Prominent sociologist Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center at Boston University, recently wrote in “The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith”: “In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed.”
As a pastor, I wonder how true Wolfe’s statement might be. Has American culture triumphed over the religious life of American Christians? Has the American church given up her distinctive features and replaced them with American culture? Wolfe’s observations of the American religious life are striking. He writes, “Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer… Talk of hell, damnation and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy … Far from living in a world elsewhere, the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.” Criticism is hard to take sometimes. However, often it proves to be helpful for self-reflection, even when it comes from those outside of the Christian community. Fresh criticism is something the church needs to hear. To paraphrase Wolfe’s analysis in the language of the Bible: Has the church become more a friend of the world than a friend of God? (James 4:4). Is the American church characterized more by this present evil age or the age to come? (Galatians 1:4). To put it another way, has the American church forgotten what it means to be, first and foremost, citizens of heaven? (Philippians 3:20). In the American penchant for pragmatism, have we forgotten the responsibility of the church in—and to—our age?
Indeed, with these observations before us, what is the responsibility of the church? The early 20th century theologian J. Gresham Machen asked a similar question: “What is the responsibility of the church in our new age?” In his answer he describes the church as “citizens of a heavenly kingdom.” In this view, the church is a heavenly outpost on earth, a colony of heaven, so to speak. As such, the church is counter-cultural; the church is the community of God’s people set apart from the world to worship God and to live according to God’s holy word. God calls the church to teach that there is truth. Into the midst of a culture of ever-changing fads and opinions, into the despair of the post-modern rejection of meaning, the church will come with a clear message.
The message will be from the Bible, in which the living God has been revealed. The message of the church presents a gospel as the way of salvation. This message maintains that all are lost in sin, but may be saved through the Savior offered in the gospel. The church also will be transformed in its life. By this I mean that the church will “cherish the hope of the goodness in the other world, and that even here and now it will exhibit of a new life which is the gift of God,” to use a line from Machen. Much of the present transformation of the American religious life, observed by Wolfe, seems to be a result of a desire for relevance in an ever-transforming culture.
For the church to be truly relevant in the world today, I believe the church should maintain its doctrine, its message and its treasured hope in the world to come. Only as the colony of heaven on earth, as those living lives that express to the whole world the goodness of God exemplified in the love of Jesus Christ, only then, I believe, will the American church prove itself a friend of God and not a friend of the world. Wolfe’s observations are well taken. Of course, he did not visit every church in America. Nevertheless, his observations serve as an opportunity for self-reflection, to reflect on the church’s responsibility in this age. As far as I understand the Scriptures, the church’s responsibility in this age is the same as its responsibility in every age. “It is to testify that this world is lost in sin,” Machen writes, “that there is a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all … that he has revealed himself to us in his word and offered us communion with himself through Jesus Christ the Lord … [a]n unpopular message it is—an impractical message, we are told. But it is the message of the Christian church.”