While on vacation I am reading David Wells’ book Above All Earthly Powers. An issue that has concerned me in recent months is the inability of the modern traditional church to effectively engage a secular, mult-ethnic, pluralist, postmodern culture. Several quotes this morning stood out. In the days following September 11, 2001, Wells makes the following diagnosis regarding the Western church:

“This moment of tragedy and evil shone its light on the Church and what we came to see was not a happy sight. For what has become conspicuous by its scarcity, and not least in the evangelical corner of it, is a spiritual gravitas, one which would match the depth of horrendous evil and address issues of such seriousness. Evangelicalism, now much absorbed by the arts and tricks of marketing, is simply not every serious anymore.”

The horrors of September 11, 2001 provided the Church an audience and what we gave the world was a silent film. We didn’t have anything of substance to say. In the days following 9/11 the Church was able to offer our condolensces and comfort, but we failed, in large part, to offer the culture the words of Life. We failed to address the atrocities of evil. We failed to offer any Christian interpretation or context to the smoldering steel burning on the floors of Manhatten. And we left the hope of the Gospel in our pews.

Wells goes on to talk about the challenges facing the Western Church because of the fall of the Enlightenment and rise of a postmodern ethos, as well as the religious diversity in America. He says:

The arrival of old, non-Christian religions in America and the emergence of more recent spiritualities that are not religious, and often not institutionalized, are a new circumstance. This means that the relation of Christ to non-Christian religions, as well as to these personally constructed spiritualities, is no longer a matter of theorizing from a safe distance but rather a matter of daily encounter in neighborhoods, in schools, at work, at the gas station, and at the supermarket. And what will prove to be even more momentous in the evangelical world than its engagement with the other religions, I believe, will be whether it is able to distinguish what it has to offer from the emergence of these forms of spirituality. Therapeutic spiritualities which are non-religious begin to look quie like evangelical spirituality which is therapeutic and non-doctrinal.”

In regards to what Wells has said, I suspect that most Western, modern evangelical churches are failing on both fronts. Most Christians in America do not see their lives as an extension of the Kingdom, and thus, willfully neglect to engage unbelievers with the Gospel. Having been raised in a Christian sub-culture that preaches the personal nature of relationship with Jesus, the church has lost a sense of community and accountability to one another within the church, as well as a burning, compelling passion to rescue the perishing in the world. We talk about cultural engagement when we gather on Sunday’s and Wednesday’s, but truth be told, there are very few daily encounters happening for the purpose of talking about Jesus.

However, there are some in the world who are engaging people for the sake of building kingdom relationships. The issue then becomes whether what we are offering is different from the self-help spirituality that is rampant in our Western culture. Some churches are effectively engaging people in the culture. But unless people are being confronted with the Gospel – the truth about their fallenness, sin and need of the Savior Jesus Christ – then they aren’t being offered anything different than most other forms of spirituality.

The spiritual fallout from September 11 taught us that Western Church is missing the mark in regards to effective, eternally significant, life-altering cultural engagement. What is more troubling is the reality that the task grows more and more difficult with each passing day, and the Church is seemingly no more aware today than it was almost 5 years ago.

We need the Lord to teach us this prayer and make it our own. “Father, let me be a place of eternal refreshment for a hopeless, joy-seeking world of people who do not know they are starved for the glory of God in Jesus Christ” (John Piper).

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