Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Post Modern Evangelical Dilemma

There's a good article here, pointed to me by a friend, which addresses the church's historical tendencies to hold evangelism (defined here as calling people to repentance and faith in Christ in order to gain salvation from judgment) and social action (being the presence of Jesus by feeding the poor, clothing the naked etc.) in tension. The author expresses how the church has tended to correct itself from imbalances towards one or the other, usually by becoming imbalanced through an overemphasis of that which had previously been neglected. Thus has the church gone from being about social action, to evangelism, to social action to.... ?

Social Action and Justice issues are presently in the forefront which is, for many of us, a breath of fresh air compared to the embarrassing "Bibles before bread" priorities at the height of evangelical fervor. If we're not able to simply bless the world in Jesus name, with no strings attached, no commitments required of the recipients of the blessing, then we're a long way from the heart of Christ.

And yet.... I'm concerned that for some, the motive for elevating the compassion of Christ to its rightful place has come about because of post-modern uncertainty regarding the claims of Christ. It's as if the church is saying: "Gee whiz! We really don't have a clue whether or not Jesus is the only way to know God. All that stuff is too confusing for us. But one thing we do know: people are hungry, abused, mistreated. Let's invest in what we KNOW (feeding and sheltering people) rather than in what we DON'T KNOW (the true nature of salvation and the role Christ plays in that). And that line of thinking, I would argue, will lead us all out onto the thin ice of epistemological nihilism, where we'll fall through and drown in a sea of meaningless activity (read Ecclesiastes if you don't believe me).

I'd argue it's better to say: We BELIEVE that all who will know life to fullest will know it as such to the extent that they know, believe and are yielded to Christ, who died for them and rose to live in them. We don't claim to know how each person's use of language, or there own presuppositions that are determined by culture, interplay with the reality of that faith act. In other words, it's possible (probable... in fact, I'd bet my house on it) that people will be in heaven who didn't use the 'right language', who didn't appear in the club. And yet this reality shouldn't preclude our continual commitment to call people to 'the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ', for it is our from Him that real healing, hope, and life will come to all.

For those wrestling with the interplay of 'presence' and 'proclamation', and who are trying to figure where Jesus fits into all of it, I might recommend NT Wright's, "The Challenge of Jesus". A great read for our times. I'm of the conviction that, where the church gets it right, it does so because it's avoiding the temptation to make course corrections (which are invariable reactionary), and is instead, saturating herself in the Scriptures and Prayer and simply step out in obedience to the voice of Christ, who seems to have the balance thing down pretty well!


At 11/11/07 13:59, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow! very insightful indeed. that is it in a nutshell.

having been "evangelical" most of my life and then shaken to the core with life's issues i am at a place where i am left with social issues driving me as i am not ready again to start preaching the gospel. or better yet i have learned that the old ways are dead and we must learn how to let Christ use our lives as the message. reading "A New Kind of Christian" was also very helpful for me.

the message today was very right on about all of this and our tendency to swing one way or the other. and that we are living in an age where social action is a trend not only of Christians but the Western nations at large. i mean we are living here in the epicenter of social justice issues!

At 11/11/07 20:51, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you mind defining "epistemological nihilism", (the "gee whiz" cues me that it is a bad thing.

Can you explain why feeding and sheltering people is 'meaningless activity"?

You seem to be describing me, so I'm sincere in these questions.


At 12/11/07 09:00, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

Nihilism is just a 7 cent word for 'meaninglessness' and the point would be that those who are committed to issues of justice, but have no commitment to their own discipleship, and no interest in knowing or loving Christ are often on a road headed straight to despair. The reason? Our compassion is unsustainable over the long haul in the face of the mountains of injustice in the system, and the realities that many poor are wise, though their words are ignored (Ecc 9:16), while there are rich fools who publish books and get 25k for an hour of speaking. Further, there's the sense that, though we work our whole lives to alleviate individual poverty situations, or to address systemic causes, the words of Jesus remain from Matt. 26:11: 'the poor you always have with you'

Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I'm not saying that a commitment social justice issues is inherently meaningless. I'm simply saying that, apart from an authentic connection with source of life (Christ) our commitments to such issues are often unsustainable, the discouragement of 'the system' becoming so overwhelming that we dissolve into the discouragement of our own private concerns or, in order to sustain our commitments, become angry or addicted as means of coping.

This is a far cry from the rest to which we are invited in Christ, a rest which will result in focused, fruitful work - work sustainable with love and great joy even in the absence of any sense of progress.

Does this make sense?

At 12/11/07 10:20, Anonymous donte said...

It makes sense. I’m thinking about the ‘We are the world’ campaign in the early 80’s and ‘One’ campaign in our present time. Both great movements, I think. However, between the two movements we had on the world’s greatest genocides in Rwanda.

I work on a college campus where I am particularly vulnerable to this. Students, faculty, and staff love to wear t-shirts and wrist bands to support and promote the latest social agenda. It feels very easy at times to jump on board, without ever examining my heart (2 cor 13:5) and testing myself to be sure that my social agendas come from a commitment to Christ. I think a commitment to Christ will cause us to do not less, but much more. And, we will be able to do so with endurance (Heb. 12:10) that will persist between popular campaigns; in season and out of season (2 tim 4:2).

At 13/11/07 08:36, Blogger justcallmemom said...

wow, pastor richard ~ so refreshing to hear your comments. thanks for encouraging the pendulum toward the balance of the middle. would that it could hang there for a while!

At 13/11/07 19:02, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes that does make sense, I need to ponder it some. Thanks for expanding on it for me.


At 14/11/07 10:14, Anonymous lauren said...

Dear Pastor Richard,

Thank you so much for this post and for the attached article. Very stirring, indeed. I am one who has always considered myself an evangelical, but whose priorities over time have at least somewhat shifted from the primacy of proclamation to the (admittedly less risky, in terms of the way the world views this) priority of serving others. I never forgot about proclamation entirely, but I confess that I have become more hesitant over time in actually sharing the good news with people. "I'll serve them / be a good friend to them, etc, and they will see Christ THROUGH me and ask me if they are interested."

However, over the past many months, situations in my own life have prompted me to ponder the very issues the author highlights in this article. That is, I've been wondering, if I'm not proclaiming Christ, what makes me as a CHristian different from all of the high-profile movie stars who are concerned about Darfur and refugees around the world and Katrina victims, etc. What do I have to offer that is different, that is more? While serving in tangible ways is clearly, CLEARLY essential, if we fail to also proclaim, then it seems that we are missing our calling.

This was a very uncomfortable, challenging post and article for me to read. THANK YOU, though, as I think it is timely for me and for us as the Body of Christ at this time. God, help us to seek your heart and to step out in love in response to your three great commands:

1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.
3. Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.... And I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.

At 15/11/07 18:53, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greetings Richard.

Excellent balance. Schaeffer noted that we need an orthodoxy of doctrine, and an orthodoxy of love. If we have the former, but lack the latter, then we do not have the former. Doctrine and love, in balance and union, work together per Romans 8.28.

Blessings, Brother.

Mark S.


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