Friday, May 7, 2010

Are We Changing Culture or Is the Culutre Changing Us?

As a pastor I wrestle with the impact the prevailing culture has on my church. A disconnect exists between Sunday morning and the rest of the week. What happens out there often appears to be in direct contrast to the values we espouse in the sacred assembly on a weekly basis. On another front the church-at-large struggles on how to change the culture by its own witness. Yet do we see any real evidence of true change?

James Davison Hunter in an article for the May issue of Christianity Today noted:

How is it that American public life is so profoundly secular when 85 percent of the population professes to be Christian? If a culture were simply the sum total of beliefs, values, and ideas that ordinary individuals hold, then the United States would be a far more religious society. Looking at our entertainment, politics, economics, media, and education, we are forced to conclude that the cultural influence of Christians is negligible. ["Faithful Presence," pp. 33-36]

Hunter notes, however, that "Jews, who compose 3 percent of the population, exert significant cultural influence, disproportionate to their numbers, notably in literature, art, science, medicine, and technology." Gays likewise.

So why are we so ineffective in cultural change? Hunter writes:

Populism underwrites American Christianity, especially within evangelicalism. That populism speaks to cherished values, but it also works against the dynamics of cultural change. The main reason Christian believers lack influence in the culture, despite their aspirations, is not because they don't believe enough or try hard enough or think Christianly enough. It's because they've been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted.

Hunter also notes that cultural change, far from a quick transformation, is actually a change occurring over the course of multiple generations. In all of this Hunter admits that he is trying to "disabuse people of changing the world. We cannot control history - God alone is its author." So instead of proposing another grand plan to change the world in our time, Hunter proposes an alternate direction. "The point is not to change the world but to serve faithfully in our relationships, tasks, and spheres of influence." Yet contrary to much evangelical thinking this is not another "individual takes on the world" plan. "Faithful presence is not about the individual alone," he writes, "but also the individual in concert with the community."

Overall Hunter does not see the burden of the church to "save America or save the West," which is a common theme among evangelicals. At least not in the sense of saving it culturally. He also warns against a strategy that looks to political power as an agent of change. Such power is at cross-purposes with the church's mission. He instead suggests the use of "social power" such as Jesus Himself employed. Such 'power' derives it strength from humility and sacrifice and looks instead to God and not to society.

Hunter's concluding paragraph offers a helpful summary of where he sees the mission of the church in the future:

Christians need to abandon talk about "redeeming the culture," "advancing the kingdom," and "changing the world." Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God's word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence exisisted in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care - again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn't new; it's just something we need to recover.

Hunter's ideas deserve a serious hearing, even in the work of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. As I thought through his points I could not help thinking about Rev. Matt Harrison and his work with the Lutheran World Relief and Human Care. (No, this is not a political pitch!) His written work on "mercy" as a paradigm for mission and ministry has offered refreshing avenues of service in the world in concert, it seems, with Hunter's concept of "faithful presence." Perhaps Harrison has captured his point already. At any rate, Hunter offers us a challenging critique of where the church has been with a real vision of where it should legitimately go. My reader's insights and views would be appreciated as to the value of Hunter's points. What do you think?


Jeff said...

It is ok to be Buddhist.
It is not ok to tell Buddhists they are wrong.
It is ok to be Islamic.
It is not ok to tell Islams they are wrong.
It is ok to be Muslim.
It is not ok to tell Muslims they are wrong.
It is ok to be gay.
It is not ok to say that homosexuality is wrong.
It is apparently ok to be an adulterer.
It is apparently not ok to tell an adulterer he/she is wrong.
It is NOT ok to be a right wing, fundamentalist, bible teaching, Christ centered Evangelical Christian.
It is just fine to tell right wing, fundamentalist, Bible teaching, Christ centered Evangelical Christians they have no business being right.

Don Engebretson said...

Thank you for your comments, Jeff

I suspect your comments are a reflection of how the culture negatively impacts Christianity. It does appear, at times, that the culture dictates to the church what it should believe and how and when it should speak out, by not allowing us the freedom to speak the truth fully. That clash between the prevailing popular culture and the church will always exist, since we will always live and work in that tension of "in the world but not of it." Nevertheless, we are still duty bound to speak out and proclaim the Word as it is without adapting it to suit the wishes of others.

That being said, we also have an opportunity, as Hunter indicates, to impact the culture positively by our witness of the Gospel in the endless variety of public spheres available to us. He seems optimistic that such a witness can, in time, make a significant impact. However, he is content to leave the results to God and simply endeavor to be faithful. That, I believe, is where we are at in church. Proclaim the Word, in season and out of season, and God will provide growth and change when and where He wills. The burden to change the world is not ours, it is God's.

Jeff said...

I need to respond to this because I agree with you and what Hunter said in the last paragraph. How about we start within our own congregation?
When you belong to an LCMS church (for example) you have ostensibly been given instruction in Lutheran doctrine in one form or another. Luther was not the only reformer in town. If you don't agree with his teachings maybe Calvin would be more to your liking.
In our church, in order to become a member you need to sign a statement saying you have read and are in agreement with our Constitution and Bylaws. Our statement of beliefs is front and center for all to see. It is true in our church and possibly yours as well that there seem to be members with blinders on. The pastor can be Christ Centered in his preachings and teachings and the Elders can adhere to our beliefs and there will still be members that do not get it. The Trinity (how many Gods is that again?). Closed Communion (there's that term again. 6 literal days of Creation? What's so bad about believing in evolution? I mention this because these are all actual situations that have presented themselves in our church recently. It seems apparent the the culture is affecting our ranks.