Christians in the Public Square

I just found out what the theme is for this year's meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

"Christians in the Public Square"
Washington D.C.
November 15-17, 2006

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.

ETS website.


Anonymous said...

I'd love to go.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but if only Boyd would listen to me 'bout my pragmatic prolife manifesto and help it to get the attention it deserves so it could win bipartisan support then this meeting could be quite an interesting one....


caucazhin said...

I thought this was a good article worth sharing.

Posted by Michael Spencer
I want to begin in what will seem an odd direction, but it is important to remember some basic characteristics of the church if we are going to see the effect of idolatry on it.

Christianity is a movement; it is a cross-cultural, church planting movement. That movement is an outflowing of the truth we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a movement that teaches, proclaims, ministers, worships, congregationalizes, missionalizes and evangelizes the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This movement is a counter-culture that exists within the cultures and institutions of history. While it takes on the characteristics of the cultures where it lives, it is called to belong to the Kingdom of God more than any of the “kingdoms” of the world.

When we stand “in the midst” of Christianity- for example, in the midst of a prominent evangelical church- these are things that we should see around us:

-the centrality of Christ and the Gospel.
-the priority of the missional calling of every Christian.
-the goal of the movement to evangelize and congregationalize cross-culturally.
-the teaching of the Bible to create this kind of counter culture.

Now, what would idolatry do to this movement? Depending on the particular kind of idolatry, the results would vary. The “God and Country” idolatry challenge the church’s identity as a counter-culture, and tempt the church towards secular, political agendas and means.

The idolatry of entertainment dilutes the church’s devotion to Christ, and devalues the power of its story. At the root, however, entertainment moves from a God-centeredness in the life of the Christian community to a kind “market-driven” approach that measures the “success” of the Christian movement in the satisfaction of an audience.

This moves us closer to a kind of idolatry whose consequences are devastating to every aspect of Christianity. This idolatry, once it has taken hold as a way of looking at the totality of Christian life and experience, de-centers the entire Christian movement and will quickly transform the purpose and character of Christianity into something unrecognizable.

This idolatry is of what I will call “The Good Life.” I realize this is a dangerous appellation because I certainly affirm that life is full of God’s good gifts and it is not sinful to enjoy those gifts. It is not wrong to lawfully pursue those gifts and it is not inappropriate to celebrate, enjoy and live in a thankful reception of those good gifts.

The idolatry of “The Good Life” is, instead, the reshaping of the Christian movement into a particularly American religion where God becomes the means to provide us with the comforts, material blessings, experiences and “necessities” of a prosperous American lifestyle as defined by American culture.

Coming to terms with this idolatry necessitates that the Christian confess the presence and power of American culture as it defines the good life. This is a daunting task, for it has the potential to shake the typical American to his/her foundations. This “Good Life” worldview holds forth standards for what we “should” have that include specifics in all these areas and more:

Health, finance, housing, technology, clothing, jobs, transportation, personal appearance, fashion, leisure, freedom from pain, education, personal comfort, food, use of the environment, activities/sports, achievement, medical care, freedom, sex, relationships, emotional states, access to information, communities, possessions, security and a hundred other personal preferences.

Americans are told in their founding documents that they are entitled to the “pursuit of happiness.” This has particular meaning in American culture and history, as the overall direction of our nation is the expansion of access to these components of “the good life.” Now entire industries- like advertising and communication- exist to enculturate a set of values regarding “the Good Life” into every American.

The issue of how much the pursuit of this kind of life is seen as essential to an American’s perceived sense well-being is an essay for another person. What is crucial is to understand that Jesus is not the guarantor of this life. God is not the means to the acquisition of this life. The church does not exist to provide, justify or accept this life. The values of the Kingdom of God in every one of these areas is radically, distinctly different than the values of the culture.

Yet, should we go to a typical successful American evangelical church, listen to the sermons, read the educational offerings, observe what is printed and projected, look at how money is spent, observe the activities the church sponsors, we will see that the idolatry of the “the Good Life,” not the values of a cross-cultural, Gospel centered, church planting movement, are what increasingly prevails.

Evangelicals in America are creating a religion that tells them how to be happy, how to be financially secure, how to be successful, fulfilled and healthy. Evangelical Christianity in America has pushed missional values to the fringes and brought “the Good Life” so close to the center that sermons themselves are calmly titled “How to Discover the Champion In You.” To which everyone applauds.

The most popular pastors in America preside over this idolatrous affair with the glib assumption that the purpose of the church is to make us beautiful, prosperous and fully secure in American culture, but, of course, thankful to God for making sure we have all these blessings.

One of the clearest indicators of this idolatry is the insistence of evangelicals that their pastors not challenge the definition of “the Good Life.” Catholics have a priest who lives in simplicity and poverty as an example of sacrifice and a reminder of what discipleship should mean. Yet millions of evangelicals want their pastors visibly living as high up the scale of American success as possible, precisely because this baptizes these values and insures that their leaders are, like themselves, swimming in the pool of “the Good Life.”

It is a common compliment to contemporary pastors that they are “just a regular person.” With all due respect, shouldn’t we admit what is really being endorsed? We do not want leaders who live the Christian life so seriously that they make us uncomfortable with their example, and challenge our lifestyles with their own.

This is not the overt “prosperity” or “health and wealth” message of the Word-Faith movement. It is simply an acceptance of the engines that drive the culture, and allowing those energies to exist, unchallenged, as the normal lifestyle of those supposedly loyal to Jesus Christ.

Ironically, it is evangelicalism’s devotion to this idolatry that allows much of its material prosperity, large churches and devotion to the values of entertainment and fashion. The thought of choosing to be simple, deliberate and even poor is unthinkable. Where would God be seen in such a church? In the glory of the Gospel perhaps?

I do not pretend it is always clear what is the right thing to do. I do not believe we are meant to be an Amish colony, but I also do not believe we can allow a pervasive American culture to turn the church into a chapel service for the fashions, fads and toys of the new gilded age.

For example, I have often observed churches making the construction of a “Family Life Center,” i.e. a gymnasium/recreation complex, a priority in their plans. In general, I have not been very supportive of these kinds of projects. Why? My reasons are often found inconsistent. There is a significant difference between building a facility to use in ministering to the community and building a facility for the attraction of suburban families looking for recreation. The resources and decisions that go along with a commitment to serve a community with programs using such a facility are serious, long-term commitments. This differs enormously from the decision to provide a place where church families can enjoy recreation.

This is not an obvious or easy choice. In the current atmosphere of idolizing “the Good Life,” evangelicals are well acquainted with how to build what they want while talking as if they plan to serve the community. So it is with many things that are part of evangelical churches: pageants, programs, technology, staff, music, etc. The rhetoric of ministry is well-rehearsed. The fact of serving ourselves is the reality. The idolatry of “the Good Life” is our true religion.

At the end of the day, do evangelicals want to be disciples of Jesus? Do they want to be a missional force in this culture? Are their priorities evangelizing and congregationalizing in other cultures? Are they a movement communicating the gospel across barriers? Or are they pursuing “the Good Life” in America with the blessing of God? Do they want God to pay off their credit card bills, make their children beautiful and popular, and insure their security in their suburban neighborhoods? Is our passion for the mission of the church or the comfort and profitability of our own enterprises? Do we see the world through the values of Jesus and his Kingdom, or do we see the world- and ourselves- through the values of advertising, prosperity and fashion?

Imagine that you are a missionary who must return to America every five years and stand in the midst of Southern Baptist churches Sunday after Sunday, asking for the prayers and support of these supposedly missions-loving evangelicals. Look at what they spend on themselves. Look at their personal lifestyles. Look at their actual commitments to Christianity as a cross-cultural missions movement.

Are you convinced that these churches share your commitment to the evangelization and congregationalizing of the nations? Does their missions giving and mission involvement compare to their commitment to “the Good Life?” Or are they politely listening, certain to give generously out of their extra funds, and then return to lives that usually never give a thought to the cross-cultural mission of the church and their place in it?

Ted Gossard said...

Me too.