Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Churches To Come

In the recent post When Opinions Are Sought the two recent Christian works were Pagan Christianity and Jesus For President (I have linked to the websites, not the books). They are both worth checking out.

As with many thinkers in the Emerging Church and postmodern evangelicalism in general, they get the diagnosis right. Yet I always have an overriding disquiet about the ability of contemporary American evangelicals to get the solutions right. They are earnest, they are intelligent, they are observant, yes. But the growth of the church in the last fifty years has not been in the West. The center of mass of Christianity has moved to the developing countries. Increasingly, it is China, South America, Africa, and Korea that will lead. We are the eroding church. Western Europe is even more postchristian, having taken what values it likes from the church, discarded the rest, and moved on. It is likely that we are next. For those outside of New England, this may seem premature. But New Hampshire has 4% church attendance every Sunday - not much above the European churches.

Evangelistic types, forever prophesying that God is about to do a mighty work here or there, will claim that I am not relying on the Spirit to make such a statement. I often wonder if the "spirit" they mean is the spirit of evangelical culture rather than the Holy Spirit. Certainly, God might just take these unlikely places for revival. He seems to like that, in fact, and I earnestly desire it. But it is one thing to say that God can make this dead fig tree come to life, and quite another to say that dead leaves are really a sign of life, just because we wish it to be so.

Most EC types tell us that the forms and structures of church no longer fit our culture, that they do not speak to the typical human of our times. They point out, often with great accuracy, that aspects of our Christianity which we think central are in fact ephemeral, cultural add-ons from the century of our denomination's founding. They propose to strip these off and build anew.

I'm all for it. I will be presenting a fairly radical idea to my own congregation this week, in fact - something which goes against our traditional view of church but I believe will become increasingly common. Yet I don't expect the next world-changing work of the Spirit to come from me, or even from my culture. The glory has nearly fled. The house churches under persecution in China or the churches enduring war and poverty in Africa are much more likely to produce new wine.

I notice resignation that these American church-changers resolve into a very few slots, once the decorations have been taken off. Unsurprisingly, these slots are labeled "My secular subculture's preferences." I have no objection to that as a style - I think every subculture should indeed have the worship and church structure that fits it. But I draw the line at taking up the Jesus a subculture prefers.

Currently, Jesus as an early version of the Dalai Lama (or Gandhi) is popular. By this telling, He was centuries ahead of His time, but taught little more than that we should be generous to the poor and be pacifistic toward the powers of the world.

I have stated before and will repeat here that Christian pacifism may be adopted for righteousness sake, particularly in specific circumstances, but Jesus did not teach it as a strategy for conquest. That is a modern idea. General pacifism has popped up in a few places in church history, especially in the form of withdrawal from the world, but it is not the teaching of Christians in most times and places. You may become a pacifist because you believe that Jesus teaches that your individual righteousness is of more account than worldly justice, and even believe that in the longest of long runs it will endure, but you cannot take it up just because you think it is a clever strategy that Jesus said would work. That is Dalai Lama territory, Buddhist territory, and I will point out that they have never freed nations by that strategy - not even the Dalai Lama's own country. Individuals may consider themselves freed by these negative acts, but that is quite different (and I am suspicious of even that in many circumstances). Jesus did not say love your enemy because that will work. Paul does mention briefly that returning good for evil dumps coals on your enemy's head, but he doesn't specify whether that is in this world, or if said enemy must have a conscience of his own for it to work on him.

There have simply been too many unresisting believers who have been wiped out by aggressors, vanished beneath the waves, to consider this a worldly strategy. Do you believe you are called by God in this time, in this place, to lay down your sword and accept whatever worldly consequence results, for the sake of the gospel? Fine. You may be right. But do not tell me that Jesus taught that violence never leads to peace or justice. He said no such thing. And if nothing else, the freeing of the slaves and the peacefulness of Germany and Japan should teach us otherwise.

Yet these postmodern evangelicals love that type of Jesus. I understand the attraction. All those American versions of eastern religions get to be cooler. They get to capture the appearance of greater morality. They think that war and violence are horrible, not like you, you primitive retrograde Christian. Why, you must like war, or at least not really, really hate it as much as we do. The Emerging Church wants to be king of the hill in that discussion. And so Jesus must be made into the Original Gandhi. Rubbish. Christian pacifism is a high calling, and it might be asked of any of us. But it is not the only calling, and not the highest.

6 comments:

copithorne said...

You know we disagree about all this and I point to the beatitudes with Jesus saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” Jesus tells us to “turn the other cheek.” To “render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s.” We have the example of Jesus accepting his own unjust crucifixion and commanding his followers to put away their swords and not defend him with violence. I know there is a just war tradition and it is hard to argue against reasonable self defense from a rational point of view. But at its roots, you’d have to say that Christianity and Christ at least leans pacifist.

But your post turns up a cleavage in churches that is maybe more vital and one you and I may find more agreement on. A lot of contemporary churches don’t know how to do anything other than present Jesus as a teacher. They don’t know how to relate to Jesus as a Savior. And to me, if Jesus is just a teacher, the whole Church thing is excessive and misleading. There are better teachers out there than Jesus Christ.

Carl said...

AVI:

I agree, and cite Luke 22:36 ("one who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one"). I would be very interested in the material you present to your church--would you post it?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I agree that such turning of the cheek is the requirement for the individual, copithorne. I would differ when one human being has some responsibility for another. That of course leads to easy rationalization and abuse of principle, but does not invalidate the general idea.

Carl, I can't yet, but the choices my congregation makes and the results of those choices will become more frequent over the next year.

Chris said...

I believe the real problem with pacifistic Christianity is the one-size-fits-all mentality. This is the same thinking behind zero tolerance policies, which seem to be designed primarily so that administrators don't have to think or make judgments. I think there is a lot of sympathy with that type of approach in the modern churches, where a template is established, and then used on every occasion.

The Bible contains a number of paradoxes and seemingly contradictory statements that would belie such an approach. We are called to act in Jesus' name, which means we will have to think more, not less. We are called to live in this world, but not be of it, which entails a never-ending balancing act, which is a daunting proposition, especially for those lacking in critical thinking, which is where our society is headed.

I agree, copithorne, that salvation, and the larger concept of grace, is overlooked or misunderstood in a lot of churches. I once heard a minister tell a story about a national conference, where the speaker was talking about something, and an old woman kept admonishing him to "Get Him up!" Eventually the speaker began talking about Jesus, at which point the woman starting shouting "Now keep Him up!"

copithorne said...

The Cross of Christ is a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks.

So, when Christianity becomes Christendom it was obliged to make some accomodations for that folly. It had to be more reasonable. It had to adapt to state power.

My preference would be to uphold the radical character of the Gospel. If we argue on behalf of a just war we do so on the basis of secular ethical reasoning rather than cloak war in the Gospel and flatter ourselves that our war is consistent with the life of Christ.

Retriever said...

Great post, will link to it for all 16 of my readers including the dog and the cat! And good comments also. Re-read Matthew 10:34-39.

Appreciated your clarity as I tend to waffle on about the personal aspects of all this (the posts on it: powerful prayer,join the army, strength and honor, for all my pacifist friends, doomed cavalry, etc.)