Two Cultures

I spend a lot of time thinking about the shape of the Church in the coming years.  As our culture continues to move away from any sort of consensus about much of anything, let alone an interpretation and understanding of reality and humanity that calls us to limit ourselves rather than indulging ourselves in every manner possible, what will the Church look like?  Will the Church be able to adapt?

I’m convinced that adaptation will mean the recreation of the Church from an institution that presumes everyone else agrees and should support it to one that acknowledges it is very much alone in a sea of competing ideas and beliefs.  In this regard it will be no different from the first century of the faith.  However there must first come a transition where the Church finally acknowledges that this is the case and begins to act like it.

A lot of congregations acknowledge the first part to one degree or another, but the second part – changing practice in response to this understanding – that’s a lot slower in coming.  The result is inevitably shrinking congregations and dying congregations.  Congregations that – if they can’t replenish their membership through births among their members – won’t be able to sustain their larger-scale church models in a time when congregational size overwhelmingly will be much smaller than ever before (with the obvious exception of a small percentage of mega-churches).

Part of making the second change, starting to act like we aren’t the default option, requires first an understanding.  I’ve talked with plenty of congregations in varying situations of comfort or distress.  All of them talk about mission, all of them talk about evangelism.  Most of them don’t really mean it.  Those that actually mean it are really talking about reaching out to disaffected or former church members of one denomination or another.  Their concept of evangelism basically boils down to fishing in an aquarium.  This isn’t bad, but it needs to be recognized.

Bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ who aren’t already Christian or formerly Christian to some degree requires a further awareness of what we think it looks like.  I think oftentimes when congregants talk about evangelism or bringing people to Christ, what they really imagine is bringing people to church.

Isn’t that the same thing you ask?  No, it’s not.  Bringing someone to faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who died and rose again in order to save our eternal lives is one thing.  That is the cultural shift from unbelief to belief, from faith in something or someone else to faith in the triune God of the Bible.  Many Christians assume this means bringing that same person into the Church.  Their church.  Their church culture.

Sharing the Gospel isn’t the same thing as sharing church.  Sharing the Gospel is much different from then presuming that new Christians will value your existing experience of the faith and expression of the faith.  Yes, new Christians become part of The Church, the gathering of all the saints past, present and future in Christ.  But that doesn’t require them to adopt our church culture.  The Christian Church around the world has many common features that look and feel very different based on the culture of the area and people.  This culture naturally influences Christian culture and church culture.  That influence can be good and beautiful or problematic, but it’s going to happen to some extent.

If people don’t have a churched background or mindset already, we have to recognize that when the Holy Spirit brings them to faith, they’re going to need to plug into a worshiping Christian community.  We call this a church, but that is now shorthand for a lot of things that aren’t necessarily part of being a Christian, but have come to be viewed that way by generations of Christians in a similar cultural context.  Oftentimes, the Christians in that shared cultural context expect that new additions to the body of Christ will assume those cultural contexts.  They’ll step in and keep things going the way they have been for generations and decades.  But this isn’t necessarily the case.  It is necessary for a particular congregational culture, but not necessary for the new Christian.  This isn’t a situation where we have to define one perspective as bad and the other good, but we ought to acknowledge that there might be significant differences.

If we want to talk about bringing people to Christ, about actively working with the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Jesus with others, we need to be careful that this is what we’re sharing rather than our particular church culture.  One emphasizes the objective, historical reality of the incarnate Son of God.  The other tends to focus on programs, things to do, a community to be a part of.  These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they are not the first thing.  Faith in Jesus first, then the other things.  And when it comes to the other things, it is possible that a new convert to Christianity will emphatically affirm their faith in Jesus, yet struggle to adapt to a particular church culture.

This presents opportunities to form new church cultures that preserve core aspects of the Christian life as lived by people over 2000 years – worship, study, fellowship, love and care for neighbors, etc.  But how these are accomplished might look very different.  How resources are allocated might look very different.  Still faithful to God, not not easily compatible with one another.

I think this is part of the disconnect many congregations are experiencing right now, why so many struggle.  They expect that people are just naturally going to understand and desire to be an active part of a church culture, when they may not, even if they have faith in Jesus Christ.   Being able to recognize the larger changing cultural landscape will ultimately be crucial to the adaptation of the body of Christ to new cultural values and perspectives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s