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.