What Makes It Difficult to Buck Societal Trends

September 6, 2013

Yesterday’s blog post gave rise to some interesting comments on Facebook (not here, regrettably), suggesting that a nerve was hit on this question of just what the church is supposed to be and do in relation to “the culture.” I am aware that many books have been written on the subject of the church and culture (or Christ and Culture by Niebuhr and D. A. Carson’s Christ & Culture Revisited). I closed my reflection yesterday with the statement that, despite the fact we possess true freedom and righteousness in Christ, believing and acting on this truth is a sticking point for the church and its members.

Why does the church (and the saints who comprise it) choke on the idea that we can, must, and are empowered to act differently from the world? Here are some reasons for the difficulty we have differentiating ourselves from the prevailing winds of our time:

1. Ignorance. Many of us honestly do not know enough about God and God’s purposes for us to recognize, much less live, the godly life. This may be a chosen ignorance, among those who are happily indifferent to the things of God. But I have also observed newcomers to our church, for instance, who exhibit a spiritual knowledge deficit and unfamiliarity with the basics of biblical and moral ideas. This gap limits one’s ability to practice the Christian faith as a way of life.

2. Intractability. It is a feature of human nature that our prideful hearts do not want the fundamental transformation that Jesus empowers. In the flesh, we like what we like when we like it, and we do what we want to do when we want to do it. [This is another of Naegeli’s Laws.] The idea that Jesus might change our ways of thinking and doing, particularly when it goes against the grain with which we feel so comfortable…? Unbelievable!

3. Fear of isolation. Bottom line, we’re afraid we’ll lose our friends if we stand against the prevailing mores they exhibit. The recovering alcoholic, as an example, has some big decisions to make about where and with whom he will spend his time. If “bar” and “drinking buddies” have to be avoided in order to stay sober, he has a painful redirection ahead. It takes a special kind of courage to adopt a new social circle, to learn a new conceptual language characterized by freedom instead of addiction, and to embrace a God-centered worldview. But these are essential movements that go with conversion, and too many of us have gotten stuck somewhere along that process such that our turning is incomplete and we fear the consequences of a total surrender to God.

4. Inertia. It is just plain hard to make the effort (to which grace is not opposed, as Dallas Willard said often) to change a long-standing thought or behavior. It is difficult to swim upstream against the current of prevailing culture and there are risks in doing so. [For those counting my top 20 sermon illustrations, here’s one of my favorites:  At the annual Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, tens of thousands of runners wend their way on 7.5 miles of city streets between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. But there is one runner who dares to be different and, costumed as a salmon, starts at the ocean and runs in the opposite direction, upstream to spawn as it were. Imagine how intimidating it is to come against a wall of runners moving en masse towards you, and the difficulty of navigating through the boisterous crowd going that way in order to go this way toward the Bay. And so it is as we swim against culture’s godless currents.]

So far, my comments have been directed toward the individual, but let’s take a look at the PCUSA for a minute.  What are its reasons for experiencing difficulty in obeying Jesus and the Word Written in areas where biblical and societal norms collide?

PCUSA Ignorant? To get at this, we can point to the occasionally atrocious theology we hear spouted from various microphones at General Assembly and to the biblically vacuous decisions of GAPJCs in the last two years. There are some wonderful and faithful biblical interpreters in the Presbyterian tribe, but the application of biblical instruction to everyday life is left to everyone’s own opinion. The teaching office of the church has abdicated its responsibility to make disciples by teaching them to do everything that Jesus told them (Matthew 28:19ff).  Our confessional heritage has been squandered in the process.

PCUSA Intractable? The outright rejection of Scripture and the Confessions by some who have prominent authority and influence in the PCUSA and the embrace of a false teaching that the male-female union is not a prerequisite for marriage is evidence enough. But the “testimony” of some in the LGBTQ tribe says outright, “My experience is this, and I don’t want to change it.” In light of Hebrews 12:3ff, we have to say that the folks that insist on pursuing same-sex attraction are not willing to undergo discipline and, yes, make the sacrifices that would align their thinking and their behavior to God’s revealed will regarding sexual expression.

PCUSA Isolation? In preparation for the last Assembly, I heard pro-gay-marriage folks saying that to be missional the church had to meet its potential members (LGBTQ people) where they are, affirm their lifestyle, and demonstrate that they are welcome and affirmed in their same-sex attraction. I’ve heard others say, “Our neighbors think Christians are gay-bashing homophobes and on the basis of that opinion have rejected the church. We can reverse their opinion of us by being welcoming and affirming of gays in our congregations.” In other words, folks won’t like us if we hold to a [biblical] position on sexuality; our membership is dropping, but we can reverse this trend by adopting the values our society is trending toward. [Oh, but some of the same people say we are being counter-cultural by being welcoming and affirming long before our culture is! Can’t speak for the proverbial Peoria, but here in the San Francisco area, a pro-gay culture is pervasive, as it is in other large coastal cities in the U.S. Here, the church is “catching up,” on the road to perdition, I would add.]

PCUSA Inertia? A Presbyterian legal system built on precedent, dating to actions and decisions as far back as 1729, is stuck in a mode of decision-making that is veering it away from definitive biblical norms. The momentum (yes, something different from inertia) is moving in the direction of granting such freedom of conscience to every individual Presbyterian that no Presbyterian body can properly administer discipline. What is in a state of paralysis (getting back to inertia) is our inability to see our position in the world as truly prophetic—not hip and ‘on the right side of history’— and reaching it with the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. The sheer effort required to learn the Great Story of God and God’s Creation and translate it into living, breathing examples of the Kingdom of God at work has proven to be Herculean for our predominately white, aging, and cocooned constituency.  

After this critique, please note that I am still a PCUSA pastor and have no plans to seek dismissal any time soon. Why not? Because I believe that there are still a few ears that hear what Jesus is saying to the churches, and I’d like to help them bring the Word to life. Tomorrow, on the suggestion of one of my commenters yesterday, I’m going to ponder the choices we have in relation to the culture: the church moving with the culture? The church moving counter to the culture? Or is there another alternative?

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2 Responses to “What Makes It Difficult to Buck Societal Trends”

  1. Jodie Says:

    Mary,

    This is better, staying away from hyperbolic rhetoric.

    I wonder if you will start with the definition of culture before you approach the subject of the church moving with or counter culture. It is very difficult to see one’s own culture. Even harder to run against it, or act as its change agent. I find most people don’t know what the term “culture” really means, and therefore remain ineffective at imparting any proactive change to their own or any other culture.

    I would also ask if perhaps the thought process should be about choosing between following or leading a culture instead of the “acting with/counter” proposition. In what way is the culture of the church different than the culture our church is immersed in? In what way do we want to lead or change the culture of the church, and in what way do we want to lead or change the culture in which our church is immersed?


  2. […] Read the rest if Naegeli’s blog by clicking here. Download this page in PDF format […]

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