Exposing and Healing Rifts in the American Church
It often feels like the church is dividing along political lines. When we declare a church to be conservative or liberal, we are often not referring to theological stances (as J. Gresham Machen did in his classic Christianity and Liberalism), but to political ideology and cultural stances. Those who try to hold these parties together in the church are usually held in contempt by both sides.
The fact that winsomeness is now demonized by many Christians (and with it, related attributes such as patience, gentleness, and charity) doesn’t help. Instead of looking for biblical and confessional boundary markers to establish whether unity is possible, we tend to exaggerate the deficiencies in camps and tribes besides our own.
These divisions are made more intractable because they are legion and cannot be reduced to a matter of culture or politics. Many divisions in the church are far subtler than an outright culture war. Age plays a large role and with it, the dominant worldviews that accompany each generation. Philosophical assumptions also play a large role. Every church has its share of rational polemicists and emotional pacifists, and some churches attract a far higher percentage of one than the other. And let’s not forget geography, which largely overlaps the other categories, as each region of the country has values all its own. Let’s look at a few of these less noticeable divisions.
The Generation Gap
While I was in seminary, I worked for a year in a Korean-American church. I know every church culture is different, but I’ve never seen a more pronounced generation gap than in that church. There was a Korean Ministry (KM) serving largely first-generation Korean immigrants and an English Ministry (EM) serving a broader spectrum of largely second- and third-generation Korean Americans. While members of the KM tended to emphasize maintaining their traditions, the EM focused more on assimilating people into the broader culture. Each ministry in the church had its own pastors, spoke its own language, and upheld its own unique culture.
More and more, a similar generational division has permeated mainstream evangelical churches. The young and old no longer fight about worship styles but about how best to engage the culture. Those who came of age with the rampant hedonism of the sexual revolution and then the powerful backlash of the Moral Majority tend to view the culture as in need of retrieval. Those who came of age during or after the Clinton impeachment and the public obscuring of morality tend to view the culture as in need of leavening.
In this way, many churches are dividing along lines like the KM and EM that I experienced. The older generations grieve the loss of traditions deemed vital to both the church and culture, so they are fighting for their preservation for the sake of the gospel. In the same way, younger generations are looking for ways to faithfully assimilate with the broader culture. They are not as concerned about winning back the culture, but about effectively influencing their own unique corners of the culture with the gospel. These distinct perspectives color the way each generation approaches both politics and culture.
The Philosophy Gap
There is also a philosophical divide in churches today. It largely, but not always, mirrors the generation gap. The twentieth-century worldview was dominated by modernism, which asserts that truth is fixed and can be ascertained and proven through human reason. It was an age frequently consumed with the “facts,” whether deduced through logic or discovered through the natural sciences. Postmodernism, arising in the late twentieth century, blew up many of these ideas with the reminder that all pursuits of truth are shaped by experience, biases, and innate presuppositions. It’s interesting to watch combatants in these two camps talk past each other on various social media forums, such as in this hypothetical argument:
Modernist: Facts are facts. This is a matter of truth, whether you like it or not.
Postmodernist: Whether or not it’s true, it’s colored by biases that must be explored.
Modernist: You’re arguing that truth is relative.
Postmodernist: I’m arguing that truth can’t be known and understood in a vacuum. You’re simply captive to your culture and are unable and unwilling to understand other points of view.
Even over the course of my own life, I’ve noticed a pronounced shift in the way Christians talk. In high school, I was always arguing for absolute truth in the face of moral relativism. That line of argumentation has largely been discarded on the ash heap of evangelical history alongside purity rings and praise songs sung in rounds. And to be honest, abstract argumentation was not particularly effective in attracting others to a gospel narrative rooted in real history.
The Geography Gap
This gap goes far beyond seersucker suits versus board shorts. For several decades now, Christians in major metropolitan areas, especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast, have been living in exile within their respective cultures. Warehouses, coffee shops, and breweries are not only sites for worship or fellowship because of preference, but also because of availability. Christians from these areas are more at home with the stigma and hostility that comes with living at the margins.
Christians in the South and Midwest, especially in rural areas and small towns, still hold some pride of place in their respective cultures. Most people attend church, respect family and authority, and think about the world communally. They have enjoyed more space to nurture vital traditions and avoid the withering gaze of popular criticism. For these populations, the transition to cultural exile has been more sudden, violent, and painful.
The Common Denominator
There is a common denominator to all three rifts: They are not about the authority of Scripture or the centrality of the gospel. When it comes to the Bible and the gospel, we’re largely on the same page even when it comes to our differences. Should we value tradition and grieve the loss of the prominence of the church and the cultural capital of Christianity? Absolutely. Should we question whether traditions are biblical and creatively engage a hostile culture? Absolutely. Can we use both cultural philosophies to better engage the culture with the gospel? Absolutely. Are either modernism or postmodernism remotely Christian? Not at all.
Truth is not gathered by humans before it is first given by God, and our pollution of the process should lead to a greater humility and respect for the word of God. In more progressive cultures, the gospel must be upheld against deified sexualities. In more conservative cultures, the gospel must be distinguished from deified moralities. There is no culture that stands above the gospel. We are all made level at the foot of the cross.
If the church is to heal from its myriad rifts, then we must be honest about where the fault lines—and our own biases—lie. Am I standing on the solid ground of God’s word or on a pillar built of cultural assumptions that actually degrade it? This is why many of our denominations have confessions of faith. These are guardrails that keep us within the confines of Scripture and prevent us from wandering the weary paths of unexplored assumptions. We should always be more ready to test our assumptions against God’s word than to fight the unexamined fight. Sometimes I simply need to understand where my parents are coming from—what they dealt with and what they are trying to recover. They belong to a different generation, cultural milieu, and maybe even a different geography. These factors shape how we each handle the gospel and culture, but none of them negate how the God of the gospel handles us. From start to finish, it is the grace of God in Christ Jesus alone that will heal his church.
Stephen Roberts is a US Army chaplain and has written for The Washington Times and The Federalist.