One of the great tasks of the Church in every culture is to effectively “Preach the Gospel.” In order to do this, a Christian must be able to differentiate between the general culture they live in and the specific culture of what it means to be Christian across contexts. This is not always an easy task, but a necessary one. It requires nuance, reflection, and the willingness to admit you’ve been wrong.
The Church in America has for too long taken on the ethos of America above and beyond worldwide Christianity. There is much about what it means to be American that has been translated into the Church, and unfortunately much less about what it means to be Christian being translated into America. I have attempted to navigate this dynamic thru two consecutive blog series over the last 18 months, posted here on my friend Victor’s blog. He has helped me navigate both these series, and in that process has clarified some of his own thoughts on the underlying issues at play.
This essay does an excellent job of diagnosing the problems (that are not new) and offering a way forward (that also is not new). May we heed the words of critique offered, and together forge a way forward that looks more Christlike than ever before.
Pastor Drew Anderson
Over the last couple of years my good friend, Pastor Drew Anderson, has written two series of posts. They should be read in order (which I would encourage you to do) to get the most out of the material. In both series he seeks to answer the question of what it means to be Christian, specifically in the American context in which we both find ourselves. I would recommend them both to you. You can find “Part 1” for each here and here.
In light of his thoughts, and some extended reflections from our private conversations, I would like to hone in on something that has been bothering me. As I have thought more on the questions Drew has been raising, I have wondered if this was just a problem in the American branch of the Church, or was there something deeper going on. This post will be a kind of rumination on all of it as I try to make sense of what we, as the People of God in the United States, must begin to consider and potentially do. The present challenges are new, in the sense that WE have not seen them before. But, they are not new to the human condition. King Solomon’s admonition that there is nothing new under the sun looms large (Ecclesiastes 1:9). And they are certainly not new to God.
If God is all-knowing (and I believe He is), then what we have been given in the Scriptures are not only sufficient for the task we have before us, they are also determinative to how we address what we see happening around us. If God’s wisdom is not good enough nothing else will be!
In the rest of this post I will do my best to provide an expanded framework for what I have been thinking and reflecting on. I believe what we see happening in the Church today can be addressed with methods that are consistent with Scripture and God’s character. But those methods have to be grounded and discerned from God’s word. And why is this necessary? Because God’s word is a distillation of God’s mind. Therefore, the wisdom contained on its pages and that emerge from its implications cannot be overlooked or dismissed.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive analysis. It is best categorized as a reflection and possible call to action.
A Dangerous Trend
In the first of the two series I mentioned above, Drew explored a trend he has experienced and witnessed in his journey of faith. Specifically, what he identified was a trend that has been shifting the focus of the Church’s mission in America in unhealthy ways. The problem is, on the surface, we do not necessarily see the inherent dangers present in the movement taking place. There has been a general ambivalence to what has proved to be detrimental to the health and vitality of the Church. The reasons for this ambivalence are beyond the scope of this article. However, the reality of the harm is evident in the problems currently ensnaring the Church.
This shift has been happening in earnest, and in recognizable ways, for the better part of two or three generations. But, I think there is a great deal of truth to the possibility it has been unfolding and expanding for far longer. It takes time and distance to recognize the effects of choices made in the past. The challenge is accepting that something is, in fact, taking place.
What is most troubling is that now, two decades into the 21st century, we have seen an acceleration of the trend. It’s almost as if the consequences of the decisions which were warned about in previous generations have become the accepted norms of the day. The ideas and assumptions that should have been challenged, and possibly rejected, have become the “prevailing wisdom” of the age. The lack of discernment that has been displayed by many so-called thought leaders in the Church has proven to be disastrous to the health and expansion of faithful Gospel ministry.
If I were to offer my own summary of this trend, I would say it is as the “Americanization” of the Christian faith. While this is a helpful description because my friend and I both live in America, I would like to push the idea further out. Mainly because I do not think this is a uniquely American problem. Our context informs our perceptions of the problem, but they do not necessarily define them. So while the “American” expression of our concerns are valid, they are not normative. It just happens to be the way we are seeing them because this is how we are experiencing the trend. This is one of the many challenges we face in making sense of what is happening around us.
The Church’s Identity Crisis
The Church has been and will continue to be under constant pressure from the social, cultural, and philosophical influences in which it finds herself. This is not new. It has always been the case. And, whether we like it or not, it will be the case until the return of Jesus.
Just because our context happens to be the Church in America does not mean this cannot and is not happening in other places as well. I believe it is. I just don’t want to make specific claims about a context I do not live in and am not influenced by on the whole. I will leave that determination of how other sectors of the Church are being affected by this trend to those who live “there”. My hope here is to identify some of the characteristics of the trend as we have experienced it, in the hopes that others may find similar diagnostic tools helpful in other contexts.
I also believe, as Bishop Luis R. Scott has framed this process, we can aptly describe what we are seeing as the steady and definitive secularization of the Church, especially in America. But, as I said above, I don’t think this is happening only in America. The reason we need a more generalized description of this trend is that any nation or culture can have this secularizing effect on the Church. Particularly if the Church is not vigilant in maintaining its own identity within the contexts it finds itself. I will hope to explain this a little bit more below using the American experience as a test case for our discussion.
What do we mean by “secularization”?
I want to take a moment and attempt to clarify what I mean by secularization. The opposite of secular would be the sacred. This should not be difficult to see. We are merely looking at simple definitions. However, in this context and in this sense what we have to understand is that any move away from a religious or spiritual understanding of the world is a move toward the secular. What many people do not seem to grasp is how much of life is actually non-material. Or to say it another way, much of what we do is based on what we believe to be true. In simpler terms, it is spiritual in nature. This is not inherently a “religious” statement. But it does point to a reality too often dismissed.
The human experience is all about faith. All about what we believe to be true. For those who have a religious background of any kind this makes sense. The notions of spirit or non-physical realities are not hard to consider and even accept. However, when we deny this aspect of the human experience, we are denying something more fundamental, that not everything we see or experience can be reduced to mechanical or materialistic explanations. And yet, that is exactly what we, as a society, are being asked to accept. That there is some definitive and even arbitrary line between the physical and the non-physical experiences of life. The kinds of problems this approach to understanding the world creates are far too many to discuss here. However, the effect of this kind of thinking is seen when there is no longer a shared understanding of what is true and real. When each person can determine what is unchangeable, no one can know anything about anything.
As a form of shorthand, we can say that secularization means atheistic, or at the very least agnostic. And again, this is not necessarily a religious category. It merely is meant to show that the person holding these positions is abstaining or refusing to acknowledge the ambiguity of what it means to have a worldview to account for what we experience beyond the material.
Everyone has a worldview. A way of accounting for what they see in the world around us and the events we go through. This does not make every worldview equally as effective in explaining the world. We are just trying to point out the fact all people have one regardless of the efficacy of that worldview to provide answers or perspective.
What does this have to do with secularization? Simply that the adoption by the Church of the patterns, frameworks, paradigms, and nomenclatures of a worldview that does not take into account the non-physical realities of life will have a damning effect on the Church and her ability to be the Church. The secular world has no mechanisms for understanding what it means to be a person of faith. Therefore, when this kind of thinking infiltrates the Church it will invariably move the Church away from the holy, sacred, and spiritual understandings promoted in Scripture.
When the Church fails to challenge and counter the secularizing forces of the world, regardless of their form or source, we are allowing a wedge to be driven between God and his people. The reality of the religious experience, but specifically within a Christian worldview, is that humanity’s relationship with God must inform and constrain how people who adhere to the faith live. Any failure to do so creates dissonance when faced with various theological and ethical problems.
Ignoring how secularization impacts the sociological realities of human civilizations has led to the downfall of empires and the dissolution of societal cohesion. More importantly, from a Christian perspective, the very notion of community is grounded in theological ideas and ethical norms that require faith in God to make sense. When these foundations are removed, the entire system collapses into incoherence. Moral frameworks are necessary for civil society to function. But these frameworks only truly make sense because we are designed by our creator to seek just outcomes. Therefore, believing there is no connection between believing in God and a just society is a primary reason for the breakdowns we are seeing and will continue to see.
Recapturing the Center of the Faith
The second series I mentioned above is my friends attempt to restore some clarity to what is means for the Christian faith to be understood in its proper scriptural, historical, and theological context. It is a call to return and recapture what was and must be the Christian understanding of the faith. This is a difficult challenge. But I salute Drew’s efforts and agree in great measure with his assessment.
I also believe his project is an important call to the Church, both in America and in every nation, to challenge many of the assumptions we have made (or been given as valid substitutes) as the Body of Christ. Assumptions that have proven to not be biblical in origin, but rather cultural and, in many cases, extremely localized. And while there is some sense in which the Church will become a part of the fabric of the lives of the people in every place, there must be a healthy caution to how much “the place” influences and changes the essence of the faith handed down to us.
The goal of the Church is to transform the people with whom they meet. However, when the influence is predominantly in one direction, from the world to the Church, the problems become magnified. Instead of leading people from darkness to light, the Church is the one being lead from light to darkness. This danger has been present from the beginning. We see it in the writings of Paul, Peter, and James. The temptations to import into the Gospel, and with all the multitudinous implications, the thoughts and paradigms of the world is a recipe for disaster. These foreign and antithetical ideas will not aid us in the mission of the Gospel. They will only do damage to that mission.
The Gospel requires no assistance in accomplishing its work. What I mean is that the message does not to be altered, amended, or corrected. We are to merely convey the message, not try and conform the message. The Holy Spirit applies the message to the hearts and minds of those willing to hear what it says and obey what it implies. This belies a certain confidence in the Gospel that is sadly absent in the current Church context.
When we lose our center, the pull of other forces becomes more difficult to resist.
Let’s Speak Plainly
If we were to speak plainly for a moment I would tell you something you may already know. There is something amiss in the Church’s expression of itself in the American context.
The number of definitions of what it means to be a Christian makes it difficult to know which one is right. They cannot all be right. So, who gets to decide which definition we all should subscribe to? There is really only one answer to the question. We must rely on what Jesus said and on what God inspired to be contained in the Scriptures as our guide.
Now, I will willingly acknowledge that much of what is going on has to do with disagreement over what God has said in Scripture. But I believe this is more a byproduct of our unwillingingness to accept what is clear so we can continue to do as we please. This means the problem is not what Scripture actually says. The problem is we don’t like what it says and would rather it say, or at least mean something else. But that is not what obedience looks like. That is not what true faith looks like. That is rebellion and falsehood masquerading as honest searching.
I think we can all agree there will be problems whenever people try to “help” God do what only God can do. There will be dangers to when people are given responsibilities and authority to work in God’s vineyard. However, these problems and dangers can be minimized. When there is a sincere and heightened level of vigilance maintained, the faith we proclaim has a greater chance of remaining true to what Jesus entrusted to his disciples.
The “Why” of the Church
One of the great challenges in any endeavor is remembering the “why”. When the original purpose is lost, misplaced, or ignored, the institutional creep away from effectiveness happens. This is part of what is wrong in the Church today. We have lost clarity of vision and mission. And this loss has been exacerbated by the importation of ideas from a secular American culture that defines success and power and influence and name recognition as the crowning achievements of life.
On the whole, we have failed to see that simplicity is the key to effectiveness. That faithfulness and obedience are the marks of a genuine understanding of who God is and what he expects. Not for better, and definitely for worse, we have entered the game of keeping up with the Jones’s, rather than living in alignment with God’s character and commands.
The Church has adopted ever-increasing complexity under the false belief that it represents some kind of depth of spirituality. This is wrong on two fronts. First, making faith about achievement has ingrained legalism as a feature of the faith. This is contrary to everything we find in Jesus’s teachings and example. Second, we have made competition the means of achieving. This competitive spirit has caused us to see our fellow believers as adversaries rather than partners and fellow travelers. When I need to beat you, I will find it difficult to help you as well.
The more complex a process or mission, the more difficult it becomes to achieve. Just because something is not easy to understand does not mean it is necessarily complex. We may not have enough information to make sense of what we are seeing in front of us. In a similar sense, the Church in America has been convinced that complexity equals being spiritually robust. However, the result of this mindset has not proven true. In fact, quite the opposite. The more complex we have made our faith the further we have moved from God and his purposes for us.
Charting a Path, but not a New One
Now, it is one thing to see that something is wrong. But it is quite another to know how we chart a course back to where we need to be. My friends first series is primarily diagnostic. The second is more corrective. One without the other, however, will leave us becoming overly critical on the one hand, or naively optimistic on the other. The balance needed to get back on track is really an issue of maturity. We all must come to grips with the undeniable reality that something is in fact not right.
It is important to make an important distinction here. When we think about the “Americanization” of the Christian faith, we are saying some things and not others. And knowing what we are saying and what we are not saying is critically important to getting back on track.
What am I saying then? At the root of the trend toward secularization is the danger of assimilating into the Christian faith ideas, concepts, and theological frameworks that are not original to it. In other words, it is the process where foreign and antithetical elements are added to make it a new, and essentially different, syncretistic religion. This happens when theological, sociological, political, and cultural realities from different worldviews and systems of belief are intermingled in unhealthy and unhelpful ways. This kind of amalgamation is dangerous because it obscures rather than clarifies. National identity and ones spiritual identity are not the same thing. They were never meant to be. And they should not be homogenized in a way that makes someone believe that the are.
This problem of trying to synthesize disparate systems is different from attempts at contextualization. In the trend my friend has written about, the specific example he cites there has been a confusing of the Christian identity with the idea of American citizenship. Contextualization is not this (or at least it should not be).
The idea of contextualization can be compared to the process of the translation (writing) or interpretation (speaking) of language. When we are seeking to contextualize we have to find points of contact between two different understandings of the world. There is a search for shared meaning or there is a search for a proximity of meaning. In this search, nuances of meaning, intended meaning versus implied meaning is explored. But, the idea is to make sure that the people receiving the communication actually get what the original communicant was intending.
The entire exercise just described is not really about communicating the exact same things from one language to the next, even though that would be ideal. This is actually impossible. The aim of contextualization is the bridging of ways of seeing and knowing the world so that communication can take place, understanding can be achieved, and two people can have a common point of reference about the world around them. If we are not able to share the meaning of things, we cannot understand each other. We cannot relate to one another. We are left at a distance from others.
One of the assumptions that must be changed is thinking that just because someone knows the definition of a word they know its meaning. Communication is more vibrant and fluid than that. If you speak more than one language you will know this to be true. But even if you speak the same language natively, where you are from will shape and inform how you use that language to communicate. It is easy to know when someone is “not from around here.”
When the Faith became Works
While studying for my undergraduate degree in sociology, I read The Protestant Ethic by Max Weber. He is considered by many to be one of the founding thinkers in the field of sociology. This book is one of the first books in the field of sociological study that sought to make sense of how people’s actions were affected by the cultural forces in which they live. The book is also important in that it looks at the impact of religious faith and the affect it has on people’s expression of self in the wider cultural contexts of a society. You can read a helpful summary of this work here.
This short detour is not designed to provide an in-depth analysis of Weber’s thesis. Nor is it to say he was correct or incorrect in his analysis. I will leave that to more qualified sociologists and philosophers. The purpose of this excursus is to show that there is indeed an effect when worldviews collide. When the edges between understandings of reality are blurred, it becomes difficult to make sense of what someone is saying, arguing for, or simply defending. So, when competing views come in contact they are altered in ways not always perceptible to the average person.
This is especially the case with secular thinking and its influence on the expression of Christian faith. I am not sure this was Weber’s intent. But, I believe it is a reasonable implication of his work when looked at from a Christian perspective. The entire project was to try and “make sense” of what he was seeing in the American culture at the time. What could explain the actions and trajectory of the entire nation?
Part of the answer Weber found was in the growing theological framework of Calvinism, as he understood it, and the societal shifts well underway as a result of the industrial revolution. How these forces worked together or altered each others trajectories was both unpredictable and undeniable. And these kinds of sociological realities have not been considered in the Church for too long.
Why has the Church become more secular?
Now, where do we go from here? How does this short trip down memory lane impact my reflections on the secularization of the Christian faith?
By using Weber’s general framework, I hope to show that the realities Drew and I have been thinking about have been at work for far longer than many of us would have initially accepted. However, the reason for Weber’s inquiry then and the reasons for our considerations now are not the same. But they are not antagonistic to each other either. When considered from a higher vantage point, we can make some inferences that can help us better understand how we arrived at this predicament. And possibly what we can now do to address the problems and concerns this secularizing trend has created.
I would like to make the following three observations in light of our current discussion.
1. There is link between theology and practice.
That is to say, there is a link between the work of the mind and the work of the body. For too long there has been this idea in American Christianity that to have faith is to make a mental assent to the truth claims of the Gospel and contained in the Scripture. This has proven to be wrongheaded and a mischaracterization of the witness of God’s word.
At no time are we give any indication in the Bible that faith and action are two different things. In fact, the letter written by James contradicts this idea in the clearest of terms. I will quote the passage in its entirety.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.James 2:14-26 ESV
What makes this passage interesting and challenging is the link James makes between what a person believes in their “head” and what they do with their “hands” (or life more generally). The link is not just incidental. It is not just coincidence. The link between faith and works in essential to the living out of what is claimed to be believed.
To try and separate them is to do violence to a plain reading of the words and their more simple definitions. What this means is that when Christians claim a particular theological understanding, you don’t really know what it means until you are living it out in your daily life. This implementation of theology into practical action is what can properly and biblically be called faith.
2. When our “practice” is not informed by our theological understanding, we abandon theology altogether.
As we consider the link between what we believe and what we actually do because of that belief, we have to understand that what we believe is more important than what we do. The reason? We will never behave contrary to what we believe. In order to act, we must decide (in our mind) to do so. Even if that action is coerced or manipulated. No external force can change what is happening in the mind. But it certainly can guide it and retrain it to follow different and new paths and patterns.
This is precisely why Pauls says to the Romans,
“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”Romans 12:2 NLT
The way to change behavior is by changing “the way you think.” This has always been the way, and it will continue to be the way to initiate the process of changing how we live.
What this means within the Christian understanding of the world is this, when we do not think theologically, we will not live theologically consistent lives. What we think about God and what God has said directly impacts what we do. Therefore, when we abandon theological reflection, we will eventually abandon living according to God character.
It will not matter that we attempt describing our spiritual practices as being spiritual. Even though it has become cliche to say that “we are spiritual” people, just “not religious”. When we become detached from God’s thoughts as they are revealed in the Bible we are not being spiritual. We are being secular. But we are just wrapping it up in the language of the religious to assuage our consciences.
A related problem with this statement (of being spiritual, but not religious) is what it does not say. According to what metric are we supposed to measure this alleged spirituality? It can only be done when looking at a faithful Christian life and then trying to compare how closely we mimic what we see.
3. Practice divorced from its theological moorings will lead to a self-destructive understanding of life and faith.
The final observation I want to make is a practical one. And while the other two have had some practical components, this one is explicitly practical.
When what we do is disconnected from what God has said about himself and us, we are left alone with ourselves. We can try and mask this isolation our independence from God creates, but the truth is we will feel its impact eventually. I find this to be a terrifying idea.
The basis for my fear is found in one of the most astounding passages of scripture. It is in Paul’s warning of what happens when we abandon God’s instruction and boundaries and decide we know better than God. The Message Bible offers a striking re-voicing of this verse.
So God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get.” It wasn’t long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes!Romans 1:24 The Message
I can think of nothing worse than “God [giving us] up in the lusts of [our] hearts” (Romans 1:24 ESV). And it is in this moment of being given up that we see the fullest effects of our sin. We will do whatever seems right in our own eyes, convinced of our own wisdom. And that path only leads to destruction.
Considering Some Implications
The trend of moving from a Christian worldview to a secular one; the impact of this drift toward secularization has become difficult to ignore. In a way, the trajectory on which we are traveling can almost be predicted now, if nothing changes.
I titled this reflection The Sin of Utilitarian Christianity. What I have attempted to show is that without a clear, consistent, and intentional theological understanding of what we believe, we cannot sustain the kind of action we hope to embody.
This trend of importing antithetical ideas, concepts, and frameworks into the Christian faith leads to a utilitarian understanding of everything. We no longer see people as intrinsically valuable. They become means to our own selfish ends. And when we use people to achieve whatever goal we want we become villains capable of unthinkable actions in order to achieve what we desire. But it will still be done under the guise of Christian faith, and that is a truly damnable sin.
Why? Because we are taking the hopes of another and perverting it to satisfy our own plans, purposes, and passions.
In the conversations I have been having with my friend Drew and others, I have discovered that one of the problems with this particular synthesis of national identity with religious identity is the problem of importing foreign paradigms that are inconsistent with the Gospel, damaging to the process of discipleship, and destructive to the bond of love needed for Christian community.
When we do not understand or ignore or simply deny the influence of the secular world upon our understanding of God, Jesus, the Gospel, and the gamut of Christian ideas, we are abdicating our responsibility to be faithful witnesses of the faith. As members of this new family and this new community called the Church, we have been entrusted with far more than we may have initially understood. We are living testimonies of God’s grace. We have been brought near, not solely for our own benefit, but also for the good of all whom we encounter on life’s journey.
The trend we have been discussing is a trend away from submission to the highest authority, who is God. When we become a law unto ourselves, we make the same error Adam and Eve were guilty of in the garden. To not submit to God’s directives is to reject God’s authority over our lives. We can feign ignorance if we like. What we cannot do is hide from the consequences of this decision.
A utilitarian understanding of the faith is not the Faith of Scriptures, Jesus, or the Cross. It is a false gospel, offering false hopes, and leading to a false paradise.
There is only one thing we can do if we have been walking on this road for even a moment. Repent.
Turn again to God and trust him only.