When the Pendulum Swings

The pendulum of evangelicalism is swinging again (not a news flash).  It has been for some time now.  Everyone is talking about the nature and degree of the church’s responsibility to engage with culture.  Some of the buzzwords are “culture,” “relevance,” and “contextualization.”  Some of the hot button verses are Acts 17 and 1 Corinthians 9.  In the last decade there’s been a glut of books published that revolve around the theme of cultural engagement.  Ten years ago at my Christian college, the most intense theological conversations were about topics like limited atonement.  Now in the public square of evangelicalism, the hot topic is culture.

This is not a bad thing.  From my youthful perspective, this dialogue was long overdue.  I would wholeheartedly put myself with the majority who have drawn the inescapable conclusion that conservative, Calvinistic evangelicalism has often distanced itself from the world in ways that are not biblical.  Living missionally has not been our collective strength.  So I don’t disagree with the presence or the necessity of the discussion.

But I do have concerns about its momentum.

Recently John Piper listed “20 Reasons Why I Don’t Take Potshots at Fundamentalists” in a clear attempt to balance the ship and defend the tenets and character of fundamentalism.  His obvious (and accurate) implication is that many people do take potshots at the more conservative, strict, hardline members of the evangelical fold (remember that none of these three adjectives are inherently bad; if they sound that way to you, you might want to ask yourself why).

They have been roundly criticized as being theologically narrow, relationally harsh, morally legalistic, ecclesiastically separationist, and culturally disengaged.  We have heard 1,001 things that are wrong with fundamentalists and others who may not call themselves fundamentalists but who share the same values with a similar degree of conviction.  I believe it’s true that sometimes in their fervor for truth and holiness, some have been guilty of neglecting love and grace.  Some latter parts of the movement were marinated in the sour mix of legalism, harshness, evangelistic hermetry, and exaggerated separationism.  When thrown into the fire of life and ministry, that part came out hard and unsavory.

So it is good that we who may have shared in these weaknesses are trying to learn.  It is good that we are trying to grow and change.  The pendulum of conservative evangelicalism needed to be pushed back a bit in the other direction.

Now the pendulum is swinging.  Swinging toward cultural engagement.  Swinging in the direction of the in-the-world half of the in-the-world-not-of-the-world paradigm.  This has already produced some exciting fruit.  But if we have learned anything from movements, I hope we have learned that the pendulum rarely slows smoothly to a perfect stop in balance.  At best, we throw on the brakes a little too late, overshoot our mark, and find ourselves waiting for momentum and the gravity of the Spirit to pull our collective selves back toward the middle.  At worst, our singular driving focus sends us hurtling past the midpoint, only to be stopped by the sheer force of biblical consequences.

And what might those consequences be?  My main prediction: worldliness.

This is not to say that those who emphasize culture and relevance and the better forms of contextualization are inherently worldly.  Only to say that every movement has its dangers.  Every emphasis has its exaggerations.  Every pendulum has an upswing.

As insensitive and unchecked forms of fundamentalism erred on the side of nit-picking separationism or judgmental legalism, so a hasty and unchecked pursuit of cultural relevance will err on the side of doctrinal compromise, ethical carelessness, and methodological outsourcing.  In our valid attempts to be earthy, we may become earthly.

It’s not that no one believes in holiness.  Just that in the midst of this dialogue, rarely do people talk about it on its own terms.  Maybe we assume that we already know how to do holiness.  I would suggest that this is one of the most dangerous assumptions we could make.

Consider your gut reaction to this statement: Holiness is incredibly relevant.  To some, it probably sounds strange.  To others, it may sound like a powerful statement because it sounds paradoxical.  To still others, it may be a breath of fresh air because they have heard a great many things proclaimed as relevant without holiness being among them.  It would do us a great deal of good to ask ourselves why.

I hope that we will not be known as the generation that re-engaged with the people around us but reflected little of God’s holiness.  I pray that ours will not be remembered as the age in which the church ran pell-mell towards this evangelistic elixir called “relevance” and forgot the power of an all-consuming godliness.  I hope that our legacy will not be that we were cool and connected but had little spiritual power and little of that deep and abiding sense of the presence of God.

At the end of the day, the false antithesis between relevance and holiness is a damnable antithesis.  For the Christian, one does not exist without the other.  If you want to be relevant in the ways that matter most, you must be holy.  And if you are holy in the earthy (not earthly) ways the Bible describes, you will be unavoidably relevant.

It is the age-old balance: in the world but not of it.  It could be said that some past generations have tried so hard to get out of the world that they didn’t love well the people in it.  And I fear that it may be said of our generation that we tried so hard to be in the world that we became like it.

12 thoughts on “When the Pendulum Swings

  1. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there is no controversy- the Milwaukee area at large struggles with the same fundamental issues as any other. There exists here a particularly insidious kind of lethargy toward holiness, in that most of the population was brought up in a religious tradition of some sort (primarily Catholics and Lutherans) and consider the question of holiness to be either entirely theological and therefore irrelevant, or taken care of sacramentaly and therefore ,if not quite irrelevant, of no pressing import.

    The “people group” it is my privilege to serve have one great advantage over those around them. They are only too aware that doing things their own way has lead them to anguish, and it is most obvious to them that the changes must occur within themselves before circumstances will improve. The only question is how those changes will be realized. When a drunk finds the Lord and gets sober, they don’t need much convincing that they are weak and need God to be strong for them. The relevance of holiness is obvious to them (even if they don’t state it it so many words) and is indeed a matter of survival.

    Personal, progressive and pervasive progression toward Christ-likeness is taken hold of with all the fervor of a drowning man thrown a life ring. But…

    On a corporate level this same advantage has a downside. It can be difficult to get them to see that the branch is not meant to abide in the vine for the branch’s own benefit. The true end is the fruit, the branch just a continuation of means from the gardener through the vine. But when people who have spent many years and decades in pursuit self gratification (albeit in a self-destructive fashion) ,that self-centric mind set remains. The Isaiah 58 Principle tells us that when we serve others our own healing occurs-That the fruits of mission are meant to then become the means of mission. That discipleship is a practice in the replacement of self with the goal of replicating itself. And these things cannot occur while we are still consumed with our self.

    I read a book recently called “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” and in it the author spent a great deal of time examining the contemplative practices of Benedict, Frances of Assisi and the like. (It occurs to me that the underlying principles found in the 12-steps are more or less identical to those in the various Offices he recommends we re-visit.) And that the point of Monasticism was not simply isolation from society, but that periods of isolation would facilitate spiritual growth and personal Holiness in order to then engage with society in relevant corporate missional holiness.

    Or to put it another way, corporate holiness is predicated by personally holiness, which is predicated by faith and imputation, which is predicated by recognition of depravity and insufficiency. And if this is true of Salvation, then it is equally true of Sanctification, both personal and corporate.

    Perhaps what we as 21st Century Western Evangelicals need is a healthy awareness of our complete and utter inability to impart life to those around us. That to raise the banner of Christ is to strike our own colors in absolute capitulation. That victory begins with surrender.

  2. Joe: I’m glad this isn’t much of a controversy where you’re ministering. In many other places, and in the evangelical world at large, it is. You’re right that the claim “Holiness is relevant” is basic, but it’s often the most basic tenants that need defense and clarification.

    You mentioned personal holiness being relevant to our situations and struggles. I wholeheartedly agree; but what I’m talking about in the above post is the relevance of holiness for mission, evangelism, reaching out to people in our culture. Not just a “personal holiness” focused on my own heart, thinking, and personal issues. Holiness can become more challenging when you include mission (which the Bible does), because the very definition of mission includes reaching into the world around us.

    You said that we should be asking why the culture around us questions the relevance of our holiness. I agree, and I would suggest two reasons: (1) Without Christ people are blind and rebellious and cannot see the value and beauty of holiness, so even when Christ is shining through His people, they don’t see necessarily see its relevance. (2) I’m unholy, sinful, compromised; I’m not compassionate like Christ; I’m not winsome in my holiness.

    So the culture around us questions the relevance of holiness because (1) they’re blind and (2) we’re not as holy as we ought to be.

    Let’s pray that God might reverse both of these issues.

  3. I don’t know, maybe I’m just getting old, but I don’t understand the controversy. Your statement that holiness is unavoidably relevant seems too basic a tenant to dispute.

    If, for instance, when I say to one of the drug addicts I work with that an increase in personal holiness will be relevant to their situation and struggle, the response is usually some variation on the theme of “Duh!” The question that is truly relevant to them is not “Do I need to be more like Christ?” but “How?”

    If, as Paul said, God’s strength manifests itself in our lives at our point of (and in proportion to) our surrender, then all of our neediness is addressed by grace, through faith, not of ourselves, not of works.

    I do wonder though; since it is obvious that the culture around us questions the relevance of our holiness perhaps we should be asking ourselves why? If we are not displaying the gospel through the power of transformed lives (and sometimes even with words), then is it not incumbent upon us to assume responsibility for this failing and approach the One who has all power with the faith of an empty hand? We can’t display the relevance of holiness to the world around us. God can do so. Perhaps it is high time that we let Him.

  4. Very interesting thoughts on the , so called, Emerging (Emergent) church … I am a member of Vinyard Community Ch in Greenwood IN … (don’t beat on me to much lol) … our pastor is totally commited to evanglizing and almost every service ends with an invitation to accept Jesus … We are also engaged in our community and reaching out to the poor and the disfrancised …

    Yes we must live the life of Christ (i.e. holiness) … actually as we live this life “in Christ,” sometimes people say, “What’s different about him?” … “Why is she so together?” … it is the “perfume” of the changed life that Paul speaks about … “Speak the gospel and sometimes use words.” Francis of Assi … but in reality our holiness gives us the intergrity to to speak the words of what God has done in history in the person, work and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah …

    I think everyone is saying, it is not an “either” “or” but “both” “and” … which is my understanding … it’s not the, so called, social gospel vs the evangelical gospel but as you said the gospel includes both … the personal “rebirth” and reaching out in our world and providing for the poor, the fatherless, the widow and seeking justice for the disfranchised If you do the social and neglect the evangelical a person is fed, justice is served and they still leave this world without the security of having the cross applied to there personal lives and therefor will be in eternity with out Christ (and isn’t that what hell is all about anyway?)…

    Ok, enough preaching lol … (by the way I am a layperson … not a vocational minister in my church … Am a Cemetery … oops Seminary grad though … An there in lies the prob lol …

    I am just becoming aware of this new movement within Evangelical circles … Have read from the horses mouth, so to speak, Brian McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy and also Tony Campolo’s Speaking Out books. Also read Mark Driscoll’s (understand he pretty much started what is now the Emerging movement but then pulled away) Vintage Jesus … Am reading now D A Carson’s Becoming Conversant With The Emerging Church (title looks like something out of the 18th Cent lol) …

    So in my thought process I am reserving judgment; but I also know about pendlums and their swing and as with any movement/revival/new way of thinking/stating and doing things there will be some misuse and radical thinking that will lead to messy (actually downright heretical) way of doing church …

    Oh to live in a perfect world … Oh we will some day! … Wow … Now that is something to shout about (PTL if you will) … Thanks for letting me muse in prose … Danny~

  5. Scott: Great to hear from you. Thanks for your comments. I know the heart they come from. I’ve responded in the next post.

    Peter: It’s been awhile; so nice to see your name pop up. I saw your name on the list of CHB interns from several years ago. I’m sure that was a good experience. I obviously agree with you about the primariness of the gospel, but I don’t think the actual definition of the gospel itself excludes physical elements. In other words, I think that physical, earthy concerns are not just implications of the gospel message but part and parcel of the message of redemption itself. Definitely the CAUSE of our physical pain and death and the curse on the world we live in is caused by our rebellious choice to disobey God. But Christ, in reconciling us to God through His death and resurrection, will also redeem creation itself. In no way do I want to deemphasize the spiritual focus of the gospel, but I think that often we draw a line of separation where there shouldn’t be one.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the greatest danger is confusion about Christ and the gospel. And this confusion is not disconnected from concerns about holiness, worldliness, and mission.

  6. Hi Gunner! I enjoy reading your blog. I thought this was a helpful post. I agree that a lot of good can come from Christians being thoughtfully engaged in the culture. I also agree that we must “be in the world, but not of the world.” Your point on holiness is well taken. We are in great danger is we equate “relevance” with “trendiness” or “cool” and fudge on being holy as God is holy. At the same time we need to remember the Christian message is always relevant. Man’s biggest problem is not pollution, aids, poverty, or social injustice. These are effects of the real problem–sin. Sinful man is at war with God, and as such he is under God’s wrath–and he feels its effects. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope sinful man has to be reconciled to their creator and thus live a purposeful life. You said you felt a great danger from this shift is worldliness among Evangelicalism. I agree. However, I think that Evangelicalism faces an even greater danger–the confusion of the Gospel. People talk a lot these days about the need to preach the whole Gospel to the whole man. Thus, they say we need to address both their spiritual needs and physical and see both as equally a part of the Gospel. But this confuses the issue. The Gospel is primarily a spiritual reality that addresses the spiritual needs of fallen man rather than a physical message of deliverance in this present world. Nevertheless, this spiritual message has physical implications. The way we care for the physical needs of others gives validity to the Gospel we preach. But we must never confuse the physical implications of the Gospel with the Gospel itself. I am afraid many in Evangelicalism (particularly British Evangelicalism) are doing just this. Further, if the spiritual message of the Gospel is in fact primary, we need to be sure that our physical engagement in doing good is purposeful–aimed at promoting and making winsome the spiritual message of the Gospel. The holiness of our lives and the care we show for the physical needs of others is a powerful tool in demonstrate that we have been changed by the Gospel, and those we are trying to be reached can be changed as well. Sorry this went on so long. Blessings!

  7. Gunner, great thoughts and since I live in a city that has definitely swung far on the pendulum towards being culturally sensitive and thus inching towards worldliness and shunning conservative & fundamental evangelicalism, I appreciate it!

  8. Hi Gunner,

    I agree with the other guys… a great post and sound warnings. I feel the tensions that you describe as I want to cling to and defend with tenacity the doctrine of conservative, Calvinistic Evangelicalism and embrace the missional approach to ministry that seeks to engage and speak to the culture. You’re absolutely right in that holiness is seldom mentioned and often neglected in this missional climate. If I were to maybe nuance your call for holiness I would say that what the church needs (apart from any corrective pendulum swings) is tried and proven holiness. Even as Milton wrote in Areopagitica that he “could not praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue”, the true light and value of holiness is seen most clearly and brings God the most glory when it is set against the backdrop of having been tried and refined in the fires of cultural engagement.

    Thanks for allowing me to throw in my two cents. God Bless Brother!


  9. Gunner,
    I really appreciate your thoughts that take form on this blog. I must say that I think you have hit it right on the nose with this post!

    I am really looking forward to being under your leadership as a student in the coming year.

  10. Gunner,
    Great post…I agree with your point, holiness or godliness is relavent. I guess another way that you could say this is Pr. 1:7 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” When we poosses this knowledge that comes from a sobering, clear, big picture of who God is in His glory, we will learn how to wisely live life on this side of heaven. Fear of the Lord or living and acting wisely remove the pendulum from life and allow believers to be of this world but not of this world.

    Love your blog man…excited for you in your new position and excited for the students of the Master’s College. Take care…Jesse Wilkinson

  11. Eric: I wholeheartedly agree. I was considering writing a follow-up post to say the same thing. Looks like I should. Lots more I’m thinking of, but I’ll save it for the post.

  12. gunner, I think your concern is valid but I hate that it is. Why must the pendulum swing between holy and separatistic, or missional and worldly? As soon as we start thinking that the way to be missional is to be a little less holy, or that it is possible to be holy without being missional, we have missed the biblical boat entirely.

    It is pretty clear again and again in Scripture that God’s transforming work of salvation should produce ethical conduct that is increasingly holy, and that that holiness is not a deterrent to mission but is the actual vehicle for mission. I think this is the point of Mat. 5:16 (and on a certain level, the whole Sermon on the Mount): “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” In other words: you do good works (let your light shine), and something about that causes other to give glory to your father in heaven. Cf. Jn. 17:22-23, cf. 1 Pet. 2:12, cf. Gen. 18:19.

    So I think the point is not just to find the point on the spectrum where we are acceptably holy and acceptably missional, nor to say it is possible for them to coexist with each other like oil and water, but that they depend on each other.

    Holiness w/o mission is not holiness. Mission without holiness is not mission.


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