The following words are from Philip Yancey's new book Vanishing Grace: whatever happened to the good news?
"Christians present an attractive counter-culture until they become the dominant culture. Then they divert from their mission, join the power structure and in the process turn society against them. Rejected, they retreat into a minority subculture, only to start the cycle all over again. Travelling internationally, I see different stages in the cycle taking place right now."
This is just one example of how the book helped me to articulate some of the thoughts I have had in recent months. I found it really refreshing to hear a Christian writer talk about the fact that we can be guilty of two extremes – either hiding away in our own subculture or being too influenced by the culture around us.
We are in a period in which it is not politically correct within Christian circles to challenge each other directly. It isn't the 'done thing' to point out that we've erred too much over to one extreme. We seem to have allowed our 'me-centred' society to dictate the boundaries of what it is and isn't acceptable to say to one another.
I've been wrestling with whether we really manage to be 'in the world but not of it'. Jesus describes us as being 'not of the world' (John 17:16) and in Romans 12:2 Paul urges us, "Don't copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God's will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect." (NLT)
For those who lead churches and or parachurch movements, it is important to attract people to meetings. And I know that it may well be part of our mandate as we seek to bring the Good News to people. But when we spend so much time and effort trying to engage with our culture, I wonder what negative effect that has on us. How much does it cause us to water down our message in order to be heard? And what does that do to those more immature Christians within our circles, who are likely to be swayed and influenced by what they hear?
I'm sure you are as aware as me that Christian media always puts a positive spin on how we must engage with culture, strive to be culturally relevant etc so that we aren't written off as totally irrelevant (heaven forbid!). Yancey recognises the Church's struggle with this, "Throughout history Christians have sought the right balance, sometimes veering too close to the surrounding culture and sometimes withdrawing to the point of irrelevance."
I wonder where you would say we are today? I'm concerned that perhaps our culture has rubbed off on us too much, and we seem too focused on ensuring our voices are heard and that we are represented everywhere in society. Don't get me wrong – I totally get that we have to engage with our culture, and having Christians in every area of society is vital. It's just where our focus is that I'm concerned about. What our priorities are once we get there...
There are some directions the Church at large is going in that I'm uneasy about. I know that I will probably be viewed as being too traditional by many, but where I am at is trying to honestly engage with the issues that the Church is discussing in line with prayerful consideration of what I feel God says about them in the Bible.
I was saddened to read about the furore surrounding the Evangelical Alliance's decision to ask Oasis Trust to leave but also saddened to read the comments Steve Chalke made that sparked the decision. I know it is important to be open to debate and conversation, and that some of the current issues personally affect so many each and every day in a very emotionally painful way. However it worries me to see how the public face of the Church is getting more and more distorted and ugly.
We seem intent on washing our dirty laundry in public – in the media – which means that what the world sees when it looks at us is not a picture of unity at all. Yet that is the very thing Jesus said would show the world the truth about Himself: "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:22-3).
Not only do we do it publicly, we don't always do it with much grace. I can remember a barrage of abusive responses when I deigned to post something a few years back in the comments section of a blog during a time when I was exploring what I felt about women and leadership. There I was, unsure about everything I believed, just tentatively voicing some thoughts, but I was quickly slammed down and withdrew as a result.
I find such aggressive, rude and almost abusive exchanges unfathomable. I know we get passionate about our beliefs – I'm all for that. But I can't understand such outbursts.
I can see how they happen. I sometimes get hot under the collar in our church's leadership meetings. But afterwards I then sieve out what was righteous indignation (what God truly wanted me to fight for) and what was just me wanting my personal opinion recognised. And I'm learning to try to hold my tongue and, when I do talk, season my words with grace and gentleness (ooh, that's a hard one but absolutely vital!).
It so saddens and worries me that Christians holding different viewpoints can get almost bitter in their online exchanges. It really upsets me that one side can simply say "God says this, so you are wrong – are you even a Christian?" and the other argue "Did the Bible really say that?" or "The Bible can't be taken literally anymore so you are wrong". Where is the grace and the humility in such approaches? And what message do we think it is giving to the world, because so many of these debates are done online – a very public domain.
Please don't misunderstand me – I know that it is important that we debate and that our faith is tried and tested out in the real world. I am just really concerned when I read Jesus' words about unity and how that is how we reaveal His love and truth to the world.
I also read how radical He was while He walked the earth – and yet so many were attracted to Him. It was the self-righteous religious leaders, who didn't like how Jesus' message of grace affected their establishments, that got their noses out of joint the most. I wonder if there is a level of that happening today too...
I long for us to learn to prefer one another. We may not agree on every point, but we should still be able to show love towards each other. I know that I may get to heaven one day and discover that I was wrong on some of my thinking – and that's ok. I just hope that I handled myself graciously before those who held different views from me.
You can read Christian Today's interview with Philip Yancey here.