The Church In Our Time: Calling, Challenge, and Opportunity
The Christian church is a community defined by the joyful confession that in Jesus Christ God has graciously acted to bring salvation to sinners and to our sin-marred world. We believe that our God, because He is love, has moved toward us: sending His Son to demonstrate His love and His Spirit to extend His love unto the renewing of all things (Jn. 3). This is the animating hope and joyful confession of our community.
This confession, however, is not to be understood as the mere affirmation of ideas. It is, rather, a call. It is a call to receive God’s salvation: to embrace the reality that God’s creation has been ruined by sin, that we are in desperate need of His saving work, and that by the grace of Jesus Christ this salvation comes to all who believe (Acts 2). It is a call to embody this salvation in the community of the redeemed—the Christian church: to celebrate it in our worship, to reflect it in our community, and to enact it in our lives (Eph. 4). And it is a call to bear God’s salvation to the world in the time in which we find ourselves: to join Him in extending His redeeming love to our friends, our cities, and our world until our animating hope becomes theirs (Matt. 28). This is the beautiful calling of the Christian church: to receive, embody, and bear God’s salvation in our time.
But the task of living out this calling is fraught with difficulty. At the start of the twenty-first century, the church carries out her work in the midst of enormous challenges from both the culture and the church itself.
Culture refers to the historically mediated and yet profoundly normative confluence of ideas, institutions, and individuals that frames the conditions for human life. The shape of this particular confluence changes across time and across locale, but culture itself is nonetheless an inescapable constant. And it is under the conditions of a given culture—with both its particular glories and horrors—that God’s people musty carry out their unwavering redemptive calling to God’s larger world.
The culture under which we live and labor—the culture of late modernity—is endowed with its own glory and horror. On the one hand, western culture embodies so many of the promises of modernity: a rise in stable political systems, broadly held convictions of human dignity, widespread material affluence, and extraordinary scientific and technological development. Each of these is witnessed and experienced in our time to an unprecedented degree.
On the other hand, our culture is marked by modernity’s unfulfilled promises. There is increasing cynicism about the efficacy of contemporary political orders. There is deep confusion about what it means to be human. There is a profound and growing gulf between the world’s rich and poor. There is deep—if ineffectual—alarm over technology’s instrumental service to the banal and the violent. And underneath it all, there is a deep ambivalence about the possibility of any sort of normative moral order—even from the church—that can provide a constructive vision for interpreting or responding to this state of affairs.
Not only do these cultural contradictions make the task of living lives of faith incredibly difficult, they also present world-historical challenges to the work of bearing God’s saving, healing love in our time.
And yet unfortunately, there are other challenges too—challenges not only from the culture, but also from the church and its own burdensome contradictions.
Church refers to both to the global family of God—the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic body, with all of its various subsets spread throughout time and across space—and to the local congregational expression of this larger family which bears out this global identity under the conditions of a given time and place. Both of these are, properly speaking, the church.
In our time, and in our culture, the church—both in its global and local expressions—enjoys considerable success: the Christian message continues to spread and take root in exciting ways around the world, especially in the southern hemisphere. In North America, much of the church continues to experience significant numerical growth, boasting some of the largest congregations in the world. Ordinary Christian believers have access to a range of educational resources that would have been unimaginable—even to our greatest scholars—just 100 years ago. Christian believers—especially in America—live with an historically unprecedented degree of affluence and material wealth and have developed innovative structures for using that affluence for the good of their neighbors. And Christian churches, despite the cultural challenges they face, continue to aspire to make a difference in the world.
And yet, in the midst of these very great gifts, one senses that all is not well. Even as the Christian message spreads around the world, it continues to lack credibility in much of western culture. Even as the church grows numerically, it does so along the same divisions of race, class, and politics that mark the rest of society. In spite of the enormous quantity of educational materials available, the biblical, theological, and cultural understanding of ordinary believers is acutely impoverished. In spite of the enormous possibilities for social good inherent in material affluence, the church remains deeply shaped by the mindset and lifestyle of empty materialism. And in spite of ongoing aspirations for cultural impact, the church’s failure to bring about cultural renewal is now broadly beheld. It can, in fact, be persuasively argued that in some regards the church is itself a participant in some of the most destructive aspects of late modernity.
And so at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the church—graced with a confession of such joy and a calling of such beauty—nonetheless finds itself burdened with deep questions over the nature of its identity, the efficacy of its labors, the character of the culture around it, and the possibility of faithfully being the church in the late modern world. To all appearances, the answers to these questions are far from certain.
But God is faithful. He loves the world. And He promises to use His church to extend His salvation in our time, as he has done in ages past—even in the midst of profound challenges (Jn. 16).
These concurrent realities—the challenges of our time and the faithfulness of our God—present an opportunity for a serious and sustained conversation about the renewal of the church in our time. What might such a renewal look like? And what will be required of us if we are to undertake it? What will it mean for us to renew the church towards faithfulness in our time?
What follows is an attempt both to nurture this conversation by providing a framework for engaging these questions and to gesture towards a vision of the renewal the church in our time.