There’s a song that has now made its rounds in the evangelical church circuit. This song is commendable on many levels.
First, the melody is catchy. If you haven’t listened to or sung this worship tune, you can check it out here:
Second, it’s a song with lyrics that are all quite true. I will quote them here for you now:
Water you turned into wine, opened the eyes of the blind. There’s no one like you, none like You!
Into the darkness you shine. Out of the ashes we rise. There’s no one like you, none like You!
Chorus: Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other.
Our God is Healer, Awesome in Power, Our God! Our God!
Bridge: And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us.
And if our God is with us, then what could stand against.
I agree with every line of this song. Nothing about it is theologically untrue in any way. But I think that singing “Our God is Greater” *might* make God seem less great.
Culture is evolving. Christianity no longer occupies the center of public discourse. The civil religion of the American Empire used to be “Christian,” but the truth of the matter is that our society (like the rest of the West) is in the transition toward Post-Christendom. Stuart Murray, Juliet Kilpin, and others at Urban Expression (a church planting initiative that I’m connected to) say the following about Post-Christendom:
“Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.”
With that basic definition, here are some of the major transitions that take place culturally as post-Christendom takes root:
- From the center to the margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
- From the majority to the minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.
- From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
- From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
- From control to witness: in Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
- From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
- From institution to movement: in Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must become again a Christian movement.
Among American evangelical leaders push-back is common when confronted with a list like this. One need only to recognize that these things are beginning to happen in our context as they did in places like England to realize that we are headed in a post-Christendom direction. Although we never had an “official” state church, we have had a cultural civil religion that uses Christian language to support imperialistic aims. This too is fading as America no longer is comprised of only Christian religions. Our country is pluralistic.
I personally welcome the transition that is happening. Christendom (as described above) resulted from the marriage of Empire to faith. In a world where Christians are placed back into the margins, it will force us to move into a more authentically Christ-centered mode of humility, enemy-love, and justice.
To call God “great” is more than appropriate, but calling God “greater” invites a competitive and confrontational tone. So, in this sort of cultural climate, I make the claim that singing songs about how “our God is greater” actually makes God less great. Two reasons come to mind as to why this *might* be so.
First, for followers of Jesus who feel the real world results of this shift from the “center to the margins,” singing about how our “cosmic dad” can beat up everyone else’s ideological parent reinforces the belief that the Christian story should be central in a society. We must avoid any such perspective and find our voice from the margins, just as the earliest Christians did when they refused to bow down to the Emperor or to carry the sword of nationalism.
If we look to history, any time a society attempted to place Christ in the center, they subtly turned the idea of Christ into an idol. Think of the “Holy Roman Empire” and all of the resulting nations. A Christ who favors any nation besides the distinct “kingdom of God” is not the Jesus of the New Testament. Christ forsook this temptation in the desert when Satan offered him all of the earthly kingdoms of the earth.
Uniting Christ and an earthly nation, (besides after the resurrection/renewal of the cosmos) gives into the very temptation Jesus himself resisted. When we sing “our God is greater” we might (I’m not making a global claim here) actually be trying to live out of a Christendom shaped dream of yesteryear.
Second, for outsiders peering into our churches, whether as curious visitors or as skeptics believing that we are a cancer to society, for us to sing “our God is greater” sounds coercive and arrogant. I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t believe that our God is the greatest of all gods/ideologies, but wonder if in a pluralistic society if the path of loving humility might win others over more effectively.
For centuries the Church used violence, power, and a sense of entitlement to “get their way” in public discourse. What if we flipped the script, forsaking these power clinching perceptions for washing people’s feet – especially feet that walk a differing religious or ideological path? Perhaps this would create space for skeptical folks (rightfully so) to reconsider a non-coercive Christ and the “new humanity” he came to establish.
Our words, even when they are true, can damage our witness. We can make power-claims of our God or we can demonstrate the power of God’s Spirit from the margins. One path attempts (if we are not careful) to place Christ where he himself refused to go, to the center of earthly cultures/nations.
Another route invites the people of God to embrace their place on the sidelines of society, not as separatists, but as Jesus followers creating a beautiful alternative culture for the sake of a post-Christendom world. This unconventional way forward embraces our alien status as sojourners, making the name of God great (not just greater but the greatest) through living in our corners of the empire as a minority people, daily embodying the values of “faith, hope, and love.”
When this happens, we won’t have to sing that “Our God is Greater” because our Jesus-shaped Spirit-empowered communities will give witness to the greatness of our heavenly Father without relying upon verbally combative claims.
PS – I’m not here, trying to say that we should never be in dialogue with people of other religions, but that we need to choose our words wisely. We can come from a place of humility or we can appear like we want to re-incarnate Christendom. I choose humility.