Let’s play a game. I’ll give you a quote and you tell me when it was written… The attribution comes after:
“The adjustment of the Christian message to the regeneration of the social order is plainly one of the most difficult tasks ever laid on the intellect of religious leaders. The pioneers of the social gospel have had a hard time trying to consolidate their old faith and their new aim. Some have lost faith; others have come out of the struggle with crippled formations of faith… If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel college men and women, workingmen, and theological students, to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation. It is not hard to predict the outcome. If we seek Christian doctrine unchanged, we shall ensure its abandonment.”
All of this talk about the challenge of the church to engage in a life of faith without abandoning the culture around us… It seems so very contemporary! If we don’t change the way we engage with the world around us, surely the church will collapse! If we change without care, what will become of our faith? Surely this was written by someone yesterday as they pondered the role of religious people in the politics of our divided nation. Surely it was a quote from someplace like that article on Reuters about the rise of the religious left.
No, the quote was from “A Theology for the Social Gospel” written and published by Walter Rauschenbusch in 1917. Yup, that quote is literally a century old. The church has been struggling to adapt to the world around it for at least a century.
The church does have a struggle. Let’s be clear about that fact right off the back. Attendance is lower than it used to be even ten years ago. Church checkbooks are struggling and plates are emptier. People have other priorities and sometimes soccer really does seem more important than church. Watch any standard movie about a struggling young mom. Is it more likely to show her dragging them to church or running late to soccer practice? You said soccer, right? The struggle of the church against the pressures of the world is quite real.
Let me drop an opinion on you. I believe that the struggle has been a real struggle for the entire history of the church. Why did the desert mothers and fathers retreat into the wilderness in places like Egypt? In part because they were called. In part because they couldn’t see how they could pursue God in the midst of their social context and felt called into a monastic existence in the wilds. The church and culture collided in those early centuries.
Why did the Orthodox and Roman churches split? Where did the Protestant Reformations and Catholic Counter Reformations come from in later history? Why did the Methodists start a church in the Americas after a revolution split the kingdom of Britain? Why did the Anabaptists reject pretty much everyone around them? How did the Mennonites and Amish end up disagreeing? The world and the church have always had challenges. Those challenges have led people in different directions.
There’s one constant through all of these stories. The church continued, albeit altered, when the monastics left for the wilds and challenged the church to change. The church continued, albeit altered, when the Orthodox and the Romans split courses. The church continued, albeit altered, when the Protestants went a million different directions while the Roman Church went in her own directions. Through all of our history, Christianity has continued to survive through all of her challenges.
One hundred years ago people were questioning whether the church could survive and thrive in a different world. I know that these days are somewhat challenging to many folks as a result of all the strange things going on with church attendance, church trends, and seeming crisis after crisis. Can I suggest that the church will survive even if it does not look the same in one hundred years?
Also, I’ve been late taking my kids to soccer practice more than once in the past few years. I have also missed at least one art show because a meeting ran late. It isn’t just moms movie people. Just saying…