Has the church’s search for relevance in the modern era, subjected it to assimilation by the very culture it seeks relevance in?
Something Shiny Caught My Eye
A story is recounted in Christianity Today, where a young pastor asked the late Eugene Peterson, what he could do to make his preaching more relevant (this during the time when Willow Creek was a shiny, “relevant”, phenomenon for the church to pattern itself after). After hearing the question, and pausing briefly, Peterson is said to have replied, to everyone’s shock, with these words: “Relevance—That’s a Nazi word.”
Peterson went on to state his case for such an exhortation, by telling the young pastor that pandering after relevance is a resolute way to destroy the integrity of the church – using 1930s Germany as an example of what happens when relevance is derived from the wrong message, cultural norms, and political ideologies.
The Nazi Party in Germany during that time, had a message that resonated with the Germans following a humiliating defeat suffered in World War 1, and unfortunately, those in the church, as described in this account by the Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies:
“When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in early 1933, many church groups in Germany, both Catholic and Protestant, supported the new government. They did so for several reasons.
First, the Nazis claimed that they would support “positive Christianity,” and thus won the backing of many Christian groups.
Second, many Christians, especially Catholics, were violently opposed to Soviet Communism and its anti-religion ideology, and they believed that the Nazis would suppress the spread of Communism.
Third, many Christians supported the Nazis’ anti-Jewish stance [based on their belief that the Jewish people were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.]”
All of these reasons were meant to make the church relevant at the time, however, the relevancy sought by the church, eventually manifested itself as Nazi interference in the church, causing a division within the German Protestant church, which embodied a kind of polytheism – God and the Nazi Party.
“Supporters of the Nazis, called “German Christians,” were prepared to follow the Nazis’ orders at all costs, and even demanded that all Jewish elements be removed from Christian prayers and rituals [combining Christianity and National Socialism into a movement]. Opponents of the Nazis created a breakaway church, called the Confessing Church [which continued to oppose the Nazi regime].”
Those claiming to be Protestants in Germany at the time, differed in both religious practices and political views, thereby opening the door to the conflagration of religion and politics, that defined the German Christian Movement – not all that unlike what is happening today within the church.
Shades of the Past
The Gospel doesn’t call us to be “storm troopers of Jesus Christ”, such as those identified with the German Christian Movement. It instead calls us to be faithful to its teachings. Anything else assimilated into church theology and practice, destroys its fidelity.
In a recent Twitter post, Tim Kane sounded an alarm against this kind of relevancy, when writing, “It seems to me, that if you strip spirituality from religion, all you are left with is ideology.“
In reply to a New York Times article titled, “God Is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out”, a 61-year-old, who, since early childhood, had been steeped in evangelicalism, made the following comment:
I am here to tell you that evangelicalism is an ideology, not a systematic theology, much less a religion. Even though many who call themselves evangelical (I eschew the appellation) share similar metaphysical presuppositions, the thing that binds them together is decidedly not Christian love, much less the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but a Fox News-inspired version of the world that demands adherence to a rigid set of political and cultural positions and hates (yes, hates) those who oppose them (or who do not adhere them as fervently as they do).
Whether or not you agree with his assessment, those things considered relevant to us socially, politically, and culturally, can lead to loss of fidelity and the destruction of our integrity as a church. History is scattered with the ruins from battles between spirituality and ideology – ruins that have replaced where the church once stood.
Consider for a moment, if you will, a controversial billboard, sponsored by a Christian Facebook group called “Make the Gospel Great Again” – a play on words from the president’s, “Make America Great Again” moniker, which has become the rallying cry of a political far right ideology, assimilated by so many evangelicals.
From a mere political perspective, the message of the billboard seems harmless enough, however, the metaphysical message it sends, should be of great concern for any Christian who is committed to the fidelity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the integrity of the church.
For starters, how about the personification of President Trump as deity. The verse from which, “The Word Became Flesh” was excerpted, reads:
And the Word [God] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
I think it’s safe to say, that grace and truth, are not virtues embodied in the president, and that such an association, is a heretical depiction, in and of itself.
Then, there is Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian Church not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?
Finally, the Church has a long history (going all the way back to the 4th Century) of losing fidelity, by conflating political ideologies and powers, with the Gospel – where the false idols of influence and power were fashioned, and placed next to the Crucifix.
Preservation of the church, involves remaining faithful to those Christian traditions passed down to us from the Apostles – unfettered from the assimilation of political ideologies and cultural norms, that stand in opposition to what the Gospel teaches.
Fidelity and integrity are also sacrificed by pandering to a culture in constant flux, or as fundamentalist pastor, Ryan Martin, who is quoted in The Benedict Option as saying, “To attach him to our own little slice of popular culture fails to do justice to him as the transcendent God over all history and cultures.“
Faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as displayed by the early Christians, will guard the church’s fidelity – enabling it to withstand what the author of “The Benedict Option”, refers to as the torrents of liquid modernity.
Stability of the church, which transcends all cultures from age to age, is like an anchor the world desperately needs, and that is real relevancy.