What does the world need now? Answers to that question are everywhere. One can’t amble through the morning paper or the evening news – or even the grocery store – without tripping over them. Some answers are religious and some secular, some hackneyed and familiar while others are new and novel. Some answers are hard and techy (a globally reliable communication network), while others are soft and feel-good (what the world needs now is love, sweet love).
The church certainly has offered its share of answers to the question, though often in confusing and even contradictory ways. Depending on the voice you’re listening to, the answer might be: the world needs justice or equality (gender, racial, and economic), or the world needs to return to (or discover for the first time) Christian morality.
The church has frequently tried to give the world an answer that both proves God’s existence and justifies the church’s. But these apologetic-type answers are ineffective for at least two reasons. First, they have kept the church in a defensive posture for generations; and second (and more importantly), they have reduced God’s big answer to mere words. When he gave the world his Son and his church, he said, “Here’s my answer.”
The church needs to remember that. She is not a social service agency nor a foundation for the preservation of traditional morals, but the Body of Christ. As such, the church doesn’t have the answer; the church is the answer – the only answer that can make a difference.
For several generations, the liberal wing of the church has tried to answer the question, “What does the world need now?” from a revised catalog of secular solutions. The world needs to end economic disparity and racial bias, while promoting universal health care and non-violence. The world needs gender equality, or perhaps gender blindness, or (even more radically) to put an end to gender distinction altogether.
Where does God fit into these answers? He usually arrives as a sanctified afterthought, as Christians posit a relationship between today’s preferred answers and their overlooked deity: “Of course, with God there is no male or female, but all are one in Christ.” This God is not necessarily the God of Jesus, whose actions and ways are revealed in the Bible. This is a more generic divinity who, happily, follows the same agenda as social and political progressives. How convenient!
One can sympathize with the liberal wing of the church. They understandably long to regain the radicalism that characterized Jesus. His contemporaries considered him scandalous. Ours considered us boring. How can we recover the scandal of the gospel? The liberal church has tried to do it, according to Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in their excellent book Resident Aliens, “by identifying the church with the newest secular solutions.”
Does the conservative wing of the church fare any better? Not much. Though they have the advantage of a high view of Scripture, they’ve made little use of it. Finding themselves on the same path as their liberal brothers and sisters, they’ve trudged off in the opposite direction, where they hope to find shelter from the storms of the age in the traditions of the past.
The trouble with the twenty-first century American church is not that its path is too liberal or too conservative, but that it is the wrong path. It has followed politics when it should have been following Jesus. If it had, liberals would have had the scandal they thought they wanted, and conservatives would have preserved the values their children have lost.
Is there hope? Of course there’s hope: there is a God. The church belongs to him, not to liberals or conservatives. The good shepherd will lead his church through the moral wilderness of the twenty-first century and not even one of his own will be lost. But while the critics and commentators are shouting answers from the rooftops of media strongholds, we must learn again to listen for the good shepherd’s voice. He not only has the answer, he is the answer.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/12/2017