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COMMENTARY: When church culture becomes substitute for Christ’s power Shannon Vowell, Nov 19, 2009
By Shannon Vowell Special Contributor
This is a tale of two churches.
No. 1: Once upon a time there was a Methodist Church that grew and grew. Why? Because it was 1955, and everyone in the land wanted to celebrate peace, to baptize the many babies they were having, and to make friends with the baby-having-and-baptizing couples who lived next door.
“Belonging” was a civic virtue. “Contributing” was a hard-won privilege. Church membership demonstrated one’s patriotism and kept one in the thick of community (the nexus between “belonging” and “contributing”).
The Methodist Church that grew and grew sprouted an education wing. A new sanctuary with beautiful stained glass windows blossomed. A Boy Scout Hut, a Fellowship Hall and a Family Life Center burst into bloom. The Methodist Church that grew and grew teemed with activities and filled its new buildings to the brim. The End.
No. 2: Once upon a time there was a Methodist Church that shrank and shrank. Why? Because it was 2009, and people preferred to stay home. They collected online friends, ordered out for pizza, chatted in cyber-chat-rooms and shopped.
“Individualism” was the collective imperative; civic virtue had devolved into a joke in poor taste. “Disenfranchisement” was a normative status. Keeping one’s options open demonstrated one’s broad-mindedness, and kept one in the thin air of self-referential neutrality (the nexus between “individualism” and “disenfranchisement.”)
The Methodist Church that shrank and shrank hemorrhaged members. Nobody was there to admire its beautiful stained glass windows or cook or eat covered dish suppers in the Fellowship Hall. There were no families to live in the Family Life Center and no students to educate in the education wing. The Methodist Church that shrank and shrank closed up its empty, aging buildings and tried to deny the sure extinction that approached. The End.
Wholly different stories? Not really. The Methodist Church that grew and grew and the Methodist Church that shrank and shrank have in common a central characteristic: their success (or lack thereof) was derived almost entirely from their surrounding culture.
Obviously, my little parables are limited in plenty of ways. But I wanted to demonstrate something that I think we miss much of the time in our lamentations about church decline: We tend to hold up church growth that happened quickly, easily and painlessly as “the good old days.” But we can’t hold up such growth as a model for growth now. When we try, it certainly doesn’t work!
And that suggests that such growth might have been predicated at least partially on something fluid, transient and impermanent—contemporary culture—something emphatically other than Jesus Christ, who is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.”
The idea that our churches are declining because they cannot keep up with or stay relevant to the culture presupposes that cultural relevance is the determinant of church growth. And that presupposition has become so integral to our thinking that questioning it sounds almost heretical!
But perhaps our churches are declining because we hitched ourselves to the culture in the first place. Scripturally, that’s not where churches are supposed to be hitched. According to James, “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (3:4).
The early church, whose many challenges and problems never, ever included a lack of growth, made a point of staying distinct from contemporary culture, of continuing the Hebrew understanding of being set apart by and for God.
The task the early church set for itself was not to resemble the surrounding culture and be popular with ordinary folks; the task was to radically challenge and change the surrounding culture, and through the love of Christ, make ordinary folks into extraordinary disciples.
So the problem with wanting to emulate the easy-growth era of the mid-20th century is that such a desire simply pits the cultural perspective of the mid-20th century against that of the 21st century, rather than re-articulating the timeless truth of the gospel in a culturally sensitive way.
Such a desire also misses a discomfiting but indisputable fact: There is a distinct connection between churches that grew and grew in the good old days and churches that are shrinking and shrinking now. Often, they are the same church.
Missing the point
Those who want to insist that church growth in the now depends on upping some hip-ness quota or getting technologically savvy miss the same point in a different way: Jesus didn’t tell his followers to go forth and be disciples of all cultures; he told them to go forth and make disciples of all nations.
The church that grew and grew vs. the church that shrank and shrank is a false conflict, because the struggle for the church is not how to be or stay relevant to the culture. The struggle for the church has always been how to be faithful to God. Since God can, does and will settle the question of God’s relevance to all cultures and all times, our own relevance to our current culture won’t be in question if we are faithful to God.
Perhaps the real moral to my little stories is this: If we can learn to see church growth as a matter of spiritual maturity and connection to the Source, rather than a matter of marketing panache and connection to the culture, we will grow. We will grow numerically, and we will grow in depth and richness and peace and efficacy.
We will also cease and desist the endless and fruitless task of chasing the culture. Instead, we will transform it by making disciples of Jesus Christ.