Four ways churches manage the tension of gospel and culture

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The church lives in tension

Evangelicals are learning to face some new realities about the gospel’s encounter with contemporary culture. The church exists for the purpose of proclaiming the truth of the Christian gospel–that reconciliation with God is possible through Christ.

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The church’s core commitments

As God’s missional community, we are to embody that truth as we pursue the various callings God has given to us (father, mother, husband, wife, etc).

We are also to verbally communicate that message as God gives us opportunity. We do so through organic, authentic, respectful conversation.

As a result we live with a tension in deciding which parts of our message and faith are culturally-conditioned or culturally-determined.

Four major ways to handle the tension

This tension between message (gospel) and means (practice) has been addressed in at least four ways by the contemporary church.

  1. Change neither the means of communication nor the message itself. This is the traditional church that continues to speak and act as if it was still 1950. A traditional gospel is preached using traditional religious language, and in the context of a program driven church with a very traditional worship service.
  2. Change the means of communication, but not the message itself. This group includes many new reformed churches associated with the Acts29 network, a fewer number of emergent/ing communities, and generally those who are associated in some way, shape, or form with the center-right constituency of the missional movement. I’d even include a church like Redeemer New York (and its daughter churches) that assume a non- or post-Christian audience. The essential meaning of the gospel message remains consistent with the church’s traditional formulations. The language is updated and much insider language is jettisoned in favor of verbal symbols that connect with contemporary hearers. Context is king and so some of these churches embrace older, more liturgical forms of worship and some embrace what could be called “contemporary” Christian music (contemporary having a range of meanings each specific to the decade in which the preponderance of the congregation became believers).
  3. Change both the means of communication, and also the message itself. I’d include in this grouping the majority of the emergent/emerging conversation. It’s clear to me now that classical theism doesn’t describe the views of many of the proponents of emergent/ing. Many would object to (or at least downplay) doctrines like: God’s impassibility, the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement, and God’s foreknowledge and/or foreordination of that which is to come. Since these concepts (often thought to be cultural accretions owing the Greco-Roman origin of the early Christian church) seem to many emergent/ing folk to be insufficient to addressing our contemporary world they are essentially jettisoned. As with group number two, these folk work hard to create worship experiences that are participatory, aesthetically rich, and transformative.
  4. Change the message, but not the means of communication. You might be tempted to think that this should be an empty category. It’s not. Most of the mainline churches have essentially revised the gospel message to be accessible to their conception of what (post)modern people want. However, few have changed the form of their worship beyond including ethnically diverse hymns in their hymnbooks and editing out masculine language.

 Faithfulness requires innovation in practice

These are the four options most Christian churches pursue. It is my belief that the path of Christian faithfulness requires innovation in almost every area of the church’s life. My preferred means of innovation is breathing new life and forms into classical Christian worship as it existed prior to the Great Schism of AD 1054.

Faithfulness sometimes requires restraint 

Any innovation must be severely restrained (even chastened) in terms of the way in which the church talks about God and the gospel. Our talk about God does not exist in a cultural vacuum–it is anchored to and flows from God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus, in the Word of God written, and in the church’s theological reflection on these over time. This is a limiting factor on the extent to which we can speculatively formulate notions of God and gospel that are “acceptable” or “palatable” to our present cultural moment.

Those are my thoughts–what are yours?

Can an introvert be a strong president?

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In a wonderful article in the New York Times, Susan Cain asks the question: “Must leaders be gregarious?” Read it here. I’ve written on the topic as well giving some reasons why I think introverts make great pastors.

Americans often assume that excellent leaders come in only one shape: the hand-shaking, back-slapping, everyone’s your best friend, All-American extrovert. Cain offers us Bill Clinton as an example. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney stand in sharp relief. Does that mean they are not effective leaders?

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Far from it notes Cain:

“Many of this nation’s finest leaders have been extroverts — but plenty have not. Jim Collins, in his study of the best-performing companies of the late 20th century, found that they were all led by chief executives known primarily for their fierce will and dedication — and were often described with words like “reserved” and “understated”.”

Apparently no less a figure than Peter Drucker has reached the same conclusion as well:

“The one and only personality trait the effective ones I have encountered did have in common was something they did not have: they had little or no ‘charisma’ and little use either for the term or what it signifies.”

In the end it seems that the qualities of vision, determination, focus, and integrity are more central to effective leadership than the elusive “charisma.”

What unites us?

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Periodically people will ask me if there is anything that unites Christians. After all every summer there seems to be fresh coverage of some deep disagreement between Christians within a single church or denomination about some issue or another. Many of us are very aware of the things that divide us. It’s worth considering whether there is any unity to the Christian churches at all.

One of my favorite recent books is Jim Belcher’s Deep Church, the title a nod to C. S. Lewis. In it Belcher outlines a third way between what could be called ‘traditional’ church and the ’emergent church.’ Belcher writes with clarity and generosity–often characteristics missing from the discussion of emergent/emerging.

In the book, he camps out on the difference between the Great Tradition and the secondary doctrines that are particular to each of the churches. The Great Tradition is that body of Creedal formations and writings held in common by all of the churches that originates in the church prior to the Great Schism of 1054. It reflects what Lewis referred to as Mere Christianity. Deny part of this great tradition and, as far as I am concerned, you cease to be theologically identifiable as an orthodox Christian.

Issues other than those covered in the Ecumenical Creeds are not unimportant. Instead they are, for the most part, important beliefs that divide Christians. That’s the key assertion, the beliefs in question are dividing Christians, not some heterodox quasi-Christian sect.

Why you need margin

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On friday I returned from a week-long trip work trip. A week before that I returned from ten days of vacation in Alabama. In all, my family and I have been out of town quite a bit–almost twenty days.

While I was gone I wondered about my vegetable garden. During those time temperatures here in North Carolina have been in the nineties most days. There have been thunder storms and rain. What would be the state of my garden on our return?

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Where there is no gardener there is no garden. And so I was fully expecting to return and need to spend countless miserable hours weeding the garden. To be sure, there are weeds–plenty of them. However, because the soil in which they are growing had been well-tilled, they came out relatively easily. 

Margin allows us to have a life that is well-tilled. When life gets tough, a well-tilled life can recover well. If our life is planted to the margins and leaves no time for cultivating the disciplines and practices we need to live well and with intention, then when difficulty strikes (when weeds grow) we’ll find that the unturned soil of our life has become hardened and the weeds will come out only with much effort and time.

That’s why it’s critical to make time to develop our relationship with God, our spouses, our children, and our friends. For more on this, I recommend Michael Hyatt’s Life Planning process, which enables you to think through each element of your life and consider who you wish to be and what you wish to give yourself to. It’s available here.