One of the great challenges facing this generation of Christians is the successful navigation to a more robust Christianity, finally set free from the domesticating influence of Christendom. Under the sway of “cultural Christianity” difficult theological questions rarely arise, and catechesis declines because people, broadly speaking, see themselves as being “good Christian folk.” To be an American was to be a Christian. The longer I live the more I have come to see that the biggest challenge of the church is not the initial evangelization of a culture, but rather remaining Christians once a culture has been evangelized.
From the vantage point of the early decades of the 21st century it is quite evident that the marriage of the Christian gospel to North American culture did not come without serious repercussions. Christendom always finds ways to sand down all the rough edges of the gospel so its prophetic, radical proclamation gets gradually domesticated. The result is that, over time, Christianity gets quite removed from the proclamation and experience of the New Testament. Gradually, being a “Christian” gets domesticated to little more than “being nice to people.” Sin moves from binding ourselves to the human rebellion against God to an “inconvenient slowing down of our moral development.” The righteous judgment of a holy God is quietly dropped in favor of the proverbial “man upstairs” who is more like Santa Claus than the God of biblical revelation. Preaching, over time, becomes bland moralizing and child-like admonitions. Pastors become endlessly manipulated and coerced into the larger cultural project rather than remembering our prior calling to serve Jesus Christ and to help usher in the Kingdom through the witness of the Church. Now that Christianity and North America are in divorce court, the underlying issues which were simmering for decades are now openly spewing forth. It’s not a pretty sight. The signs of this are everywhere. (I will devote another blog to specific examples).
The latest surge of atheism and neo-paganism is not because after 2,000 years someone finally sniffed out the Achilles heel of the Christian message and now our “mask is off.” Rather, atheism, and half of a dozen other competing world-views, are always prowling around ready to jump into any spiritual void which appears. We have retreated so far from biblical Christianity you can almost hear the Christian oxygen being sucked out of the culture at every turn. The church has become one of the most vacuous spaces of all.
The great project of our generation is to reclaim biblical Christianity as the Church. (Please re-read the last sentence about three times before going on). This will inevitably involve standing up and articulating with far more precision exactly what Christianity actually is. It has become almost a trite statement in recent years that our culture has abandoned the Christian faith. This actually is not my greatest concern. My greatest concern is that those of us who are pastors and leaders have ourselves forgotten the gospel. The early church didn’t spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the paganism of Rome. They took it for granted and set about evangelizing it. This cannot be done if we are angry (this is not the time to start burning Qur’ans). This also cannot be done if we are too passive (this is not the time for silence and cultural acquiescence). The greatest need for conversion today is not the unbelieving world, but the church itself. After all, doesn’t Scripture teach us that judgment begins in the household of God? (I Peter 4:17). We cannot even begin to effectively respond to the godless drumbeat of this generation until we ourselves learn to listen to the gospel with better ears, better hearts, better feet, and a lot more good old fashioned courage. There are few things more troubling than the quiet surrender of the gospel at every turn while, in the same breath, we blather on endlessly about the importance of making the church more “culturally relevant.”
Christianity in North America has taken quite a few wrong turns. I am more familiar with the “wrong turns” of mainline and evangelical Protestantism, but my Roman Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal friends assure me that those movements have wandered off the reservation, too. There is no point in pressing ahead with all of our so called “plans” if we have taken the wrong turn in the road. We’ve got to go back and get it right. Progress doesn’t always mean pressing ahead, it means moving closer towards the goal. In fact, the greatest progress usually starts with repentance. Repentance means to turn and go a different direction. I, for one, have quite a bit of repenting to do. How about you?