In the World, but Not of It

October 13, 2013

Preaching Text:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

Once again the lectionary readings connect almost eerily with what has concerned me in particular over the last few weeks. Specifically, they relate to the Mainline Protestant church’s curious, ever-changing relationship with the wider culture, and how this dynamic has caused the church over time to lose its focus.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, the prophet Jeremiah writes a letter to the faithful exiled in Babylon, offering them critically important advice. Having been forcibly removed from their native land, Jeremiah’s God, perhaps paradoxically, urges them not to be despondent. Instead they are to make a home for themselves in pagan Babylon. But with one essential caveat: that they never, ever, misconstrue Babylon as their true home. Rather, they shall remain strangers in a strange land.

This follows a consistent theme within the Hebrew Scriptures, one that warns against assimilation and accommodation with the wider culture. In similar fashion, the early Christian church, as William Barclay points out, saw itself as “an island in a sea of paganism.”

In its earliest days, the church, as we know, believed the Second Coming of Christ was imminent, that it might happen at any moment – thus the constant warning to the faithful to be prepared. In time, however, as Christ’s return was delayed, the church adjusted, eventually realizing that it had a role to play in society. As such, it came to function in much the way as the exilic community in Babylon centuries before.

Several years ago I spoke to you in some depth about a landmark book first published in 1991 by one of the co-founders of the Alban Institute, a Mainline ‘think-tank’ dedicated to the study of church life in America. The author, Loren Mead, an ordained Episcopal priest, entitled it, The Once and Future Church.

Written in response to the Mainline decline, which at the time was already well underway, Mead places the contemporary church in historical context, showing how it has interacted with the wider culture throughout its two thousand year history.

In a way that startled some, he compared today’s church in America to the early church, the house church, a place of the Spirit surrounded by a hostile and unsympathetic culture.

Of course, as we know, the relationship between the church and the surrounding culture changed dramatically in the year 313 A.D., exactly 1,700 years ago! At that time, King Constantine, the emperor of the vast territories of Rome, decreed in the Edict of Milan that peace was now granted to Christianity, its persecution now ended. Eventually, in 1380, Theodosius was to make Christianity the official religion of the state.

Rather than existing as an island in a sea of paganism, the church had become the Empire’s standard-bearer! Every Roman citizen was deemed a Christian, meaning, among other things, that the mission field, the place of conversion, had been moved out to the farthest reaches of the Empire.

Mead likens the American Mainline experience to this period of Roman Christendom, which is to say that the church in America, for most of its history, functioned as the unofficially official religion of American culture.

As that began to change in the mid-Sixties or so, amid significant social and political turmoil, the church, and in a relatively short period of time, was both challenged and, for all intents and purposes, disestablished, effectively relegated to the periphery of American culture.

As a result, Mead argues, the Mainline church, whether willing to admit it or not, had been forced into a new and startlingly different relationship with the dominant culture, one, ironically enough, analogous to the situation faced by the earliest church. It now found itself in the discomfiting position of having a largely unperceiving culture lay again at its very doorstep, and even in its pews!

Assuming Mead is right, the vast majority of us just may have grown up in what was, in retrospect, the golden age of the church, a time when the church and the culture worked closely and productively together.

In many respects this had been the direct result of a movement begun in the early 20th century. At that time, a split within Protestantism had taken place, one between the “Fundamentalists” and the “Modernists,” the latter from whom we are descended.

As it was, the Modernists proposed, through what was dubbed the Social Gospel movement, that the church actively Christianize the culture, along with all its various institutions and instrumentalities.

The Fundamentalists opposed this. They feared that too much involvement with the “world” would dilute the gospel and cause the church to become captive to the wider culture’s overweening secularism.

Now, roughly one hundred years later, after vigorous implementation of the Social Gospel project, after decades of working hand-in-glove with the wider culture, the church is now, you might say, a victim of its own success; meaning that though the culture indeed benefited greatly from our considerable efforts throughout the years, it decided at a certain point, and for a variety of reasons, that we were no longer necessary. We even came to be seen as an impediment to cultural progress!

Perhaps this was inevitable, as I said last week, because as the church got more and more involved in worldly affairs, it effectively lost its focus. At worst, rather than continuing to be a place dedicated primarily to spiritual transformation and renewal, the church came to function more as a social service agency and/or political interest group, one, I might add, among but many.

Jeremiah’s timely advice to the faithful in pagan Babylon was to work for the benefit of that culture. Why? Because the destiny of the faithful was inextricably tied up with the destiny of Babylon. The welfare of the exiles, in other words, depended on making life better around them. And this, you might say, is precisely what the Modernists properly sought to do.

Yet, it is essential to note, Jeremiah also adamantly warns against assimilation and accommodation with Babylonian culture. In verse 8 he writes, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream…”

Do not succumb, in other words, to the culture you seek to change, for it is your temporary home, not your true one. Thus, we Christians must never forget that we live in the world but are decidedly not of it. We are strangers in a strange land, spiritual exiles in a sea of paganism.

As Mead’s work shows, the church’s relationship with the surrounding culture is not static, but dynamic. It is constantly changing. As such, it is critical that we rightly discern what the church’s relationship with contemporary culture ought properly to be, for its sake and our own.

After all, whether we wish to hear it or not, this is, to reference the old car commercial, decidedly not your father’s (or mother’s) country, much less church. Amen.