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.