Letter from America, March 1998
THERE IS A GREAT debate among conservative American Christians on whether the Church should remake itself to "engage the culture" or maintain its tradition even when it is culturally eccentric.
The first group, who call themselves "seeker sensitive," most notably abandon liturgical worship in favor of skits, choruses, and long inspirational sermons. Many of them, for example Willow Creek church in suburban Chicago, which attracts over 10,000 people on a Sunday, design their worship so the newcomer can watch and not feel any need to be involved, lest he feel threatened and not come back.
They do extensive studies of their areas to find what they must do to attract the average person around them. They work very hard at finding ways to get people into church and then to get them to commit themselves to Christ. They teach the newly committed many of the rules and disciplines of the Christian life.
Much of this is obviously admirable and a reproach to many traditional Christians. The problem is in what they give up in engaging the culture and how much they allow the culture to change the Faith. Many, for example, are ardently committed to Evangelical feminism. The official "Willow Creek theologian" wrote a very poor book on the subject, in which he claimed that women can be ordained because Galatians 3.28 says that in Christ there is no male or female. This is the sort of gross misreading of Scripture that makes one suspect the culture has engaged them.
(If there is no male or female, where does he think children come from? And if God has made sexual difference crucial in the creation of human souls, why shouldn't we accept that He has made it crucial in less important matters?)
A sense of community
The early Church did not try to transform the culture, noted a leading Church historian, Robert Wilken of the University of Virginia, in an interview in the latest issue of Christian History. (The magazine can be found at "www.christianhistory.net.") Wilken was a Lutheran but became a Roman Catholic a few years ago, which is more common than one might think, though the Catholic wing of American Lutheranism tends to favor ordaining women, with an argument pitting "Gospel freedom" against "the law" I can't myself follow. At any rate it is a peculiarly un-Catholic way of thinking.
Instead of engaging the culture, the early Church built "its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture." It did so by building "a way of life. The church was not something that spoke to its culture; it was itself a culture and created a new Christian culture."
This way of life was built by meeting at regular times and following a "distinctive calendar" in which Christians rehearsed their beliefs, by together offering charity to the community and by having "clarity, and church discipline, regarding moral issues." All of these "made up a wholesome community."
In answer to the question "Did the church strive to be 'user-friendly'?" Wilken said "Not at all - in fact, just the opposite." In particular, the early Church's liturgy was "different from anything pagans had experienced." Without bloody sacrifices and with the extensive use of the Bible and sermons stressing its peculiar doctrines, not least its "historically grounded talk of a dying and rising God," pagans "entered a wholly different world than they were used to."
Far from being "seeker sensitive," the Church made it difficult to join, making converts complete a process for becoming a member that took them two years. Even the architecture communicated this "insensitivity." "The altar at a Greek temple was in front of the temple and represented that worship was a public event open to all. In Christian churches, the altar was inside. Worship was something the church gave one the right to enter into."
Wilken recommended this strategy for today. "I think seeker-sensitive churches use a completely wrong strategy. A person who comes into a Christian church for the first time should feel out of place. He should feel this community engages in practices so important they take time to learn. The best thing we can do for 'seekers' is to create an environment where newcomers feel they are missing something vital, that one has to be inculcated into this, and that it's a discipline. Few people grasp that today. But the early church grasped it very well."
The early practice that "would most impress our secular culture today," he said, somewhat surprisingly, was the "devotion to a celibate life of prayer" that arose in the third century. The practice "deeply impressed pagans. It was radical. They saw that Christians were willing to spend themselves for their beliefs."
He thought this "the most powerful argument for the truth of Christianity. For people to give themselves wholly to a life of prayer and chaste living - well, they must have seen something or felt something real, the reality of Christ."
This, I think, suggests a great weakness of many "seeker sensitive" churches. Being generally lax - or "pastoral" - about divorce and remarriage they have partly accommodated the disordered sexuality of modern American culture (part of which accommodation is also reflected in their feminism). Thus, though their churches may overflow, they are offering as Christianity something that is significantly and dangerously less.
Traditionalists and the seekers
As you will guess, I think Wilken is right. But traditionalists can't be let off. "Seeker sensitive" Evangelicals may give up far too much, but traditionalist parishes are often not so much counter cultures as closed cultures. One has to be a certain sort, and to know the secret codes and passwords, to belong. Though I think the seeker sensitives' error a fundamental one, they have raised the question of how we are to present the Gospel to people who have no idea what it is and no reason to find out.
Wilken spoke wisely to this. "A lot of early apologetics was not defense but simple explanation," he noted. For us, "the most significant apologetic task is simply to tell people what we believe and do. We need to familiarize people with the stories in the Bible and to talk about the things that make Christianity distinctive. Many people are simply unaware of the basics of Christianity. They're rejecting something they don't know that much about."
"But apologetics then and now has a limited role. We must speak what its true, but finally the appeal must be made to the heart, not the mind. We're really leading people to change their love. To love something different. Love is what draws and holds people."
David Mills is director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, where he edits their magazine Mission & Ministry (www.episcopalian.org/tesm/missmini). He is editing a book of essays titled The Pilgrims' Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, including essays by Harry Blamires, Kallistos Ware, and others, which will be published by Eerdmans this summer.
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