Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Strength through weakness

From Christianity Today, Poll: Evangelicals See Declining Influence in U.S.

Are U.S. evangelicals losing their influence on America? A new poll released Wednesday from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life seems to say just that, with the vast majority -- 82 percent -- of U.S. evangelical leaders saying their influence on the country is declining.

At the same time, their counterparts in Africa, Asia and Latin America are far more optimistic.
I think that is correct but that doesn’t get to the main point. Is the loss of evangelical influence in America a bad thing? Should we lament and wring our hands at losing the culture wars and being shut out of the halls of power? Is this the end of evangelicalism in America?

I am not sure that it is.

The church, or at least the culturally understood expression of the church as we know it, has been very influential and powerful in America for centuries. The church is held to a separate standard in America versus any other organization. Clerical employees of churches get special tax treatment on their compensation. The state recognizes the right of churches to conduct wedding ceremonies. Clergy get special privileges at hospitals and prison. We even have a special clerical class in the armed forces in the form of military chaplains. Throughout American history, the culturally accepted visible expression of Christianity has had an outsized influence on the secular culture.

Today? That influence is clearly waning. The New York decision to solemnize homosexual relationships by declaring them to be eligible for the same treatment as heterosexual marriages is a sign of the future. The religious right might be able to stem the tide for a while but the end result is already determined. For many Christians this is reason to push the panic button because everyone knows that America used to be a Christian nation and these godless commies are trying to subvert that. For example this statistic from the same article…

The perception of declining influence comes as the nation has become both more pluralistic and more secular. The vast majority of U.S. leaders surveyed -- 92 percent -- called secularism a major threat to evangelical Christianity.
Cultural religion masked as Christianity may produce outwardly more pious people but it is every bit as dangerous as secularism to the Gospel witness, perhaps more. In a truly secular society people are under no illusion that they are Christians based on praying a prayer or walking an aisle or being baptized as an infant or having their name on a membership roll. A non-religious person knows they are not “religious” or “spiritual” or whatever. A “revival” preacher who declares sinners saved based on their response to an emotional sermon with no evidence of a changed life are far more dangerous to the church than Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. The church in American has been struggling against the wrong foes for a long time and likewise has been striving for the wrong kingdom.

Are we called to preach Christ and Him crucified or are we called to also try to enforce particularly Christian values on unregenerate people by means of coercion and legislation? Do we see any hint in the New Testament that the disciples were trying to reform the culture they lived in? The Gospel is a message that changes hearts which changes behavior. You cannot change behavior and assume that the heart will follow. For example, while I certainly would love to see abortion legally outlawed in America and that desire impacts my vote above any other consideration, I am not as sure that seeing that happen is a mission of the church. Caring for women who choose to carry to term, ministering to those wounded by abortion, witnessing to the truth of the value of unborn children as human beings deserving of protection? Absolutely. But seeking political power and influence to try to pass laws to make people stop having abortions? I am leery of that.

Christianity simply cannot be proclaimed properly when ensconced in the seat of power. A message of weakness and helplessness is incompatible with a position of influence. Seeking worldly power, even for the best of motivations, is invariably going to pervert and corrupt the church rather than improve and “Christianize” the world. The Bible tells us that when we are weak is when we are truly strong. We seem to have lost that message of strength through weakness over the last 1700 years.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Amen to this. It's ironic that here in the UK, where we have a formally established church, it's far more secular than the U.S. I know that Christians will fight tooth and nail to keep hold of public privilege, but it is slipping away. if there is encouragement from this side of the pond, it's that there is life and vision from the margins as well as the centre. Gradually too, Christians here are realizing that marginality doesn't mean irrelevance. We haven't given up on social engagement or political activism. For those who are afraid of drowning in the rising Post-Christendom waters - learn to swim!

Sorry, sermon over. Shalom, phil