In our last blog post, we talked about the church living in a secular post-Christian society. We need to explore further the implications of what it means to be the church in such a secular post-Christian society.
In what is now regarded as a Christian Classic, H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture discusses the various stances that churches have in relation to the culture at large. One of the stances is The Christ of Culture in which churches “interpret culture through Christ, regarding those elements in it as most important which are most accordant with his work and person; on the other hand they understand Christ through culture, selecting from his teaching and action as well as from the Christian doctrine about him such points as seems to agree with what is best in civilization” (Christ and Culture, p. 83). In other words, this stance involves finding those elements of culture that are believed to fit with the Christian faith and then, in turn, operate with a Christian faith that is at home within society.
In some significant ways, though not every way, this Christ of Culture stance fits with a lot of Christianity within the United States. In particular, I’m thinking of the ways in which Christianity operated from the paradigms of modernism and Christendom. This includes the Churches of Christ that many readers of this blog likely have some affiliation with.
With that said, much of the Western world has undergone a paradigm shift in which the realities of modernism and Christendom have given way to postmodernism and a post-Christendom society. Add to this paradigm shift the realities of secularism, and we find ourselves living in the post-Christian society that I described in the previous post. The question we have to ask as we seek to plant churches and make disciples is how do we equip Christians to live with a Christ-formed faith (cf. Gal 4:19) in such a post-Christian society?
With such changes in society, we must learn how to live in a manner that is transformative rather than antagonistic. Becoming anxious or angry with people who embrace values and practices that are at odds with Christianity will only further the gulf between Christianity and society. Making enemies out of society will not do any good. There may be some people who see Christians as the enemy but we must love them anyway because Jesus teaches us to do so (cf. Matt 5:44). In fact, David E. Fitch wisely suggests that when we have such adverse reactions, we should instead “probe what it is about the enemy that creates such fear, jealousy, envy, or even disgust in our lives” (The Church of Us vs. Them, p. 34).
Of course, we don’t want to simply become accommodative towards society and so compromise our witness. So in making disciples, it will take intentional teaching and formation of faith to live, as I like to say, as faithful participants in the mission of God. That is, we must be intentional in learning how to embody the gospel in ways that do not make enemies. But is this possible? David Fitch rightly points out that there is a difference between “making enemies and revealing enemies” (The Church of Us vs. Them, p. 155).
Living as followers of Jesus will certainly put us at odds with the society we live in but like Jesus, we must see ourselves as servants among society. Christianity in society is about serving, with humility and love, so that society might once again see the truth, beauty, and goodness that springs from the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God!
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.