The Church in a Post-Christian Conditioned Culture: Two Paradoxes
While the times clearly show that western society is decidedly post-Christian, the church has responded to this condition in two paradoxical ways: religious accomodationism and religious separatism.
The crux of this dilemma centers around the application of being “in the world but not of the world.” Clearly this reality necessitates a balancing, fine line involvement to fulfill this biblical mandate, yet oftentimes Christians, churches and their leaders tilt more in one direction than another, creating imbalance and paradox in the process.
• Religious accomodationism: Many believers, churches and leaders have sought to adapt their engagement strategies in culture (worship, preaching, teaching, discipleship, evangelism) to reflect more of a religious accommodation strategy: “be in the world and in the culture.” You see this philosophy most clearly in the styles of worship music (loud music, concert-venue stage, simple lyrics, etc.), use of presentational technology (high tech videos, lights, fog, etc.) and human-centric, need-based teaching, preaching and evangelism. Those that advocate this philosophy of engagement center on the application of the Incarnation (“the Word became Flesh”) and the centrality of contextualization as the validation for “front line” engagement with a different thinking society.
The rub that comes with religious accomodationism concerns the extent of contextualization that is implemented. The Incarnation is about both form (the flesh) and substance (the Word) in harmonious balance, not an emphasis of one over the other. Jesus’ earthly ministry clearly presents him as “Immanuel, the God-Man” with us. Accomodationism faces the danger of spiritual disproportion, attracting interested observers who connect with the form, but fail to absorb the substance and as a result fail to become genuine followers of Christ. Careful examination of engagement philosophy must concentrate on a balance between form and substance in order to honor the beauty and tension of the Incarnation.
• Religious separatism. Other believers, churches and leaders have retreated from engagement with culture to reflect more of a religious separatism strategy: “be not of this world and not of this culture.” You see this philosophy most clearly in their refusal to change anything presentational and/or engaging (worship music, preaching, evangelism, printed materials, etc.), choosing to believe that any type of adaptation to current forms of presentation and engagement is “worldly” and “carnal.” Those that advocate this philosophy of separation center on the belief that “this world and everything in it is passing away”; therefore, Christians must position themselves in ways that keep them free from the temptations and tactics of worldly philosophies. “We are called to be a holy people and a distinct community, separated from the world and unto God,” they say.
The rub that comes with religious separatism concerns the absence of contextualization from an incarnational perspective. If Jesus held this approach, either 1) he would never have come, or 2) he would never have engaged with “in the world” figures such as the Samaritan woman, tax collectors and “sinners,” religious leaders, Pontius Pilate and the Roman Centurion. Separatists that love only substance (“the Word”) must also remember that it is vitally joined with form (“the flesh”) in order to engage culture in personal and sensible ways.
Engagement with a post-Christian culture must balance both form and substance depicted in the Incarnation in order to engage people with vitality and meaning. Truth must speak through form, and form must connect relationally so that truth can be seen and heard. When balanced wisely, Christians can be “in the world, but not of the world.”