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The Church in the Twenty-first Century
"We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation. But we have forgotten God."
We are living in post-Christian times. By this I do not mean that there aren't enough churches in America. There are. Our towns and cities are full of buildings designed for the worship of God, and in some cases still used for that purpose. Nor do I mean that there aren't very many Christians in America. We still have plenty of those, too. The vast majority of Americans believe in the existence of God, and many claim to be "born again." Nevertheless, we are living in post-Christian times, when Christianity no longer exercises a prevailing influence on the mind and heart of our culture.
There was a time when America was a Christian nation, at least in several important respects. There was a time when the leaders of this New World sought to establish a "city on a hill," a community for Christ and His kingdom. There was a time when our fundamental notions of freedom and justice were firmly embedded in the bedrock of biblical truth. There was a time when the Bible held a central place in the curriculum of the public schools and when our leading universities cultivated the Christian mind. There was a time when average Americans knew their Bibles well enough that biblical teaching had a strong influence on what people thought and how they behaved. In short, there was a time when Christianity shaped the social, political, moral, religious, and intellectual landscape of these United States.
We should be careful not to glamorize the past. From the very beginning, our nation was corrupted by sin, especially through the institution of slavery. And the church has always been weakened by nominal Christianity. So although it is true that America in some ways was a Christian nation, in other ways it was also a non-Christian nation. Yet in spite of our past failings, we cannot help but lament the passing of a time when God still mattered in American life.
The New Barbarism
Now the barbarians are at the gates. Charles Colson has made the provocative statement that
today in the West, and particularly in America, the new barbarians are all around us. They are not hairy Goths and Vandals, swilling fermented brew and ravishing maidens; they are not Huns and Visigoths storming our borders or scaling our city walls. No, this time the invaders have come from within. We have bred them in our families and trained them in our classrooms. They inhabit our legislatures, our courts, our film studios, and our churches. Most of them are attractive and pleasant; their ideas are persuasive and subtle. Yet these men and women threaten our most cherished institutions and our very character as a people.
There are many ways to prove that American culture is under attack from this new barbarism. One is to review the titles of the books that thoughtful people are writing: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, The Culture of Disbelief, No Place for Truth, The Twilight of American Culture, The End of Democracy. Needless to say, the authors of these books are not optimistic about the future of American culture. Another way to see what is happening is to watch television, with its voyeuristic presentation of sexuality and suffering. Still another way to show that our nation is in trouble is to study the cold, hard statistics: the breakdown of marriage and family, the rise in crime and violence, the decline in community involvement. Then there is the callous disregard for life at the margins—in the womb and at the nursing home.
Meanwhile, we are moving faster and faster, always buying more products and constantly demanding better entertainment. And as we live in this Late Great Planet Hollywood, we are too distracted to notice what is happening to us spiritually. "Don't you understand, Richard?" asks a character in Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma. "There is nothing at the center of what we do ... no center. It doesn't exist. All of us—look at our lives: we have an acceptable level of affluence. We have entertainment. We have a relative freedom from fear. But there's nothing else." The reason there is "nothing else" is that the new barbarism leaves no place for the soul.
The new barbarians do not look very threatening, at least from the outside. They do not wear animal skins or bang on the cultural gates with wooden clubs; instead, they talk on their cell phones and drink designer coffee. And, of course, they would not think of themselves as barbarians. But what is on their minds and in their hearts? Whether they admit it or not, their minds reject absolute truth, and in their hearts they love themselves more than anyone else, especially God. To use more precise terms, these post-Christian times are characterized by relativism and narcissism. And this is barbaric to the extent that it signals the death of a culture based on objective truth and civic virtue.
Relativism is radical skepticism, the rejection of absolute truth. It is the view that reality itself depends upon one's perspective. In the tongue-in-cheek words of British poet Steve Turner, "We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him. Reality will adapt accordingly." No one knows anything with objective certainty; it all depends on your point of view. This is part of what people mean by "postmodernism," and it represents a global shift in the way people think about truth and meaning. You have your story, and I have my story, but there is no divinely ordained story that ties them all together. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes. Your worldview is simply your opinion.
One of the troubling results of relativism is the erosion of traditional ethical and intellectual standards for science, law, medicine, journalism, and the use of technology. And when it comes to theology, relativism means that no religion can claim to be superior to any other faith. Each religion is true in its own way. Therefore, if Christianity is true at all, it is only relatively true. Exclusive claims like "the Bible is God's authoritative Word" or "Jesus Christ is the only Savior" must be rejected out of hand. In fact, the people who make such claims are probably dangerous.
Narcissism is radical individualism, or infatuation with the self. In ancient Greek mythology, Narcissus was the beautiful youth who fell in love with his reflection. As he sat beside the pool, gazing longingly at his own image, he wasted away and died, and was transformed into a flower. There has always been a narcissistic tendency in American culture, but we are now entering an era of radical selfishness and unbridled individualism. What is new is that being self-centered is now considered a virtue. According to Robert Schuller, "Self-love is, or should be, the basic will in human life."
When people think this way (as many people do), they feel justified in doing whatever seems to be in their self-interest, without showing much compassion or giving much consideration to their neighbors, co-workers, employees, spouses, or children. We live in a culture of takers, not givers. In his landmark study The Culture of Narcissism, sociologist Christopher Lasch discovered that ordinary Americans now display many of the same character traits that are usually associated with pathological personality disorders. Narcissism has become normal. One sign of our self-absorption is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for our nation to do anything that requires widespread cooperation or personal sacrifice, such as combat poverty, improve education, reform our health system, or provide for the common defense.
Taken together, the relativistic mind and the narcissistic heart explain a good deal about what is wrong with America today. People who do not know what is true (or who wonder if anything is true at all) are unable to do what is right and just and good. Intellectual skepticism quickly leads to moral relativism. And because people who live for themselves are unable to establish loving communities, many Americans end up feeling alienated and abandoned. In the rising generation there is a deep pessimism about the possibility of love and romance, to say nothing of marriage and family.
As we reflect on America's cultural situation in the twenty-first century, we appear to be living in the times that the apostle Paul described for Timothy when he said: "Mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves ... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.... For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine" (2 Tim. 3:1, 2a, 4b; 4:3a). What Paul said serves as an apt description of our own narcissistic and relativistic times, when people serve themselves and are skeptical of the possibility of truth.
Historians now generally regard the twentieth century as the American Century. It is too early to tell what they will call the next hundred years, but in America it may well be the first post-Christian century. Of course, it is always possible that a new wave of reformation and revival will sweep across our land. Then again, our country may come to a sudden and catastrophic end, precipitated by an energy crisis, a financial meltdown, or an enemy attack. But what seems most likely is that what is perhaps the most powerful nation in the history of the world will undergo a long, slow, demoralizing decline before finally collapsing under the weight of its own decadence.
Now How Shall We Live?
It is understandable for Christians to be dismayed by what is happening in America and to be pessimistic about its prospects for the future. However, as Christians it is not our responsibility to save our culture, if indeed it ought to be saved. So this is not a book about trying to recover the past. But we do need to discern what is happening in America so that we know what it means to live for Christ in our times. As our civilization continues to decline, the church will have unprecedented opportunities to show the world what a difference it makes to be a Christian. The question is, How should a Christian live in post-Christian times? What does it mean to be a city on a hill today?
The temptation is to think that we need to find a new way of "doing church." This is exactly what happened in the last decades of the twentieth century. Many evangelicals were scrambling around trying to find something that would work. They realized that America was in trouble and that the traditional denominations were in decline, so they tried to make Christianity more relevant. They got involved in politics, lobbying against abortion and trying to get prayer back into the public schools. They entered business by marketing Christianity to the masses, turning Christ into a commodity. They even tried their hand at entertainment, seeking to make their services appeal to a secular audience.
Some church leaders think a pragmatic approach is necessary. Peter Wagner, the guru of the church growth movement, writes,
The greatest change in the way of doing church since the Protestant reformation is taking place before our very eyes.... The radical change in the sixteenth century was largely theological. The current reformation is not so much a reformation of faith (the essential theological principles of the Reformation are intact), but a reformation of practice. A major difference was that the sixteenth century reformation came in reaction to a corrupt and apostate church. This current reformation is not so much against corruption and apostasy as it is against irrelevance.
If irrelevance is the enemy, then churches constantly have to figure out how to stay relevant. Wagner offers a number of suggestions for doing this, but perhaps the most significant is reducing theology to the shortest possible list of essential doctrines. Theological instruction is said to be irrelevant, especially if it is thorough and precise. This is in sharp contrast to the original Reformation, which was all about theology. The Protestant mottoes were sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria: Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, so that God alone gets all the glory. This is what the reformers taught because they believed in sola Scriptura —Scripture alone—which is where all these great doctrines are found. What, then, is the motto of the so-called new reformation? At times it seems as if some churches are opting for fiat quidvis efficiens: "Do whatever works."
When churches make relevance their primary goal, they are vulnerable to the twin perils of postmodernism: relativism and narcissism. They succumb to relativism because they are willing to sacrifice biblical principles for popular success. And they are guilty of narcissism because they crave the acceptance of secular society, as if "the interests and ambitions of the unconverted can somehow be harnessed to win their approval for Christ."
I do not think for a moment that the church should aspire to become ir relevant. There is always a need for Christians to speak the gospel into their own context. Rather, my concern is with the ever-present danger of over-contextualizing. Consider what happens to a church that is always trying to appeal to an increasingly post-Christian culture. Almost inevitably, the church itself becomes post-Christian. This is what happened to the liberal church during the twentieth century, and it is what is happening to the evangelical church right now. As James Montgomery Boice has argued, evangelicals are accepting the world's wisdom, embracing the world's theology, adopting the world's agenda, and employing the world's methods. In theology a revision of evangelical doctrine is now underway that seeks to bring Christianity more in line with postmodern thought. The obvious difficulty is that in a post-Christian culture, a church that tries too hard to be "relevant" may in the process lose its very identity as the church. Rather than confronting the world, the church gets co-opted by it. It no longer stands a city on a hill, but sinks to the level of the surrounding culture.
So what should we do? The leaders of the so-called new reformation begin with the future and then look to the present. This is in contrast with traditional church leaders, who begin with the present and then look to the past. So where should we look? If we only look to the future, we run the risk of abandoning our spiritual heritage. However, if we look to the past, then we may live in the past, and thereby fail to serve God effectively in our own times. What we should do instead is live in the present, learn from the past, and anticipate the future, while always looking to the Bible.
The First-Century Church
When we look to the Bible we see God's plan for the church at all times and in all places. So to understand how to live for Christ in the twenty-first century, we need to go back to the first century. This is not traditionalism; it is not irrelevance; it is not living in the past. It is timeless Christianity, which is founded on Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb. 13:8).
The first church was founded on the gospel. After Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, raised from the dead, and ascended back to heaven, His followers remained in Jerusalem. God poured out His Holy Spirit and they began to preach. Their message was salvation in Jesus Christ. They spoke of His atoning death, how Christ died on the cross for sinners. They emphasized the reality of Christ's resurrection and exaltation, coming to this climax: "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).
People responded the way sinners ought to respond when they learn about the grace that God offers in Jesus Christ. Their hearts melted and they asked what they should do. The apostle Peter told them to turn away from their sins and put their faith in Christ. He said, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38). He pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation" (Acts 2:40).
That last statement is significant because it shows that the first Christians lived in the same times that we live in. Not exactly the same, of course, because they were pre-Christian rather than post-Christian. But like us, they were living in a corrupt culture, and thus they can show us what it means to live for Christ in declining times. Here is what they did:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47)
The first Christians were saved by turning to Jesus in faith and repentance. Once they were saved, they formed a teaching, worshiping, and caring community that, by the grace of God, also became a growing community.
Excerpted from City on a Hill by Philip Graham Ryken, Cheryl Dunlop. Copyright © 2003 Philip Graham Ryken. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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1. The Church in the Twenty-First Century- An Overview
2. Making God's Word Plain - Expository Preaching
3. Giving Praise to God - Corporate Worship
4. Growing Together in Groups - Fellowship
5. Shepherding God's Flocks - Pastoral Care
6. Thinking and Acting Biblically - Discipleship
7. Reaching the World - Missions and Evangelism
8. Serving with Compassion - Mercy Ministry
9. Why the Church Needs the Gospel - Repentance and Renewal