The North American Church in a Post-Christian Society

Monday, May 12th, 2014

A blog is, in my view, a kind of open, public conversation. I normally use my blog to stimulate reactions, poke at and flag issues which I believe are important in the life of the church. My blog should not be taken as a kind of formal position paper, or as an academic address. This is why I (with one exception) have never allowed any of my blogs to be “published” in print.

As one who writes and publishes across a broad spectrum of mediums, I have a certain view of the genre of blogging. I believe the medium enables one to be more provocative at times. It can “shake the tree” a little bit if necessary. I have no idea how many “followers” my blog has, so I can’t be too optimistic with alluring speculations about the the breadth of its influence. I don’t think any of us knows – or can know – what really carries weight and influence in the church. Only God knows about things like “influence” and “weight.”

Occasionally one of my blog posts will get forwarded or copied to someone who gets really angry and becomes agitated alleging I am a dangerous voice which should be stopped, or that I am clearly out of step with the “church,” or obstructing the clear “signs of the time” or, even worse, standing against “God’s will.”

I have learned from Thomas Aquinas to not listen too much to either praises or criticisms. This is not because I am so confident that I am right in whatever I say in blogs, or sermons, or books, etc. Quite the contrary, one of the things I am sure about is that when I stand before the Lord on Judgment Day, there will be plenty of things which I thought I was right about, which will turn out to be wrong. There will, likewise, surely be quite a few examples of issues which I should have spoken up about, but I was silent. There will probably be endless examples where I may have been right, but my motivation was skewed in some way.

When St. Paul tells us in I Cor. 3:13 that all our works will be tested by fire to see if they were true to Jesus Christ and the Word of God, I can only imagine that my life will be engulfed in a bright blaze as mountains of chaff and stubble are being burned away. However, I pray that once that purification takes place, He will find in me true faith in Jesus Christ. That is my prayer.

In the big picture, little else matters (Rom. 14:23). I am confident, in Christ, that once all is said and done, God’s Word will be found to be true, “though every man a liar” (Romans 3:4). So, I must keep on seeking to be true to Christ and His Word as best I can, knowing that He alone will finally judge me.

I remain convinced that we live at a time in history when the denomination I belong to (United Methodism) has not successfully made the transition to a prophetic witness in a post-Christian society. Many still seem to believe that with a few changes we can, once again, return to those days when the United Methodist church was at the center of North American culture. Those days are gone. (We are good at knowing where the culture is, but very poor at articulating where the culture should be)

The current strategy seems to be about more and more cultural accommodation with whatever happens to be blowing through the culture at the moment and this so that the society will, once again, embrace us and sing our praises. This strikes me as ecclesiastical insanity. The church cannot be co-terminous with society, or the church ceases to exist. At some point, boundaries must be drawn. The doctrinal innovations which are rampant today will continue to impair our communion with one another. The gap between the cultural mainstream and the prophetic margins will continue to grow in unimaginable ways. We are actually in a situation which is emerging to look more like the first century than the 21st century.

A number of our churches have nobly led the way in making this transition, sometimes with the help of some brave leaders, sometimes with precious little support from those in authority over them. In the end, God will sort the whole thing out. But, in the meantime, we must act with robust faith knowing that one of the great promises of Scripture comes from Jesus himself who said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Denominations come and go. Movements which were once vibrant falter and are replaced by new ones. Some groups experience a renewed touch from God and live for another generation (e.g. Anglicanism in early Methodism or Anglicanism in the ACNA today). Others will lose the faith, even though finely clothed in robes and stoles. The great eschatological fire of Jesus Christ will alone separate the gold from all the wood, hay and stubble. In the meantime, let us all eagerly await the “blessed hope” of His glorious return.

Comments

  • Mary Page says:

    Hello Timmy!

    Maybe we are in a time of conversation. We have polarized portions of the gospel of Christ into rhetoric at times. Often what we need is application. I find sometimes I do not fully understand the Christ words until He puts me in a position where I have to interact. Often it is with Hindus and Muslims that do not have the same belief systems as I do. I have to dig deep but I found your presentation interesting in that it presented global Christianity. It has been some what Western and localized into flavors. What happens when we blend denominations? Does the best get passed on or the worse? What if through conversations instead if the polarization we moved toward ranges and tolerances and have an array of paths all of which lead to Christ. Is that not what happens anyway? Ask any two Methodists even in the same church and you will not get the same response about the faith because our faith is personal with a personal touch so it is flavored with our personal experiences. I ask a Muslim and the beginning conversation is a witness that is basically the same until I ask the personal questions then they tell me what Allah means to them and Jesus (PBUH). Ask a Hindu it depends on caste and influence but it centers around duty and responsibilities where as we center on grace most of the time in all its ways and means. You told us Jesus came from a cross cultural area. What if we did make full circle and we are back to the faith being reborn, renewed in a global sense. A larger arena. 🙂 Then aspects would mimic 1st century faith but this time different levels of obstacles to remove. Much of which would be formed from the laity and instead of crucifying Christ it lives out a bit further. What role would the priesthood play then? The original intent of making disciples in all nations? I saw from your data and talk that global christianity is growing but localized is changing. That is an interesting dynamic. What else mimics that in the world of stats? What does that really mean? Why do so many feel we are dying when it obvious the faith is increasing globally? What really is dying and what really is living on? Most of all does Jesus win like Revelation says (yes)? I always think the ultimate joke or laugh would be we become such fools for Christ we do try to save everyone out of spite and avoid the apocalype totally. LOL! Maybe that will be the ultimate rebellion of the younger generations is to war no more. 🙂 Just some thoughts 🙂

  • Terry Powell says:

    Dr Tennent, I appreciate your blog comments and find them refreshing as I look around and see many Christ-followers who read the latest Christian book or listen to the newest songs. As secular society and the body of Christ clash on an increasing number of issues, I am encouraged that God will bring His church back to being a holy people having a perfect love for their God and doing those things He has prepared in advance for His children to perform. May you continue to “shake the tree” as I believe you do so from a pure heart and with the mind of Christ. Thank you for contending” for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people”.

  • I became a believer while a teeneager in the 1960’s. Back then, of course, ‘counter-culture’ was a popular idea. As I went on to (Christian) college, I heard often that the CHURCH is supposed to be a counter-culture. Reading I John especially hammered this into my thinking.
    The UMC (of which I am also a part), unfortunately, has a recent history of accommodating the culture rather than being faithful to Scripture. It is not alone – every mainline denomination has struggled with keeping the faith in the face of increasing social and political liberalism. Yet, out of a varied church experience, I have come to love and appreciate Methodism. Our church remains constantly in my prayers; pleading for a fresh and broad outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will convict and convince us ALL of our sins and mistaken ideas and bring us back to true, world-changing holiness.
    Whether you pay much attention to it or not (sic), I want to thank you for your faithfulness, your courage and the moderate way in which you broach some very touchy subjects. Your posts never fail to bless and challenge me.

  • Ross Murphy says:

    Dr. Tennent,
    I wholeheartedly agree with you point and perspective. A society that embraces sin in the name of diversity or tolerance is a society that has moral base other than “if it feels good, do it!” , to borrow from Nike. In contrast to other religions, we exist and serve at the pleasure of a living God that has been exact in His expectations of the relationship and our role. He spells this out clearly in His word and from His Son.

    The “new” culture or post Christian era is pure evidence of the outcomes seen in the book of Judges, when everyone “did as he saw fit”. With no absolute God, absolute love, absolute right and wrong, absolute sin and most of all, absolute mercy – we exist for no reason. Our reason for existence is, as the Presbyterians say, “To love God and enjoy Him forever.” We work out this life/existence by His standards and under His love.

    The first responder to your blog seems to ask for one big group hug and all will be fine. I do not read Scripture that way. Jesus is very direct in telling the Pharisees that they are a “brood of poisonous snakes” destined for severe eternal judgment. A group hug does not lessen the meaning of his warning or His statement in John 14:6 – “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by Me.”

    Our society has lost sight of consequences for disobedience and ignoring God and His offer of love and mercy to those that will believe on and in Him.

    We are called to be light in the darkness, regardless of how much society craves darkness.

    Keep writing and stand your ground!

  • Rod says:

    This is the culture in Methodism and most mainline Protestant churches”Go along to get along” and be politically correct at all times. I do not think this is what Jesus meant when He said to “teach all nations.”

  • Diane Murphy says:

    I agree with Dr. Tennent, but have problems with Mary Page’s musings, for example the idea that instead of polarization, we should move towards ranges and tolerances. I believe we should move towards Biblical literacy. God has clearly revealed to us in the Bible who He is, who we are and what is required to restore our relationship with Him. I can think of no Scriptures that promote tolerance of people’s personal experiences as a way to define Christianity. I also think it is inappropriate to talk lightly about youth choosing to war no more, as if we can bring about world peace on our own efforts. The Lord Jesus said, “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (NIV Matthew 10:34). Lastly, I would never want to abolish the apocalypse, for this is my hope. The apocalypse refers to John’s revelation of the ultimate victory of good over evil. “Satan will be thrown into the lake of burning sulfur” (Revelation 20:10), and “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” (Revelation 22:14). As a United Methodist, I try not to concern myself with issues that polarize. Instead, I focus on every opportunity offered to me to talk/sing about God and His Word.

  • Mark says:

    Excellent observations, Dr. Tennent. We often forget that, in the long run, God’s purposes will be achieved despite our frantic attempts to “help.” We do look through a glass dimly, but God has left us a guide–revelation, the holy spirit, etc.–that we too often ignore.

    One of the biggest needs in the church today is Biblical literacy and a firm foundation in apologetics. If we had concentrated on those things for the past several decades we would not be seeing so many controversies in the UMC and other mainline denominations. This represents a failure of leadership. Too often the church has been viewed as a means to some political or social end. We are now seeing the fruits of that misguided approach.