I’ll admit: there are times when I’m a bit jaded about cultural renewal, at least in how it’s presented to us so often today. Too often, the literature and lectures from the popular leadership gurus promises a magic bullet that will help us reach the world, whether it’s reaching “the city”, creating safe places for questions and uncertainty, or how to make church enjoyable for people who aren’t into church. Everyone’s looking for the magic bullet, but no one can find it.
And then I read Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times by Os Guinness.
Our magic bullets aren’t loaded
In this book, Guinness contends that there is no magic bullet to cultural engagement. At least not how we think of it. We’re not going to put the power of the gospel on display through stunt shows on the stage on Sundays, any more than we will with dancing girls and half-naked cowboys.
Instead, our focus should be less on trying to engage the culture (which often means becoming like it), and instead set our eyes on being distinctly Christian. Or, as he writes:
[We] must go deeper than a shallow, purely intellectual understanding of worldviews. What changes the world is not a fully developed Christian worldview, but a worldview actually lived—in other words, in Christian lives that are the Word made flesh again. (86)
Simply, if our focus is on living out our worldview—and if true change comes as a result of that—then we should probably take our best, savviest thinking with a hefty helping of salt. After all, “compared with the strategic leadership of the Spirit of God, it is puny to the point of absurdity” (104).
Ushering golden ages and letting go of our kingdoms
Yet it’s so easy to forget, isn’t it? In my first years as a believer I was a member at a church that started a building campaign. Before long the congregation became known in our community as “the church that’s building a new church building”. The desire for a new facility (which not a bad thing!) became the ultimate thing in the eyes of some. And unfortunately, this may have hindered its ministry to our city (at least for a time).
I saw a similar line of thought appear more recently as my current church prepared to move into our first permanent facility. Certainly for me, there was a temptation to see the new building as the magic bullet. The building will be the answer to our problems. Despite what we’re tempted to believe, a new golden age of Christianity won’t be ushered in the day we take possession of our new property, anymore than our attempts to be relatable, engaging, take for ourselves political power, or whatever.
A worldview lived out is what is called for. And it’s the point that we struggle to grasp. It’s easier to pursue the silly things. It’s easier to give away cars, cruises, and couches than it is to live out our calling as Christians. To be seen as weird to those around us. To be called hateful or bigoted. But if our confidence is in Christ—if our worldview is being lived out as it should—we will be able to whether the storm, despite the pain it may cause.
Do divisions matter?
Lest the reader think I am merely gushing about this book (which I did find very helpful), there are a couple of things that should be addressed. First, there is a tendency to minimize the distinction between Protestants and Roman Catholics at certain points. Notably, when it comes to the historical efforts of the western church, Guinness writes, that through both Roman Catholics and Protestants, “the gospel has now reached the furthest ends of the entire world, and the Christian faith is the first truly global religion” (142).
Though it is beyond the scope of this article to address all the distinctions between these two branches of Christianity (and likewise between these and Eastern or Greek Orthodoxy), it does raise a question: has the gospel truly spread as far as he claims, given the sharp disagreement on the gospel among these groups?
This is one of the larger issues in our time, knowing what barriers and divisions are necessary vs the ones we need to maintain. A number of years ago, I was at a leadership event where a speaker was encouraging Canadian pastors specifically that if we want to reach Canada, Protestants and Catholics need focus on our points of agreement, since we do agree on much (the majority in fact) of our doctrine. But we need to realize the differences between us are actually incredibly important, and on the most central aspects of Christianity—justification by faith alone, the sacraments, and the authority of Scripture, tradition and human teachers.
I’m not saying Guinness suggests we abandon our distinctiveness, by any means. But this undercurrent that exists in his writing adds a layer of fuzziness to these questions (as does some of the language of the included Evangelical Manifesto, which has been criticized by many for being too broad in its statements to be distinctly evangelical). And this sort of fuzziness does not help us as we seek to live out our worldview (to continue to use Guinness’ language), as our worldviews necessarily requires clarity on these points. They change how we live, and we should be careful to defend this thoughtfully, winsomely but uncompromisingly.
What encourages me about Renaissance (and renaissance)
Even so, I was greatly encouraged by what I’ve read in Renaissance, in part because it reminded me of what I saw on a trip to Managua, Nicaragua, in 2015. While in the country, I spent several days at a church in an outlying neighborhood, one that is serving hundreds of children and families in partnership with the ministry I work for. But they’re not doing anything particularly fancy They’re contributing to the sort of cultural renewal we all want to see by helping young people see themselves differently, as people of dignity and value, as having something to contribute, and ultimately as people loved by God in Christ. They’re changing their culture by changing the people in it (in the best sense possible). They don’t seem terribly concerned with trying to usher in golden ages or build kingdoms. They’re living out their worldview. They’re living as light in a dark place.
And this, I think is what I needed to be reminded of most: Cultural change happens not so much through reaching a certain demographic or whether or not my church meets in a school or in a church building, but in the “simple” practice of loving my neighbors and telling them the good news about Jesus. My role is not to try to build Jesus’ kingdom for him, but to wait for Christ to do it himself, and to do the work he’s called me to while I wait. And to me, this isn’t just encouraging, it’s downright liberating.
Title: Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times
Author: Os Guinness
Publisher: IVP Books (2014)
Buy it at: Amazon