Churches in a Distracted, Ideological Age

Last week, I found myself watching Netflix and decided to watch one of their original programs, a series that had moved over from one of the major networks after being unceremoniously removed last year. I thought the premise was fascinating so decided to watch what the streaming service had done to it.

Was I ever surprised. With the transition to Netflix, the characters–men and women both– were now using the F-word so liberally that it made it hard to watch. Everyone was channeling their inner Howard Stern. Then came the portrayals of deviant sexual behavior and acts of gratuitous political power. The remote got a workout fast-forwarding through all of this garbage. And I thought, “Why take a good story premise and ruin it with all of this stuff!”

Coarseness now dominates American life

This was one instance of what I see as a dangerous pattern emerging in American life. Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and others have told us that visual media like television cause us to see life and all it contains as entertainment designed to amuse our individual selves and arouse our individual desires. And, with so much distraction, with so much competition for our shortened attention spans, what catches our attention is shock value.

I think that now frames almost every other aspect of life, and in an age dominated by social media it is almost impossible to escape. Now you can read and hear the President of the United States and his political opponents in the other party spew out expletive after expletive on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Even preachers are getting into the act as witnessed by the gratuitous tawdry attack on Pastor David Platt after he tried to do what is right in terms of praying for a politician who showed up as his Sunday service with little notice. (I won’t name the guilty party as he doesn’t deserve the publicity.) American evangelicals have jumped into their own food-fight over how politics and faith should intersect.

American culture has always struggled with this. It didn’t start in the 1960s, and if you don’t believe me look at the writings of prominent Americans throughout our history. We like to idolize the American founders like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and others. But go back and read their thoughts about each other as well as about their fellow citizens. Don’t forget to read what they wrote about slaves and native Americans while you’re at it. Look at the rhetoric throughout American history and you will see it.

Coarseness has always been part of American culture, but now our postmodern technological world means that we confront it every day on television, on social media, even in our workplaces and out neighborhoods. It’s like the old adage of the frog in the kettle. All around us, the temperature is slowly almost imperceptibly being turned up and we don’t realize it. Meanwhile, the things that actually matter are lost in webs of distraction and we’re unable to think clearly, feel appropriately, and live well.

Living differently and living well

I don’t claim to have all of the answers for how we confront this. Like you, I’m trying under the guidance of the Triune God to follow Jesus both individually and in the various communities in which God has called me to live and work. But I think that one big place where we can begin to address these matters is within our congregations among the people whom God has called us to worship with. Whether you go to a numerically small or large congregation, whether you go to a rural, small town, suburban, or urban church, whether your’re in New England, the Midwest, the American South, the mountain states, or the west coast, our congregations are key to helping us live faithfully and well in a world filled with coarseness and destructive tendencies.

Richard Foster has written that most sin falls into one of three categories: money, sex, and power. All three are on regular display in the media we consume and they form a world-view that when combined with American individualism is a destructive brew whose coarseness destroys any sort of human flourishing. I’m convinced that this wicked brew has become so ubiquitous that only the work of communities driven by a different way of living and working in American society can help people flourish as they follow Christ.

Andy Crouch has called this work “culture-making,” the creation of an alternative way of life that functions as an outpost of the Kingdom of God in a corrupt culture. I think that must be the work of the church in congregations throughout Canada, the United States and Europe. Stanley Hauerwas has argued that Christians must be described as “resident aliens” who live in our technological, materialistic society with allegiance to God alone.  But I wonder if we are up to the challenge? We’re driven by theology turned into ideology where viewpoints become weaponized and used to distinguish “us” from “them.” We treat other Christians who disagree with us about some secondary piece of theology with the same coarseness we find in society.  Our churches, small and large, seem driven by values alien to God’s kingdom. We approach church with a “what’s in it for me” view of life. Our worship either recreates a modern rock-concert or yearns for 1954. We have desacralized Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the point where many Christians would be shocked to realize that our Lord actually commanded us to practice them with regularity. We’ve even fallen for what Jacques Ellul has termed “the political illusion” where we think that all of our problems will be solved if only we can get “our people” into office.

Christ-centered and person-centered

I think our congregations need to become more Christ-centered and person centered, and less institution centered. Size doesn’t matter much here. Churches, large and small, are often institution centered and the results of that are things like the cover up of clergy sexual abuse in many Catholic and Protestant (even evangelical) settings. The reputation of the church becomes more important than the dignity and worth of the abuse victim.

Being Christ centered and person centered in my view means that congregations are there to provide a fellowship where all of us learn to follow Jesus in the course of our daily lives. This culture has been very hard for many people. it can be a welcoming place if you have enough money to engage in its pleasures, but by the time you realize that those things have done deep harm to your soul it is often too late. I think our congregations need to be places where lonely and broken people can learn to flourish in Christ. That means congregations offer not only love, acceptance, and forgiveness in Christ, but that we help people come to terms with the harmful effects of a sinful world and learn to follow Christ. That is one reason why I think the exposition of Holy Scripture combined with prayer and the care of souls is so vital to pastoral ministry. It is another reason why well-run small groups are become places where Christians can learn to practice Christian koinonia to others.

Let me ask you a question that I have asked my pastor on more than one occasion Would members of the Democratic party feel welcome in your church? I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, but in hanging around churches for much of my adult life I get the sense that in many evangelical congregations most of those who attend are Republican in their political orientation. A couple of Sundays ago, when my pastor was on vacation the individual who filled the pulpit in the midst of his message took a swipe at the British national health system and proceeded to claim that having lived there for a couple of years as a young adult, he hoped that something like that would never come to the United States. I happened to disagree with him (I have heard other anecdotes from those who think the British and Canadian systems are great) and I wondered how many others in the church disagreed but were afraid to say anything. The point is not an argument over the merits and demerits of American health care health insurance reform, the point is using our congregations to foster partisan political views on which well-meaning Christians might disagree.

This is what I am getting at: Being Christ-centered and being person-centered means that our primary concern is not the preservation of an institution, an agency, an ideology, even the organizational form of a congregation. The church does not exist to preserve itself, that is the work of the Spirit. Organized congregations have come and gone for 2,000 years and the church is still alive and proclaiming “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The church does not exist to baptize whatever political party or leader currently is in power. The Deutsche Christen made this mistake in Germany and acquiesced to Hitler’s mad destruction of Europe and ultimately of Germany itself. The church does not exist to fight over tertiary theological matters like the mechanics of how God created the heavens and earth, whether premillennialism or amillenialism is the best teaching regarding the return of Christ, whether God’s providence is meticulous or general, even whether an individual is  conscious or unconscious during the intermediate state. When our theological views become ideological, the “good news” of the gospel becomes the bad news of human intolerance.

Our congregations are filled with people who struggle with the brokenness of sexual sin, the lust for power, the fracturing of family and other human relations, the love of money and things. They need our congregations to be places where they hear every week of a better way,  the way of Christ and the path toward human flourishing in Christ. They need our congregations to be good listeners as they process these things. They need our congregations where to be places where the real presence of Christ is experienced in the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. (If your church does not celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least monthly, I challenge you to do so in obedience to our Lord’s command.) They need congregations who declare that the things of this world, including political leaders, are merely temporal and that only the eternal Kingdom of God is worthy of our allegiance.

Above all, they need congregations and people that are faithful to Christ, and who flourish as they follow him no matter their economic, ethnic, or cultural background.

 

 

 

 

Author: Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is Senior Librarian and Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He loves good books, especially the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henri Nouwen, and C.S. Lewis. He also enjoys film, especially movies that cause him to reflect theologically and culturally on important themes and questions.

2 thoughts on “Churches in a Distracted, Ideological Age”

  1. Bob, well said. Your perspective is well stated and applicable to our current day in America. We seemed to have missed the real reason why we are here. The church does not exist to promote anyone’s agenda or viewpoint. It is Christ’s church that He promises to build and it is His mission that will not be thwarted by the plotting and planning of Satan. It is not my agenda that will withstand Satan’s scheming. Too often we have just become another screaming voice in the crowd and no one is listening to our self-serving, self-centered message. As you say, we must be Christ-centered and person-centered (love God and others). This is obedience to Christ and it is this distinction that Christ has laid out (John 13:34-35) that will make a difference in our world and in any culture. Thanks for the thoughts.

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  2. Thank you, Bob, for sharing your thoughts. Powerful, honest, and direct regarding the condition of our
    faith, talk, and walk during this time in America. We have lost our first LOVE in all the voices that come at us via media, pastors, leaders, and etc..
    It is exhausting! All we must do is turn around. He must be First. Everything else will fall away. Christ must be our focus❣️ Keep writing! I am glad I found your blog.
    Love in Him,
    Deb. 😇

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