In this series on the state and future of the American church, I propose a renewal of the doctrine of common grace, which, while not a silver bullet, is an appropriate antidote to the ills plaguing today’s American church. We must remember that the church will never fully escape the ravages of sin. Most likely in recent decades we, the church, have even become numb to our own failings resulting in an anemic response that just further contributes to the state of our culture. The church needs common grace to find her way again and to recover her calling, but so does the public square because it benefits as grace abounds.
We start with why so many Christ-followers today have been malformed such that they do not even know common grace as a doctrine, much less that this activity of the living God even exists. The reasons why are twofold: cultural disobedience and dualism. We address the first here and dualism in the next post.
Every generation influences their culture along a continuum of, what Richard Mouw calls, cultural obedience or disobedience to the gospel. In the foreword to Henry VanTil’s The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, Mouw writes,
The centrality of cultural formation has not been diminished in any way by the entrance of sin into the creation. Under fallen conditions the question becomes one of cultural obedience versus cultural disobedience.
With hindsight, we can see a prime example of cultural disobedience that guided church leaders of the late twentieth century, both evangelical and progressive Protestants. Each pushed the church towards a political activism in tension with the church’s historic mission. Such political activism unfolded both in the public square and within denominations compromising missional effectiveness.
Evangelicals married public policy to the Republican platform. The Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, of which I was once a member, were held up as the answer; as if politics was the problem in our country and the American church. Progressive church leaders, meanwhile, enacted their revisionist agenda to the Scriptural witness, confessional doctrines, and ordination practices of mainline churches. Along with it they have sacrificed (all in the name of “love”) clear leadership, orthodox belief, and the membership rolls of countless churches.
Evangelical Baby Boomers operated under the false notion that their culture wars were winnable in the short-term through legislation. But, no ticker tape parades for the culture battle victories ever came. The top down approach, legislation via political control, did not work. Progressive Baby Boomers with good intentions and great gusto failed in remaking the church-and-culture relationship as they otherwise did in gender roles, pop culture, and the marketplace. The church lost her way more so than picked losing strategies. These were hard lessons in cultural disobedience.
Nearing the end of the first quarter in the twenty-first century we have a church described by Marilyn McEntyre in her article, Choosing Church as clubby, exclusionary, oversimplified, imitating pop culture, boring, and partisan.
While church leaders may have the theological vision of Christ’s bride, referenced in last week’s blog post, McEntyre names the harsh sociological realities for why one does not choose church. These descriptions are honest, and more could be added to her list, but here I will expand on only one.
The church’s impotence in today’s public square is palpable and fails to inspire outsiders giving them reason to pursue more effective institutional change agents like non-profit organizations, government, or business. Gone are the days when Christ’s bride leads movements in public health, abolition, prohibition, and civil rights. Granted, those movements and others were often advanced by segments of the American church rather than the whole, but Christ’s bride at times is a mobilized force with which to reckon.
A simple, but profound example of this impotency is seen in the special report on philanthropies and non-profits produced annually by the Orlando Business Journal. Across thirty pages of statistics, impact reports, and leadership profiles in the 2018 report, not one of the thousands of churches in Central Florida is mentioned. Are we really so ineffective and thereby insignificant? A simple, but profound, reason for the church’s impotency is seen in her ability to execute her core mission.
In the words of Amy Sherman, today’s church based evangelism and mission programs, “for too long (have) been asking our bankers and our architects and our engineers for their canned goods.” As if the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth only uses this vast pool of talented professionals as a means to empty their pantries! What might the common good look like were the social capital of the church unleashed on behalf of the vulnerable in the name of Jesus?
McEntyre offers sociological, psychological, and theological reasons why the average non-church going American should reconsider engaging Christ’s bride: to engage others in need; to deal with guilt and experience forgiveness; to participate in a treasure trove of unique words and music that, “brings you into a centuries-old conversation,” and to experience a divine encounter. While McEntyre is not incorrect, she fails to appreciate the deep change Christ’s bride must undergo so as not to be the unhealthy churches she avoids.
Our hope rests in the purposes for which we were created—to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. And such hope is realized when church leaders, with humble hearts fresh with words of repentance, embrace God’s work of common grace as the common ground of the public space.
In next week’s blog post we look at how cultural disobedience leads to an unhealthy dualism for which common grace is the answer.
This blog post is an excerpt from a larger work on common grace to be published in the Westminster Society Journal, Vol. 3, Spring, 2019.
What We Are Thinking About
Quote. Common grace helps us to acknowledge that there are times to embrace culture warmly, and times to be in stark opposition to it. And the only durable, biblical way to do both is to see culture through the lens of common grace. (Scott Kaufman, The Problem of Good)
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Case Thorp is moderator-elect of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the senior associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, and leads The Collaborative.