Each of us is implicated in culture’s challenging the very idea of church and the way church is to function as church. The Western world, North America, the USA, and in particular Christians in that culture challenge church at its core. This is not about youth culture, this is not about the youthicization of the church, this is not about being relevant or being irrelevant.
This is about the ontology of Westerners squaring up to the ontology of the church, and church people and leaders squaring up to what we are facing.
First, Western culture increasingly believes the fundamental problems of life are systemic and social, and are to be resolved through social progress and most especially through social engineering in public education. The Christian school movement, in other words, seems to be every bit the same theory: the way to “fix” society is by social engineering but through Christian education.
Second, Western culture tends to believe in the inherent goodness of humans and that society and systems corrupt that original goodness. The idea of original sin has fallen off the map for most social theorists, which implies as well that importance of regeneration unto transformation has as well.
Third, Western culture believes its laws are created by the people, they are for the people, and when the people shift the laws will need to shift with them. Laws then are not simply some kind of moral inscribing of what is proven to be true and right by nature but are instead the expressions of the will of the people, and their moral rightness is assumed but not questioned until the individual or the people decide the laws are in need of revision. “Laws” in the Bible are perceived as revelation from divine authority.
Fourth, Western culture then increasingly locates authority in the people, in fact, all the way down to the individual person. The locus of authority is the people, not the truth and not the leaders and not the laws. Congregationalism then is an ecclesial mirror arrangement to the Western sense of “we the people.” The Bible does not know congregationalism. Neither Israel nor the church voted on its laws, the teachings of Jesus or the mandates of the apostles. Voting becomes the way to find the truth of “we the people” and the conclusion of the vote has moral authority (if one agrees with it) because it has been established as the people’s will. Because the will of the “we the people” is the law, all the people are equal. Equality, then, is inherent to Western culture — though universal sufferage took generations to establish in law and has yet to find its way into the soul of each person in the Western world. Equality then is an idea but not a conviction for many, if not most.
Authority, mind you, is not to be found in Scripture or in the authorized, patient, careful interpretation of Scripture but in the will of the people.
Sixth, the leaders of Western societies are the will of the people and need to change if the will of the people changes. The authority of the leader is given to him/her by the people and for the people.
Now this leads me to say this about commitment to a church: since authority has shifted over time from monarchies to democracies and therefore to individuals in those democracies, individuals form their own commitment levels to churches on the basis of their own lights. Each individual then forms a kind of church contract based on whether or not and the degree to which the individual agrees with that church’s “laws.” Here’s what I mean: since laws are perceived in the Western world as agreements the people have made and chosen to live with or under, church people in the Western people perceive themselves as the authorities when it comes to their churches. This is not so much “rebellion” as it is Western.
Churches in the Western world then are largely comprehended by “we the people” to be something created by “we the people.” Churches are the choices of like-minded individuals to be in fellowship with one another on the basis of a common sense of authority residing in “we the people.”
Tell me, pastors and church leaders, is this your people?
The Western history of politics, if I may make a sweeping statement about the biggest drift of all, is a movement from monarchies to aristocracies (or oligarchies) to democracies. The church got its ontology in a world of monarchies and emperors and kings (ancient Israel, 1st Century Rome) and found expression in that context. The church’s very ontology is monarchy or, better yet, christocracy. Western culture is the drive to a more and more radical form of democracy as a form of resistance to monarchy, which makes the church ambivalent and culturally at least countercultural if not irrelevant if it wants to be Western.
In other words, American culture challenges the church at its deepest levels. In the church the authority is God in Christ through the Spirit but in culture authority resides in the individual and in the will of “we the people.”
In other words, Western culture is very much indebted to Montesquieu and probably more to Jean Jacques Rousseau, who were behind Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, and are behind this post.