We had a decent keynote presentation on the Church and culture at our district conference on Monday and Tuesday of this week. Dr. Larry Rast (CTS) and Dr. Joel Lehenbauer (CTCR) took a tag-team approach to the topic, each with his own points, personality and perspective. They're both good speakers, and they engaged the room well, I thought. At any rate, there were more comments from the peanut gallery than one usually finds, and that speaks well of both the content and the character of the presentation. The question of the Church's interface and interaction with the culture of the world is an interesting one, and ought to be a compelling consideration. How to answer the question is a difficult challenge, although I don't believe the Church should be so stymied by it as she sometimes seems to be.
I agree with the observation that my colleague made in the course of conversation, that the Church should not be trying to discern whether she's a friend or foe of the world's culture. She is called simply to be faithful in the catechesis and confession of the Word of God. It is with the Word of God, as it is proclaimed and prayed and practiced, that the Church confronts the world with its culture. The confrontation itself will then determine whether the culture is being met with friend or foe, or with ambivalence. It's the City of God in the midst of the city of man, and that's always a bit touch-and-go.
Surely there are ways in which the Church should be seeking to communicate the Word of God with a culturally sensitive language. We do translate the Scriptures and the Liturgy into the vernacular, and the love of God in Christ moves us into the world with the life that we live by faith. I've wrestled with the parameters and pragmatics of those things before. Yet, as our presenters pointed out, there is a tension between the Church of Christ and the culture of the world, and we are frankly in trouble if that tension is broken or dissolved. H. Richard Niebuhr discerned that Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther were content to live with a paradoxical relationship between Christ and culture, but then Niebuhr dismissed their perspective as a cop-out and useless. Hmmm. I'm rather inclined to agree with Augustine and Luther. Instead of trying to resolve the paradox or escape the tension, the Church should rather focus on being the Church, that is, the Body and Bride of Christ her Lord. She does so by receiving, along with His Name, His Word and His good gifts, bearing and confessing the same within the world.
So the good question was asked: How does the Church create her own distinctive culture? That goes precisely to the right point. The Church's Christian culture is a function of her language and her liturgy (or, better to say, her Lord's language and His Liturgy). What the Church believes is confessed in what she says and does. What she teaches is embodied in her practice. When the Church is immersed in those things of Christ that she is given to hear and receive, to preach and to pray, then she is defined and shaped by those sacred things. Her confession and her practice of the same comprise her culture. Then she will also, in a free and natural way, take up the good gifts of God from the world in which she lives in order to uphold, adorn and magnify the Ministry of the Gospel, the means of grace, the Word of God and prayer. Music, language, art and architecture, craftsmanship of every kind, technology and textiles, all may serve as handmaids of the Gospel; like the faithful women who followed Jesus and His Apostles, providing for them from their own means.
The Church not only learns to know herself, she is herself, as she lives in the Divine Liturgy of the Gospel-preached and the Sacraments-administered. That clarity and confidence of identity, of being who she is in Christ, frees her and enables her to engage the culture of the world. She is not deliberately hostile, nor compromising, nor aloof, but forthright, patient and persistent. It would be no real engagement with the world simply to accommodate its culture; nor simply to attack it. The Church does not predetermine how she and her Lord will be received. She confesses what He has spoken to her; she speaks as the oracles of God. She gives what she has been given. It is with these things of Christ that the world is then engaged: broadly, as the world is confronted by the Church living as the Church, but also more personally in the daily interactions of faithful Christians with their neighbors.
In my experience, the Christians who set the bar in living their faith and life, engaging the world around them with the most consistent integrity, are the little children and the youth. The little children talk about Jesus with real zeal and no guile. They cannot imagine life without Him in it. Jesus is their "world-view," the way they think about the world and life and death; so of course they speak of Him. The youth, too, have convictions and values, which they do not hesitate to discuss and debate with their friends of every color and stripe. Not only that, but they do so while moving comfortably within the culture, taking things in stride, setting some things aside, embracing others, but not driven or defined by the world's culture. I'm not talking ideals, but what I have consistently witnessed in the young people of my congregation, including my own elder children as they've made the transition to college in recent years.
I'm always a bit befuddled and bemused when I hear talk about an aging church and vanishing youth. At Emmaus, on any given Sunday, anywhere from a third to half the congregation is under the age of twenty. Many of those children and youth are also in church on Monday and Wednesday each week for Vespers and Evening Prayer, and they are consistently present to celebrate the weekday festivals that punctuate the months of the year. It's easier for many of them because of the flexibility of homeschooling, but that's not the only factor. They live with their parents and their congregation in a context of ongoing catchesis. At home and at church, their life is marked and sanctified by the Word of God and prayer. The Spirit of Christ is the air they breathe; hence, it is also the Spirit they exhale in their confession of Christ Jesus. They have a hunger for the means of grace, for the Liturgy of the Gospel, for the rhythm of the Church's life and the fellowship of the Church's family. When they are looking at colleges, then, one of their top criteria is a faithful congregation where they can hear and learn God's Word and live in His Liturgy. And once they get to college, they cannot help but engage their peers with this life they live and breathe. I am humbled and amazed, again and again, at the witness and example of the little children and the youth, who are flat-out fearless, unaffected and faithful in their confession and practice.
It's not by their own reason and strength; nor is it because they're brow-beaten or coerced into anything. It's because the Lord gives them life with His Gospel, and they live it. It's because they are so thoroughly grounded in the language and liturgy of His Word, they know who they are; they know where they stand; they know what to say, and they love to say it.
Instead of focusing on the culture of the world, the Church ought to focus on her own culture. Not to escape the world, but to be who she is in the world. After all, Christians live here on this planet; they live and work in the place where God has put them; they interact with the culture of the world all the time. What they need, therefore, is not an education in the ways of the world, but to be formed and shaped, encouraged and strengthened in the Church's proper and peculiar culture, which does not come naturally but only by the grace of God through His Word and Spirit. They need to be cultivated by the ongoing catechesis of the Church's liturgical life. It is imperative, then, for the Church to be herself. When the focus is shifted to the world's culture, the Church becomes less and less able to engage that culture, because she has less and less of herself with which to engage anything. The more she is making it her aim to accommodate or adopt the culture of the world in which she lives, the more passé and pathetic she becomes.
A particularly tangible example came to the fore in the data that Dr. Rast discussed with us. Along with various indications of cultural changes and demographic shifts throughout the United States, there were the usual statistics of declining church membership and a loss of confessional identity (or "denominational loyalty," as some would say it). The Missouri Synod has followed general trends in this regard. The downward turn in church membership roughly coincides with the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960s. That was the turning point, and I maintain that the rampant acceptance of birth control among Christians, following societal norms, remains the single most significant factor. If I heard the numbers correctly, there were 250,000 youth in the Missouri Synod at the time of the first "national youth gathering" (in the 1970s?), but only 95,000 youth in the Missouri Synod as of this past year. That goes to show rather dramatically where the heaviest losses have been. It's not surprising, frankly, when the national birthrate is barely at maintenance level; and Christians, by and large, have emulated that trend.
Not every man is given a wife; not every woman is given into marriage; and not every marriage is given the blessing of children. Our Christian confession is not that husbands and wives are obliged to maximize their offspring, but that God is the Author and Giver of life, and that we receive by faith whatever He gives (or withholds) according to His grace. I'm not suggesting or implying any blanket rules that govern everyone in every circumstance. But the deliberate avoidance of children, or the deliberate attempt to limit the number of children, has largely been driven by the cultural values and expectations of the world, in a way that is counterintuitive to the Christian faith. It belongs to a larger complex of developments that have not only reduced the number of children to begin with, but have also reduced the amount of time that parents spend with the children they do have. Marriage is postponed for the sake of career, for the sake of wealth, for the sake of personal comfort and pleasure. Couples go into debt, and moms and dads both work full-time jobs, often for the same reasons. Many children spend their days in public school, where they are indoctrinated with societal agendas, and then go either to a day care for the rest of the afternoon or home to an empty house. Its not only moms who sacrifice time with their children for the sake of their careers; dads, too, are often working long hours every day for the sake of higher income and promotion, in order to support and sustain a lavish lifestyle, excessive in every way except in family time.
Fewer children of Christian parents means fewer new Christians, naturally, but the consequences are exponentially greater than that. Parents who are driven by "the deceitfulness of riches" are not only neglecting their children; they are exemplifying priorities held more dear and precious than the Church and the Christian faith. Their children are being "catechized" in the culture of the world instead of Christ. Too many fathers do not pray with their children even at meals or at bedtime. They do not teach their children the Catechism or basic Bible stories. They do not instill within their families a reverence for the Lord's Day, nor demonstrate by example that the preaching of God's Word is sacred, gladly to be heard and learned. Instead, they give preference to school assignments and activities, extracurricular projects and programs, sports and recreation, arts and entertainment. Indeed, almost anything takes precedence over the Church's life of prayer and devotion.
There's no real mystery as to why we find ourselves diminished in numbers and influence. Too many Christian parents have purposely avoided having "too many" children, and then they have failed to catechize their children in the culture of the Christian faith and life. As a result, there are far fewer young Christians to engage their peers and their culture with the confession of Christ and His Church. Well-catechized children and youth are the best, most eager and natural cross-cultural evangelists, but there are less and less of them out there. Instead, we've got 40-year olds trying to look 18, and it's all so contrived and artificial that no one is really fooled, and no one is converted.
Christian youth don't have to pretend to be Christians, nor do they have to pretend to share the culture of their peers, because all of this belongs to them (by grace through faith in Christ) in the place where God has put them. They wear the culture of the Church like their baptismal garments, as their Christian heritage and birthright. They wear it well within the world, neither taking it off nor covering it up, because they know by faith how to receive and use their daily bread from their Father's open hand. They walk and work and live and play within the culture of the world, not afraid of it nor enticed by it, but willing to embrace what is good and right, always ready to contend with what is wicked and perverse. They actually do engage the culture, because they interact with it in faith, meeting it with the Word of God and prayer, by which all things are sanctified, received with thanksgiving, and used to the glory of His Name.
If the Church would engage the culture of the world with Christ, she has only to be faithful to her Lord and to His calling. She would best devote herself to the apostolic doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and prayer: to the Ministry of the Word and the Liturgy of the Supper. She would catechize her children (young and old) in the words and promises of God, teaching them to be fruitful and to multiply, as the Lord gives life and growth, health and strength. She would teach young men and women to value marriage over money, to cherish children over careers, and to love the liturgy more than luxury or leisure. She would catechize, commune, and care for all her members, young and old, male and female, married and single, parents and children, orphaned and widowed, with Christ and His Gospel of forgiveness. He is the One with all authority in heaven and on earth. All things are His, and He is ours, and we shall not perish forever. Statistics rise and fall, and all the data in the world shall pass away, but His Word remains. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come, whose Architect and Builder is God.