A Wake-Up Call – Part 1

I have mostly been avoiding post-election conversations. I’ve read a few things that came across my screen including Dutch Sheet’s response.  There is one statement in his response I agree with:

“The complacency and lack of discernment concerning our real condition in America – especially by the Church – is both appalling and horrifying.”

I’ve been thinking about us – the church – who we are and what we should look like in our culture. It won’t surprise any of you that I believe we really missed it, particularly this election season in a country obviously looking for hope and change. Could the message to the church be any clearer?

Looking Back

A sketchy history of the American church’s cultural engagement would show that from the time of Jonathan Edwards, the church was involved in both spiritual renewal and social reform.  The Scopes evolution trial is credited with setting fundamentalists on a separatist path.   In part, fundamentalism was a reaction to the social gospel, equating social activism with religious liberalism.

Dispensationalism, prevalent among fundamentalists, championed separation and disengagement from the culture.  Belief that the world is evil and the church will soon be raptured from the earth eventually smothered engagement in social issues and contributed to withdrawal and retreat.

The rise of evangelicalism was a movement back to mainstream involvement and a rejection of separatism.  However, rather than truly re-engaging with culture, evangelicals developed a parallel, christian subculture,  a sanitized Christian version of American culture.

As evangelicals became involved in the public arena, they realized that political power was within reach.  The religious right began crusading in regard to moral and tax issues.  This focus on the family represented an agenda that was mostly personal and sought to protect middle-class security and comfort.

While the evangelical church became an influential voting demographic crusading for conservative issues, they still largely neglected engagement in social justice.  In its complacency, lack of awareness, and lack of concern, the church failed to be a distinctly kingdom community.

The focus seemed to be on extending the christian subculture to the national level. By seeking political advantage, evangelicals attempted to impose Christian values in the public realm and build a moral utopia.

They put their hope in legislation to reform people’s hearts and behavior.  The misdirected focus to take back the centers of power in our culture resulted in building walls and diminishing the witness of the church.  In my opinion, the religious left are in danger of repeating this mistake.

To be continued…

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18 thoughts on “A Wake-Up Call – Part 1

  1. Just a recent observation…

    I have to comment on the odd pairing of the conservative, evangelical Protestant types that wring their hands & preach the continued spiral downward to perdition because of the lack of ‘real’ Christian representation in government & the ultra-prophetic camps that spout the same message…

    I would not have thunk such a strange alignment of perspective to come from these disparate camps.

    Maybe the apocalypse is upon us after all… :)

  2. Hi Grace,
    there is a real chance that the evangelical church cut it’s own throat when they became active in politics. God’s man did not deliver the past 8 years and I don’t know how long it will to recover from that knock.

  3. There is indeed a full overhaul of the church needed. Some say that emergent is the next movement among Christians, but the lack of diversity in leadership of this community seems to speak otherwise. I have this feeling sometimes that emerging may just be another irrelevant sub-culture trying to be “revelent.” I have found that much of the non-Christian world hasn’t even taken notice of the movement.

    How do we stay in the public sphere without becoming irrelevant to the people in it?

  4. I was going to say “spot on” too, but Peggy beat me to it. :)

    I think the most insightful part of your post is that Christians just created a parallel culture (but with many of the same worldly value systems of building impressive structures or organizations of power and influence).

    While some of the morals Christians have tried to impose on the national culture might reflect God’s values (life in the womb, for example), there is a fair amount of ‘mixture’ in it – and it has also been an imposition of religious culture more than a reflection of kingdom values. There is a big difference. It strikes me very much as the difference between Jesus’s agenda while here (very love oriented, very outcast oriented, very sacrificial service oriented), and the pharisees agenda (very legislation-oriented, very power-oriented). The pharisees agenda didn’t cost much. Jesus agenda cost Him everything.

    IMHO, I don’t think Christian’s should *identify* with right or left – because Jesus transcends political right and political left. If we identify with Him, we will ultimately both upset and inspire people on the left and people on the right.

  5. I happened to attend church yesterday. Was interested in the topic being broached: “Is the Church Homophobic?”

    The one point made early in the talk was in regardings to California’s Proposition 8. Although the outcome was considered a victory of sorts for the traditional marriage defenders, the pastor said that not one heart was changed regardless of how one voted…

    That is the cold hard fact. No political agenda or legislative effort or judicial finding will change anybody’s heart. That is the false assumption from those that look to government as the last ditch stand for maintaining moral standards however they are understood & debated.

    I don’t think you can win with such a political stance. Not that laws in this country are not meant for protection & equality, etc. I just don’t know that you can create a law pertaining to non-criminal civil issues which will not be perceived as discriminatory vs. simply special protectionism. Regardless of your personal views about homosexual marriage, the use of civil law will be viewed by many as a club instead of social restraint.

    The American churches that became the more vocal proponents of a U.S. Constitutional Ammendment that mirrors the California one made a very serious choice to involve themselves in earthly power trips that will only bring about a distorted message at best to many Americans wanting to hear the good news.

    Anyway, I was encouraged with the manner such a delicate subject was approached at the small post-modern church I attended…

  6. This focus on the family represented an agenda that was mostly personal and sought to protect middle-class security and comfort.

    Word!

    Often conservative Evangelical activists say that caring for the poor should not be the government’s job. The welfare state is unChristian, I am told.

    Then whose job is it?

    Conservative Evangelicals spent most of financial resources on “spreading the Word,” and very little on caring for the poor. Social gospel is unChristian, I am told.

    So it is not the church’s job to care for poor. Whose job is it then?

    I agree with you on the Religious Left. But they’ve got lots of catching up to do :).

  7. I also found a copy of the Sheets email in my inbox this morning. I thought that this introductory statement from him was telling..

    “I feel certain that many in my stream of the Church want a statement from me concerning Tuesday’s presidential election. “

    ..there seems to be a bit of self importance projected in the email message.. but I guess that is true of many of the “prophetic” leaders.

  8. That was pretty well said, “Could the message be an clearer”, ad a very godo post otherwise too! Especially enlightening to one who is not American (ie. me) :-)

  9. joseph,
    Most prophetic types are former pentecostals or evangelicals.

    abmo,
    Involvement isn’t the problem, it is lack of humility and service that has ruined the church’s public witness.

    Thanks peggy.

    coldfire,
    I believe it goes back to what I said to abmo. We must truly seek to serve rather than seeking dominion.

    Good thoughts sarah. In the same way that the church is often guilty of discipleship through behavior modification, we have transported this false righteousness into the public realm, seeking an outward form of godliness. In a way, we have also simply attempted to expand the christian bubble to a national level.

    sarah and joseph,
    You will find many of your thoughts echoed in Part 2
    …which I already had written. ;)

    Thanks for the link d.l., very similar thoughts.

    david,
    Based on current attitudes and behavior, the poor wouldn’t fare very well in the hands of the American church today.

    bob,
    :) I am fairly certain that everyone was breathlessly awaiting this statement from me too.

    mimou,
    Yes, I am not familiar with the political atmosphere in other countries, but I assume there may be similarities.

    No worries about typos, spelling, or grammar here.

  10. Frank Viola was right in noting the importance of your blog, Grace. You are a “thought leader,” and I thought about this post a lot last night, and started writing a comment that I could hardly finish because of ideas flowing already from just reading Part 2! Anyway, here’s what I finished up from what I started yesterday:

    Grace said, “They [conservative evangelicals] put their hope in legislation to reform people’s hearts and behavior. The misdirected focus to take back the centers of power in our culture resulted in building walls and diminishing the witness of the church. In my opinion, the religious left are in danger of repeating this mistake.”

    And Sarah said, “IMHO, I don’t think Christian’s should *identify* with right or left – because Jesus transcends political right and political left. If we identify with Him, we will ultimately both upset and inspire people on the left and people on the right.”

    As a political and theological post-liberal AND post-conservative, I find these two quotes very timely. A split view of “contextualization” turned social action relevance into cozy irrelevance for the theological liberals, and turned social control into caustic attack for the theological conservatives. What seemed like being contextual was more about being in the center of things rather than remaining at the margins with a meaningful voice that is both countercultural and telling, NOT YELLING! (And since when has any new ruling party stayed countercultural for very long anyway? Once in power, the gravitational shift always seems to be the downward pull to stay in power. If you’re up to an intense movie that addresses this issue, check out *Land of the Blind* with Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland.)

    When our idea of “contextualization” is mere agenda-pushing in either this or that direction, we’ve lost the dynamic tension and prophetic edge that allows us to be both relevant (contextual) and countercultural. As pluralism pushes forward and Christians have less pull, I suspect we’ll see more of this healthier, paradoxical approach. When we’re at the margin, perhaps we’ll naturally have more opportunity for genuine relevance instead of syncretism or isolation, plus living out a challenging Kingdom counterculture instead of expecting society to lead toward it or for us to politick it into reality. I hope/pray we’ll move toward the balance point …

  11. joseph,
    Most prophetic types are former pentecostals or evangelicals.

    I was just pointing out the odd pairing of non-charismatic consevatives with the extreme prophetic/apostolic types…

    Nov 1st thousands of Christians gathered at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego to fast & pray in support of Proposition 8.

    “The Call” received support from prominent evangelical leaders like Dr. James Dobson (who spoke at the event) & from many Southern California churches. Well-known “apostles” & “prophets” behind the event included founder Lou Engle, C. Peter Wagner, Che Ahn, Rick Joyner, Bill Hamon, Cindy Jacobs, Chuck Pierce, Dutch Sheets.

    Why would mainstream evangelical types like Dobson, Michael W. Smith & Steve Douglas of Campus Crusade partner with this fringe movement? Do they fully understand the organizers’ teachings? Could be their desire to support marriage & family values lends a degree of credibility in mainstream evangelicalism now?

    I dunno, just amazed at how the doctrinal differences are overlooked when one political issue is the focus. I think this partnering of strange bedfellows the point I was trying to make…

  12. I think you left out an important part of the what happened when the Religious Right rose to power. One, they greatly exaggerated their own power. While claiming to give the White House to George Bush twice, a closer look at polls revealed that is a dubious claim. Second, the aim of the Religious Right ceased to be the rise of their moral values, but a defeat of all others.

    This distinction created an environement where being victorious was valued over being right. Every facet of policy was judged not on whether or not it was good, right, and “Christian.” Instead, it was weighed on the basis of whether or not it would make their enemies look bad.

    This created a defensiveness on the left that became just as insiduous.

    What Obama has done is capture the attention of those that are tired of this kind of bickering. Obama appealed to those have realized that the eternal pursuit of victory has poisoned our public discourse. It is unclear whether or not his Presidency will attempt to rise above this venemous environment, or whether he will be dragged down into it as well.

    It is my hope that all people can come together, putting God over party and even nation, and work together for things which unite us.

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