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Christ and culture

Culture | Does the church evangelize the world, or does the world evangelize the church?

Issue: "The Dutch culture of death," May 23, 1998

The culture war is not only being waged between Christians and an increasingly Godless culture. It is now splitting churches.

United Methodist minister Jimmy Creech of Omaha, Neb., performed a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple. The denomination's official guidelines, the Social Principles, clearly state that "ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches." Nevertheless, Mr. Creech was acquitted by the Methodist Judicial Council, which ruled that the Social Principles are only advisory.

The church's international Council of Bishops disagreed, pointing out that the Social Principles are part of the church law encoded in the Book of Discipline. The members of Mr. Creech's church also disagreed, laypeople often being more conservative than their pastors. They have asked for another pastor.

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The highest judicial board in the denomination has agreed to rule on just how binding the Social Principles are supposed to be. In the meantime, scores of pastors and local churches are threatening to leave the 9.5 million-member denomination over what they perceive as an increasingly liberal church bureaucracy enamored of the gay-rights movement.

John Christie, pastor of Mission City Methodist Church in Santa Clara, Calif., goes so far as to say there are two religions in the United Methodist Church: "One based on scripture and one that feels we are in a new age with new truths."

Local churches are increasingly torn over what have been called "worship wars." In an effort to be culture-friendly, more and more churches are throwing out their traditional hymns and orders of service in favor of pop music, big screen videos, and motivational speeches.

Some churches offer different services to accommodate every musical taste. In some churches, parishioners can choose between a rock 'n' roll service and a country music service. Some midwestern congregations are experimenting with polka liturgies.

A church in England has taken the next step in cultural accommodation. Since people in today's culture like to sleep in on the Sabbath, meetings are held on Tuesday nights. To get around the church's stodgy moral image, smoking and drinking are permitted during the service. Since today's generation feels uncomfortable in a traditional church building, they meet in a pub. Since no one sits in rows anymore, they sit around tables. Since people do not do group singing anymore, there are no hymns. Since people today are not used to being just talked at, there is no sermon. Since people today do not recognize authority figures, there is no minister. They sit around and decide for themselves what they would like to discuss.

How such a church service is different from what goes on anyway in a London pub is not clear. The group, known as "Holy Joes," was started by David Tomlinson, author of a book entitled The Post-Evangelical, which argues that the church must adapt to the new postmodern culture.

Such eagerness to please the non-believers upsets traditionalists, who often feel their church has been wrested away from them. Ironically, it often sparks amused contempt from non-Christians. Obviously, the church today is in a new cultural situation. But attempts to address the new culture often beg the theological question: What is the relationship supposed to be between the church and culture?

The Bible warns against "worldliness." The children of Israel got into big trouble when they imitated their pagan neighbors-and brought their altars and images into the Temple. Somehow, Christians are supposed to be "in" the world, but not "of" the world (John 17:14-18).

Richard Niebuhr, in his classic book Christ and Culture, points out that there are four ways churches approach their culture.

"Culture above Christ" is the way of liberal theology. This view holds that Christianity must constantly change and adapt according to the dictates of the prevailing culture. In the words of the slogan of the National Council of Churches, "the world sets the agenda for the church."

There are thus many kinds of liberal theology. During the Enlightenment, many churches sought a religion based on reason alone. Romanticism brought a new theology based on subjective feelings. In the first half of the century, liberals were saying that "modern man" is so science-oriented that he cannot believe in the supernatural, so modernist theologians "demythologized" the Bible and turned Christianity into a progressive social creed. Today, postmodernists have little problem with the supernatural as such, so the new liberalism consists of accommodation to today's pop culture, intellectual relativism, and moral tolerance.

Liberal theologies do not last for long, because in their craving to make the church culturally relevant, they end up making it irrelevant. When the church is wholly swallowed up by the secular culture, why go to church? If the church has nothing to say other than what the culture is already saying, why not just wallow in the secular culture?

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