In the first part of this article we looked at how the Body of Christ polarized itself into two opposing camps, fundamentalism and liberalism, during the century just ended. We also explored to some extent how this polarization mirrored somewhat the reaction of Jewish culture to the pervasiveness of Greek culture during the two centuries leading up to the incarnation of Christ.
To summarize, we saw that the Pharisees, by defining and attempting to live up to the strict letter of the Jewish law, thought this would preserve the identity of the Jews as “God’s Chosen.” In effect, all this process accomplished was to maximize legalism and minimize spirituality. It was this religion that extolled legalistic rules and prohibitions at the expense of true spiritual living that Jesus repeatedly railed against. Now we find the fundamentalist camp engaging in very similar practices and, in so doing, wringing spiritual vitality, not to mention compassion, out of its adherents. My experience has consistently told me that many fundamentalist churches, if they were to be brutally honest with themselves, should fly the flags in front of their churches at half-mast.
Those churches on the other extreme have faired no better. By adapting to the prevailing culture, just as many Israelites did to Greek culture, most of these well-meaning but confused churches have died painful, slow, agonizing deaths. By a process of socio-spiritual osmosis, the liberal churches of the 20th Century became virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding social milieu. Jettisoning a firm, biblical foundation in favor of an impotent mixture of philosophy and psychology, these churches soon found themselves morally and existentially adrift, floundering in doldrums of empty rhetoric and ear-tickling platitudes while the world around them was sinking, taking on water fast in the shifting shoals of ethical relativism. The end result was a plague of dying churches and a witness that was ineffective at best and, at worst, non-existent.
I don’t mean to be so harsh in my analysis of these two extremes, but I cannot think of a kind way to say what occurred as the Protestant Church became immersed in the sin of polarization. No doubt both wings of this religious debacle made positive contributions in terms of doctrinal foundations on the one side and social ministry on the other. Still, the good accomplished by these extremists, and that’s what they are, is far overshadowed by the negative fallout from this Christian infighting. Any rational and non-biased summation of this conflict will readily admit to a significant amount of what military types call “collateral damage.”
Foremost among the negative consequences is the stark reality that Christianity is viewed in a generally negative light in our culture. As believers, our witness has been damaged and it has been damaged badly. As mentioned in the first part of this article, the Barna Group has conducted exhaustive research on the church and culture and the vast majority of studies aimed at discerning how non-believers view the church point to the fact that we, my brothers and sisters, have a major image problem.
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons have published an eye-opening book entitled, Un-Christian, in which they discuss the public relations problem the church is currently facing. Kinnaman is a long-time researcher with the Barna Group and has great insight into what the statistical findings of recent research projects reveal. In the book, the authors particularly focus on young Americans between the ages of 16 and 29. With both candor and compassion, these two writers explain clearly the crisis facing the Body of Christ. For example, Kinnaman and Lyons relate:
Millions of young outsiders are mentally and emotionally disengaging from Christianity. The nation’s population is increasingly resistant to Christianity, especially to the theologically conservative expressions of that faith. Of course we have always had detractors, but now the critics of the faith are becoming bolder and more vocal. And the aversion and hostility are, for the first time, crystallizing in the attitudes of millions of young Americans. A huge chunk of a new generation has concluded they want nothing to do with us. As Christians, we are widely mistrusted by a skeptical generation.
This is difficult to take. Our research findings are a punch in the gut to Christians, and they are particularly challenging to theologically conservative Christians…..We are at a turning point for Christianity in America. If we do not wake up to these realities and respond in appropriate, godly ways, we risk being increasingly marginalized and losing further credibility with millions of people.
If you are feeling a bit uneasy after reading this, good. We Christians need to be feeling a bit uneasy. Our mandate from the Master is clear. Go into all the world and make disciples….also, establish his kingdom here on earth. If the very field that we are to harvest views us as a bunch of narrow-minded bigots who think they have a monopoly on truth, then we have a problem. If the broken, needy, hurting people of this world are seeking solace, will they turn to a group of people who they deeply mistrust? If those myriad spiritual seekers that line the aisles in the spiritual sections of the major bookstores think there is no use exploring the faith of Jesus because its adherents are too judgmental, exclusive, and self-righteous, are we likely to turn them into vital, growing disciples of the Lord?
If, like my good friend David, genuine seekers eliminate Christianity as a viable option because they think they have to join the Republican Party, do we have any hope of meeting the mandate issued to us by Jesus?
The answers to these questions are obvious. So, what can we do? If the Body of Christ is to become a more attractive option in today’s spiritual marketplace, and don’t kid yourself, that is exactly what it is these days, what form must that body take if it is to be successful.
Stay tuned for Part Three.
(c) L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved