The little front wave ran up on the sand
and frothed there, wildly elated
“I am the tide,” said the little front wave
“And the waves before me are dated!”
There was a time, not too long ago, when it was fashionable to accuse evangelicals in the West of having holier-than-thou attitudes. The charge was intended to convey condemnation, not praise, and was sometimes deserved (when religious arrogance and spiritual pride were referred to) and other times not (when serious efforts at sanctification caused the offense). Whatever the case, it seems that those days are disappearing. A more accurate description of current evangelical attitudes would be “trendier-than-thou”. “Hipness” is now seen as a greater spiritual accomplishment than holiness, and to be cool is better than to be consecrated.
As Society goes, so goes the church…
Theological shifts of this magnitude do not take place in a vacuum, of course. Evangelicals have seen a number of them over the past few decades, and almost without exception they have occurred as a result of mind shifts in the secular environment. “As society goes, so goes the church,” observes Michael Horton in Made in America, his landmark book on modern American evangelicalism. We could add “As the American church goes, so goes the church in South Africa”, which is why Horton’s book should be read by every serious evangelical in our country, and especially by ministers and seminary students.
Horton is not the only author of note who has documented the Christian church’s history of tagging behind the world like a little brother following in the gang’s footsteps. In the late sixties Francis Schaeffer wrote The God Who Is There and Escape From Reason, showing us how trends in secular philosophy have shaped and reshaped theological thinking over the centuries. Neil Postman famously pointed out in Amusing Ourselves To Death how the “Age of Show Business” replaced the “Age of Exposition” toward the end of the nineteenth century, and how this transition influenced the Protestant concept of the worship service. Dan McConnell’s A Different Gospel exposed the modern Word Faith Movement by revealing that its initiators were merely aping the early mind-over-matter gurus and founders of what became the positive thinking movement, and that they have never had a theological leg to stand on.
And so it goes on. The materialistic eighties gave us the prosperity movement, the emancipation movement preceded the drive to allow women into the ministry and the homosexual hot potato landed in the lap of the church after the world had grown tired of passing it around.
The Drive to be Relevant: Spiritual or Carnal?
When we look at these examples our understanding of how worldliness operates in the church is broadened, but we also begin to see through a modern myth, namely the belief that the current obsession amongst evangelicals to be relevant for their target audience is a spiritual one. As in each of the cases mentioned above, the roots of this particular new fashion are undeniably secular and carnal, and have been well documented not by hysterical critics of the church growth movement, but by astute scholars like Marshall MacLuhan, Christopher Lasch, Neil Postman and others. When we study the works of these men it becomes glaringly obvious that the origins of the new Christianity can be traced not to the teaching of Christ and the apostles, but to the marketing revolution of the previous century that gave us modern advertising and the dreaded television commercial. This was when the customer became king, when product research became market research and, as Postman has pointed out, when advertising oriented business away from making products of value towards making consumers feel valuable.
In church terms we could say that the audience became sovereign, an ecclesiastical paradigm shift of gigantic proportions clearly articulated by the World Council of Churches’ pronouncement in 1966: “The world must set the agenda for the church.” The world has been more than happy to do this, and so was birthed the notion that the gospel must be packaged differently for each segment and subculture of society according to their particular preferences. This has led to a fascination with terms such as Generation X, Boomers, Busters and so on. Each generation needs to be studied, understood and approached differently, we are told, or the gospel won’t have any effect on them.
And so we find ourselves with a philosophy of ministry that changes as often as its temperamental audience, with the average minister finding it impossible to keep up. Naturally, we also find ourselves with a new kind of ministerial elite, for those who do manage to keep up are the new pundits, cutting-edge possessors of information needed by the rest of us to do ministry effectively.
A Subtle Substitution at a High Price
Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of Screwtape’s devious advice to his understudy, Wormwood: “If they must be Christians, let them be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing. The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart.” It seems that Wormwood has been busy lately.
We could join the world and bow before the god of novelty, yes. We could confess that newer is better and spend our ministerial lives feverishly chasing after each trend, fashion and new wave. But when we do this, let us remind ourselves that what is deemed most relevant in theology is often moldy in a few days, as Thomas Oden has wisely cautioned. And let us not forget Dean Inge’s chilling warning: He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower.
Centuries ago, Vincent of Lérins expressed the standard of Christian orthodoxy as “that which has been believed everywhere and always by everyone.” His words remind us that the gospel is ageless and exalted above the tides of change in this world. It has never been fashionable, and it cannot go out of fashion. Like its Author, it is the same yesterday, today and forever.
(This article was first published in Baptists Today)