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[CHRISTIANITY] Stopping the Cultural Drift (Views of Simon Chang)

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  • madchinaman
    Stopping Cultural Drift An Asian Pentecostal argues that we need to know what the church is before we figure out what the church does. Mark Galli
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 17 3:13 AM
      Stopping Cultural Drift
      An Asian Pentecostal argues that we need to know what the church is
      before we figure out what the church does.
      Mark Galli
      http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/november/33.66.html


      -

      Preaching finds its echoes in secular teaching and counseling.
      Evangelism finds its echoes in sales. Pastoral counseling finds its
      echoes in the efforts of the caseworker. Church ritual finds its
      echoes in the formal procedures of the court and legislature. And the
      administration of church programs finds its echoes in the management
      of countless secular organizations.
      *
      Rather, it presents a sustained argument from a single, coherent
      point of view, biblically and historically grounded, which can enable
      the church to withstand the temptation of cultural accommodation.
      *
      The church's role is to figure out how it fits into that larger
      reality: Christ against culture, Christ transforming culture, and so
      forth. "This implies," says Chan, "that the church derives its basic
      identity from the larger world."
      *
      Note: When will the APA church "leaders" (in general) speak with a
      clear voice of leadership more concerned about what Scriptures speaks
      of instead of worrying about disrupting cultural
      differences/clashes/etc. that results in most Asian American churches
      just serving the role as community centers. Their present actions
      confirms that they (in general, recognizing that there are
      exceptional leaders who have broken the mold) are more concerned
      about the "culture" of being Asian/Asian American - of which, many
      are unaware of what is an "Asian Pacific American" (history, issues,
      etc.) - as oppose to the "culture" of being a Christian/"Christ-like"
      (Editor's Note)

      -


      Evangelical leaders are worried about the future of the movement.

      That's one conclusion I reached after editing "What's Next?" in the
      October 2006 edition of Christianity Today. For that article, we
      asked more than 100 evangelical leaders about the challenges
      evangelicals face in a number of spheres: politics, higher education,
      culture, international justice, relief and development, and so on.
      Two quotes, in particular, suggest the nature of the worry.

      Evangelist Greg Laurie: "The church has made such tremendous strides
      that now my only concern is that we're so cutting edge, we're so
      cool, and we're so hip. But are we still preaching the authentic
      gospel message?"

      Franklin Graham of Samaritan's Purse: "The most important challenge
      that will face evangelical relief in the next 50 years is to make
      sure we don't dilute our faith as we respond to hurting people around
      the world."

      This is not a new worry, of course. Theologian David Wells has for
      years complained about evangelical capitulation to culture:

      Preaching finds its echoes in secular teaching and counseling.
      Evangelism finds its echoes in sales. Pastoral counseling finds its
      echoes in the efforts of the caseworker. Church ritual finds its
      echoes in the formal procedures of the court and legislature. And the
      administration of church programs finds its echoes in the management
      of countless secular organizations.
      Looking back at the movement, historian David Bebbington, among
      others, has noted how the Wesleys' "optimism of grace" fit well the
      optimistic temper of the Enlightenment and how the Keswick movement's
      cultivation of the "victorious life" owed much to 19th-century
      romanticism. While evangelicals have been adept at adapting to
      culture, we have not always been able to retain a critical distance
      from it—being in the world, but not of it.

      The reasons are many. Wells, for instance, says evangelicals have
      lost "their capacity to think theologically." Historian Mark Noll
      says it has a lot to do with the "scandal of the evangelical mind,"
      which "may be addressed by the scandal of the cross" and by "an
      alteration of attitudes."

      To such admonitions, many evangelicals say a hearty amen. Theologian
      Simon Chan is one such evangelical. But while applauding the analysis
      and suggestions of such thinkers, he asks, "How are evangelicals to
      change their attitudes? How are the essentials to be recovered?"

      To answer these questions, Chan outlines a theology of the church
      that appears to have great potential for stopping evangelical
      cultural accommodation in its tracks.

      More than Missional

      Chan is Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity
      Theological College in Singapore and author of a number of books,
      most recently Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community
      (InterVarsity, 2006), in which he outlines his ecclesiology.

      Chan is not the first to zero in on ecclesiology. From the Chicago
      Call of 1977 to recent compendiums—like John Stackhouse's Evangelical
      Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? (Baker) and The Community of the
      Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology (InterVarsity), edited by
      Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier—a number of evangelicals have
      suggested that our theology of the church lies at the root of many
      evangelical problems. But Chan's book is not a complaint. Rather, it
      presents a sustained argument from a single, coherent point of view,
      biblically and historically grounded, which can enable the church to
      withstand the temptation of cultural accommodation.

      Chan says we must first "probe the ontology of the church"—that is,
      what the church is in its essence. Chan believes most evangelicals
      have an "instrumentalist view of the church," in which the church's
      basic identity "can be expressed in terms of its functions: what it
      must do to fulfill God's larger purpose." In this view, "the church
      is only a subspecies of creation and must discover the clue to its
      identity within the created order."

      The supreme example, Chan notes, is Richard Niebuhr's classic Christ
      and Culture, where culture—not the church—is the all-embracing
      reality. The church's role is to figure out how it fits into that
      larger reality: Christ against culture, Christ transforming culture,
      and so forth. "This implies," says Chan, "that the church derives its
      basic identity from the larger world."

      A better way to view the Bible's narrative is "to see creation as
      forming the backdrop for God's elective grace and covenant
      relationship." That is, Chan says, God created the world in order to
      enter into a covenanted relationship with his people, beginning with
      Abraham and culminating in Jesus Christ and the church.

      Chan continues: "The church does not exist in order to fix a broken
      creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church. To be sure,
      the church's coming into being does require the overcoming of sin,
      but that is quite different from saying that the problem of sin is
      the reason for the church's being. God made the world in order to
      make the church, not vice versa."

      This idea is not a figment of Chan's theological imagination, but, as
      he points out, is grounded in revelation: "[God] chose us in him
      before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before
      him in his sight (Eph. 1:4)." We must always remember that the church
      as the people of God is not an afterthought or a means to an end, but
      the end itself.

      Not Reinventing the Church

      Chan outlines a number of implications from this line of theology.
      First, the church cannot be understood as the creation of the devout,
      something that is merely the most efficient and effective way to
      organize ourselves to do mission. With this insight, Chan challenges
      a widely held evangelical presupposition. As the late Stanley Grenz
      has noted, the evangelical movement is largely parachurch-oriented in
      its self-conception. Its "non-ecclesiology" is the "voluntary
      society," formed by the creative will of the members to accomplish
      some greater purpose.

      Recent examples of such thinking abound. George Barna in Revolution
      (Tyndale, 2005) proclaims, "We should keep in mind that what we
      call 'church' is just one interpretation of how to develop and live a
      faith-centered life. We made it up." And later, "Growing numbers of
      young adults, teenagers, and even adolescents are piecing together
      spiritual elements they deem worthwhile, constituting millions of
      personalized 'church' models."

      Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch are two Australian thinkers who are
      gaining an increasing following among pastors and other church
      leaders intrigued with "the missional church." In The Shaping of
      Things to Come (Hendrickson, 2003), they argue that we need
      to "reinvent the church" in "revolutionary" ways so that we
      can "incarnate the gospel within a specific cultural context."

      Ironically, while Barna, Frost, Hirsch, and others believe they are
      doing something revolutionary, they are conceiving the church largely
      in a traditional evangelical way, a way that unfortunately permits
      the church to uncritically repeat a pattern of cultural engagement
      that has historically compromised its integrity. They assume the
      church is first and foremost a human creation that must be adapted to
      culture to continue to be relevant. Their passion for the church and
      its mission, and many of their creative ministry suggestions, are
      bringing new enthusiasm for the church's mission. But it is difficult
      to conceive a "revolution" founded on such a mission-driven
      ecclesiology that won't succumb to cultural accommodation, as has
      every similar evangelical revolution.

      Instead, Chan argues, we need to begin our thinking about the church
      with the truth that our names have been written from the foundation
      of the world in the Book of Life (Rev. 13:8)—meaning that the church
      is not our work, but a gift of God, something that comes from him and
      into which he calls us. It is not our creation, but something prior
      to creation, and "it is prior to creation precisely because it is the
      body of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity."

      Chan takes very seriously the biblical language here: "The expression
      body of Christ is more than a metaphor for some intimate social
      dynamic between Christ and his church. It is an ontological reality,
      as Christ is ontologically real."

      He quotes theologian Anders Nygren, among others, for
      support: "Christ is present in his church through his Word and
      sacrament, and the church is, in its essence, nothing other than the
      presence of Christ."

      Chan acknowledges, however, that "we must not so conceive of the
      church's identity with Christ as to deny that the church is also not
      Christ but distinct from Christ." Indeed, the church lives in
      submission to its head. But Chan concludes that the church is not
      primarily something we create and periodically reinvent to handle
      certain missional and cultural challenges. It is the body of Christ,
      a reality in existence before culture ever was.

      Digging into Barren Ground

      Chan also says: "The people of God are a 'peculiar people,' chosen by
      God from eternity and distinguished by their 'core practices,' or
      what is traditionally called 'the marks of the church'"—practices and
      marks that are not so much invented as given to the church by the
      Spirit. While these marks are variously described, most Christians
      over time and over cultures have included two crucial ones (usually
      among others): the preaching of the Word and administration of the
      sacraments—baptism and the Lord's Supper.

      These core practices are not our invention, created to offer
      meaningful and culturally relevant spiritual rituals to the
      surrounding culture. Instead, Chan argues, they've been given and
      shaped by the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus promised, guides the church
      into all truth (John 14:26). The same Spirit who guided the church
      into the recognition of the biblical canon and the doctrine of the
      Trinity has been guiding the church in its core practices.

      This recognition cuts right to the heart of another evangelical habit
      that has led into unthinking cultural accommodation. Because we pay
      little attention to church history, we fail to gain critical distance
      from our own time and culture. Again, a typical example comes from
      the newest evangelical revolutionaries. In their book, Frost and
      Hirsch summarily dismiss all of church history from Constantine to
      the 1990s with a sweep of the hand as merely an experiment
      in "Christendom," a way of thinking that is now irrelevant. It is
      difficult to imagine how evangelical missional thinking of this sort,
      despite its many keen insights, is going to avoid the traps of
      previous evangelical "revolutions," since it ignores the work of the
      Spirit in the body of Christ through time and culture.

      From the chapter on the ontology of the church, Chan moves to
      worship, the shape of liturgy, the catechumenate, and, yes, even
      mission. Everything he says after chapter one grows out of his
      ontology. Evangelicals will certainly disagree with some of it, since
      it sounds increasingly Anglican. But they would do well to dig into
      the ground out of which his liturgical theology grows. For it is in
      this ground more than anywhere that evangelical theology has been
      barren.

      Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today and author of
      Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).
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