December 19, 2014

Which “Culture” Most Threatens the Church?

I don’t often find much but material to debate and argue against at the evangelical culture war “news” site, The Christian Post, but every once in awhile, something worthwhile appears amidst all the moralizing and political posturing.

Case in point this weekend: a CP interview with Ken Myers, called “Is the ‘Culture’ Really the Church’s Problem?”. Myers wrote one of my all-time favorite books on Christianity and its relationship to American culture: All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, now available in a new edition.

Myers, a former NPR reporter, is the founder and host of Mars Hill Audio journal, a bimonthly audio magazine featuring interviews with some of today’s foremost Christian thought leaders in academics, politics, and the arts.

In this current interview, Myers contends that Christians are spending an inordinate amount of attention on the failings and dangers of the surrounding “culture” when what we should be truly worried about is the culture in the church.

This starts, he says, with an insufficient understanding of the Gospel.

What I mean is, we have reduced the Gospel to an abstract message of salvation that can be believed without having any necessary consequences for how we live. In contrast, the redemption announced in the Bible is clearly understood as restoring human thriving in creation.

Redemption is not just a restoration of our status before God through the life and work of Jesus Christ, but a restoration of our relationship with God as well. And our relationship with God is expressed in how we live. Salvation is about God’s restoring our whole life, not just one invisible aspect of our being (our soul), but our life as lived out in the world in ways that are in keeping with how God made us. The goal of salvation is blessedness for us as human beings. In other words, we are saved so that our way of life can be fully in keeping with God’s ordering of reality.

The pervasive, inadequate view of salvation allows me to grab hold of a word of private salvation for myself without any organic connection to the Kingdom vision of Jesus. Salvation doesn’t just make me a “new creature” (a mistranslation of 2Cor. 5:17), it brings me into a “new creation.” As J.B. Phillips paraphrases Ephesians 1:10 — “[God] purposes in his sovereign will that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him.”

It is in the Church that we should expect to see the beginnings of new creation breaking through. Like chicks hatching, it won’t always be pretty; in fact it will be a messy, imprecise process of life breaking through the shells that attempt to contain it. Citing Eugene Peterson, Myers notes that nurturing this emerging life is the best way to touch our neighbors in the culture of death around us. We are relevant to their way of life by showing them a new way of life. Or, he also says, the church is more like a farm than a showroom. I take that to mean that, from the midst of the muck and smell, life and sustenance become available to the world.

One specific cultural problem in the church, says Myers, is our unthinking adoption of “youth culture” and “intergenerational discontinuity.” In our modern world where media and marketing reign, appealing to particular demographics has become commonplace. The church has gained a great sense of surface energy by emphasizing ministries that attract and entertain young people. But enthusiasm is no substitute for the understanding, accepted from ancient times, that wisdom, character, and moral guidance are passed down from older generations to the young. As Myers says, “The dynamics of youth culture segregate generations and extol the experience of the present at the expense of honoring the past and preparing for the future.”

This emphasis on relevance and church growth has led to large groups of people who may be “Christianish” but not deeply or distinctively Christian. I would add that the culture wars mentality that has coincided with these methodologies has led us to separate from the very cultures God wants to redeem and to think about them “strategically” rather than relationally. We don’t know our neighbors, but we are committed to “redeeming the culture”? Myers mentions an interview he did with a poet who said “he just couldn’t imagine early Church leaders sitting around trying to come up with clever ideas about how they might influence Roman culture.” Indeed.

I agree with him and Robert Wilken, whom Myers cites favorably when he notes that “Wilken [has] pointed out that the principal way in which the early Church leaders sustained cultural influence was by discipling its members, by conveying to them that the call of the Gospel was a call to embrace a new way of life. The Church was less interested in transforming the disorders of the Roman Empire than in building ‘its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.'”

In other words, our priority is to be the church. But much of current evangelicalism’s “gospel” doesn’t create a church, nourish people deeply through Christ-centered Word and Sacrament, stress pastoral care and spiritual formation, free and equip people to pursue their vocations in the world, and embrace suffering and the way of the Cross as the “method” by which God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

That is the “culture” that must change.

Comments

  1. “The Church was less interested in transforming the disorders of the Roman Empire than in building ‘its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.’”

    Now, at least in North America and Europe, we nearly all live apart from our extended family, we all have cars, and though we may not have any cash in the savings account, we have enough to eat and plenty of channels to watch. Do we know the first thing about building a community? In so many ways, we are isolated from others, even our physical neighbors and people in our churches. We need better models – people to expand our imaginations about what living together more really looks like. That’s what I want anyway. The models are there but I have to squint.

    • This is a perceptive comment. I will be pondering it and a post may emerge about this. Thanks

    • Exactly right. Check out rod Dreher’s book crunchy conservatism, or the website frontporchrepublic.com for discussions along these lines.

    • Kerri in AK says:

      England has a number of Christian based communities created to address specific things. I lived in one for two years (Pilsdon at Malling) that provided a place for people who had suffered some kind of crisis where they could get their feet back under them in a safe place. We were anywhere from 15 to 20 people all sharing a life together on 6 1/2 acres. The community members and volunteers were there to provide structure, a open heart and agape to the residents. Our “work” was keeping everything running – meals prepared, chores done, animals cared for, etc. – and everyone was involved in the running of the place. No one worked offsite.

      I know of two other communities that work with marginalized people – L’Arche that provides housing and care for the physically and mentally disadvantaged and Emmaus that provides housing and job training for the homeless. These are residential communities where everyone lives together carers and residents alike.

      Still other communities have specific healing ministries – Holy Rood House and Penhurst Retreat Centre, for instance. Some communities are retreat centers such as Othona Burton Bradstock and Othona Bradwell on Sea.

      They all have different missions and ministries but what they have in common is that they are all residential – people come to become part of a shared life together maybe for a few days or even a few years or even for the rest of their lives.

      I won’t lie; living in community is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve lived with roommates for years but this was like marrying 17 people. On the other hand, I have never felt closer to God and to those around me than over the past two years. Why it worked was that we, even in our brokenness and drama queen moments, cared for each other. Another reason it worked is that we spent the majority of our lives together. No one was prevented from leaving the premises but none of us left to go to work somewhere else. We didn’t so much have jobs as livelihoods. This is so counter-cultural and counter-intuitive to today’s world.

      All the communities I mentioned create a center and a stillness where it stops being all about you and starts being all about us. I think the nuclear family – even large nuclear families – is too limited and outward looking to provide the connections we hunger for. However, I don’t think the answer is only that everyone should move in with each other. There are other community models that provide that connection – the Amish, for example – where you are connected to your home and family and also with the other families around you (note that Amish families spend most of their time together). The key is to be in regular, loving contact with each other. For residential communities the key is shared meals (and the Christian ones, regular, daily prayer services), for others it may be regular weekly, at least, gatherings. I’m seeing some of this community building in permaculture groups where shared religious beliefs may not exist but numerous workshops and collective dinners keep people meeting up with each other.

      First you have to say no to what the world expects. Anyone with teenagers or a high powered job will understand how difficult this choice would be to make. You have to turn your gaze from outward and away from others to inward – to those around you and yourself. I can’t offer a method to do so; you have to make some very difficult decisions and trust that God will set you on the right path. You have to be able to not do whatever you want when you want or just stop believing you can. That was the hardest lesson for me.

      Sorry for the long, rambling and only partially related reply. I think I’ve found something that brings me closer to God and to others in ways I’ve never experienced. Everything old is new again…

    • The Previous Dan (TPD) says:

      IMO one word. busyness. It is impossible to build community without an investment of time. And, heck, I barely have time for my own family much less my neighbors. What? I have an extra 30 minutes? What work, home improvement, or church project is next on the list?

  2. “In other words, our priority is to be the church. But much of current evangelicalism’s “gospel” doesn’t create a church, nourish people deeply through Christ-centered Word and Sacrament, stress pastoral care and spiritual formation, free and equip people to pursue their vocations in the world, and embrace suffering and the way of the Cross as the “method” by which God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

    Your post raises excellent points. It is worth mentioning, I think, that the mainline denominations as well as evangelicals also need to refocus on these markers of being the church that you have outlined in the last paragraph. We have different culture barriers perhaps but also are often too entrenched in our culture to embrace the Way of the Cross.

  3. I was “Christianess” all my life — until great suffering came to me. I didn’t embrace it but was forced by the circumstance to live it out. Thankfully, it was the suffering that led me deeper to the real Jesus. My life is transformed and transforming. And, imagine that, I’m still a sinner and a broken vessel.
    I love this post. Thank you for sharing the link.

    • We don’t stumble accidentally into a deep awareness of, and communion with, Christ. It eventually comes through our personal experience of the cross. And then again, and then again. No one seems to be a big fan of that design. To steal the words of another, ‘religion is (bad religion) designed to do an end run on the cross’. Sometimes the church is our protector from growth because growing requires pain and change and we are usually doing everything we can to avoid those. So are our church mates.

  4. Good stuff.

  5. In other words, not the speck but the log.

  6. I sometimes come here to read the interesting and provacative posts. What I like best is reading the comments of the other readers. A request please. Can people PLEASE spell out their thoughts without the typical “in-crowd” shorthand. I do not know what “IMHO”, “LOTR”, and “+1″ mean for example. I can learn a lot more from you people in plain language. Thanks.

    • Phil M. says:

      With the exception of maybe LOTR, those are common acronyms that people who spend too much on the internet use.

      IMHO = in my humble opinion (IMO = in my opinion)

      LOTR = Lord of the RIngs

      +1 essentially means “ditto” or “you can say that again!”. If a person puts that under a reply, it means they’re basically saying they agree with that reply.

      I get your frustration, but people have been using them for years now on internet forums and comment sections, and they probably will continue to show up here regularly. Usually, a quick Google search will tell you what people mean by them.

      • Really? For years I had assumed that IMHO meant ‘in my honest opinion’. I guess I stand corrected.

        • Phil M. says:

          Can mean either one, really… Depends on how honest or humble you are, I guess. :-)

      • Thanks so much for the explanations, Phil. I guess the key thing is that I don’t spend a lot of time on the internet, especially in such forums. Just too little time to go around for me I guess. I do though set aside about an hour or two every sunday for this one. Too many good conversations to miss.

  7. We desperately need this message and a wholesale rethinking – Lord help us!

  8. dumb ox says:

    Yup. The culture which threatens the church most is church culture, or as Michael Spencer coined it, “churchianity”.

  9. dumb ox says:

    “free and equip people to pursue their vocations in the world, and embrace suffering and the way of the Cross as the “method” by which God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

    Vocation and community.

    But the typical church-growth-oriented church will take this and come up with a six-figure project to come up with “outreaches” or crusades to reach the community and influence the power brokers of local industry. Teaching parishioners to be good, just stewards at work and caring, friendly neighbors in their neighborhoods won’t generate demographics to demonstrate growth and justify expense on a souls-per-dollar basis (I am not joking).

  10. Hi all,

    This is a most relevant post. With respect to cultures, yes, I do think we, as evangelicals, get embroiled in the wrong things. I find it frustrating with talking with my Christian peers who feel the war on culture is absolutely necessary. Anyone doing a bit of homework on Paul and the cultural milieu of his time would be shocked at a couple of discoveries.

    For example, Paul didn’t spend time attacking wealthy patronages but rather accommodated them (might jibe against the social-gospel groups). A study on Corinthians reveals that Corinthians were boasting about one leader after another for gain of status (much like our mega-church stars today), and Paul undermined that kind of boasting. Rather than spending time attacking the Greco-Roman culture at the time, Paul goes more into detail about what it means to be “ekklesia.” I really don’t see Paul presenting the gospel as an antithesis of the Roman Empire, and Christianity did not spend its time trying to subvert it.

    Unfortunately, we’ve taken some of Paul’s points about abstaining from the cultural practices of the Greco-Roman world too far as if they were clarion calls to fight the system.

    Yuri

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I find it frustrating with talking with my Christian peers who feel the war on culture is absolutely necessary.

      Why don’t they just say the Shahada and convert to Islam?

      Because if the Gospel is only about Taking Back America, enforcing sexual morality, and Culture War against the Heathen/Infidel, Islam will always be able to one-up us in those areas.

  11. I really think the key step is recognizing much of what we call “Christianity” is simple human culture and not an outward manifestation of God’s micromanaging. The scriptural concept of being Christian is simple, flexible and attractive (just ask the woman at the well). But after 2,000 years of cultural history . . . “Christianism” and the ten thousand components of it trumps all else, especially reality and emotional honesty. Eighty percent of the evangelical kids are still leaving the church because of the total inflexibility of the Church in their approach. They would rather see their kids leave the faith than dare change their culture. We force the kids to keep both the baby and the bath water . . . or throw them both in the sewer. They , are anyone, should never be forced to make such a ludicrous choice. I’m even cautious of the word “disciple” as it is used today. As a product of intense discipling, I believe that it has often become a form of brainwashing into that Chrisianism culture rather than helping us understand how deep the gospel really is.

  12. Joseph (the original) says:

    The goal of salvation is blessedness for us as human beings. In other words, we are saved so that our way of life can be fully in keeping with God’s ordering of reality. ~Ken Myers

    Amen. Amen. and Amen…

  13. David Cornwell says:

    Amen to this post, and the good comments it has produced.

  14. Nelson T says:

    The divide between generations really strikes home in our (mainline) church. I started volunteering with our youth group before children and have kept at it not just because my kids are now old enough to be there, but because I’m convinced we need more interactions between the generations. My boys look at worship services as something for the grown-ups (so, obviously, those of us who seek ways to involve our youth in the whole church haven’t been particularly successful). I’d love to hear ways people have successfully broken down the generational cultural barriers in their churches.

    • humanslug says:

      In my simple church fellowship, we don’t have any special youth or children’s programs or activities. We just have a common table and shared meals and absolutely free communication for everyone of every age group. We share the meal as a family — and just like a family, we engage in free-roaming table talk. At some point, when everyone’s through eating, we’ll break out our Bibles, and someone will lead a study or a topic discussion or whatever. But, even then, we try not to draw a line from informal to formal. The young people stay at the table with the adults — or, if they’re really young, they can play on the floor — and they are free to make comments or ask questions or just listen. I guess our objective with our young people is to instill the practical idea that Christians can get together at any time or place and function as a spiritual family — and that talking about your new shoes or the latest video game and talking about Jesus and His gospel can happen in the course of the same conversion without crossing some imaginary divide from secular to sacred — and that church is not some departmentalized arena separate from the rest of their lives, but rather an expression of who we are collectively in Christ.

      • David L says:

        Sounds like you are ignoring the mege church model. Or have a really big table. Your church must not be Evangelical.

        • humanslug says:

          I’m not real sure what we are. Post-evangelical refugees trying to exist and function as a church family without a lot of BS — that might be a fairly accurate definition.
          But we’re really small — 10-15 people at an average gathering — so we can usually all fit around the same table.
          Doctrinally, we’re minimalists — which means if scripture doesn’t speak very clearly and consistently on an issue, then we do our best to avoid establishing a set-in-stone doctrinal position on that issue.
          And we’re pretty bare bones on ecclesiology, liturgy, government, and organizational structure, as well.

  15. Life as a Christian is not a simple thing to define. Christians have freedom to live many different kinds of lives. Christians also have very different personalities. some have short tempers, some are very stubborn, all struggle in many different ways. While they all should be taught to love God’s law and live according to it, they should also understand that it is impossible to do so perfectly and deal with each other with grace.

    I think a Christian culture in a church, is simply a culture of fellowship in which members come together to receive Word and Gospel, and in their lives outside of worship, share friendship and charity. They avoid judging each others’ moral progress or way of life, or much of anything. It is left for the pastor to bind and loose sins, who does so with all of God’s grace, but he has the Congregations support when he feels he must act in love to deal with clear, unrepentant sin. I don’t think this is that hard to find, and has existed throughout history, but it is harder to find in big, impersonal churches, than smaller churches shepherded by one or two pastors.

  16. Clay Knick says:

    Ken rocks. I love Mars Hill and look forward to each CD. I’ve learned things I never would have learned once I started listening. He’s a gift to the Church. He’ right on this.

  17. Can I get a huge AMEN!!!

    I am so tired of hearing about how we aren’t messaging right, or not reaching the right people, or in my case we aren’t using the right liturgical service. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense…

    People need to trained up to KNOW WHAT THEY BELIEVE, that’s what discipleship is supposed to be about. If they know what they believe, then they can get busy sharing that faith with each other and their community in and outside the church. Instead, we have allowed this type of thin mentality even in the mainline faiths. I was discussing doctrine with our parish Priest, and I apologized for my being pedantic about a certain doctrinal position (which we disagree on), and he told me it was refreshing to be able to exercise his apologetic chops, because everything else he hears is about how someones feelings got hurt, or someone being upset about this or that person. We experienced the same thing when we were evangelical, even being told one time that normal people didn’t do ‘Theology’.

    You have to grow disciples, it takes effort, time and resources. But we can’t just blame the churches, because many times they start these programs, and no one shows up. So you up in this endless cycle, of wanting to make more disciples, but not being able to actually do so.

    I would also caution that building a culture of compliance to every rule is a huge threat to real growth in the Gospel, and yet that’s what many churches do. People don’t fit in any mold, every single person shows the beauty and diversity of Gods creation, and his love for us. But when your all about rules, you quickly forget grace, and when you forget that, you might as well just give it up and go home.

    We also have lots of churches who use the word community, but very few who actually understand what that word really means in the Gospel sense. To this day, if I want to be a real disciple, like the ones I find in the new testament, who knew their faith, and could defend it. I have to look for services outside of the very churches that I am part of, it’s not just the evangelicals either who miss this, it’s the mainlines as well who are failing at this (at least in this country).

    I don’t know what the answer is, but its endemic right now…

    -Paul-

  18. I would like to see “Worship Service” as an option for all generations, not a mandate. We need better ways that are open to all of us who have never found the service program that palatable. As it is, we teach the kids that they must like this program, and if they don’t, then they must not like God. So they are forced to pretend they like it, or give up and walk away.

  19. Rchard McNeeleyi says:

    I think that evangelicals began to lose their way in the late 1970’s when they began to flex their political muscle. In an effort to clean up the culture, they substituted the mission of the church with conservative political power.

    • I remember feeling pressure and probably exerted the same to vote for Reagan in hi first term. Not long after I thought something was out of place about that.

      • The Previous Dan (TPD) says:

        Ronaldus Magnus (or Neo-Constantine) is the man who successfully harnessed the evangelical vote to accomplish his political ends. Just like with the first Constantine, the end result is a mixed bag.

  20. Speaking of culture, the thing I noticed most about this article was that it is embedded in something called the “Christian Post,” alongside a bunch of anti-gay articles and a video “What is the occult?”

    (Maybe some of this stuff needs to be a little bit more “occult.”)

  21. The Previous Dan (TPD) says:

    “Wilken [has] pointed out that the principal way in which the early Church leaders sustained cultural influence was by discipling its members, by conveying to them that the call of the Gospel was a call to embrace a new way of life. The Church was less interested in transforming the disorders of the Roman Empire than in building ‘its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.’”

    Amen.