Monday, September 28, 2009

I Like My Ecclesiology Salty and Subversive

Chapter Two of Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet is titled "The Irrelevance of Relevance: Grits, Salt, and the Assembling of the Saints." I begin the chapter by drawing a contrast between grits, the southern delicacy that has no taste of its own but instead takes on the flavor of what is added to it, and salt, the condiment that Jesus described as "good for nothing" if it loses the distinctness of its flavor. The purpose of this culinary observation is to show that the Christian church should be more like salt than like grits; in other words, instead of chameleonically changing our colors to adapt to the world around us, the church should seek to retain its distinctiveness and peculiarity in the culture.

Our sacred activity, such as hearing God’s Word and receiving the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is about as unique and countercultural as we can get, while our secular activity is just the opposite—it is thoroughly common. It is primarily on Sunday, therefore, rather than on Monday through Saturday, that believers display their peculiarity and distinc­tiveness from the world.

This means that the church’s main task, as simplistic as it may sound, is to be the church, to be, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, “a new people, an alternative polis, a countercultural social structure.” They con­tinue: “The church does not exist to ask what needs doing to keep the world running smoothly and then to motivate our people to go do it . . . The church has its own reason for being, hid within its own mandate and not found in the world. We are not chartered by the Emperor.” This does not mean that the church ceases to be influential, but that the church’s influence is of an altogether different—and often unwanted—variety. “[We] seek to influence the world by being the church, that is, by being something the world is not and never can be.”
It seems to me that the evangelical church gets things precisely backwards at this point. Rather than being distinct from the culture on Sunday and part of the culture the rest of the week, they seek to be as distinct from the world as they can during the week, but as familar and non-threatening to the world as possible on Sunday. Hence the demand for Christian T-shirts and bumper stickers in order to stand out from the culture when they should be participating it it, and hence the market-driven desire to supply tailor-made worship experiences for Christian consumers (be they traditional, contemporary, or emergent) when they should be expressing their otherworldliness. Michael Horton is spot-on when he describes this approach as "ecclesial apartheid."

Darryl Hart has argued that the church's attempt to be relevant inevitably results in our sacralizing the secular and trivializing the sacred. Instead, argues Horton, "genuine relevance is found not when the church tries to be relevant, since repeating what people already think is rather boring. Genuine relevance is found in contradicting the wisdom of the world that we entered the church with on Sunday morning."

When the church fails to embrace this salty and subversive role in the culture, then, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (quoting Barth), "God is reduced to 'MAN!' said in a loud voice."