One of the highlights of any trip back to Regent College is the opportunity to snoop around their excellent bookstore. It’s always difficult to avoid spending much more money than I have, but I often emerge with a handful of good books to keep me going for a while. This year, one of titles I came away with was Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. This book received high praise (“one of the most important books I have ever read!”) from one of our workshop presenters, so I thought I’d take a chance. I’ve only leafed through the book briefly, but was intrigued to read the following passage (especially in light of previous conversations around here on the topic of church relevance):
It is truly ironic, in my opinion, that so many Christians are seeking some accommodation with secularism precisely at the moment when it is revealing itself to be an untenable spiritual position. More and more signs point toward one fact of paramount importance: the famous “modern man” is already looking for a path beyond secularism, is again thirsty and hungry for “something else.” Much too often this thirst and hunger are satisfied not only be food of doubtful quality, but by artificial substitutes of all kinds.
The spiritual confusion is at its peak. But is it not because the Church, because Christians themselves, have given up so easily that unique gift which they alone—and no one else!—could have given to the spiritually thirsty and hungry world of ours? Is it not because Christians, more than any others today, defend secularism and adjust it to their very faith? Is it not because, having access to the true mysterion of Christ, we prefer to offer to the world vague and second-rate “social” and “political” advice? The world is desperate in its need for Sacrament and Epiphany, while Christians embrace empty and foolish worldly utopias.
It was especially interesting to read the preceding words from an Eastern Orthodox perspective alongside a passage from this interview with, of all people, evangelical über-pastor/writer Charles Swindoll:
We’re tempted to think of the church as a business with a cross stuck on top (if it has a cross at all). “We really shouldn’t look like a church.” I’ve heard that so much I want to vomit. “Why?” I ask. “Do you want your bank to look like a bank? Do you want your doctor’s office to look like a doctor’s office, or would you prefer your doctor to dress like a clown? Would you be comfortable if your attorney dressed like a surfer and showed movies in his office? Then why do you want your church’s worship center to look like a talk show set?”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”
Some time ago a group of church leaders decided that they didn’t want to be hated. They focused just on attracting more and more people.
But if we’re here to offer something the world can’t provide, why would I want to copy the world? There is plenty of television. There are plenty of talk shows. There are plenty of comedians. But there is not plenty of worship of the true and living God.
Across the Christian spectrum, it seems, there has been and continues to be an important and necessary rethink going on, regarding the nature and role of the church in a (post) modern secular world.
Elsewhere in his book, Schmemann defines secularism as “above all a negation of worship.” It is a heresy primarily about human beings and their proper role and orientation, rather than about believing the wrong things about God. I think he’s on to something important… And if our churches couldn’t be counted on to help reorient us as worshiping creatures—if our churches were busy trying to be entertainment centres/shopping malls/comedy clubs/socio-political organizations/community service providers and scratching whatever other real or perceived itches we might have…
Well, then I guess we’d be in a bit of trouble, wouldn’t we?