A fellow staff member and I had a good conversation yesterday about the tension of how the church makes itself relevant without it compromising its “Gospel integrity”. Certainly the conversation around the water coolers that concern the church come at both sides of this debate, those who suggest that the church “get with it” and speak to the concerns of people today and on the other hand people who believe the church is being led by “the world”. I tend to be a little suspicious about the consistency of the latter group because nine times out of ten they are talking about the church’s wrestling with same-gender marriage. Somehow that one issue has become the concern of people who think the church has lost its way. Never mind that Jesus talked far, far more about money and how wealth corrupts the disciple than sexuality, the critics of “worldly” church are obsessed by sex and the way the church deals with it.
But in a broader sense the critics of the worldly quality of the church are correct, the church has certainly accommodated itself to its surroundings in ways that have made its Gospel witness suspect. Historically the church is fairly uniform in its racial make-up, in a city you will find that churches are almost always uniformly Caucasian or African-American/Canadian, etc… Of course that was not because persons of colour wanted it so, it is a direct result of Caucasian churches that did everything they could to discourage people of colour from joining them. That may no longer be the case but the history of this practice has a legacy and we still see that legacy today. Poverty was a big issue for Jesus and the early church, much less so for the church today. Why? And yet these issues are rarely the ones critics of church “worldliness” point to when accusing us of “watering down” the Gospel.
But then the other side of this argument have an equally strong case. The church of the medieval period has somehow been privileged to “Gospel” status, meaning that hymns, liturgy and doctrine from a specific time in church history has found itself the gold standard of “tradition”. Not the early church but hundreds of years later. Which begs the question, “why then?” Why must the culture of 2017, the cultures of people around the world, be forced to hear and experience the Gospel through the lens of Europeans living a long, long time ago, and a long, long time after Jesus? What gives?
My own sense of this comes down to a quote a homiletical professor shared with me years ago, “the preacher is called to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” We cannot go back to Palestinian culture 2000 years ago and make that the context to live the Gospel. That makes no sense. Jesus’ stories were of a certain time and place. Telling them without context makes no sense. And to use context means there must be an effort to explain the stories in words and images that pertain to how we live. That’s why the church has to use the music, language and iconography of its place and time to get its message across. Anything other than that is privileging another culture that distorts the Gospel message.
However, once the context of the worship service is appropriate to the place where the church rests the message, the Gospel stories MUST not comfort the comfortable or afflict the afflicted, otherwise it makes a mockery of Jesus’ story. Churches and preachers in every community need the integrity to speak the truth in love to the people who come for worship. Using language and music of a certain time and place is not watering down the Gospel. Pretending that Jesus was just like the powerful in our community is watering down the Gospel.
And so it goes…