Written by David Dunbar
Friday, 21 December 2012 00:00
I live in a small town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, that is called Blooming Glen. It seems appropriate that in such a town our only official organizations are the US postal service and the garden club. The club is made up of friendly neighbors who take pride in making our quaint little town more beautiful.
But just recently there was an incident that brought home to me the cultural shifts that even our small town with its many church going families cannot escape. The garden club decided that it would be nice to decorate a tree for Christmas and have a little celebration for the whole neighborhood . . . you know, light the tree, sing some seasonal songs, and have some cookies and hot chocolate.
But then the question: what do we sing? Most people would have gone with the usual mix of sacred and secular Christmas songs especially in our generally Christian neighborhood. But it didn’t happen. Why? Because one quite opinionated person objected loudly: no religious songs!
Now this raises the challenging question: how does a Christian respond to situations like this? Do we argue that the Christian majority should prevail over (in this case) the non-Christian minority? Should we organize a movement to push the objector out of the garden club? But then what happens if Christians find themselves in the minority? Or perhaps Christians should just withdraw from seasonal celebrations that turn secular . . . and then organize our own gatherings that preserve “the true meaning of Christmas.”
Now this little problem is a microcosm of a much larger issue: the collapse of Christendom in western culture. At first blush you might be inclined to say, “come on Dave, get over this theoretical, academic drivel about stuff that has no connection with the real world!” Well, I hear you, but in this case you would be wrong. This is not just an academic or theoretical question. And one of the gigantic weaknesses of the western church is that we have not understood the deeply practical nature of this issue.
What is Christendom? It is the cultural legacy of medieval European civilization where the church sat on the pinnacle of cultural power. Christendom is a situation in which the Christian religion rules, where it has dominion. To a large extent Christianity also had dominion in America, at least through the mid-twentieth century. But now that has changed. The church is no longer at the center. Its cultural influence has declined and we may expect it to decline even more. We all know this right?
Unfortunately most churches are trying to ignore the critical questions raised by this collapse. We assume that we ought to have cultural power, and so we try to function as if we still do. Many of the Christian discussions about “taking back the culture” fall into this category. On the other hand, we may be tempted simply to withdraw from participating in the wider society so that we may perpetuate a smaller world of uniformly Christian assumptions and practices.
So how do you respond if the garden club decides not to allow Christmas carols with distinctly Christian content? Well here is how one woman (who happens to be a member of our church) handled the problem. At first, she told me, she was offended by her outspoken neighbor and considered actually resigning from the garden club in protest. But as she thought it over in light of Scripture she decided that God was calling her to love her neighbor in spite of what felt almost like a personal attack. She said to me, “I imagine that Bonnie may have been severely hurt by Christians at some time in her past, and I need to show her a different kind of Christianity.” And so she went to the party.
I was proud of the way she is processing this incident. In some respects this interaction might seem to us inconsequential or almost trivial. But it really isn’t. It points to a principled approach to a much larger challenge faced by the church in a pluralist culture. It suggests that we may learn to stand for the truth without fighting for the truth. Because it is possible to win the battle but lose the war. And we need to understand the difference.
Dave Dunbar is president of Biblical Seminary. He has been married to Sharon for 42 years. They have four grown children and six and 1/3 grand children.