Christians are taught to evaluate cultural trends, whether they be good or not so good and whether we can or should embrace or not embrace them.It’s part of what I call the “In-the-World/Not-of-the-World Tension.” We live in the world yet God told us we should be different, not of the world in terms of worldview, values, attitudes, and behaviors (John 17).
Christians, otherwise known as the Church, are supposed to be identifiable within a culture. Not weird, not isolated, and not bug-eyed the way Bible characters used to be portrayed in the movies, but distinctive. We are living testimonies of what the Lordship of Christ in all of life is supposed to look like.
I, for one, often fail in this assignment. I don’t always take advantage of the fact God “has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). I sometimes don’t evidence the marks of the Christian (Romans 12). But I’m not writing this piece as a “true confession.”
More to the point is my concern, or at least puzzlement, about certain trends I see, not in culture but in the Church. Like I said, we’re taught to keep our eye on culture. But I’m wondering about certain trends within the Church.
1) Decreasing attention to doctrine. By this I mean both a decline in knowledge of the Word—real understanding of theology not just proof text quotes or an ability to remember Bible stories—and a declining application of biblical teaching to everyday issues. For example, without getting into a discussion of homosexuality, it bothers me that people are now frequently citing their love for a family member or friend as the basis of their beliefs about homosexuality rather than citing their interpretation of Scripture—and these are Christians who are doing this. But doctrine matters. It’s what we say we believe. The Apostle Paul told young Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16).
2) Multiplying numbers of versions of the Bible. I’m not against different versions of the Bible. In fact, I think I learn more when I refer to more than one version when I prepare to speak or write. What I wonder, though, is whether the Church is losing its ability to “speak with one voice,” to communicate within the Christian community let alone within culture. If my Mother quotes the KJV, I quote the NIV, my son references the ESV, and the preacher, depending upon his age, uses the RSV, The Living Bible, or The Message will we recognize the words as God’s Word? Maybe, but will people recognize the words as God’s Word if they don’t know God’s Word in the first place (see item #1)? We seem to be losing something foundational to western culture.
3) Increasing syncretism. This means a growing willingness to adopt non-biblical beliefs or practices alongside Christian perspectives and practices. This includes the paranormal, a wide array of “spirituality” and religious ideas or sects, and outright paganism. And there’s the big one: luck. I can’t tell you how often I hear Christians talking about how “lucky” they’ve been, how “good luck” or “bad luck” struck their family, and how they hope their “luck holds out.” I know some of this is simple colloquialism, but a lot of it isn’t. Too many Christians believe in the idolatrous idea of “luck.”
4) Building more and bigger is better. I know basic facilities are needed. I’ve raised funds for facilities. I recognize that what’s “over-built” from one vantage point might be “right-sized” from another viewpoint. I understand some organizations are blessed with more so they can build more or bigger. But I confess I’m struggling with this trend. One church with a recently occupied $100 million plus campus is already talking about the “next phase” at over $300 million. Why? Honestly, will this enhance the church’s effectiveness? Another way of looking at this is how much we spend on ourselves. Numerous studies over the past twenty years suggest we spend 95% of all monies raised on home-based ministries, 5% cross-culturally. If you look at dollars given, less than .1% is spent on missions for unreached people groups. I’m not against new and bigger buildings, but I’ve been in some that border on the spectacular with multi-million sound, tech, and video equipment. All good, until you compare it with what we do for others.
5) Increasing political partisanship. I’ve long been a proponent of Christians getting involved in politics. I’ve spoken and written on the issues and will keep doing so. What concerns me now, though, is not involvement or non-involvement per se but how many in the Church are getting involved. We now have Red and Blue churches just like Red and Blue states. At lunch, one pastor told me about his concerns for his church, feeling the congregation had so aligned their partisan positions with Christian ideals they could no longer tell them apart. What’s dangerous about this is hopefully obvious. Partisan positions change, the principles of the Word do not, and the latter should always be in a position to critique the former. Christians should draw on their Christian worldview in developing their political policy positions, but the two are never the same. For some in the Church, their “prophetic voice” sounds more like a political party platform than theology.
6) Growing pessimism. Increasing pessimism is the cultural mood, which in some sense is understandable, but it’s not so easily understood when it seeps into the Church. Our culture is more pessimistic for many reasons, among them the greater vulnerability we feel to global terrorism and economic travail and a dawning realization that The American Century may be over. These and other matters affect us in the Church, but why should Christians ever be pessimistic? We know God is sovereign, we know he’s in charge, we know “the end of the story.” Yet Christians seem to feel as ill at ease as others.
For me, the number one concern is my Number One Concern: Decreasing attention to doctrine. If you read much of George Barna’s work you’ll know theological illiteracy follows apace behind biblical illiteracy. The Church, at least the young and middle aged, doesn’t know what it believes or why. Not knowing what we believe is a precursor to not knowing who we are, or who we are in Christ.
Rex M. Rogers, President SAT-7 USA, www.sat7usa.org,