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Living in the Hingeway: A Reflection on Church and Culture

Preface: This is just a simple paper assigned after an introductory study of postmodernity and the current cultural shifts and a reading of “The Younger Evangelicals” by Robert Webber. This paper is not designed to be very formal containing a thesis and points. It is merely a personal reflection upon 5 cultural shifts that are opportunities for the Church, 5 cultural shifts that are a danger to the Church, and 5 ways I want to create ministry in this cultural context or how to carry out ministry. I believe the ways these younger evangelicals, who come from multiple Christian Traditions, have some solid ways of engaging the culture that we Orthodox Christians can implement and learn from as we wrestle with the context in which God has placed us. I hope this will be of benefit as you continue to wrestle and to struggle in these anxious times.

Dr. Carlus Gupton writes, “Our time is best described as transitional, a very fluid moment where previous ways of understanding the world and functioning within it are increasingly abandoned, yet without clear definition of what will replace it. Something has ended, but the new beginning has not yet taken shape, thus we are in the uncomfortable wilderness, the neutral zone.” The Church is living in a day and age where absolutes are being denied and truth is relative. This day and age of Postmodernism can present to the Church opportunities to ministry and dangers to the Church’s ministry to preach the Gospel and be a hospital for the sick sinners.

Five Opportunities the Cultural Shifts Present

Robert Webber writes:

The younger evangelicals are conscious that they grew up in a postmodern world. One younger evangelical writes of ways postmodern thinking differs from modern thought. Postmoderns ‘no longer feel a need to bow the knee to the modern God of rationality.’ Postmoderns, he argues, ‘have a much broader conception of what counts as reason’ because they acknowledge that ‘all rationality (religious, scientific, or whatever) is laden with faith.’ Postmodern young people recognize that ‘thinking is highly indebted to others.’ Therefore, the younger evangelical rejects the modern notion of individualism and embraces community. And to be postmodern in a Christian way is ‘to embrace the kingdom of God and renounce the values of the world.’”

This is the first opportunity presented to us to witness to people. This opens the door that much of Protestantism, with its emphasis on the rational, had closed and that is the door to sacramentalism or a sacramental world-view. For too long reason has dominated the Church in the Western societies. We, as Orthodox Christians, must not let reason dominate the life of the Church too much.

The Enlightenment with the emphasis on reason and scientific method stole all the mystery from the Christian faith ranging from throwing out the sacraments and calling them “ordnances” to the rejection of Christian mysticism. This shift away from reason allows for the Church to restore a sacramental world-view for it allows for a restoration of mystery, the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans (fearful and fascinating mystery). This shift opens the door for the Numinous to be once again believed, for there to be transcendence beyond our reason. This is not to say reason is invalid. The Church would be wise to follow the words of Blasé Pascal, “If one subjects everything to reason our religion will lose its mystery and its supernatural character. If one offends the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous …There are two equally dangerous extremes, to shut reason out and let nothing else in.”

“The postmodern September 11, 2001, world has led to the recovery of the biblical understanding of human nature. The language of sin, evil, evildoers, and a reaffirmation of the deceit and wickedness of the human heart has once again emerged in our common vocabulary,” writes Robert Webber, “The liberal notion of the inherent goodness of humankind and the more recent evangelical neglect of the language of sin and depravity have failed to plumb the depths of the wickedness that lurks in the human heart. The younger evangelical approaches humanity with a more realistic and biblical assessment of our estrangement from God.” This presents the Churches second opportunity to present the Christian meta-narrative of the Creation, the Fall, Israel, and Jesus Christ. This allows for the Church to tell Her story of redemption and how She has been made a part of the re-creation attempts of God.

Pragmatic Evangelicals, seeking to draw in seekers (no pun intended), neglected to preach about the wickedness of men and the depths of humanity’s depravity. David Crowder, of The David Crowder*Band, put it this way: “When our depravity meets His divinity it is a beautiful collision.” This cultural shift allows for a sacramental understanding of the Cross and Resurrection to take place. The shift allows for the preaching of humanity’s depravity coming into collision with God’s divinity, which overcomes the wickedness and clothes the redeemed in the Divine Nature (II Peter 1:4-5).

The Church can present the story of the Fall, but that there is more to life. That there is a door for humanity to be ontologically changed, transformed back into an original state of glory. David Horseman writes, “”Theosis is neither a mere psychological change nor a simple behavioral change. It is both, but not in a superficial sense. These changes of thought and behavior are but the indices of a deeper, ontological change, in our nature, a sharing of the divine nature, in which we become more and more like God, changed from glory into glory, until the day of our final redemption…” This could be the story we tell with this change in culture.

The third opportunity presented by this cultural shift is in the context of evangelism. The Next-Wave web magazine states of younger evangelicals’ desire “is to see people enter a relationship with Jesus Christ. Receive His forgiveness, enter His community with the saints, worship in ways that are meaningful to them, and reach out to others in their world.” Robert Webber believes that the new landscape of the culture will provide a new type of evangelism that is ancient-future evangelism. The old is that the Church must emphasis a personal regenerative relationship with the Triune God via Christ, but the new is the context in which the Church worships and facilitates community that is missional.

This aura creates an opportunity for the Church to fashion a community focused on relationships of reconciliation: relationships with humanity and with God. The Gospel is presented through relationship primarily. A good model of evangelism in the postmodern world would be: dialogue, demonstration, declaration, and defense all lived out incarnationally in the context of our greater society but also within our communities.

The Church’s fourth opportunity within this cultural shift is to begin to see Christianity as more than a world view. Robert Webber writes, “Today the younger evangelical questions the priority given to Christianity as a worldview. Younger evangelical Charles Moore writes, ‘The idea of Christianity as a worldview is essentially Gnostic. It makes Christianity an idea, a philosophical viewpoint, and a construct. Christianity is primarily a kingdom, an embodied reality and is more about a faithful discipleship than affirming an intellectual construct.’ Moore argues that making Christianity a worldview ‘abstracts reason from history and pits the existing, choosing subject against the object. It reduces Christianity to metaphysics.’”

This part of the cultural shift is very important to the life of Christianity because seeing the faith as something to be believed, rationed, and defended can leave it shallow and empty for there is no living it out. Christianity is primarily relational and has to be incarnational in this world. The Church can benefit with this ideological shift because it allows the Church to embody Christ and be formed to His image and live as He lives.

“The Christianity Today articles reported that ‘postmodern Christians are trying to redefine the relation of faith and knowledge, that instead of coming to the faith rationally, true knowledge requires the Holy Spirit to work an ontological change in the human heart,’” writes Robert Webber. He goes on to clarify that this is not a new approach, but that younger Christians are deconstructing in order “to reconstruct an historic life of the mind”. The road to the future lies in the past. The Church has an opportunity today to revisit the past with the Creeds, the Church Fathers, St. Aquinas, and St. Augustine and let that ancient wisdom shape and mold the way the Church carries out faith and practice. Many young Christians are even reverting to the ancient Orthodox Church and becoming one with Her and Her Mysteries. This is a good thing!

Five Dangers the Cultural Shifts Present

The number one thing for the Church to distinguish in the cultural shift of postmodernity is that there are two schools of postmodernity: soft postmodernity and hard postmodernity. Milliard Erickson, in Postmodernizing the Faith, writes:

Hard postmodernism, best represented by deconstruction, rejects the idea of any sort of objectivity and rationality. It maintains that all theories are simply worked out to justify and empower those who hold them, rather than being based on facts. It not only rejects the limitation of meaning of language to empirical reference; it rejects the idea that language has any sort of objective or extra linguistic reference at all. It moves from relativism to pluralism to truth. Not only is all knowing and all speaking done from a particular perspective, but each perspective is equally true or valuable. The meaning of a statement is not to be found objectively in the meaning intended by the speaker or writer, but is the meaning that the hearer or reader finds in it. ‘Whatever it means to me’ even if it is quite different from what it says to you.”

The Church has to remember that wonderful idea by Blasé Pascal that there are two dangerous extremes shutting reason out or letting nothing else but reason in. The pluralism of today’s society is dangerous to the truth of the Gospel. The Church must defend and live the truth of the Gospel and learn to evangelize to a pluralistic society instead of assimilating into society.

Religious tolerance is the second danger. Dr. Gupton writes about what postmodern thinkers believe, “No religion should be thought of as superior to another. Indeed, this belief in superiority is the major roadblock to religious unity.” This hard postmodernism belief is very dangerous to the truth of the Gospel. The Church believes that She has an exclusive claim on the Truth, which She must stand by and defend.

The third danger of hard postmodernism found in this cultural shift is in the area of evangelism. Dr. Gupton writes about postmodern thought, “Proselytizing is bigotry, pure and simple. The idea of winning converts is based on the antiquated notion that one religion has more to offer than another. Our task is to help others discover the hidden inner meaning of their religions, rather than convert them to our own.” This is something the Church must absolutely reject to defend the Gospel. Only through Christ is forgiveness of sin offered and deification began. Other religions contain some universal truths, but do not contain the Truth found in the Gospel presented by the Church.

The fourth danger the Church must be careful to be aware of moral relativism or moral pragmatism. Easum writes, “In the new emerging society right and wrong will not exist. Whatever benefits the individual will form the basis for ethics.” The Church has to come to the defense of morals and ethics. The problem with hard postmodernism is that it deconstructs to the point of chaos, which cannot be upheld. This is no accountability of ethics, but the Church can account for its ethics, which stem from God and absolute truths. Society and individuals are dangerous grounds upon which to build what is moral, right, or just.

The fifth danger to the Church is privatization. The Church must be careful to fight against this idea that faith, too, can be privatized and individualized. The Church must maintain a strong emphasis on communal living both at home and in ecclesiastical settings. Easum writes, “People are preoccupied with themselves. Whatever is done behind closed doors is considered acceptable conduct. Privacy is the ultimate price…The majority of people will tend to withdraw physically and psychologically.” This is the danger to an incarnational people called to be God’s hands and feet in the world. We must do well to remember that our faith is personal, but it is not private! The rampant individualism of Western culture is an extreme heresy that we must be aware of and reject thoroughly.

Five Ways to Interface with the Culture

As a young man who feels called to the priesthood, I am feeling lead more and more lately to plant a church from the ground up. There is a great outline of postmodern churches compared to pragmatic Evangelistic churches and how they function within the postmodern culture, by Eric Stanford, found on pages 116 and 117 of “The Younger Evangelicals” that I think fits perfectly how I would like to approach ministry in this postmodern society:

1. Even though I would be the priest and carry out all the sacramental duties I want to approach leadership as a team effort with all the members of the parish helping to carry out the duties of the church. Ministries may not always come from the leadership team, but from within the congregation who feels lead to start up a ministry. Christ is the head of the Church, and I am a part of that thus He moves mysteriously and powerfully in all our lives in the parish.

2. Life is about relationships. My life motto is “I am a person of worth created in the Image of God the Father, the Almighty, to live, to love, and to commune with fellow humankind and with the Blessed Trinity.” This is how I want to carry out ministry in the church. Programs, as Eric says, “are means not ends.” Everything thing we do ought to be to foster community and relationship and not just to learn and do. Developing close, healthy relationships is the focus within the postmodern context I want to employ.

3. Eric writes, “Be authentic. Don’t pretend you’ve got it all together, spiritually or otherwise. Admit your mistakes and struggles, for then we can work on them together. No posers allowed.” I believe this is core to who I am. I strive to be real and authentic. I am drawn to real and authentic people, so I want to be a part of a community that emphasizes that over excellence or perfection, but wants to strive towards those together.

4. I want to help create a community that honors “intellect and emotions, doctrine and intuition,” as Eric states. I want to take a holistic approach to faith and life. I want to focus on the power of the story that Christianity tells: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus. I see it often as a five act Shakespeare play that has last the fifth act thus we are left to write the fifth act on our own according to the authority of the other four acts. Our stories should come inside of this grand story.

5. I want to create dialogue and relationship between Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and Orthodox. There is no us vs. them in regards to other Christians or in regards to non-Christians. After all, our Lord told His disciples when they told Him someone was casting out demons in His name that was not a part of their group, “whoever is not against us is for us.” Christians and non-Christians often face the same issues and have the same questions. It is about cooperation and not competition or condemnation. I want to clarify that I do not propose a false sense of unity or ecumenism either. The Orthodox Church is the one true Church, and I firmly believe this. We have made our conditions for unity known, but I think that dialogue is a good thing that promotes healthy conversations and understanding among those who profess Christ. I want to help foster this healthy conversation.

John Anderson has a B.S. in Bible and Preaching/Church Leadership from Johnson University and is a member of Saint Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN, where he resides with his wife, Courtney, and their Chihauhau, Charlie. He is very passionate about preaching, church leadership, missiology, and preaching the Gospel to a lost and hurting society. He aspires to become a priest in the Orthodox Church. He is the editor-in-chief for Orthodox Ruminations.

Published: June 10, 2013

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