It has struck me afresh how often we pay lip service to big, deep, mysterious things… but those things feel sometimes like they are for show more than anything else. In my reading for the Doctor of Ministry that I am attempting to complete with Covenant Theological Seminary, I have begun asking the question “how do we get off balance as a church in regards to how we communicate God’s story through worship?” I hope that over the coming months and years to use this blog as a platform for developing some of those ideas (at least in my own mind).
In reading Dr. Robert Webber’s final book, Ancient-Future Worship, I was struck by this question:
“Considering our world situation in this postmodern time, waiting, so to speak, for a fresh narrative to explain and pull together the world, why do we Christians stay focused on the modern world that privileges reason, science, consumerism, and marketing?”
from Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative
Reason, science, consumerism, and marketing are the trading capital of the world in which we (most of us) live in. Consider reason and science. The popularity of classical apologetics and the virtual jettison of presupposition from the main stage of Christendom should make it clear. People don’t want “faith”. They want answers. Ideas like “mystery” and “unseen” cause people a whole lot of angst, especially when the church has become a mere amenity to their already comfortable lifestyle. So what do we do instead of giving them a biblical answer? We identify what they need (as consumers) and market to them (so that they will stay). The problem is we produce consumers instead of disciples, and the answers we give rarely have staying power, because instead of addressing root causes, we address symptoms.
James D. Hunter has outlined some very significant, worthwhile concepts in his book that are worth considering by all. The trouble that he sees in our current cultural context is that we have relegated everything to the political realm of discourse, and have seen that as the only venue through which to affect cultural change.
Part of what Hunter then is arguing for is a presence in culture that takes on neither of the trappings of the religious right or the religious left, but instead argues for a mindset and practice that views the world through the lens of the scriptures, not just a political mindset. It is this theory of cultural transformation that he calls “faithful presence within”.
In faithful presence within, Hunter argues: “The practice faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness–not just for Christians but for everyone.”
Hunter goes on to further write this:
Many Christians would undoubtedly object to this broader understanding of faith, hope, and love and, even more, object to creating common space in which those outside of the Christian community can also appropriate meaning, purpose, beauty, and belonging. Why should their commitment to the world go beyond trying to persuade nonbelievers to convert in order to attain heaven? Beyond being a good in its own right, there are at least two reasons why Christians must move in this direction. The first is a political reason: Christians cannot demand for themselves what they would deny others. A right for one is a right for another and a responsibility for all. A right for a Christian is a right for a Jew is a right for a Humanist is a right for a Muslim is a right for a Buddhist, and so on. The second is a cultural reason: the very plausibility and persuasiveness of the Christian faith depend on a cultural context in which meaning, purpose, beauty, and belonging are possible. The viability of Christian faith and the possibility of sharing that faith depend on a social environment in which faith–any faith–is plausible.
Reflections: The Church, The West, and the Pervasive Temptation to a “Ballot Mandate” of Church Life
Recently in a discipleship weekend seminar taught at my church I taught a series of material that I collaborated on with another friend of mine, where the topic of discussion was spirituality that is taught in the bible and championed by the reformation. A question was brought up in the class concerning the contemporary state of the church in the west, and whether there was any hope for it or not. It reminded me of a blog post I came across last year that raised an interesting argument concerning the notion of popular movements of “ballot referendum” without and “ballot referendum” within.
Concerning the ballot referendum concerning the interaction of the church and the culture, the authors say this:
Mainstream church bodies have tacitly bought the argument that politics and therapy are more important than Christian faith, and have allowed their theologies to become handmaidens of ideology or psychology. They give sacred legitimation to secular knowledge and action and thereby become “relevant.” Several of the neo-Augustinians have made the surprising charge that the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr is best understood as a religious legitimation of liberal democracy. These mainstream bodies, though they think they are involved in “transformation,” are more likely being acculturated more deeply into the modern settlement. According to Hütter, such attempts ironically “deepen the Church’s irrelevance and undermine its public political nature by submitting and reconditioning the Church according to the saeculum’s understanding of itself as the ultimate and normative public.”
The blog goes on to point out, however, that there is another trend afoot; this one far more insidious, because it gets at the heart of Christ’s words concerning sheep, and their desires to a) not know what is best for them, and b) thus do whatever they want. Churches are full of people who insist that the church meet their perceived needs. And in many instances, the church leaders are willing to try to cater to their wishes, desires, and whims, often to the detriment of the health of the individual, and the health of the church.
Other churches—represented by the church-growth movement—tacitly accept the notion that the religious needs and wants registered in the open market should be the guiding signals for religious practice. They become “relevant” in another way. But, as with the mainstream, they are no longer drinking from their own wells. In the church-growth world, according to Hütter, “religion itself increasingly becomes another commodity regulated by market forces.”
The force of the market in the church is a real thing. It is what drives worship style to attract an audience, drives buildings programs and amenities to assuage a crowd; but it can do more serious damage than that. It can lead to preaching that forsakes a faithful witness. It can be a persistent temptation to avoid hard subjects that the bible addresses head on, because of the potential impact that might be felt on attendance and giving.
The mindset of a ballot referendum runs deep in our country. It runs deep in our hearts. We need to pray for our church leaders, and hope that would be rooted out of our churches.