Culture and the Church

I’m not very good at self-promotion. In fact, I’m quite bad at it. Last week, on September 11, I had a piece on Internetmonk which you can read here. I suppose I should have posted it that day. I need a manager and a keeper, but I suppose to have those things, I’d need something a little more interesting to a few more people than come here.

At any rate, I think and write a lot about belonging. I suppose a person’s focus is frequently the problem they have to deal with, or feel they have to deal with. I have a very pronounced desire to belong and that has always met what I have discerned as the world’s deep and hostile unwlecome. I’ve never known entirely what to do with it, especially since I found welcome among Muslims but eventually was yanked out of Islam by a very powerful encounter with Jesus. And I wrote the following about the church and the culture:

It all really comes back to how culturally determined Christianity is in America. Something I’ve concluded — American Christians do not really know how to welcome converts. None of them do. They do not know how to to do the work of showing people how to live as Christians. (This is not the same as telling people do’s and don’ts.) Nowhere in the church have I come across anything as welcoming and understanding of that as what Muslims showed me. Half of what sunk me with the Lutherans, I think, was the fact that I simply did not understand Lutheran culture in America, not enough to function pastorally for the comfort of most typical Lutherans. The seminary understood this, and thought I opened the ELCA to ministry prospects it might not otherwise have (I led an ad hoc worship service one afternoon with a Chicago street gang mourning the loss of a member in a drive-by shooting, because they were neighbors and I felt the call of the Spirit to be in their midst). But the ELCA opted for caution and safety, and I’m honestly not sure I can blame them.

But the church is so tied to culture in this country, and it has no idea what to do with outsiders and non-conformists. The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too. I’ve done a miserable job at looking for church work, but then most of the churches I’ve applied to have been Baptist or heavily influenced by whatever corporate ideals demand “leadership” that there’s no way in hell I’m getting past anyone’s board of elders. (A couple have been kind in responding, but it’s all been a resounding if very polite and even apologetic no.) The American church wants the comfortable and familiar, thinking it can reach the lost and lonely that way. And maybe it can reach some, I don’t know. All I know is that it didn’t really reach me, at least not on purpose, and that I don’t belong. Not anywhere.

So, I was rather pleasantly surprised when Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote at First Things about the American church’s inability to fely on culture in the future:

For nearly the past two centuries, Evangelicals, especially in the South and Midwest, could count on the culture to do a kind of pre-evangelism. The culture encouraged people to aspire to a kind of God-and-country citizenship, to marriage, and to stable family life. Even when people didn’t live up to those ideals, they knew what they were walking away from. Evangelicals, then, could use “traditional ­family values” to build a bridge to people for the Gospel. Churches could plan on crowds to hear counsel for a better marriage, or how to put the sizzle back in a sex life, or how to discipline toddlers or maintain a good relationship with one’s teenagers. One could trust that the culture shared the “values.” People just needed practical tips on how to achieve those values, starting with “a personal relationship with Jesus.”

We can no longer assume, even in the Bible Belt, that people aspire to, or even understand, our “values” on marriage and family. These parts of our witness that were the least controversial—and could be played up while playing down hellfire and brimstone, for those churches wanting a softer edge—are now controversial. Churches that reject the sexual revolution are judged as bigoted. Churches that don’t won’t fare much better, for in a secularizing culture, churches that embrace the revolution are unnecessary—just as the churches that rejected the miraculous in favor of scientific naturalism were in the twentieth century.

(While I agree wholeheartedly with Moore about his understanding of the sexual revolution, I am much more ambivalent about homosexuals in the church. Scripture is clear about what constitutes sin, but scripture is also clear about all sorts of sinful practices that not only go unpunished but actually contribute the foundation of the people of God. And more than anything, scripture is also clear about welcoming, and the New Testament in particular is clear about welcoming those the Torah excluded them from the assembly.)

The American church has forgotten how to welcome people because it has forgotten how to be anything other than an appendage of American culture, which already assumes both welcoming and assimilation. Some on the Christian right, including Moore, have been lecturing conservative Christians on their support for donald Trump, but I suspect leaders like Moore are only beginning to grasp that Christianity — and confessional identity — is far more a cultural force than a religious one in America. It is really a tribal identity, not a serious encounter with the call of God.

This is inescapable. A religious faith is always going to meet us enfleshed and embodied, and that’s what cultures do. And so how a people incarnate their encounter with God is an important way they live out their encounter with the holy and the sacred. Jesus himself lived in a time and a place, spoke to people in a language they understood, and told stories that would make some kind of sense to them. But this very cultural incarnation also poses great risks, since it can become the focus itself, rather than the lens that helps people focus on God. And the American church doesn’t know, right now, how to get past its reliance on the culture to produce the kinds of people who, with a little extra tweaking, can also be good Christians.

Like Moore, I hope the church’s new status allows us as Christians to figure out how to follow Jesus absent the sense that this is just how normal, well-adjusted people — good citizens — ought to live. I don’t think a lot of American Christianity will survive this, if for no other reason than this Christianity is so comfortable and so easy. I’ve always found the “God-and-country citizenship” Moore refers to puts country first, with God a kind-of distant second, a great national cheer leader. I’m not confident about that — a lot of conservative politics, including the appeal of Donald Trump, is about fighting hard to reclaim that “God-and-Country” tribal identity.

And when they fail at reclaiming that easy faith, I think a lot of American Christians will give up being even nominally Christian. Like the northern kingdom of Israel, which gave itself wholly and completely over to idolatry almost from its founding, they will become lost amidst the conquering Assyrians.

The good news in this is that those lost tribes became the Samaritans, a people Jesus had much good to say. And came to save.

2 thoughts on “Culture and the Church

  1. Pingback: Christian Habits  | Charles H. Featherstone

  2. Pingback: The Failure of American Christendom – Charles H. Featherstone

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