Mark Sayers from Red Church in Melbourne wrote an interesting article for Christianity Today (July/August 2016) entitled, “Creating a Culture of Resilience.” The article argues that the Christian strategy of being culturally relevant in order to win converts, that is, of reducing the cultural distance between the believer and unbeliever, is unlikely to prove effective in today’s “progressive” culture. It is not that relevance is not a strategy that can be applied in some contexts, but the progressive culture sweeping the West is fundamentally post-Christian.
The emerging progressivism has tapped into a long-repressed desire, particularly in the young, for a radically different and better future. In the new progressive cultural mood, Catholic writer Jody Bottum sees a facsimile of Christianity, in which the categories of sin, shame, guilt, salvation, and the elect return, shaped around not theology but the goals of progressive politics. Every missionary tries to build cultural bridges in order to communicate the gospel. But the new progressivism subverts and frustrates this search. It is precisely the church, after all, that progressivism judges as immoral and sinful. The new progressivism is ultimately a form of post-Christianity. It is a new faith that attempts to achieve some of the social goals of Christianity—especially the elimination of oppression, violence, and discrimination—while moving decisively beyond it. For many young adults, leaving the church is less a leap into apostasy than a step toward social aspirations the church imperfectly realized, while subtracting dubious religious restrictions and the submission of the individual will (59-60).
He warns that when the church seeks to evangelise the progressive culture by means of a strategy of cultural relevance, it is likely that the church itself will be colonised by that culture. Instead, he counsels a strategy of resilience, which he defines in terms of faithful and courageous commitment to what the early Christians termed “The Way”:
An overriding commitment to church and Christian community, seeking to follow Jesus with the entirety of one’s heart, soul, and mind in the face of endless choices and options. The commitment to surrender one’s will to God, sacrificially following him as a servant. The decision to live fully with the Holy Spirit’s guidance in a world of anxiety, fragility, and emotionalism run wild. … True relevance to this culture will not come by accommodating its demands, but by developing the kinds of people who can resist them. … Resilience amid the third culture will require the patient and unyielding demonstration of human flourishing, the kind that comes only from embedding our personal freedoms in Christian commitments (60).
2 thoughts on “Relevance or Resilience?”
I think the church has to be progressive because jesus was progressive. Jesus hung out with oppressed people and turned water into wine
Hi Tim, good to hear from you!
Yes, it comes down to how one defines “progressive”, I guess. If we mean a concern for the poor and the outcast, and actual engagement with them in companionship and mercy, then yes, the church must be progressive. Jesus did hang out with all kinds of people, and not only the poor. I like to say he went to every party he was ever invited to! He declared beatitude upon the poor and called sinners to repentance. And yes, on at least one occasion, he turned water into wine, saving a young family from embarrassment, perhaps, and affirming their marriage.
To follow Jesus’ teachings and life is utterly necessary for the church. To conflate Jesus’ teachings and life with this brand of politics or that is probably a grave error, although at times his teaching will resonate with one kind of politics or another.