Written by Kyuboem Lee
Friday, 04 January 2013 00:00
Recently, Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision, wrote “Goodbye, Christian America; Hello, True Christianity” in The Huffington Post. He joins a growing number of evangelical voices calling on the North American church to wake up to the new reality of Post-Christendom and abandon the strategy of clinging to a world--the “Christian America”--that is passing away. Specifically, he advocates a shift in the church’s strategy, from trying to protect the symbols of Christendom (the Ten Commandments displayed at courthouses, public prayers in schools, etc.), to a missional engagement with the world and seeking shalom--the “love your neighbor” variety of Christianity. The story of a Tacoma, Wash., church that switched its focus from opposing the secularization of America to advocating for the hurting in Lesotho, in the process partnering with its neighbors, even with those who would have been its foes in the old paradigm (the gay community), provides a model to emulate.
Understandably, the prospect of such a direction is a cause of anxiety for many. It sounds too much like a surrender to the forces of secularization and liberalism. Ghosts of hard-fought old battles haunt the evangelical consciousness still. Dangers of apostasy seem to loom down this road.
However, are there positives in the new developments to be gained for the North American church that is committed to the exclusive claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ? I believe so. Here is a brief sketch:
One, the church has an opportunity to be purified from a Babylonian captivity to power and privilege. The effort to preserve the symbols of Christendom can betray a dependency on the tools of the kingdom of this world. But once the church renounces the pursuit of laws and powers that buttress its position in society, it is able to regain its proper role as a pilgrim and stranger in this world. It would be a transition from a triumphalist church to a suffering church. Such a role would better reflect the counter cultural nature of the kingdom of God.
Two, the church has an opportunity for a renewal of its mission. Evangelicalism has historically chosen the ministry of words over against the ministry of deeds as its focus. The general feeling has been to see social justice, for instance, as belonging in the domain of the liberals. Bible-believing churches focused on preaching the Word. This tendency to dichotomize word and deed has caused much damage to the cause of the gospel mission. But with the changing of the world, there can be a rediscovery of the holistic gospel mandate. I say this with the caveat that the pendulum can swing to the opposite extreme among many younger evangelicals, and the imperative of the preaching ministry can be the casualty. The new evangelical consciousness can too often embrace the adage, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Such sentiments are reactionary and will need nuanced balancing. However, a more fully orbed vision of the gospel is a welcome development.
Three, the North American church has the opportunity to deepen its communion with the worldwide church. For many years, the NA church has been the giver, not the receiver--of theology, material resources, technical know-how, leadership, and so on. The changed landscape more properly sees the NA church as having a seat among a plurality of peers, not at the head of the table in the communion of the global church. This development better resembles Paul’s vision of the one body of Christ made up of various members, and that is something to be celebrated.
I do not mean to suggest that the road ahead is not filled with tremendous challenges. The church will need to refocus its efforts on a robust theology of mission. Christians in Post-Christendom cannot rely on old answers to remain faithful in the new landscape, but pursuing Christ into uncharted territory has tremendous risks. Our most pressing theological agenda will be to navigate these waters.
The church must be faithful to its calling to proclaim in the new reality that "there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) and do so with full recognition that the world it must love, and which the missionary God loves, is no longer a "Christian" one. However, one thing that the church cannot do: bury its head in the sand of the old Christendom. Instead, the church in exile will need to accept its calling to sing a new song in a strange land.
*The title doesn't reflect the current state of affairs; rather, it is a crude attempt at being "with it" through an obscure pop culture reference. Please accept the author's apologies.
Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission (http://jofum.com).