Changing Church, Changing World
I need to start by tipping my hat to Dr. Tim Keller as I write this blog entry. He has been my intellectual mentor for years, not that I know him personally. He has been writing his blog about the unique challenges and opportunities for the Christian church in the next generation. I don’t know many Christian leaders who, in their 60s, have so accurately put their finger on the issues of the day.
Simply put, American culture is changing away from Christianity. Do you remember how in the 90s, when Bill Clinton was elected president, it was beneficial for him to claim ties to the Southern Baptist denomination? Compare that with the election cycles in 2008, 2012, and 2016. Obama’s Christian credentials were not a concern for most of the electorate. McCain made passing reference to Christ, Mitt Romney is a Mormon, Donald Trump has no church affiliation, and Hillary Clinton was a Methodist but kept it quiet. Simply put, in the past 20 years, the public’s perception of the Christian has shifted for the worse. It’s no longer advantageous to be a Christian in public. It has not been this case, ever, in American history to this point. We live in a pivotal moment in our nation's history.
The reasons for the shift are many. On the one hand, there are the many failings and sins of the church, as it has been lukewarm in living out its calling. In my life-time the church has often been defensive, overly political, and even angry at its detractors. We have to own that, repent, ask forgiveness, and move on. On the other hand, the church faces powerful enemies who are actively seeking its demise in the culture. The church is portrayed consistently in a negative light on TV, in the media and news stories, while rarely receiving even a nod for the massive good they do in the communities and world at large.
So what is the path forward for the church, that it would show the world the great power and beauty of the Christian faith? Let me channel Pastor Keller…
- A Personal, Love Relationship with God. First and foremost, Christianity offers a personal relationship with God that other religions do not offer. Whereas Jesus saves us by grace, every other religion is based on works. Even the “spiritual but not religious” crowd misses out on the God who is Father, and Son, and Spirit, who has bound himself in covenant love to his people.
- Multiethnicity. Most religions are based loosely around some ethnicity. Not so the Christian church. Our unity is based on Christ, not birth! I love that in St. Paul’s youth group, we are 45% non-white. And nobody is thinking about it, either.
- Concern for the poor. If the church is a country-club for Christians, it will disappear in the next 50 years. If it is a mission-based community seeking to show God’s love to the world, it will slowly but surely counteract the cultural objections its opponents raise against it. Care for the poor will be a primary venue for us to show that love.
- Being a sexual counterculture. In the ancient Roman world, it was accepted for men to have sex with their wives, mistresses, slaves, and children. The church maintained that heterosexual monogamy within marriage was the only appropriate expression of sex. Eventually the church won the argument, and women flocked to the church because they found protection and stability. The next 100 years will show the benefit of heterosexual, monogamous marriage again to a world that has embraced an “if you like it, do it” way of thinking. Giving in to the culture on this point is a sure-fire way of removing the distinctiveness of the faith required for it to thrive. People come to church because they find something different there.
- Intellectually robust thinking. Our world is postmodern, scientific, technological, skeptical, and secular. Therefore people will not gravitate toward God automatically, and when they embrace God they will be pulled away unless they are given a fully orbed worldview that understands the current way of thinking, its errors, and why Christianity makes more sense of the world. This is a difficult but necessary task if we are to make disciples that can weather the storm. (1 Peter 3:15)
- Non-violence and non-retaliation. The church must learn not to return evil for evil or insult for insult. Today, even small attacks on the church are met with vitriol from some corners of Christianity, and they always get the most press. The church must remain principled in its discourse to the world, rooted in the issues and uncompromising in its principles of loving engagement.
Do you agree with the list? Is there something you would add? I’d love to see your comments.