November 4, 2008 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Christ + Culture
Five days after the 2004 presidential election, my friend Al Mohler preached at Covenant Life Church a message titled “After the Election.” What follows in this post are a number of lengthy but very helpful excerpts from that message that will provide you with a biblical perspective, regardless of who becomes the 44th president of the United States. I encourage you to take a few moments to read them.
We are here on the Sunday after a national day of decision. And when I was asked to come and to preach to you on this day and to speak about the meaning of the election, we had no idea what would happen on Tuesday that would frame the background of our discussion today. In one sense it really mattered. In another sense it really didn’t.
We are living in one of those awkward moments when we are trying to decide what is really important, not only in terms of the present, not only in terms of our nation’s trajectory, but in terms of eternity.
We, as Christians, had to come together on a day like this in a service of worship to bring ourselves into the counsel of godly wisdom and to seek to unthink the thinking of the world. And this is so difficult because the seduction of worldly thinking surrounds us.
It is very easy for us to turn everything into a sociological calculus. We can explain these things on the basis of sociological patterns, voting demographics, and all the rest. It is very seductive for us to fall into some kind of amateur political science. We can map red and blue America. We can come up with the voting patterns. We can look precinct by precinct. It is very seductive to think we can psychologize this and determine why people made the choices they did in the voting booth. It was because they were afraid of this or afraid of that or they were hopeful of this or they had this need that was represented in this vote.
We could turn ourselves into therapists, psychologists, political scientists, sociologists, and we could pool all the wisdom that the secular world has to offer, and it would be an interesting conversation that in the end would tell us nothing about eternity.
So we are coming together this morning to think about what the election means. And in contrast, in order to do that faithfully, we are going to have to talk about what the election means and what the election doesn’t mean. We are going to have to talk about what is at stake and what wasn’t at stake. And we are going to have to try with godly wisdom, submitted to the authority of Scripture, to put all of this together.
In the Christian world, we face a perpetual temptation either to minimize the importance of the political question or to maximize it.…There is the temptation in both directions. We can trace the history of the church, and we can see at various times the church has been more tempted to go in one direction of unfaithfulness and at other times in that other direction of unfaithfulness. But our responsibility, perhaps most acutely on the Sunday after an election, is to get our hearts and minds together and submit them to the Word of God and ask: What should we make of all this?....
We are reminded that the political process is important, but it has its severe limitations. It is so important that I believe it is no exaggeration to say that by our political process we must contend for righteousness, uphold the dignity of law, uphold the administration of justice. And we do so as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that justice is God’s gift and command and expectation to his people, that when God removes a sense of justice from a civilization, what follows is God’s judgment and wrath poured out in sheer chaos and dissolution.
We should be thankful insofar as we recognize [that] our opportunity to vote in this society is a Christian obligation to bear witness, even through that vote, to what we consider to be most important. That means at times we as Christians have to vote against our economic interest for a higher interest. We have to vote against our personal interest for a more significant interest.
With an issue like human life and human dignity on the line, a vote that would lead to the further destruction of human life or a failure to vote in a way that would restrict the destruction of human life is a vote that makes a citizen complicit in the taking and destruction of human life. There is no innocence. There is no neutrality.
Augustine, the great Christian theologian of the fourth century, tried to help the church understand this even as the Roman Empire appeared to be crumbling and eventually was destroyed, was fallen, and was no more. Writing in his famous book The City of God, Augustine said we must remember that there are two cities: a City of God and a City of Man. The City of God is ruled by a heavenly sovereign. It is the eternal city. It will never pass away. And there is the City of Man. It is God’s creation. In this age it is administered by sinners and has only a hint, at its best, of the grandeur of the City of God. At its very best it only hints at justice. For at our very best, our justice is tainted by our own finitude and our own sinfulness and our own limited wisdom. But in the City of God, justice reigns supreme because a just God administers his justice directly.
The same thing is true as we pass through all the virtues and all of our understandings of how God would order a society. But Augustine wanted his church members to remember that the City of Man is still important, because God created the city and put his redeemed people in it to make a difference for eternity.
Each of these two cities, Augustine said, has a love. In the City of God, the only love is love of God. It is an undiluted, undistracted, unrefracted love of God. But in the City of Man, there are many loves. Most of them are loves for the wrong things. All of them, even at their very best, [are] tainted by human sinfulness. Augustine said that love of neighbor should, in the City of Man, compel us to political responsibility, political honesty, and even political action.
But even as the church, the redeemed people of God in the City of Man is busy at work at policy, at politics, at strategy, and at tactics. All these things that do matter. The redeemed people of God must always have our hearts set on the City of God.
The apostle Paul put it this way. He said, “But our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20, ESV). We are citizens, first and foremost, of a heavenly kingdom. But in this earth we are also, in this age, citizens of an earthly kingdom, and we must show the glory of God by being God’s people at work for good, at work for righteousness, at work for that which will preserve and protect and nurture. But most importantly, we must be in this age at work preaching the gospel, an issue that has no direct political allegiance, but does have political meaning, political extension, and political implications. We must understand that the main responsibility of the church in every age, whatever its government that is around us in our society—whether we be in the Roman Empire with Caesar sitting on the throne, or whether we be in some kingdom where there is some lesser king who considers himself a sovereign monarch, or whether or not we are in a representative democracy where we elect our own leaders, or if we are in any form of government imaginable to mankind. The one thing we must know is that this government, at its very best, is only an incompetent core of sinners doing, we hope, their very best.
Incompetent, not in a human comparison with each other, but incompetence in the theological perspective that there is no government that will solve the problem of human sinfulness. There is no government that will come up with the end-all solution to human poverty. There is no government that will reach into the hearts of men and turn those who plot murder into those who no longer have such plans. No government will ever be able to reach inside the human soul and bring about transformation or regeneration.
Government, according to Paul in Romans chapter 13, has very specific, defined responsibilities. The first is to maintain justice, to punish the evildoer, to maintain the rule and administration of law—that law to also correspond to God’s moral law. And in the New Testament, we have very clear indications of the Christian responsibility. We are to pray for our leaders. We are to pray and we are to respect the king. And by extension, that means in our situation the government we elect, and especially the president and others who have the most strategic and important constitutional responsibilities.
We need to pray for our president. We need to pray for all of those who are in elected office. We need to pray for all of those that are in appointed office. We need to pray for all of those who are in the part of the ongoing mechanisms of government. We need to pray because those are men and women making very real decisions that will have very real impact in the City of Man.
And we know from the perspective of the City of God, they are often brushing up against matters of eternity without knowing it.…
I am thankful that we can, on this Sunday after the election, as Christians, come together and seek some theological sanity, and do so in a way that will mobilize us and prepare us for the big job that lies ahead.
I am thankful that as we stand here today, we come in the name of the one true and living God who is the electing God and not the elected God. We are here in the name of a sovereign, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. His name is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We are here in the name of the triune God who reigns over all things. We are here in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ our Redeemer. We are here in the name of One who reigns over the affairs of nations, who looks down upon the affairs of men and sees grasshoppers, insects in debate, insects in decision, hopping bugs with the weighty affairs of state [Isaiah 40:22].
Scripture says that the Lord God shows his sovereignty in the rising and in the falling of nations, in the waxing and in the waning of empires. With biblical discernment, our task is to look to the affairs of the world and see the action of God, the judgment and the mercy of God outpoured as God’s sovereign and perfect will will dictate and as God’s humble people should observe.
We are people that know politics is important, but not ultimate. We know that politics has its place, an urgent and important place where, in the City of Man, decisions are made that can make the difference between life and death, injustice and justice, mercy and no mercy, commonweal or common disaster. But we also know that there is in this world at its very best only a hint of the kingdom that is to come, where God’s reign is supreme.
No government will ever be able to say, “Every tear has been wiped away.” No government will ever be able to say, “The blind have received sight and the deaf have received hearing and the lame now walk.”…That power is God’s alone.
Since we’re talking about Os Guinness, I pulled my stack of well-worn copies of his books off my shelves. And one of the most dog-eared, check-mark-littered, and highlighted copies is the book Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance
The book is a piercing critique of the church’s uncritical pursuit of relevance for the sake of relevance. His argument: “Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant” (p. 12). Guinness explains it like this:
By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and our relevance. Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant. (p. 11)
This is because, as Guinness writes, faithfulness to eternal truth is the means to genuine cultural relevance. In every generation, our goal is centered on the proclamation and advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the local church. Only because of the gospel’s continued relevance is it rightfully called the “good news.”
The gospel is good news. In fact it is “the best news ever” because it addresses our human condition appropriately, pertinently, and effectively as nothing else has, does, or can—and in generation after generation, culture after culture, and life after life. Little wonder that the Christian faith is the world’s first truly universal religion and in many parts of the world the fastest growing faith, and that the Christian church is the most diverse society on planet earth, with followers on all continents, in all climates, and under all the conditions of life and development. Of course, Christians can make the gospel irrelevant by shrinking and distorting it in one way or another. But in itself the good news of Jesus is utterly relevant or it is not the good news it claims to be. (p. 13)
Escaping the Cultural Captivity
The strength of Guinness’s book is not only the insightful criticism, but the constructive vision he presents to the reader. Chapter six, “Escaping Cultural Captivity” (pp. 95–112), was especially helpful. Guinness writes,
Without God, our human knowledge is puny and perverse, limited on the one hand by finitude and distorted on the other by sin. That said, and that said humbly, three things can help us cultivate the independent spirit and thinking that are characteristic of God’s untimely people. In ascending order, they are developing an awareness of the unfashionable, cultivating an appreciation for the historical, and paying constant attention to the eternal. Each is crucial for effective resistance thinking. (p. 96)
Guinness then develops each of these points:
1. Awareness of the Unfashionable
: Because the cross runs across the grain of human thinking, the faithful choice is often not the culturally popular choice. Guinness introduces the countercultural actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. While the Führer demanded complete allegiance, Bonhoeffer was stressing the cost of discipleship and allegiance to Christ alone. In all generations, the church needs to cultivate an awareness of the unfashionable to avoid being captured by the popular or “relevant.”
2. Appreciation for the Historical
: Americans, Guinness writes, seem to know everything about what’s happened over the past 24 hours, but little about the past 600 or 60 years. “Essential for untimeliness is appreciation for the historical, for no human perspective gives us a better counterperspective on our own day” (p. 100).
Mere lip service to the importance of history will not do. We each have to build in a steady diet of the riches of the past into our reading and thinking. Only the wisdom of the past can free us from the bondage of our fixation with the present and the future. C. S. Lewis counseled, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” (p. 104)
On the next page, he quotes Lewis again: “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of history blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books” (p. 105).
3. Attention to the Eternal
: “Essential for untimeliness is attention to the eternal, for only the eternal is eternally relevant” (p. 105). The way to remain relevant is to stay on the path of eternal truth. Guinness asks us to consider, if we are seeking to be relevant, why? To what end are we seeking relevance? “Nothing is finally relevant except in relation to the true and the eternal….Only the repeated touch of the timeless will keep us truly timely” (pp. 106, 112).
Yet again, it’s worth quoting him directly:
How then do we lift ourselves above the level of the finite and the mundane to gain an eternal perspective on what is true and relevant? The biblical answer is blunt in its candor. By ourselves we can’t. We can’t break out of Plato’s cave of the human, with all its smoke and flickering shadows on the wall. We can’t raise ourselves above the level of the timebound and the earthbound by such feeble bootstraps as reason. But where we are limited by our own unaided efforts, we have help. We have been rescued.…God has broken into our silence. He has spoken and has come down himself. And in his written and living Word we are given truth from outside our situation, truth that throws light on our little lives and our little world. (p. 107)
I highly recommend Prophetic Untimeliness
, especially for pastors. We would do well to heed Guinness’s call to faithfulness: “It is time to challenge the idol of relevance, to work out what it means to be faithful as well as relevant, and so to become truly relevant without ever ending up as trendy, trivial, and unfaithful” (p. 15).
From the beginning, cultural influences have threatened to weaken the church. The Apostle Paul exhorted the Roman Christians to resist the temptation to be “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2 ESV). And then he continued to remind his readers of the importance of thinking and discernment. Biblical nonconformity requires that we become aware of the forces in our culture that threaten to press in, confine, and reshape the church.
Last week we introduced Os Guinness (see “Faith, Doubt, and Unbelief”
). The following are five excerpts pulled from Mark Dever’s recent interview
with Guinness helps us better discern the cultural influence that threaten to reshape the church—worldliness, pluralization, secularization, and privatization.
Guinness on Worldliness
The story of [theological] liberalism is the story of adapting, accommodating, and then surrendering to the spirit of the age.
When I came to Christ, evangelicals had a high view of worldliness. Often the things that were considered worldly were rather trivial, so called “no-nos.” But now in some circles we don’t even have any view of worldliness. And you can see that with the rise of the church growth movement in the extremes, the seeker sensitive movement in the extremes, the desire to be relevant, etc. Evangelicalism has its own version of the liberal tendency. And many people are taking on modern ideas, modern practices, without a thought, and it is absolute folly…
Capitalism has trounced all its enemies: socialism and communism and the rest. But it is now at its greatest danger, both as a theory and as something practical in terms of, say, daily consumerism. And we as followers of Jesus must give a theoretical critique of capitalism and a very practical critique of capitalism in terms of shopping malls, etc. And if we don’t, it is going to undermine itself and our culture.
Guinness on Pluralization
Pluralism is just a social fact. There is a diversity, a great many people, a lot of differences, faiths, social backgrounds, languages, cultures, and so on. That is pluralism.…The early church, [although it] was born in a pluralistic climate,…was absolutely faithful to the exclusiveness of Christ. And they would die for it.
Pluralism is different from what the social scientists call pluralization, which affects us psychologically and spiritually.
So for instance, in a simple, traditional, culture, the idea that you had your faith that was for all of life was relatively easy. Like one man, one woman, till death do us part. But I often say, if I had my grandfather’s silk handkerchief and I lost it, I would look for it. It is precious. It is old. It is valuable. It is connected to the family. It would be stupid to look for a Kleenex. A Kleenex is made disposable, thousands of them.
Now in the same way, in a modern world, our relationships have been pluralized. And that is one of the deepest reasons undermining marriage. Every day you are meeting other people. Every woman could see another man she might do better with, and every man another woman he might do better with. And so our relationships have been pluralized, and that is very, very dangerous.
Peter Berger describes modern faith as “conversion prone”—we should always be changing, there is always something else. You could pass down the supermarket of faiths and today I am this, and tomorrow I am that.
One megachurch pastor said to me, “I look into my congregation’s eyes, and I am haunted by the fact that they are always only two weeks away from leaving me to join a bigger church, a better church.”
You can see church-membership shopping, surfing, channeling, and so on. “I don’t like your music. I like the music down there. I like the worship there. They are liturgical, or they are not liturgical,” or whatever.
You can see that a whole generation is pluralized. So pluralism is simply a fact. Pluralization is potentially very dangerous.
Guinness on Secularization
Secularism is a philosophy, the idea that there are no gods, no supernatural: atheism, naturalism, and science. That is secularism: a philosophy.
Secularization is a process, and it should be distinguished [from secularism]. It is the idea that as the world gets more modern, it gets less religious. Now the theory of secularization was actually grossly overstated for the first 200 years, and it has collapsed. It used to be thought [that] the world inevitably gets less religious as it gets more modern. So Europe was the model and the United States was the exception for the moment, but the whole world would eventually go the way of Europe. That’s now being seen to have the bias of a secular philosophy behind it. It is wrong. Empirically it is wrong. Philosophically it is biased.
So the secularization theory is under heavy assault today. But there is some effect of secularization. For instance, in our modern world, most of us, even as Christians, have a tendency to be atheists unawares in the sense [that, like] the modern world, [we put] all the premium on the five senses—what you can touch, taste, see, calculate, measure, weigh, and so on. So [in] many churches the whole understanding is this side of the feeling.
You know, I have rarely been in churches in the United States where sometimes in the sermon or worship the ceiling was punctured and you knew you were in the presence of the transcendent. I have rarely experienced that over here, because it is all this side of the ceiling.
And you look at, say, much of the church growth movement: They know everything about parking lot theory, the color that your tie has to be, and all sorts of things to grow the perfect church. The church could operationally go on for 50 years if the Holy Spirit withdrew altogether, because it is all this side of the ceiling, it’s all worldly operational procedures.
We have actually been much more secularized than we realize. That is why brothers and sisters from Africa or Asia, they know the power of Spirit…for healing or other areas, which many of us in the West simply don’t know. We have words like prayer or the supernatural, but a direct living experience of them we often don’t have.…
Now, with the rise of the Iranian revolution in ’79 and then all sorts of things right down to September the 11th, Peter Berger said famously, “The world is as furiously religious as ever.”…I personally think that when secularization seemed to be sweeping everything, atheists weren’t very strident. They didn’t need to push religion. It was on the way out. But suddenly they realized [that] the world is “furiously religious,” and they see Islamic extremism and look at Christian fundamentalism as dangerous. Now you see the new atheists—Dawkins, Harris, and so on—are strident because they are actually panicking.
Guinness on Privatization
Privatization is the way in our modern world we lose the integration of faith. So go back to a traditional world, small town, village: Where someone lived, worked, and went to church was integrated. You could probably walk around them in half an hour, certainly go around on a horse in an hour. But as the modern world explodes, where people live and often where they go to church is relatively close still (although in L.A. it might be an hour away, traveling 50 miles to go to church). But then where they work is quite different altogether.
So it is called privatization, the way religion and faith in general [get] restricted to the private sphere—the home, the church, the weeknight, the weekend. But the world of work, politics, business, science, technology is another world, with a different way of doing it.
So, as one person says, people have different hats and they have different souls. A non-Christian said the churches in California he studied were privately engaging, publicly irrelevant. That’s another way of saying privatization…
Now up until the ’60s, most evangelicals, a great majority, [were] privatized. Then came the ’60s and evangelicals slept through it. ’73 was the wake-up year—Watergate, Roe v. Wade, OPEC, the oil crisis. Evangelicals started to realize the culture was slipping away.
The tendency then was to make the opposite mistake, to politicize faith, to swing from a privatized faith that lacked integration, the lordship of Christ in every area of life...They swung to a politicized faith, thinking politics was the be-all and end-all, and that lacked independence. No longer was faith primary. Christians became core chaplain to whatever party they supported, more recently the Republicans.
Guinness on Sociology
I was studying at Oxford, and Peter Berger became my mentor. And I realized that most apologetics, most Christian thinking, used the history of ideas, going from thinkers and their thoughts to the impact on the street, church, or whatever. Whereas the “sociology of knowledge,” as it is called, looks to the street, the social setting of people’s lives, and describes how that shapes even their thinking.
And you can see [that] the modern church is affected by crazy ideas. But it is much more affected by the way we live in our modern lifestyles and so on. So I tried to write The Gravedigger File to take ideas that were relatively well known in sociology, but show their relevance to Christians who didn’t understand sociology.
So terms like privatization which are bandied around by a lot of people now—the way, in our modern world, faith easily becomes privately engaging, publicly irrelevant. I tried to explain those and show Christians how they are shaped by faith.
Now when I wrote that, there was almost no one in evangelical circles looking at sociology. Today I am embarrassed and, more than that, disturbed, to say many people pick up sociology but uncritically. They take the latest insights they read from whoever it is and take it as gospel. Sociology is a very useful tool, but a very dangerous master…
Look at the seeker sensitive movement. It looks at the world to try and catch up with it, be relevant to it. Whereas actually, if you look at the world critically, there are things that are good and there are things that are very, very dangerous and to avoid at all costs. Sociology should make us much more discriminating.
[Mark Dever mentions David Wells’s series of books—No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994), Losing Our Virtue (1998), and The Courage to Be Protestant (2008)—and asks if these books have been successful in uniting theology and sociology.]
Absolutely. I tease my good friend David because early on he was what I would call a “straight theologian.” I told him, “David, you can’t make sense of theology without looking at the modern world.” Now some people say today there is too much sociology. And before his last book…I said, “Come on, we need a bit more theology, not just sociology.” But he is a good example of someone who is doing this well.
Listen to the entire interview, “Life and Ministry with Os Guinness."
September 11, 2001 was, for me, memorable. It marked the first morning of a very special trip with my wife to the quaint town of Chatham on Cape Cod. Carolyn and I had just finished breakfast at the Wayside Inn and were eager to begin this relaxing and romantic day together. And the day could not have been more inviting.
But while preparing to pay for breakfast, I noticed a gathering of people in the adjoining bar area, studying a television screen. Curious, I took a place among them and learned what they already knew: Two jet airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers, both the apparent attacks of terrorists.
We made our way back to our hotel room stunned and perplexed by the images we had briefly viewed. Just yesterday we had flown into Logan International Airport in Boston, now the airport of origin for the two flights that slammed into the towers.
I had no category for what had taken place. Like the rest of the world, we stared in disbelief at the television, immediately aware that our trip would not end as planned. I called home to talk with the pastors to begin altering the message for the Sunday meeting and assembling the church that evening for the purpose of prayer. It was important to return home to serve the church with a message providing biblical perspective to the events. I was one of countless pastors whose plans were altered that week by the crisis.
Years ago I came across an article with the title “When the News Intrudes: What Do You Say from the Pulpit about National Crises and Tragedies?”. Though I would give the article a mixed review, I like the title and the idea behind it. Pastors have a unique responsibility and opportunity during a national or local crisis. How are pastors to effectively serve and lead those they care for “when the news intrudes”?
Hopefully nothing like 9/11 will ever happen again. But events that capture the attention of the world and broadly affect the world will happen again. So how should a pastor serve and lead the church during these times?
I’m no expert on this topic, but the following is what I learned in leading Covenant Life Church through experiences like 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Beltway sniper attacks....
[Download the full article, titled “9/11, Crisis, and the Pastor,” as a PDF document here.]
The role of the church in influencing and shaping contemporary American culture is a topic generating much interest, discussion, and disagreement. Gauging from the many books on the subject, there is a lot that can be said, but I especially appreciate what my friend Mark Dever has said.
Today I want to draw off another excerpt from my 2007 interview with Mark. Mark lives, works, and pastors a church four blocks from the U.S. Capitol and three blocks from the U.S. Supreme Court. Mark is geographically—and in his thinking—on one of the front lines where the church and contemporary culture meet.
C.J. Mahaney: Elaborate more on the priorities of 9Marks.
Mark Dever: Well, what we want to see are communities of people that reflect the character of God, and by doing so are distinct from the world around them. As I travel around I see so many evangelical churches trying to “break the code” of how to look as much like the culture as possible and yet keep the gospel, assuming this will maximize the evangelistic impulse.
I’m not sure that’s true.
I think there is a lot of peril in this. And it seems to be that even from the very earliest chapters of Acts, what strikes people are not thoughts of, “Hey, they speak Hebrew too,” but rather, “Hey, look at how they love one another in a way that is different from the way we are loving or being loved.”
So I think that God’s character, as it is reproduced in a community of people, must be one of the most powerful witnesses to the truth of the gospel, both for evangelism and the edification of those already converted. So I would like to see evangelical churches— while not becoming unsophisticated in how they interact with culture—keep cultural interaction in perspective, and realize that the life-blood of your church continuing is not your contextualization (your similarity to the culture), but how you are blessedly distinct from the culture. The church is full of people who are born again.
So our distinctives are what we want to hold out, and trust that God will make them attractive and will commend the gospel to other people.
So sometimes I feel like I am being called to tar the ark before the flood. Our world is increasingly secular. And churches that are trying to be as much like the world as possible, I fear, are very leaky arks. And churches that are trying to be like the world are often unselfconsciously nothing more than part of their culture. I fear they are just going to sink and become spiritually worthless spiritual tombs.
So I think the rise of secularism will itself cut down on nominal Christianity. It will actually encourage the clarity of what truly is the gospel and the effects that it has, because the cache, the worth, the value of nominal Christianity will just continue to decline in the culture broadly, so that you won’t want to be known as an evangelical Christian because that means you hate various groups of people or you believe these weird things. (As opposed to in the 50s it meant you were a respectable, upstanding citizen.) So as the general cultural perception turns on evangelical Christianity, I think we are just seeing all the more clearly our need to have a positive vision for the church as distinct from the culture.
CJM: And so what would you say to a pastor who is attracted to models of the church that aren’t distinct from the culture and aren’t distinctly proclaiming the gospel?
MD: Well, when you are not distinctly proclaiming the gospel, then you are not talking about a healthy church in any way whatsoever.
I want to be careful here. Not every church is going to be exactly alike. For example, there are churches that deliberately dress differently, or have a different kind of music, or different order of their services. But as long as they are preaching the gospel, preaching the Word, the things they are saying are true, they are reading Scripture, they are praising—as long as they are doing the things we are commanded to in Scripture, I am prepared to believe there are a number of different ways, and that in different settings one can be better than another.
But I would be very careful if these things are what a church begins majoring on. If the adverbs overtake the verbs, the adjectives overtake the nouns, the how you do it becomes more important than what you are doing, well then I think you have surely lost your way.
For more on this topic, consult Mark’s T4G’08 message (“Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology”), The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World by David Wells (Eerdmans, 2008) and Christ and Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson (Eerdmans, 2008).