Many of us in church leadership roles are convinced that our world impact (local, regional, national or international) is very big, and our influence is actually significant and vital to the world around us. While we may be solid and real followers of Christ, in reality, often our impact is very small, and our denomination’s dent in culture is about the same, in the grand scheme of history, as that of the Methodists or the Baptists down the road.
We use the language of world-shaping profundity in our sermons, but to the popular cultures in which we live, we are often having only marginal impact – if it is perceived at all in our towns and cities. Please hear me, I don’t want to decry what we are actually doing, and what God is doing through us, but far too often we overstate our impact to the point where we believe we are actually making more of a difference than we actually are. For this overstatement, I turn primarily to my fellow communicators, who fill the pulpit week after week in local churches across North America and Europe.
From my vantage point, listening and watching churches triumphally declaring their unique war on evil and brokeness in their communities, we’re way over the mark in our estimation of our effect. The faith communities that are having the most actual impact may be those who the culture observes and draws attention to first, without the faith community declaring their own influence and authority in their area.
We say that we’re about the business of cultural influence in the way of Jesus, but we’re not practically about the business of adequately preparing and thrusting Christian astronauts, teachers, decision-makers, business leaders, quantum physicists, philosophers, movie directors, journalists, story-tellers, architects, doctors, nurses, authors, philanthropists, media stars, social engineers, mother theresas, geneticists, artisans and real cultural movers and shakers into the arena of culture. What do I mean by this?
We don’t presently educate our young disciples toward such “secular” careers of cultural influence in our paradigms of discipleship – we (I speak with a broad brush, of course – many churches are doing what I am saying here) teach the scriptures in such a way that generally silences unique passion and advocates restraint; especially when the passion would propel a disciple toward a career that could as equally lead to their spiritual demise as to their spiritual duty. We need pastors, mothers, fathers, worship leaders, Christian artists and much more; but not to the neglect of the thousands of other callings that passionate young followers of Christ have on their lives.
In short, a wall must fall between the Church and the culture in our minds – we have a Kingdom to bear to the world in language that human beings understand, and embodied in questions the whole world is asking. Our answers must be credible articulations of faith in all spheres of human activity – expressed in art, science, education, society, government and more. We cannot ask more beautiful questions than the culture if all we ever study is the Bible (and I do believe we must study the Bible!) and those arenas we deem to be “safe” for the young mind.
We need, as Neuhaus said, to train spiritual influencers rather than religious technicians, both for the work within the fellowship of the saints, and in the world at large. In my estimation, we are overstating our impact because we have to – our practical theologies and trust in the Holy Spirit are not adequately enabling us to do the work we we were desigend to do as the Church in society.
The tension is real; I just think we’ve leaned so far away from one side of the horse that we’ve fallen off the other side. Cultural formation should be at the top of the agenda in every church’s leadership or board meeting. That may be expressed through a church’s call to be a safe place in a town. It may be expressed in a church agressively seeking to become the editorialists (I mean that in a real world sense, not a churchy sense), mayors, teachers and influencers. Who doesn’t need loving and quality people who champion a town or city, and its people, to be in those kinds of positions? We live as healers, and our communities will ask us “the reason for the hope within us.”
“Do you want a great church, or a great city?” an urban church pastor recently asked. We’re functionally inward in our practical theology, and are often about creating more pastors, children’s workers, youth workers, evangelists, worship leaders and other functional church leaders to feed the ongoing systems we need to continue in our churches. The sacred/secular split of Platonism rules and reigns in our practical actions, and we’re not doing the best we can be at creating atmospheres in which people of every stripe of talent and passion can thrive – and be launched full force into the culture to shape it from the base of a loving Christian community.
We are feeding ourselves as a Church organizational, and like the type that is the zombie, are feeding off ourselves to keep ourselves alive. It’s not okay to direct every talented young Christian leader into a church job. It’s wrong for many of them, and another window on the fact that some of our theological understanding of Christian vocation is not only skewed and in need of remedial measure – it is actually toxic to the Church having the impact we are called to have in culture.
The families and church bodies that begin to prepare young ones to follow and hone skills and passions that are unique to each child, without elevating primarily pastoral and ministry work (though high callings they are, and accurate for a few), will be the families and church bodies that have the most significant impact in culture in our present and coming generations.
In many cases, we’re teaching our children to avoid the hardest questions of culture, ask only “safe” questions themselves, or simply to defend themselves against those questions, instead of equipping them to reflectively answer those questions with lives that resound with credibility in culture – in loving thought, action and words. Our work in the church is often primarily about our internal functions as a Christian community, and only incidentally about transforming our communities around us. There is not enough time, energy and even intellectual understanding (or cultural engagement) to go around, so we circle the wagons and do just enough in our towns to make ourselves feel like we should exist as a church.
I’m all for the Church, and us taking our place. I just believe that we had better start calling some things as they are, putting a spotlight on the elephant in the room, or we will find ourselves continually marginalized in a postmodern world – even more than we are now.
I’m beginning to sense that a time of verbal silence (or near silence), and vibrant action, is upon us as the Church, and living out our faith substantially in the world must take precedence over the church culture of words and hype that dominate our pulpits and shape our ongoing church leaders. The world is tired of our talk and its primarily internal implications; we should be too.
We need our faith communities to be self-sustaining, but we cannot, must not, sacrifice the proliferation of Kingdom-oriented individuals whose Christian leadership is lived out in studios, board rooms, backstages, labs, classrooms, arenas and governmental halls of power. We can’t just hope for that, and then subtley suggest that church work is the most important thing they can be doing.
We have to give our real influencers a theology that puts a fire in their hearts after Sunday – when they get out of bed on Monday morning. We need to give them a mission worth dying for; not just a role in the church so we can keep the system alive. We must change our teaching and our systems to launch them with great force and joy into their daily labors. We must channel the majority of our teaching, human and tangible resources into creating these kinds of people, for work outside of the church proper.
P.S. By way of disclaimer, that’s a fairly unchecked rant after another “shake and wake” church experience. Please take it as such; a moment in time where I’ve just seen another situation that confirms in me more and more that the Church needs to get out of the church – substantially, and with the majority of our human and other resources.