Is the state of the culture a report card for the church?
I think I first heard Kevin DeYoung and John Piper ask and answer that question. They both concluded “no.” I think I agree with them. There is no direct relationship between the effectiveness of the church and the broader unbelieving culture.
Yet, it seems most Christians tend to assume a relationship. If the church was doing _____ then the culture wouldn’t ______. Because the church is weak in _____ the society is experiencing ______.
Many Christians too readily draw these kinds of conclusions. I think it’s well-intended. What Christian doesn’t want to see the church have a lasting positive impact on their society?
But I’m concerned that this thinking, especially among preachers and pastors, might be contributing to some unhealthiness in the church. I don’t know if I’m right about this, so you all chime in with your perspective. But it seems to me that some well-meaning leaders who use the state of “the culture” as a report card for the church sometimes end up hurting the church.
The church hurt comes from an overcompensation. My wife has chronic shoulder pain. It probably got started when our children were young and needed rear-facing car seats. She would very often stretch and contort her shoulder to reach and adjust a pacifier or pick up some toy that fell in the back seat. Pretty soon she had sharp pains in her shoulder. Being an excellent doctor but not a very good patient, she refused to go to the doctor and instead compensated by using her opposite shoulder and arm. You can guess what happened next. She developed pain in the “good” shoulder, too. She overcompensated and further hurt herself.
I think something like that happens with our response to some broader cultural “failures” or “threats.” It’s like turning the hot water up too high because the shower doesn’t warm quickly enough.
Let me try a couple examples.
Some leaders see gender roles–and the very idea of gender itself–suffering at the hands of a secular culture bent on redefining gender relationships. They seem to think that an egalitarian impulse in society is a very bad development. Thus far, I’d have a great deal in common with them. But some of my brethren become militant complementarians. Gender roles become an almost cardinal doctrine with them–not in theory but in practice. So they preach against egalitarianism relentlessly. They counsel young men and women toward “complementarian” practices that could hardly be justified with scripture. Those who fail to toe the line get their toes stepped on. They end up creating a culture that stifles, controls and alienates. Healthy relationships become more difficult to form. Social awkwardness increases among young adults trying to figure out how to “date” or “court” according to “biblical rules” they’ve never encountered in their two-years-out-of-the-world lives. The zeal of the leadership for a good thing, dialed up in response to the culture’s downgrade, ends up harming a segment of the church.
Or consider the current debates regarding same-sex issues. The church is perceived as “losing” on that issue and a good number of leaders are exercised about it. I’m not making light of their concerns and I share much of it. But when well-meaning leaders fall prey to the subtle temptation to make state legislation granting same-sex marriage rights a report card on the church, strange things can happen. Like the pastor who ceases his ministry of regular exposition to do a series on homosexuality. The series isn’t so much an exposition of key texts or a sensitive approach to discipleship in this area, but a jeremiad against “the culture” and a desperate ringing of the church bell to alert everyone to the impending doom. Public policy figures prominently in the sermons and in after church discussions. The pastor gets exercised. The church gets politicized. People get ostracized–and not just those who may be addressing same-sex desires in the course of their Christian discipleship.
So what am I driving at in all of this? Just a simple question: Are we (Christian leaders) sometimes over-reacting to current cultural issues in ways that actually hurt our churches?
The reality is most pastors have very little influence beyond their local congregations. That’s as it should be in many respects. But this means that the first and perhaps only place that a pastor’s cultural angst gets worked out is in their local congregation. Fear about the culture’s “report card” morphs into “discipleship” pressure inside the body of Christ. Often that pressure is out of keeping with the balance of things in the scripture and more in keeping with the focus of our favorite news outlets.
So, how to avoid this problem? Here are five suggestions:
1. Before you teach that topical series on that pressing social issue, pray and talk about it with the rest of your leadership team. Are they as worked up about it as you? Do they share your concern for the issue’s impact on your particular congregation? Is the issue an issue in your church? Are you agreed on how the issue should be addressed?
2. Wait a while. If it really is a cultural issue that the church is “losing,” that means your actions this week or next week won’t be of much consequence. So take your time. Watch the developments. Don’t just watch the news; watch your congregation, too. Listen to what your members talk about when they idly talk, or what they’re asking questions about when they come to you.
3. Read and talk with other pastors. Spend some time doing some homework. Let us not be uninformed but really thoughtful.
4. With your elders, think through your church’s message. What does the Bible say? Don’t stop with this or that pet passage; seek the whole counsel of God. What do you want the people to learn from the scripture? How should that truth be applied to their lives in their particular setting? If there’s an action to take, what should it be? And is there a way to identify people who may be easily offended so that you can talk through these things with them in more intimate settings? Can you seek them out to help you with your perspective and balance?
5. Do a whole lot of praying. From beginning to end, pray. You’re about to bring a contentious “outside” issue “inside” the church. To some extent, you’re about to let the world set the agenda for your church. Before you do that, pray real hard.
So what do you think? Are we sometimes in danger of over-compensating for cultural “defeats” and hurting the sheep?