On my continuing quest to understand how Christianity relates to culture, I have been slowly digesting a seminal work in missiology by Andrew Walls, called The Missionary Movement in Christian History. Walls is insightful and his words are enriching in many places. I will quote and comment on one key section here.
“Throughout Christian history two forces are distinguishable in constant tension. One is an indigenizing principle, a homing instinct, which creates in diverse communities a sense that the church belongs there, that it is “ours.” The other is a “pilgrim” principle that creates within the Christian community a sense that it is not fully at home in this world, so that it comes into tension with its society from its loyalty to Christ. The one tends to localize the vision of the Church, the other to universalize it.”
What a narrow beam we walk on, seeking to express our faith in a way that fits in our culture, but is not loyal to our fully accepting of a culture to which it does not ultimately and finally belong. But there’s more from Walls:
“The two principles are recurrent because each springs directly out of the gospel itself. On the one hand God accepts us in Christ as we are, with all our distinctives — even the thing which mark us off from others–still on us. On the other hand he accepts us in order that we may become something different; that we may be transformed out of the ways of this world into the image of Christ. Either of these forces can be manipulated; we may make the Church so much a place to feel at home, that no one else can live there, or we can use the sense of Christian identity to legitimate some groups economic and social interests. That is civil religion–and it is an ever-present peril when Christianity is well-established in any community. When we give way to this we draw the teeth of the Scriptures so that they will not bite us, while still hoping that they will bite other people.” (bold print mine)
I think the best place to begin in presenting the Christian message to the outside world is to present the points of agreement between the culture and Scripture. But I think that too often we end up preaching only to the points of agreement, and doing so for unhealthy reasons: because we do not want to “rock the boat” and lose long-time Christians in the pews who may disagree with us, or because we do not do enough to critique our own cultural practices in light of the gospel. Continuing to maturity in Christ, however, requires finding those points where our faith requires us to be counter-cultural and speaking and acting in line with the implications of the gospel. Otherwise, we find ourselves using the structures of Christianity to promote our own opinions and self-interests.
I see the “pilgrim” principle at work in a recent post on Ed Stetzer’s blog, where he argues that reports of the demise of the church in America are greatly exaggerated. Since Christianity has often been used as a badge of American identity in the past, a good number of Americans attended church for the sake of that badge. But now that a secular American identity is becoming more normative, civil religion and nominal Christianity in the U.S. are weakening. The church is just as alive as ever, because the true church has never been made up of those who follow “civil religion” or a “communal Christianity” but of those who do church because of Jesus, regardless of the culture’s opinions. And we have the potential to be a more vibrant force for the gospel than ever, if we act on our identity as pilgrims, and our calling to be, in Tim Keller’s words, “a counter-culture for the common good.”