Archive for November, 2011

Why Church Feels The Way It Does

November 25, 2011

All cultures and subcultures move through stages, and evangelicalism is, among other things, a distinct subculture of Christianity. In cultural terms, a classical period is a time when all the parts of a community’s life seem to hang together, mutually reinforce each other, and make intuitive sense. By contrast, a decadent period is marked by dissolution of all the most important unities, a sense that whatever initial force gave impetus and meaningful form to the culture has pretty much spent its power. Decadence is a falling off, a falling apart from a previous unity.

Inhabitants of a decadent culture feel themselves to be living among the scraps and fragments of something that must have made sense to a previous generation but which now seem more like a pile of unrelated items. Decadent cultures feel unable to articulate the reasons for connecting things to each other. They spend a lot of time staring at isolated fragments, unable to combine them into meaningful wholes. They start all their important speeches by quoting Yeats’s overused line, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Decadents either fetishize their tribal and party distinctions or mix absolutely everything together in one sloppy combination. Not everybody in a decadent culture even feels a need to work toward articulating unities, but those who do make the attempt face a baffling challenge. At best, the experience is somewhat like working a jigsaw puzzle without the guidance of the finished image from the box top; at worst, it is like undertaking that task while fighting back the slow horror of realization that what you have in front of you are pieces that come from several different puzzles, none of them complete or related. Evangelicalism in our lifetime seems to be in a decadent period. In some sectors of the evangelical subculture, there is not even a living cultural memory of a classical period or golden age; what we experience is decadence all the way back.

Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 109.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 32 – Conclusion

November 11, 2011

Conservative Christian churches are not eccentric. They believe they are merely consistent in their understanding and application of Christianity. They believe that the Christianity they have received must be passed  on without diminution. Where they differ from many other Christians is that they believe there is more to Christianity than the gospel and a statement of faith. They believe there is such a thing as Christian worship, and they wish to pass this on. They believe Christianity is a life of love and worship, therefore they believe they must preserve and pass on the whole notion of ordinate affection. They believe Christianity must be applied to a continually changing world, therefore they wish to pass on a concern for meaning. They believe they are simply one link on the chain of Christian history, therefore they wish to honour what is truly Christian from the past.

If what it means to be truly Christian is not only to believe the gospel and some doctrines, but to worship and love God ordinately, apply His Word effectively, and honour both past and future Christianity, then consistency means we must care about these things and pass them on.

Unfortunately, the current climate in Christianity tends to portray such things as extraneous to Christianity. Pastors who pursue them are accused of everything from elitism to cultural imperialism, from Gnosticism to disregard for sola Scriptura. This is not surprising. The thinking is, if the Christianity represented by the celebrity preachers or pastors of ‘successful’ churches does not pursue these things, then they cannot be necessary to healthy Christianity. All those people can’t be wrong, right?  This leads me to a concluding plea to my fellow-pastors: love people, not populism.

Populism is that species of thought which thinks that in order to be true, useful or good, something must be uncomplicated, immediately accessible, and transparently practical. Populism assumes that all that is true and good and necessary to life can be understood equally by all and accessed or perceived immediately, without specialised training or instruction. Recourse is made to texts about receiving the kingdom as a little child, and this is supposed to end the discussion. Consequently, populism views higher learning with suspicion. Populism views consulting experts with suspicion. Populism views advanced studies with suspicion. Populism views tradition with suspicion. Populism views authority with suspicion. Populism views intellectuals with suspicion. The upshot is a roll-your-own-at-home Christianity, where sincerity and an open Bible will supply all we need.

If we embrace populism, we almost certainly cannot be conservative Christians. We will sneer at discussions of ordinate affection. We will dispense with complex discussions of theology or philosophy. We will dismiss the matter of the moral imagination. We will reject the notion of reading unbelieving experts in their fields. We will be impatient with tradition. We will tend to make judgements pragmatically. Most ironically, we pastors will become anti-clerical and anti-ecclesiastical, like the cartoon character sawing off the tree limb he’s sitting on.

Pastors are usually men with a practical bent and a heart for people. This is as it should be. But this need not become a reason to embrace populism. Before the triumph of populism in the 19th century, thousands of faithful shepherds laboured effectively in churches, loving people without loving populism. Because populism is such a dominant attribute of modern culture, it is hard for practical men with a heart for people not to be wooed by its pragmatic and democratic character. Nevertheless, we do our people no favours when we deny them essential parts of Christianity, simply because such things require patient and lengthy explanations, or because such things require disciplined and intense study.

A love for people means supplying them with what they need most and what will help them most: an undiminished Christianity. This will mean teaching them things that they may initially reject, or misunderstand, or fail to grasp. It may mean enduring charges of elitism, Gnosticism, or authoritarianism. Yes, many of our people are populists, and expect us to be too. But as any parent knows, love is not merely meeting the expectations of your children all the time. Love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

May God grant the church the gift of faithful shepherds who will do their utmost to teach, conserve and propagate a full-orbed, undiminished, and biblical Christianity.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 31 – Fostering a Love for Tradition

November 4, 2011

Fostering a right view towards the Christian tradition is part of true Christianity. Conservative pastors will do their best to see the Christian tradition rightly viewed and used in their local churches. Living in an age which assumes that the latest point in church history is the most advanced point, a respect for tradition may not come naturally to our people. Several practical suggestions for achieving this follow.

First, our sermons can arouse interest in the Christian past when we quote from, or refer to the lives of Christians from the past. I have often seen how one quotation or illustration has resulted in some Christians tracking down a biography or the devotional work in question.

Second, we can teach church-level courses in church history. Some kind of broad overview of the major movements, developments, and personalities within broad Christendom is hugely beneficial to most Christians. Simultaneously, we might teach some points from historical theology, emphasizing the flow of Christian thought through the ages. This helps Christians to see the jagged line that was providentially used by God to bring them the gospel and the Word of God.

Third, we can teach the occasional biographical study of someone from church history. This might not be Sunday morning fare, but there can be a place for an interesting study of the life of a well-known Christian. In line with this, we can stock our church libraries with biographies and more popular-level church history books. Recommendations from the pulpit will also help. We should not forget to find biographies or historical works written for younger readers, to foster their appetite for historical Christianity.

Fourth, we can conduct a study of some of the better known creeds, confessions or catechisms. Not only would such a study increase the doctrinal literacy with the church, it is also enormously helpful in connecting Christians with their doctrinal heritage. The use of creeds in corporate worship may not be acceptable to everyone, but this practice certainly underlines the Christian doctrinal tradition.

Fifth, we can teach on the history of hymnody, and the history of liturgies. This will afford us the opportunity to study some of these liturgies and hymns, and allow our people to see the craftsmanship that went into much of Christian worship before the slap-dash era. Helpful books on the nature and history of hymnody can be placed in our church libraries or turned into a mini-study.

Sixth, and mentioned before, recommending the devotional classics of the church is helpful. Including some of them them in your church library is important. Perhaps even a study through one of them might be effective for discipleship purposes.

These suggestions are aimed at doing more than giving the occasional nod to church history. They are ways to create a climate in which historical Christianity is part of the air that the church-members breathe. Everywhere they turn, there can be some reminder of what Christians in history have thought, sung, prayed, believed, taught and died for. An atmosphere like this fulfills the eighth mark of a conservative Christian church: a love for and right view of the Christian tradition.