the presence and activity of God is slowly but surely changed into a rationalized and human-centered system. We all to easily see the hypocrisies and errors of the Pharisees and whatever its forms are in our time; but we seldom notice the ongoing tendency to distort or redefine the Faith to fit our comfort zones or current tastes. For we have not yet adequately addressed the underlying issues, nor it seems have we found a working model that holds the tension between holiness and engagement effectively. Yet surely me must consider the biblical models before us, such as the Apostle Paul. In I Cor. 9:19-23 he speaks of his passion for the Gospel and of his desire to find ways to build bridges to others “that he might win some” (v. 22).

In his book Deliver Us From Evil, Ravi writes about the processes of pluralization, privatization, and secularization, and how we see these at work in the culture. These categories help us to capture experiences and processes of change going on around us, that we struggle to comprehend and face. Yet (as Ravi and others have noted) in our legitimate scrutiny of the issues and concerns around us, are we failing to look at the church and our own lives through the same lenses? I think if we did so honestly and reflectively, we would see the secularization of the church is as much a problem as the secularization of the culture.

Let me cautiously, but I hope compassionately, cite some examples. The current fascination with “seeker” approaches to church services has led to many valuable and innovative strategies to connect with unchurched people. However, it is also easy to detect a preoccupation with relevance, with performance replacing spiritual leadership, and with entertainment and excellence drowning out reverence for God and the messy interactions of congregations that truly reflect “sinners saved by grace.” I am also concerned by the lack of value placed on central theological themes such as the Trinity and Christology, of the value and role of church history, and of the almost total disregard of the councils and confessions that are part of the roots and essence of the living church.

Managerial, entrepreneurial, and messianic illusions can lead us to a subtle but sure departure from the central core and focus of the Faith. A preoccupation with “man at the center,” with our skills and responsibility, with techniques and technology can lead to the displacement of God, and the replacement of confidence and expectation on divine resources and intervention by reliance on self, effort, and human wisdom. As Harry Blamires has written, “We must not exploit our faith by advertising it as a technique for achieving earthly satisfactions. The Faith is not a recipe and not a program. It is a Way. Recipes and programs are made to help you carry out earthly jobs successfully. But a way is something you walk in.”

How often God’s people have had to learn the lesson of “first things first”: that is, seeking God above all else (see Joshua 9). Although we do know the Lord and sincerely desire to do what is right, we still tend to seek our own wisdom first, rather than seeking the mind of the Lord. I realize we face a paradox between doing nothing until we have had in-depth prayer versus simply acting on what we know. Yet the issue I am trying to explore lies in the subtle zone where nuance is everything—where we do discern when to act on reasonable assumptions and where we do know when the most needed thing to do is to stop, pray, and ask.

I can hear the objections being raised, as there is another side to this issue—those who live in a world of mystical preoccupation. They seem to have a hotline to heaven and give the impression that their intimacy with the Holy Spirit is more substantial than their relationships with others. All human effort is disparaged, the use of means mocked, and the disparaging of reason, education, and rationality encouraged. Yet this is not the alternative I am proposing. A retreat into “otherworldliness” is no less problematic and ineffective than a descent into worldliness. Perhaps this highlights the difficulty of integrating and balancing the two dimensions of our lives. Yet surely this was answered for us by the example, life, and model of the Lord Jesus, who was and is both “perfect man and perfect God” at the same time—a living demonstration and model of the new humanity.

The interaction of heaven and earth and the dynamic tension of these are what we speak of when we discuss God as both transcendent and immanent . The impact of secularization, I believe, has been to create a cleavage between these two and to foster a false dualism in our lives, as we separate the world into “sacred” zones and activities, and “secular” ones. In the movie Gladiator, the Roman cosmology was powerfully illustrated. As the Roman army is poised to engage the powerful tribal warriors, the hero Maximus tells his men, “What we do here today echoes in eternity.” Throughout the movie, we see the dynamic interaction of the two dimensions that gives a wholeness to life and is an inspiration to the courageous actions on earth!

True spirituality must live within the complexities, challenges, and ambiguities of a Spirit-led faith that is rooted on the earth, or as Stuart Briscoe used to say, “Faith with boots on.” The impact of secularization and rationalization is so insidious and so subtle that we are often unable to discern their influence. Exposure to Christians in other contexts and countries often surprises or amazes us, especially when they are serious and devoted to prayer, spend extensive time in worship and fellowship, and seem very confident in what God can and will do in the normal run of things.

Perhaps we are so qualified, skilled, and self-motivated, that we don’t need any help or assistance? And yet I truly believe that the hunger for God that is expressed but seldom met, the impact that is desired but seldom achieved, and the transformation that is called for and preached about but so rarely seen, is due to a failure in delivery, not necessarily in ideas. Books, tapes, videos, and seminars abound on anything and everything relating to the latest “how to” issue, but multitudes carry on untouched, unfulfilled, and thirsty for an encounter and deep knowledge of the living God. I am reminded of the words of the prophet Haggai to the people of God, that though they sowed much there was little harvest; though they earned wages, it went into a purse with holes. What then was the prophet’s admonition? Consider your ways! (Haggai 1:4-7). Are we (particularly those in church leadership and active ministry) truly willing to evaluate, to ask hard questions, and to face the need for change? I realize this is a sensitive issue, but it seems clear that in many instances our hunger for God is not met. We have become able and gifted in utilizing the latest technologies and techniques—which I do believe can be vehicles for an encounter with God. However, the deep taste of God’s presence and anointing that put the prophets on their faces (David, for example) and that overwhelmed seekers in many revivals (the Hebrides, the Great Awakening) is all to rarely experienced despite our sophistication. I truly wonder, Is our experience of God so deficient that we have lost even the capacity to know what it is we are missing?

Why has this happened? How did we get here? I believe that we have tremendous insight available within the church that charts the history and experience of the church in the modern and now postmodern age. The battles that raged for faithfulness, for a high view of scripture, for the role and centrality of biblical convictions in guiding morality, among others, have been well-documented and the issues thoroughly outlined. From J. Gresham Machen to Charles Colson, we have had many examples of highly gifted and educated believers who were serious about the life of the church and passionate about the need to impact the culture.

I personally feel that evangelicals have been good at understanding “bad ideas” and dangerous philosophies, and very poor at understanding or grasping the impact of everyday processes and interactions that subtly but surely transform us. Let me illustrate with the terrible tragedy in the Ukraine, when the nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl plant caught fire. Millions went about their everyday business as usual, cooking, working, and going to school, unaware and uninformed that an unseen but deadly element was unleashed all around them. Something was happening that was changing the atmosphere and the essential conditions for life. Thousands were affected, and many died, all the while unaware of the slow poisoning from concealed deadly forces.

I cannot help but sense that this serves as a useful metaphor for our times. The values and assumptions within our modern ways of living steadily but surely redefine things for us. Perhaps the most powerful exposition of these processes and challenges is addressed by Craig M. Gay in The Way of the Modern World. Writers such as Os Guinness, Lesslie Newbigin, Francis Schaeffer, David Wells, Ravi and a host of others have provided tremendous insight and orientation on our current challenges and on how ideas—and I would add, influences--have consequences.

In addition to the wisdom of these gifted teachers and speakers, we also have a tremendous resource from the history and experience of missions and missionaries. This has been sadly neglected, yet is a reservoir of insight and skill much needed at this time. It is of some interest that the accumulated experience and knowledge gained by the US forces in the Pacific, particularly in terms of amphibious landings, was underutilized in the preparations for the Normandy landings in Europe—and at great cost. Are we perhaps doing something similar in the western church in relation to missionary experience? The battles with spiritual powers, the struggle with communication and translation, the long uphill road in church planting and transformation as the Gospel enters and engages new cultures has been well documented and serves as vital instruction much needed in our current context. Missionaries have poured out their lives, prayed without ceasing, mobilized others to pray for breakthroughs, and by God’s amazing grace and generosity, have seen lives and cultures transformed.

I was just reading a Christianity Today article on evangelicals and history, and in recent years I have read countless others on evangelicals and work, evangelicals and politics, evangelicals and science, etc. They are all similar in some respects. They address the lack of “perceived impact” in the particular area, yet cite the highly skilled Christian practitioners eager for change in the various disciplines or activities. I cannot but feel these are all subsets of the bigger and all embracing issue of the church and culture. Perhaps we tend to rationalize too quickly, rather than exploring ways to find one another, to seek God’s face, and to repent of self-confidence, pride, and spiritual apathy.

What then is to be done? A number of years ago, the British theologian and preacher John Stott remarked in a lecture in Brussels on the tendency of Christians to lament the degradation and decline of the culture or society. Stott said, “We should not ask, ‘What is wrong with the world?’ for that diagnosis has already been given. Rather we should ask, ‘What has happened to the salt and light?’” (Mt 5:13-16). Surely this is both biblical and of urgent contemporary relevance. We must seek God’s renewing grace and power in our lives, our churches, our Christian organizations, and our culture.

In 1989 we witnessed an event that was as important as it was symbolic, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. For about 30 years, the wall had divided Germany into two countries and the more extensive “Iron Curtain” split Europe in two and came to symbolize the two opposing systems of capitalism and communism. With the destruction of the wall, families were reunited and new possibilities (and problems) emerged. It is this symbol of bondage to freedom, of oppression to liberty, of a one-size-fits-all approach contrasted with the diversity that makes for a more open and liberal society, that I believe should inspire us. The transformation—though less than needed—was significant and profound. What would be the equivalent of the “Berlin Wall” in our context? Is it perhaps an unconscious elevation of man-centeredness over God-centeredness in our thinking, planning, and actions? Are we witnessing what Jacques Ellul, the French theologian and writer, described as “the triumph of technique”? Has the influence and heritage of William James’ pragmatism subtly but surely led us into an unconscious but deeply held self- reliance? The church reformers coined the phrase ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, “the reformed church always reforming.” God the Holy Spirit has not left us alone, and the “story,” the church’s journey across history, is not yet over. I have often been inspired by how God raises up leaders with vision in times of great need (Deborah, Gideon, Nehemiah). Perhaps we need not some grand organization or strategy, but multiple grassroots movements of God’s people seeking the fresh winds of His spirit, renewed vision and passion, and an impact on lives and cultures for the glory of God I would not be triumphalist and call for some simple and all embracing solution to the massive challenges and complexities that face us today. I would, however, be confident to urge us all afresh, as individuals, as churches, and as organizations, to give serious thought to this moment, our stewardship, and God’s will. The prophet Jeremiah said it so well: “"You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jer. 29:13.)

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