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God Addresses the Spirit of the Age
"If you don't like the way you were born - try being born again!" This announcement, prominently displayed recently on a church marquee in my neighborhood, reflects perfectly the spirit of religious life in North America today. It advertises to all who pass by the church what sounds like very good news: "If you don't like who you are now, God has a 'newy ou' ready to try on! Details available inside!" This is exactly the kind of message that modern men and women like to hear. What could be better news than to hear that the God who called the universe into existence wants nothing more than to make us over into what we most want to be?
How could this message not be compelling? As a result of years of cultural conditioning, recent generations in North America have come to see themselves almost exclusively as consumers whose sole purpose in life is to satisfy their individual needs. Yet the four of us who wrote this book are convinced that the message displayed on that church marquee fails to reflect accurately or faithfully what the gospel is all about. Quite frankly, it is woefully inadequate to the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus. Not only does this message by itself leave muchto be desired, it is also symptomatic of a widespread problem within the church today, which is to confuse the gospel with an infomercial, and the community of God's people with vendors of spiritual goods and services.
We have set for ourselves a very difficult task in these pages, for we shall be inviting you to consider a vision of what the God revealed in Jesus Christ is up to in the world that is very different from the one displayed on the church marquee. We do not agree on every detail of this vision, and from time to time some of those disagreements will show up. At stake in the vision we follow is nothing less than the church's identity, its reason for existing at all. We believe that the church exists to participate in God's redemptive work in the world. This work takes as its focus not our wants and desires, but the way of life, the suffering and the triumph, of Jesus. The gospel is not just a message to be proclaimed; it is the form of our participation in what God is doing in and for the world.
Our way of describing this participation in God's redemptive work is to say that the good news of Jesus Christ is missional from beginning to end. Mission is not simply something the church does. Rather, as the authors of Missional Church put it, "it is the result of God's initiative, rooted in God's purposes to restore and heal creation. 'Mission' means 'sending' and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God's action in human history." God's mission begins within the life of the triune God, as the Father sends the Son in the incarnation and the Spirit to the church. This twofold sending unfolds in history in the call of the people of Israel to bear God's blessing to all the families of the earth. The story of God's people is narrated in Scripture and reaches its zenith in the work of Jesus for the salvation of the world. The Spirit is then poured out on the followers of Jesus to extend the work of redemption and reconciliation to every part of the earth. The mission of God "continues today in the worldwide witness of churches in every culture to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it moves toward the promised consummation of God's salvation in the eschaton ('last' or 'final day')." When considered from this standpoint of sending, the gospel has less to do with the alleged benefits that might come with believing in God and more with what God plans to do with those who answer Jesus' call to give up all and follow him.
A Consuming Culture
Someone once observed that we do not know who first discovered water, but we are fairly sure that it was not a fish. That is to say, it is relatively easy to recognize when something out of the ordinary comes along, but we tend not to notice that which constantly surrounds us, much less think about it seriously. It is only when we have acquired new habits of life and language, and with these habits new ways of assessing the world in which we live our lives, that we begin first to recognize and then to scrutinize what we once took for granted.
The water we swim in as North Americans, the environment that permeates every aspect of our daily lives, is a culture that has made "meeting needs" (some quite real, others fabricated) into what has literally become an "all-consuming" way of life. One recent study estimates that every man, woman, and child in the United States is exposed to 16,000 commercial messages and reminders every single day. These indicators of our culture's passion for consumption inundate us, and yet, in what may be the most ironic twist of all, we are consuming more and enjoying it less. We are overwhelmed by the available choices and yet, at the end of the day, we wonder: is this all there is?
The principal problem is not the number of billboards, magazine advertisements, and television commercials we see every day, though they do constitute a symptom of our malaise. Nor is it just the sheer amount our society consumes, although this is indeed a problem. The ecological harm done by our society's habits of consumption, their damaging consequences to our health, our families, and our country, is also not our chief concern in this book, though those consequences are considerable. The real difficulty is that, as more than one pundit has noted, most of us no longer consume to live; we live to consume. Our lives are orchestrated around habits of consumption that no longer serve any higher purpose, but which have become ends in themselves, to be desired for their own sake. These habits in turn transform our relationships with other people, as friendships and even marriages are entertained around the question of meeting our personal needs.
It is almost impossible for most people in North America even to imagine any other way of living, much less to know why an alternative might be desirable. Our all-consuming way of life, as Rodney Clapp puts it, "appears to need no justification. To argue for or against it today, from almost anywhere in the world, seems to make about as much sense as arguing for or against the force of gravity or the wind in your face." Thinking of ourselves primarily as consumers strikes most people as "natural, a kind of cosmic given. It seems as inevitable and ineradicable a feature of the social landscape as the Rockies are of the geographical landscape."
In such a context, talk of meeting needs, though it seems straightforward, in fact becomes a tricky business. To be sure, we humans are finite, mortal beings, and thus many things are needful. Each of us needs to eat and drink, wear clothes, and find shelter. God knows that we need such things, and Jesus' followers are to make sure their brothers and sisters within the household of faith are cared for, and to welcome those outside this fellowship of the Spirit (Matt. 6:32; Mark 10:28-30; Gal. 6:2). Humans are also made for life in the company of others: "Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner'" (Gen. 2:18). Moreover, as creatures formed in the divine image, humans are made for life with God. St. Augustine puts it well when he prays at that start of his Confessions: "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." We are set apart from all other creatures by a desire, a longing for God that cannot be satisfied by anything or anyone else: "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God" (Ps. 42:1).
It is precisely at this point, however, that we need to move cautiously. In Scripture the need or longing for God has a social context and material content that routinely get trampled underfoot in a consumerist setting. In the Bible the desire for God is inextricably linked to a hunger and thirst for righteousness to be revealed at the coming of the rule of God (Matt. 5:6). Those who truly long for God thus desire to see "justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (Amos 5:24). They know they must "eat and drink," but they also know that for it to go well with them they must "do justice and righteousness" and "judge the cause of the poor and needy." As the prophet Jeremiah observes, "'Is not this to know me?' says the Lord" (Jer. 22:15-16). According to Jesus, our need for God is intimately tied up with the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, faithfulness (Matt. 23:23). Those who long for the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ do not receive a product to supplement their ordinary lives as consumers. Instead, they discover that their whole existence is to be re-created as they are drawn into a new set of relationships and a new identity.
In short, the beginning and end of the human longing for God is wrapped up with the mission of God and thus is inseparable from the desire to witness the coming of the all-encompassing reign of God. These linkages are invariably lost when the socially scripted role as self-interested consumer forms the center and ground of all value, the goal of all activities and relationships. In our time and place individuals hearken to whatever promises to provide them with the "choices" that will satisfy their self-directed appetites.
Unfortunately, the consuming spirit of our age has taken possession of most Christians in North America, and as a result they too find it difficult to imagine another way of life. They assume along with virtually everyone else that the primary purpose in life is to make choices that will satisfy their own interests and desires in every sphere allotted to them by the commercial institutions of society. Numbered among those spheres is religion. It thus seems natural to talk about our relationship with God as yet another lifestyle choice, another good or service for our enjoyment. Unless we are careful, "meeting needs" simply becomes another way of saying, "satisfying the customer."
If what we say seems overstated, consider how the notion of spirituality has changed over the centuries. In the New Testament, the Greek term pneumatikos ("spiritual") is intimately related to the Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:9-11) and who is the gift of the risen Lord to his followers (John 20:19-23; Acts 2:1-4). Those whom Paul describes as pneumatikos (e.g., 1 Cor. 2:15) are persons in whom the Spirit dwells and is at work. The spiritual thus does not pertain to extraordinary inner experiences unconnected to the world and people around us, but to the whole of life as engendered and empowered by the Spirit of God in the new pattern of life called the church. Spirituality thus denotes "a new pattern of personal growth taking place in the community of those who have been sought out, converted and cherished by the risen Christ." It is not primarily concerned about certain intense feelings and affections, though these are invariably associated with the work of the Spirit, "but with the new network of communal relationship and perception that the presence of God makes possible for each spiritual person."
In contrast, go to your nearest bookstore (it makes little difference whether it is Christian or general) and take a look at the religion shelves. What now passes for spirituality there is almost exclusively a private and inward matter, most often portrayed as a form of therapy designed to make one's life more fulfilling. A majority of those who call themselves Christians may retain a vague notion of religious identity, but as one author puts it, "their lives are distinctively secular.... Increasingly these nominal Christian ... Americans embrace the heady hedonism and narcissism of popular culture and do not see that this contradicts biblical faith." Indeed, this hedonistic and narcissistic culture transforms belief in God into yet another self-contained "experience."
We realize that such statements put us at odds with many well-meaning Christians across the theological spectrum. For these brothers and sisters, the notion that the love of God which moves the sun and other stars is ready, willing, and able to meet our individual needs is an essential truth of the gospel. And yet we shall try to persuade you that this way of approaching the gospel is deceptively seductive. No doubt some will be offended by this description. What could possibly be wrong about the church helping busy, on-the-go people cope with the stress and confusion of modern life, fashion more stable families, overcome every kind of abuse, enhance self-esteem, live more satisfying lives, and perhaps along the way make a positive difference in their local communities? Are we claiming, for example, that helping the victims and perpetrators of abuse is a bad thing? Of course not. Do we think that people are supposed to feel worthless? Perish the thought. Are functional families something to be avoided like the plague? Heavens no.
Why then do we regard the notion that the church exists to meet needs as somehow deceptive? It is not because we believe that God doesn't care whether we are unhealthy and unhappy, stressed out and without meaning in our lives. The problem rather lies in where our culture locates health, happiness, and meaning: namely, in the realm of private feelings and values rather than in the shared mission in which God's people participate. When Christians accept a consumerist culture's definition at face value, they look to the church primarily to provide them with the means to improve their private lives, enhance their self-esteem, give them a sense of purpose. Worship becomes a form of therapy whose sole aim is to improve the emotional state of individuals and to energize them for the week ahead. It is designed principally to make these individuals feel comfortable and to justify the style of life they find most satisfying. Quite frankly, such worship is little more than projection and wish fulfillment, "and all the unkind things psychologists have always tended to accuse religion of."
How We Got Here
This seductive way of life did not just drop out of the heavens one day and land inside church sanctuaries. It represents the transformation of a well-established pattern in North American Christianity. For several decades now the church, especially in the United States, has looked to the wider culture for its sense of identity and purpose. In the past, this symbiosis of church and society took the form of a civic faith that found its home principally in the so-called mainline denominations. According to this understanding, writes Anthony Robinson, "The mission of the church is to ameliorate the human suffering of the city and to be the moral conscience of the community. The church, in this understanding, is a center of civic life, one that provides an avenue by which the most fortunate and powerful can be of help to the less fortunate and least powerful. Such a church seeks to embody and carry religious meaning for the civil society."
Once more, we are not trying to say that God wants Christians to ignore moral questions in the towns and cities where they live, or to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors. The problem again lies in the way modern culture defines such matters and, in the process, implicitly redefines the nature and mission of the church as well. The unspoken assumption that underwrote this understanding of the church and its mission was that the United States was a "Christian" society and nation. To be sure, our political system was not officially affiliated with any religious institution, and thus in that narrowsense was secular. However, what went virtually unnoticed for decades was that the formal separation of ecclesiastical and governmental institutions took place under the auspices of a social arrangement that sanctioned a moral and cultural identity between mainline Protestant Christianity and America. In such an arrangement, it was believed that politics could safely be assigned to a formally "secular" realm so long as the tacit ethos that informed public reason, morality, and politics were nominally Christian.
The understanding of the church as the moral conscience of the nation and a source of occasional benevolence still lingers alongside the captivity of God's mission for the therapeutic benefit of the community of Jesus' disciples. Over the last half of the twentieth century, however, the unifying ethos that informed this vision gradually began to fall apart, and all that remains are odd-shaped fragments and tattered remnants. The infamous "culture wars" between so-called "conservatives" and "liberals" are just one indication of a social fabric that is showing more than a few signs of wear and tear.
Excerpted from StormFront by James V. Brownson Inagrace T. Dietterich Barry A. Harvey Charles C. West Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
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|Foreword: The Story That Chooses Us|
|1||Storm: God Addresses the Spirit of the Age||1|
|2||Allegiance: Participating in God's Intentions||31|
|3||Communion: Dying and Rising with Jesus Christ||53|
|4||Powers: The Church and the Life of the World||77|
|5||Practices: Reoriented in the Way of Christ||105|