Starting a new conversation of churches with their culture

Douglas John Hall uses half of his 69-page book, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, to discuss the end of Christendom. He points to the fact that churches in north America “are…being pushed visibly to the periphery” (p. 35).

He asks: “Are we just going to let this happen to us, or can we give some concrete direction to this process?” His answer, based not on optimism but on his belief in God: “We can in some meaningful sense disestablish ourselves and in the process recover something of our genuine mission in the world” (p. 36). The task, according to theologian Hall, is essentially theological.

Christians must learn how to distinguish the Christian message from the operative assumptions, values, and pursuits of our host society, and more particularly those segments of our society with which as so-called main-stream churches we have been associated…What we will have to learn is that the Christian message is not just a stained-glass version of the worldview of that same social stratum (p. 45).

Hall warns that separation from the dominant society is itself not the goal. Instead, the purpose of separation is to enable Christians to reengage in the conversation in a new way.

Nor is the goal to adopt “radical positions on various issue of personal and social ethics” and to insist that “Christianity means advocating economic reforms aimed at greater global justice, or full-scale disarmament, or the preservation of species, or gender equality, or racial integration, and so on” (p. 46). Ideas like these represent “profoundly altered moral attitudes and specific ethical decisions [that] are consequences of hearing the gospel.”

Instead of following these shortcuts, Hall writes, “we must begin with basics.” The churches now consist of two or three generations of people who are “unfamiliar with the fundamental teachings of the Christian traditions [and] ignorant even of the Scriptures…Without a deeper understanding of what Christians profess, it is absurd to think that ordinary church folk will be able to distinguish what is true to the Judeo-Christian tradition from the amalgam of religious sentimentalism and ‘bourgeous transcendence’…by which both church and culture are saturated” (p. 47).

Hall counsels churches to continue their dialogue with contemporary culture, but in a new way. This responsibility rests with special force upon the liberal and moderate churches because “we have known this particular segment of our society, [and] having been part of it, we have both responsibility toward it and genuine potential for reengaging it” (p. 58).

Hall identifies “four worldly quests” for which disestablished Christians can provide a witness that is marked by faith and hope.

The Quest for Moral Authenticity: As Christians, we know “the moral confusion” of people in our time, because we too are confused about how to live lives that are authentic. “Our own participation in the anguished quest for moral authenticity” provides the contact point with people all around us. We have to learn in a new way to find from the scriptures and Christian tradition guidance for the people who want to hear something “quite different from what is proffered by the television sitcoms” (p. 59).

The Quest for Meaningful Community: “The pursuit of individual freedom and personal aggrandizement has been the ideological backbone of new-world liberal society,” Hall writes. Coupled with this fact is “the failure of most familiar forms of communality” as seen in the “deep cynicism [that] informs all public life and institutions.” If churches would turn to the scriptures with these experiences in mind and search for new answers to the questions people bring, new and deeper forms of community would have a change to develop.

The Quest for Transcendence and Mystery: Hall believes that the secular city and technology, which promised a good life for everyone, have both fallen short. “Western people have become newly conscious of the devastations of which humanity is capable when it thinks itself accountable to nothing beyond itself” (p. 61). Wistfully, he writes: Perhaps if we were to rethink our own tradition, bearing with us the terrible thirst for transcendence and mystery as it manifests itself in the soul of humanity post mortum Dei, we would more consistently discover the means for engaging it from the side of the gospel (p. 63).

The Quest for Meaning: Even though many people of our time have turned away from conventional religion, they continue to claim that they are spiritual. They are open to a dimension in experience that helps them make sense out of the wide range of experiences—some good and some terrible—that persist in ordinary life. Our proper work in the churches, Hall writes, is to “expose ourselves less guardedly to the cold winds” of our time and “carry its spiritual emptiness and yearning…into the presence of the Holy One” (p. 65).

Do the people who have turned away from the churches know that they are on these four worldly quests? Many do not. The churches now disestablished from their former places can be compared with the Apple corporation at its low point a few years ago. One of the reasons that the company rebounded is that it developed products that answered needs which people didn’t realize they had.

Now that churches have moved out of the cultural mainstream, that’s what we can do—provide ideas and a community of support that help the people of our time resolve the urgent quests they do not now recognize.

One Response to Starting a new conversation of churches with their culture

  1. In the language of family systems the church needs to have a clearly defined sense of self, differentiated from the voices & values of the culture, to then be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with culture. Lester McAllister emphasized that the goal of Christian unity for Disciples (& for others, too) is not achieved by simply giving up our own identity, but by knowing more clearly who we are & what our own values & commitments are, so that we can then enter into dialogue that can lead to a deeper unity that respects the gifts of each tradition while finding new ways to be in mission & live out Christian community together. So the church needs to rediscover its theological center, its theological self, its God/Christ/scripture centered identity, to then draw Christians & the culture into asking those core questions.

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