Why The Church Should Abandon "Relevance"

Pro-choice activists await the Supreme Courtâ??s ruling on abortion access in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 27, 2016
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A recent article for Religious News Service chastises the Church of England for being “outdated” as it continues to debate, rather than simply affirm, “same-sex marriage, abortion and female bishops.”

The idea that being “up to date” somehow equates with being “right and good” showed up on the Canadian scene a little while ago when the newly elected Prime Minister responded to a question about his insistence on a 50/50 gender balance in his Cabinet with the terse observation, “It’s 2015.”

Thus does the venerable Idea of Progress continue to exercise influence in our culture, the confidence that “every day in every way we’re getting better and better” (the catchphrase of psychologist Emile Coué—although you might remember this phrase on the trembling lips of Chief Inspecter Dreyfus in a “Pink Panther” movie).

Yet what a silly, or at least highly selective, thing to think, let alone a conviction upon which to judge what churches (or governments) ought to do.

Are things in fact better today in some ways? Undoubtedly they are, especially when it comes to greater attention paid to injustices done to a wide range of our neighbours in Canada and around the world.

Equally undoubtedly, however, they are not.

Must we think again for even a moment about the appalling tone of the recent American political campaigns, and the lasting effects they will have on American—and possibly global—political conduct?

Must we ponder the rising tide of pornography that has enveloped us, such that the most hideous stuff is just a couple of clicks away from any inquisitive child, while HBO, Netflix, and other providers of mainstream television lower the bar and raise the voltage month by month?

Must we muse upon the increasing intolerance of people of every political persuasion, ethnicity, and class who shout down and shut down any opinion they dislike, as “tolerance” becomes a dirty word and the circles of “affirmation” (= exclusion) are drawn more plentifully and tightly than ever before?

And do we need to see yet another chart showing the increasing concentration of wealth in the so-called one percent, and even more drastically in the one percent of one percent?

How is being “up to date” with all of that supposed to be a good thing for the Church of England—or any other church that takes seriously the Way of Jesus?

Australian pastor Mark Sayers suggests that instead of “relevance” the Church should better seek resilience. The Church must not adopt the strategy of conforming itself to the latest trends in our culture, when so many of those trends are contradictory and some are clearly destructive.

Likewise, I would say, the Church should not position itself merely as “counter-cultural,” either, since there is yet much to approve and support in our society’s quest for justice and freedom for everyone, however badly that quest turns out in one respect or another.

Instead, the Church needs to be staunchly itself: resolutely committed to the historic doctrine at its core, repeatedly returning to the worship and fellowship that sustain its life, and continually engaging in whatever forms of service our neighbours will welcome as gifts of love.

Only in such faithfulness will the Church be effective: effective in maintaining its authentic shape and effective in the crucial task God has given it today and in every age: to help women and men, girls and boys, of every nation find the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Without that faithfulness, it absolutely will not matter if the Church adopts the “right” attitude toward “same-sex marriage, abortion and female bishops”—or anything else.

And only with that faithfulness will the Church have a chance of offering to the world helpful responses to those matters, yes, but especially the Word of Life itself, the central message the Church has to proclaim.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).

3 Comments

  1. I agree that a religious faith should not be expected to compromise its values in order to be relevant, but it should always be prepared to re-examine those values in light of the current culture to ensure that the interpretation of a particular belief fully with other scripture. I was first drawn to the Context TV program because Lorna invited those who might not embrace the Christian faith to discuss the news of the day from multiple points of view. Such a format gave the Christian viewpoint validity in my eyes.
    A culture is richer when a variety of viewpoints are expressed, but each person must be ready to examine their viewpoint in light of the opinion of others. Religious interpretation of scripture is just that, interpretation, and the individual as well as the leaders must decide whether their interpretation should be generous or strict, while still aligning with all of their religious tenets.

  2. Yes, I have to admit that I reluctantly agree with this.

  3. Well Said!

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