Engaging the What? (VIII)
What the Church Needs Now Is…?
The modern Church is floundering around badly and seems willing to accept any new trend or fad as long as it has nothing to do with historic Christianity, doctrine, or expository preaching. Thankfully, there are notable exceptions to the spiritual malaise that a number of churches are involved in, but their intractability to return to what has served the Church well for centuries defies comprehension. It is almost as if they have wandered so far from the traditional path that they cannot or will not find their way back. Mike Horton’s new book, Christless Christianity, provides an excellent outline for just how bad it is in “our time.” This is not to say that the Church has not experienced tough times in the past, where spirituality was at low ebb, but you really do have to wonder how low the Church can sink.
There does come a time when you have to at least consider how many who call themselves Christians, but are not in possession of even the most rudimentary understanding of the Christian faith, who live like pagans, and generally manifest a pagan ethic are truly saved. But it’s precisely into this environment that many encourage their congregations to get out there and engage (the) culture. As I have mentioned a couple of times, far too few who recommend engaging culture provide the congregant with a reliable roadmap or blueprint of how cultural engagement should take place or what it should look like. Is cultural engagement really just a matter of what feels good or right or are there prerequisites before venturing out into the abyss?
In the last two installments, we took a look peek at what Herman Bavinck called the “circles of culture” and noted that much too little attention is devoted to the more mundane aspects of culture. We tend to concentrate more on the arts, which is a fun thing to do, but surely culture is more than the arts. Man’s production and distribution of material goods has not been addressed by many telling their folks to engage culture; neither has agriculture, industry, nor trade—not to mention economics. It’s more appealing and less tedious to apply ourselves to aesthetics while chatting gaily and sipping on our Chardonnay.
When I was younger—much younger—Dionne Warwick sang, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Okay, we know what the world needs, but what is it that the modern Church needs now more than anything else? From the days of the advent of the mega-church, leading into the current Emergent church movement debacle a plethora of gimmicks and fads have been tried. They all remind us of bottle rockets: They take off with panache and a great deal of fanfare, rocketing quickly into the air, promising to deliver whatever you’ve been missing in your life. As quickly as they launch almost, they fizzle or give off a “pop!” They all purport to know how to “do church” or how to bring the lost into the fold. There are projects, programs, purpose-driven lives, or bricks with your name on them that will line some ridiculous pathway. Remember the prayer of Jabez? What function did that fad accomplish except to make Bruce Wilkerson laugh all the way to the bank as “the faithful” purchased his book, coffee mugs, trinkets, and other worthless commodities? We tried the prayer of Jabez and nothing changed for us spiritually. (Most were probably just hoping for the material gain that Bruce Wilkerson promised if you recited Jabez’s prayer (Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep from harm so that it might not bring me pain!)
Mr. Wilkerson never took the time to explain how Jabez fit into redemptive history or if there were anything messianic about his words. But, you see, this is precisely what the modern Church doesn’t want to hear. A quick prayer that will—more or less, guarantee “expanded boundaries” (with a little help from Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae) and a better stock portfolio—cause us to prosper without putting forth too much effort is what modern Christianity thrives on. Joel Osteen promises a kinder, gentler sort of legalism and the Emergent church movement encourages us in burying our guilt in solving climate change (it’s your fault that your carbon footprint is so big! Has anyone actually seen a carbon footprint? Does it look like Big Foot’s?), global poverty, or, in Michael Moore’s case, global obesity. When Bill Hybels—similar to Dr. Spock of child rearing fame—announced that the Willow Creek experiment had bombed, what did he do? Any reasonable person would have turned to Scripture and charted a new, better, divine path for his congregants, but Mr. Hybels is far too slick and packaged for such a tawdry approach. He invited the Emergent church movement non-leader leaders in to do his spring youth conference. As the cartoon figures in the Guinness beer commercial put it: Brilliant! Simply brilliant!”
Bavinck contends that there was a struggle waged against Christianity in his day by culture. Rather than wanting to hear the voice of the Christian faith in a pluralistic society, culture aimed at “a theoretically proclaimed and practically applied autonomy and anarchy…” This striving of culture places it on a collision course with Christianity. Why is that? Bavinck explains, “For Christianity comes into collision with such an autonomy, as does every religion. It asserts all possible freedom and independence for man, for it teaches his creation after the image and likeness of God; but it maintains at the same time that man is a creature, and thus can never become or be absolutely independent; it joins him to God, and binds him to his word and will.”
In his exposition and explanation of the relationship of God’s revelation and culture, Bavinck warns of an antagonism and prejudice against Christianity by cultured (or uncultured) despisers. While not wanting to place a stumbling block before the unchurched, the modern Church has abandoned the gospel, all the while wanting so desperately to be “missional.” What does it mean to be “missional” if we never present the stumbling block of the cross? Or, what does it mean to be “missional” if we are constantly compromising the central focus of the gospel message? For, as Bavinck says, “It is supernaturalism, which in point of fact forms the point of controversy between Christianity and…modern culture.”
But, asks the 21st century Christian, isn’t it possible to “soft peddle” these aspects of the Christian faith? After all, we don’t want to offend our secular counterparts. Bavinck believes that there must be a presuppositional confrontation between the secularists and Christians because “The Christian religion cannot abandon this supernaturalism without annihilating itself.” To the modern Christian’s mind, accommodation is not the same as self-inflicted annihilation. But it is precisely the accommodation that ends up being the problem. How does one decide what we’re prepared to jettison for the sake of accommodation and what is non-negotiable? This is an especially trenchant question in light of the horrible lack of knowledge about the faith among a lion’s share of Christianity that sees little, if anything, wrong with Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, or Robert Schuller’s theology, just to mention a few. In fact, TBN airs so many goofy shows, it’s little wonder that the secularists think Christians are nuts, charlatans, and hucksters.
We are still trying to learn from our 21st century advocates of engaging culture precisely what it means, specifically and concretely, to engage it. How do we or can we know if we have (effectively) engaged culture? What types of things ought to be done and said? Is engaging culture the same as evangelism? More? Less? What? In order to be an effective youth leader, do I need to have listened to all the CDs of the Red Hot Chili Peppers? (One form of good torture at Gitmo would be to require the detainees [read: terrorists who want to kill us and rip our spinal cords out] to listen to loud music featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers 24/7.) Or, to be an effective youth leader do I need to be conversant with the confessions and catechisms of my church (if your church doesn’t have one, go out and get one ASAP. I suggest the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism) and desire to aid the parents in producing godly offspring (Mal. 2:15)?
When the Reformed churches were looking for direction, purpose, and true spirituality, they turned to the creeds of Christendom as well as to a “combined effort” in structuring the Heidelberg Catechism. Today, many scoff at the creeds and the catechisms. (Their motto is: Deeds, not creeds.) And I’m not only talking about liberal theologians and pastors here. The PCA has its share of pastors who question the validity of this kind of teaching. They prefer to entertain and make it more “fun.” Their gimmicks are designed to put the “fun” back in “fundamentalism.” As we noted last time, church historian, Willem van ‘t Spijker believes that catechisms in general and the Heidelberg Catechism in particular (used by his church) play “an important role in educating the church.” Precisely. This is an excellent place to start, especially in our time. The modern Church is in dire need of being educated about real Christianity. This might cause a type of “Scottish Revival” where many hangers-on beat feet out of the Exits, but that could be a good thing as well, separating Ersatz Christians from the real deal.
Simultaneously, the modern Church does not need to become navel gazers either and van ‘t Spijker is convinced that that will not be the case. In grounding Christians in the truth of biblical confessions, “The primary objective was to prevent the collapse of church and society as a consequence of people’s sinful nature.” Bingo. This is almost as paradoxical as supply-side economics. Unfortunately, most modern Christians are theological Keynesians: they want to try all the wrong things when the right thing to do is staring them right in the face every time they open Scripture. What modern Christians no longer realize is that the “eternal youth” of, say, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism is precisely what Christians need today.
For anyone who is not embarrassed by either the Bible or our confessional and catechetical standards, they understand that they owe their “vitality and lasting relevance not least to the plan and method of its treatment of the catechetical material.” In both the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism, convinced and committed preachers joined hands with Christian academia to govern doctrine and preaching. Preaching! Not story telling or cutesy anecdotes, but God-fearing, Christ-centered, and Spirit-filled and –anointed expository preaching of the whole counsel of God.There is no comfort from philosophy or postmodernism; there is no comfort from culture. Only Christ’s Church possesses, by grace, true comfort in the face of radical corruption, total depravity and, as someone once called death, “that immutable law.” What the world needs today is not more brie, but divine truth in the face of sin and death, in the forgiveness of real sins and eternal life. As Willem van ‘t Spijker puts it, “Our heart demands something that does not vanish with death. Only the church offers us something that never perishes.” You can go anywhere in society any time and find a way to be entertained. God has placed eternity in man’s heart (Eccl. 3:11) and all the art exhibits in the world will not satisfy him. It’s the Church’s place to present man with what God has placed in man’s heart.
 Mike Horton, Christless Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008).
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (
 Ibid., 254.
 Ibid. Emphasis added.
 Willem van ‘t Spijker, (ed.), The Church’s Book of Comfort, (Gerrit Bilkes, [trans.]), (
 Ibid., 97.
 Ibid., 101.
Labels: Bavinck and the Culture