What does it mean to be church? In the latest issue of the American Conservative, Richard Gamble reviews a book I might have been tempted to read, James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Thankfully, because of Gamble’s review, I don’t have to read the book and be disappointed (whew!). Gamble concludes:
Christians who have a higher allegiance to the church than to American society will not take encouragement from Hunter’s recommendations for “faithful presence.” Social benefits from such a reconfigured orientation to the world may be real, but Christians ought to have their eyes open to the costs involved. A church that trades less effective techniques for more might lose its integrity, the very essence of what defines it as an institution unlike any other, and the unique message it brings to the world. Anyone who spends much time with young Christians these days knows that a generation has been raised by spiritually nomadic church-hopping parents—or even by radically de-institutionalized “home church” families—who have not bothered to initiate their sons and daughters into the life of the church. They have sent their children to the right schools and to worldview boot camp, but they have left them unbaptized, uncatechized, unaccountable, and unhabituated to regular public worship. This trend is becoming increasingly noticeable even among the offspring of conservative homes. A higher and more urgent calling than engaging the world might just be engaging the church.
Hunter agrees that the church in America is unhealthy. Indeed, it is the premise of his book. But for him the evidence of good health is a church that “exercises itself in all realms of life, not just a few.” Hunter’s call to that comprehensive outworking of the gospel offers both diagnosis and prescription for the “post-political,” “post-Constantinian” church as it faces an increasingly alien “post-Christian” culture. His book will perhaps redirect the strategy, funding, and vocabulary of transformationalists aspiring to be among the cultural elite, but it will not challenge their most cherished presupposition, that the church’s faithfulness ought to be measured by the degree to which it changes the world.
The liberal church — and by that, I mean the church of just about any political and social stripe in the social democratic or liberal democratic nation-state — since the 19th century has decided that faithfulness is a matter of, to borrow from Marx, changing the world. But in doing so, the church becomes just another actor in the liberal democratic state, another bit of “civil society” debating terms set solely by modernity and playing solely by the liberal state’s rules. The end result of all this is influencing the actions of the state. That’s what it means to be effective, and its how the various flavors of the liberal church measure themselves.
A lot of this is the engagement with modernity, an engagement the church somehow has to pull-off (Rome tried not to engage modernity for many decades and looked silly doing so) and yet also emphatically state that the question the church deals with — the salvation of humanity and humanity’s encounter with God — pre-dates modernity and will long outlive modernity. Liberal Christianity has surrendered to modernity. Neither refutation nor surrender works well.
But the church needs to be much more emphatic about what the sanctified community really is. Liberal Christians confuse that community with the nation-state (I think this is what Gamble means when he writes of a “mythic civil religion that commonly fails to distinguish between Israel and America,” Israel in this instance being the called people of God, and not the nation-state of Israel) and thus act as if the promises made to the church and to the world through the church are made to the nation-state and through the nation-state. (This is an especially American problem, one Jim Wallis is just as guilty of as Pat Robertson.)
This is why I espouse a theology of exile. The church is not really at home in the world. We are in that moment before the eschaton where the promise, while real and manifest in times and places in the world (there are fleeting moments when I know I am living in that promise), is not the ruling reality of human existence. We are — and should always remember that we are — a wandering people who, outside of our communion of Christ, do not yet have earthly homes.