I have been thinking a lot lately about the culture of the church in Canada and North America. For those that know me it would come as no surprise to hear me say that I love the church. I do love it, and I want to see us become the glorious church Jesus intends us to be but when I look at the church I only see moments of that glory. They are beautiful moments where Jesus really shines through us as he desires to but they are fleeting.
As someone who is called to study and teach I have been spending a lot of time lately asking the question why? Why is the church not what it was intended to be? Why are those moments of Jesus’ glory shining through us so fleeting? What is it that we are missing? As I’ve been asking those questions an answer has been starting to form in front of me. This isn’t an unknown or surprising answer and yet, at the same time, it is an answer so big I have had trouble pinpointing it because it has permeated every part of us. It has moved through us like a sickness spreading through the church.
I’m not the first person to see it and definitely won’t be the last. In the past it has taken on many different names. At times it has been identified as consumerism. I can even hear the roar of my hometown preacher crying out “Don’t be a Consumeristic Christian!” He wasn’t wrong to point out the consumerism but I believe it’s bigger than just a desire for more. In fact consumerism, narcissism and individualism, which have been identified as the issue, have all been the result of a larger problem. This issues is what I have begun to call Humanism.
I think to be able to do justice to this topic we must, for the sake of clarity, define Humanism. If you were to look up secular humanism you would find that it is a philosophy of life that rejected religion for the sake of a natural or scientific lifestyle. This is not what I am meaning. What I mean when I speak of Humanism is a way of life that primarily values and exalts human life (secondarily all creation has value due to its relation to humanity) to the place of ultimate authority with or without an assumed religion. In other words humanity is important based solely on itself. Biblically this is identified as idolatry of humanity. For some it is self but for others it is their neighbour, their spouce, their friends or those less fortunate.
In my opinion this has been the way the primary culture of western civilization for decades. With it has come a culture that can adapt certain Christian views of the blessing and importance of human life, care and equality for all men etc. to fit the personal agenda of each individual person. It would seem to me that the church has not stayed counter cultural in this area. We have in fact adopted much of the western secular humanistic culture into our daily lives and our worship.
We fight for humanity because it’s the right thing to do. We search for higher meaning because it brings value to our lives. We worship and work and are good people because it brings us fulfillment. This is the Christianity that our western post-Christian culture has created. We see this when we hear about humanitarian efforts being on the rise but the Christian influence of those efforts are not important. Whether it is a Christian organization or a secular one what matters most is that people are being helped. Feed don’t preach.
Please don’t get me wrong I take very seriously taking care of people. I have worked with the homeless in one form or another through most of my ministry. This IS important. What I see happening though is that we have laid down the gospel for the sake of humanity. We have been willing to sacrifice the unity of the church in favour of taking care of all people based solely on their humanness. It is as if God being in the equation has become of secondary importance.
Now in some ways, if I stand far enough back to look at the bigger picture, it seems like we have no choice. From the moment we wake to the moment we sleep our world is being dictated by us. Think about it. If you are like most of the Western world when you wake in the morning the first thing you do is pick up your phone. You check your social media, reading posts, giving likes, retweets, mentions and comments. I understand that the point, or original purpose of these apps was to bring contact and connection between us and the rest of the world but it is based solely and wholely on what you want to see. You decide what apps you use, what people you follow, who’s pictures you see or statuses are on your feed. You are able to search any content you desire at any given time making us some of the most informed and self-centred people that have ever walked the planet.
Let me be clear. This isn’t a rant about technology. What I am simply trying to point out is that our culture, everything we live and breathe is about us. Based on, built for, decided and controlled by you. Whether you like it or not the center of your universe is you. I realize that I just made an unfair stereotype but for 99% of you, and myself included, that is the truth. To be in, but not of the world is harder now than ever before. Why do I say that? Because never before has the culture been quite so self-fulfilling.
For most of history your story was decided by your history. Your community was inseparable from who you would be. Your employment, your family, your marriage, your culture, your community, everything, it was all decided for you before you ever had a choice. The town you were born in to was the town you died in. The family business was your business. Your parents, siblings, spouse and kids were a part of your life from beginning to end. Now nothing is decided until you make the decision yourself. Everything is able to be changed for the sake of your personal ideals. Your boss doesn’t treat you how you desire to be treated? You can get a new job. Your parents are difficult, you move out. Your siblings are annoying, you stop talking to them. Your spouse isn’t who you thought they would be, you get a new one. Even your kids, you can decide what you do with them. Everything is on the table for change.
This is what life looks like for us. We have it ingrained in us that what we want life to be and how we want it to look is the only thing that matters. This same mentality, this humanism, this idolatry of self has made its way into the church. It has been adorned with religious dressings but the heart is the same self-serving, humanistic heart that is in the world.
When Jesus came on the scene though he didn’t give us more space to be whatever we wanted. He didn’t come and abolish the law so that we could live out ours lives the way we think is best. No he came and extended the law so that grace would abound even more.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-20
The bar has been set impossibly high, to the height of complete and utter self-sacrifice. This is a bar only Jesus can hit and so he did. Meeting and exceeding every requirement necessary for us. He then does us one better. He gives us access to this fulfilled covenant through oneness with him, and he sends the Spirit to us so that we could be changed into his likeness, meaning we would start to look, sound and act like Him. So not only does Jesus do it for us and give us access to its blessings but he also gives us a way to be able to do what he did.
To receive this gift in Jesus is meant to be the catalyst for change. To be counter-cultural, to show the world God’s heart for humanity is good and it cannot sustain itself any longer.
Andrew E. Hill in his commentary on 1&2 Chronicles wrote this striking statement about the effects of this idolotrous culture.
“The culture of narcissism that characterizes Westeren society has been described as an abyss of affluent individualism resulting in alienation and loneliness, boredom in pursuit of sensation, obsession with personal convenience, and insatiable consumerism. In fact, the postmodern condition of North America has been diagnosed as that of a society ‘cast adrift’ in a time of ‘cultural winter.'”
I believe that it is time for the church in North America to come out of the cultural winter it has thrust itself into. To leave individualism, consumerism and narcissism, that is humanism, behind and to begin to be the people of God on earth. Aliens to the culture but witnesses to a better way. Where we have said yes to the culture, we must turn and begin to say no. Where we have adopted idolatry of self and tried to make it fit in the gospel, drop it. It holds nothing for you but death and destruction, division and loneliness. Together let us turn to Christ and let him starve our hearts of this sickness and teach us to be submitted to his two great commands. To love God with every part of us and out of that love for him, to care for and love for our all mankind.